The Central Valley of California may not seem like the ideal place for technology innovation. Known for its agricultural production, the area is likely home to more farmers than computer programmers. But that may change in the years to come, as Fresno, Calif., attempts to tie its agriculture heritage with the power of open data and broadband connectivity.

Fresno will be partnering with the Fresno Unified School District later this year on a “Shrink the Bubble” campaign to introduce residents to what open data can do in the community. Using an application linked to code enforcement data, areas littered with the most rubbish and graffiti will be highlighted on a virtual map with a “bubble” layer, and then prioritized for cleanup. Students will photograph and blog about the project to document how the city is being improved.

Fresno CIO Carolyn Hogg explained that the goal is to show citizens the kind of data the city has in a non-threatening way that allows people to embrace the potential and usefulness of big data. The project should begin during the school district’s break in April.

But the use of big data in Fresno won’t end there. Hogg expects to use the application, being built by Bitwise, as part of a long-running effort to apply data to various city issues. For example, following the Shrink the Bubble campaign, Hogg wants to map water data in response to citizen complains about a recent water rate hike.

“Eventually we want to show where our problem areas are with water in the city, the reason for that rate hike, and what it would mean to them by not addressing these big bubbled areas,” Hogg said, referring to how water issues would appear on the application.

“We’re going to be using that concept to share information so we can have more of a participatory community with the data that the city has,” she added.

Broadband Plans

Fresno also has its sights set on rolling out broadband to its downtown core and many of the rural farming areas within the surrounding area. Using a federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant, Fresno is going to open up its main downtown artery – which is currently only walkable -- to traffic. When that happens, the city is going to install fiber conduit in the ground.

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At that point, Fresno will be looking to telecommunications companies to offer service levels of a gigabit or more. At least one provider is keeping tabs on what Fresno is up to. Hogg is a member of the San Joaquin Regional Broadband Consortium and revealed that AT&T has had a representative at their meetings for the past couple of years. Hogg expressed optimism that Fresno’s efforts will spur competition between providers once the fiber is in.

That high-speed connectivity is going to be needed. As a pilot city in the U.S. Economic Development Administration's Strong Cities, Strong Communities (SC2) initiative in 2012, Fresno realized that to increase its capacity as a local government, it has to attract technology talent that enhances its historical strength – agriculture.

Officials believe technology developed locally can be applied in the area, improving crop production and revenue. But broadband is needed to entice developers.

“A lot of cities are trying to rebrand themselves, and we realized that we’re already branded – we feed a third of the world here,” Hogg said. “Fresno County has been the No. 1 ag producing county in the nation for the last 45 years … we grow over 350 different types of crops, which makes us unique to states that grow only one or two, like corn or wheat. So we are a great incubator for R&D for agriculture.”

Getting gigabit-plus Internet speeds in Fresno could be a difficult sell, however. While a few places such as Kansas City, Kan.; Provo, Utah; and Austin, Texas are getting the gigabit treatment via Google Fiber, it’s long been documented that private telecom companies tend to build out primarily in areas they feel they can profit. So if providers don’t see dollar signs in California’s Central Valley, it might be an uphill battle to realize some of the city’s goals.

Hogg admitted that she’s aware of many of the struggles other cities have had to bring in high-speed Internet power, or even start their own broadband network when private providers wouldn’t service an area. But she was confident Fresno could make a good case and inspire competition among providers.

Some farmers in Fresno are already using “smart ag” technology to plow fields more efficiently and water sensors for plants. While wireless broadband is needed for those practices to spread further, that kind of tech could help potentially double what Hogg believes is a $25 billion per year industry in Fresno County.

“The great amount of water savings with water sensor technology [can help] to get some subsidized funding from the irrigation districts, which will help offset the costs it takes for the big telecos to come to rural areas,” Hogg said. “So those are the types of conversations we’re having, and we’re actually getting interest in it now from the telecos.”

Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1998, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y. He's also a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and competes in regional tournaments throughout Northern California and Nevada.