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Technology Is a Social Change Agent

Technology can make governments more efficient, but pushed outward, it can change society too, says incoming Long Beach, Calif., tech chief Bryan Sastokas.

by / June 8, 2015
Oakland, Calif., CIO Bryan Sastokas says context is one key to making data more valuable. e.Republic/David Kidd

Oakland, Calif., CIO Bryan Sastokas will leave his position with the city on June 12 and on the June 14 will begin as the director of technology and innovation in Long Beach.

Sastokas, named this year as one of Government Technology’s Top 25 Doers, Dreamers and Drivers, is generally regarded in the public sector as a progressive innovator, having also received commendations from the likes of Computerworld, the San Francisco Business Times and the Silicon Valley Business Journal, who named Sastokas a “Community Champion.”

Sastokas’ career thus far leaves a trail of projects around digital equity, efficiency and open government that bolsters confidence in his compatriots and foreshadows what kind of work the world can expect from him in the future.

In Oakland, Sastokas helped lead a master fiber plan intended to help bridge the city’s digital divide, an issue he says is among the most pressing in public-sector technology. Through a partnership with Code for America, he also oversaw the maintenance of RecordTrac, a transparency tool that makes exploring the city’s documents easier and more accessible. Those two projects were among the most impactful endeavors undertaken during his 18-month stay in Oakland, and they illustrate the kind of thing Sastokas says he wants to concentrate on going forward.

“I’m a huge advocate for diversity in technology,” Sastokas said. “I think there should be more youth and women in the STEM programs at a very young age. That’s something I’m passionate about. It’s where we are. Technology is not just a male-dominated focus. We’re creative thinkers across the board. Sometimes I think you have to be open to new ideas, new concepts — and lot of our youth aren’t going in that direction, especially if they don’t have that opportunity. And municipal government is definitely the form of government that’s closest to our constituents. We are the ones people come to. We are the city halls. We have the open forums.”

Oakland is just outside Silicon Valley, but it has a chance to join the success found there, he said. One way is through an increased focus on the intersection of technology and economic development. The city needs to make it a priority to work with large companies and make it easy for them to build a campus in a city where they might not otherwise think to do so, he explained.

“I think you need to have a good relationship and more corporations taking notice,” he said, noting that Oakland is home to Clorox and Pandora, to name a few, but to have, say, the next Google realize that many of their employees live in a city could be extremely beneficial.

Long Beach, where Sastokas is headed next, also has an opportunity to make a name for itself in the technology world. The will and the knowledge is there, Sastokas said — it’s just the work that’s left to be done. 

“Mayor [Robert] Garcia is very strong on making technology not just a governmental focus to make things efficient, but to help that community,” he said. “It’s about bringing our community up and making that innovation as a way to have Long Beach grow as an international city. That was something that was a huge draw for that opportunity.”

The city council is also strong on using technology to further community-based initiatives. In December, the city was revealed as one of 14 to have accepted a grant — a $3 million grant — from Bloomberg Philanthropies and match up to $1 million in spending. The program intends to improve access to city services, spur economic development, improve neighborhoods and strengthen public safety. The grant funds the creation of eight city staffers, including a chief innovation officer, social scientist researcher and data programmer. 

“If you really look at it, it’s beyond technology,” Sastokas said. “It’s that application of technology, what I see as being able to reach out to the community, our civic innovators, the programs that are throughout Long Beach. That mix of palettes that’s there, from manufacturing in aviation to now bringing in other forms of economic development. You want to enable the residents, the people who live there, the businesses, and I think Mayor Garcia is positioning the city to compete with the big leagues. … You have a great catalyst and a great foundation to really make something special happen.”

The public sector tends to be highly risk-adverse because the public relies on its governments for basic services and funds are generally tight, but Sastokas takes inspiration from one of the world’s best known risk takers.

“To me it’s Richard Branson,” Sastokas said when asked who he admires. “He’s willing to take a chance. He’s not afraid of the status quo and to really look at something, that means to make a difference. That’s what it means to make that change, lower your security and really go all in to make change happen. To me that’s always an impressive trait, and even if you fail, I’ve never seen him give up on an initiative, so to me that’s something to admire and aspire to.”

Editor's Note: This story was edited on June 11, 2015 to properly reflect Sastokas' involvement with RecordTrac.

Colin Wood former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.