Atlanta IT Requires New Foundation Before Innovation Can Occur

Atlanta CIO Samir Saini says that right now, the IT priority in the city is to make sure its infrastructure can support what it has today, and also can scale to support future solutions like citizen-facing applications.

by / September 15, 2014
Atlanta CIO Samir Saini is developing a 100-day plan to create a stable backbone for the city that ensures business continuity. e.Republic/David Kidd

Atlanta’s new technology commissioner and CIO is focused on transforming the city’s technology office from one that costs the city money to one that generates it. Samir Saini took charge of Atlanta’s Department of Information Technology on Aug. 11, and as he develops a 100-day plan, he says it’s clear the city needs a stable backbone to ensure business continuity -- and only after that’s complete will he look to innovate.

“I’d like our department to be seen as the group that protected this city by ensuring business continuity in the face of all sorts of potential disasters,” Saini said. “I’d like our team to be seen by our customers and our citizens as a best-in-class IT service organization from a service delivery perspective, meaning that by any measure, we exceed service levels, we are innovative in partnering with the business up front to come up with solutions to drive citizen engagement [and] improve service delivery for citizens.”

Right now, the city’s IT organization is a “cost center,” he said, but he and his team can transform it into a “value center.” And the way to do that is to ensure that the city’s infrastructure is solid so they can begin enabling business with technology. Atlanta’s 2015 Proposed Infrastructure Bond will funnel between $150 million and $250 million in funding to the city’s streets, sidewalks, lights and signs. Through a partnership with Code for America, the city now offers its residents a map where they can see the proposed infrastructure projects and comment to tailor the city’s upgrades. “That’s a perfect example of the kind of stuff we want to do more of,” Saini said.

Mayor Kasim Reed cited Saini’s aptitude for strategic IT planning as one of the reasons he was selected to replace interim Commissioner Michael Dogan. While serving as senior vice president and CIO at the Atlanta Housing Authority, Saini supported his organization in becoming the first in the nation to demolish its housing projects and establish a model conducive to public-private partnerships aimed at decentralizing poverty and revitalizing communities.

“Information technology works best when it is tied directly to improved customer outcomes,” said Saini. “That is really my core philosophy. … Typically people claim victory when it gets done on schedule and within budget, but those things don’t matter. At the end of the day, they’re just low-level metrics that don’t really drive the whole point of why you took on a project in the first place, which was to drive some business value that should be able to be quantified.”

The metrics that should instead be considered, Saini said, are whether the project drives revenue, reduces operating costs, helps avoid costs, drives productivity or improves compliance. “The way to measure it is risk,” he explained. “You have to figure out a way, depending on the project, to quantify risk or liability reduction.” 

The city’s data security efforts are a good example of how the city is judging risk as a means to ensure it is measuring its success in a meaningful way. “One thing we’re seeing right now is we’re turning on some tools to start monitoring information that’s in email, like PII [personally identifiable information] data or payment information, and we’re starting to quantify how many exposures are there where an email is going out with at least 20 Social Security numbers in it,” he said. The process they use is to monitor the trend, set a goal – like a 99 percent reduction in such emails – and then configure the tools to meet that outcome. 

Beyond data security, the city is now focused on a few key areas, said Saini. “The No. 1 area is around business continuity and doing an assessment of where my team sees risks," he said, "specifically on the infrastructure side and the data security side of the house, where if we don’t jump in and refresh some infrastructure, there may be a problem."

Other area of focus includes making an inventory of the city’s hardware and software assets so the IT team can make good decisions around how best to drive their strategies, he said. Connecting this with enabling the team to provide the best service delivery possible will allow them to build a foundation for the future, he added.

Though these foundational IT components are necessary, they're not particularly exciting, Saini said, noting that the projects that engage citizens are. “The citizen-facing applications – that’s exciting,” he said. “Truth is, I’d like to do that now and jump into applications that engage citizens through crowdsourcing, solutions in social media, whatever it is, so that we get their input and that is directly driving improved service delivery for the overall productivity arch."

The problem is right now, however, is that the priority needs to be internal, he said, "To make sure our backbone, our infrastructure, is able to support what we have today, but also is scalable to support future solutions like citizen-facing applications moving forward.”

Colin Wood former staff writer

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