The Challenges of Connected Government (Contributed)

The Internet of Things has the power to transform how we work and live. But without the right leadership, new investments and better strategies, government risks losing out on this opportunity.

by / November 27, 2018
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Long before the emergence of smartphones, Star Trek’s Mr. Spock and Captain Kirk used their mobile devices to measure radioactive frequencies and receive messages from the Starship Enterprise. Before Tesla introduced self-driving cars, the spaceship commanded by Kirk had smart sensors all around it and video feeds communicating with headquarters and other flying ships in the galaxy. In other words, fiction has become part of our reality. While the rewards are more than imagined, the implications of not planning for the digital age could be far greater.

In the more than 20 years since the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the Internet has gone from nice-to-have to mandatory. Much like water and electricity, the Internet has become yet another utility, and the always-online millennials can’t imagine being without it.  

More than ever, government agencies need to deliver quality services to citizens in increasingly difficult budget times. The Internet of Things (IoT) promises to deliver added value, enhanced capabilities, and streamlined processes targeting citizens, businesses and community partners. IoT is the network of connected computers, devices, machines, and their components with electronics, software, and sensors that enable them to link and exchange data. In a connected government, agency assets become a part of this network. Some examples include smart water meters sending usage data, vehicles equipped with sensors and smart poles and signals transmitting live traffic information.  

IoT hasn’t arrived fully, yet more than 8 billion things are connected worldwide and an estimated 45 percent of the world’s population is now online. Smart devices and automated processes, working out of sight of the public, run vast operations. This model works well for the private sector where investments in technology can produce efficiency and increase profits. Unlike the private sector, most government agencies don’t have the luxury of investing in technology adequately. Without proper investment, IoT introduces many challenges.

Technology Infrastructure Needs Investment

When everything becomes connected, bidirectional communication is essential for collecting and routing data between devices. Regardless of the use case, data needs to get from point A to point B rapidly and reliably. Government leaders must invest in technology infrastructure to ensure reliable, fast connections between facilities and streamlined automated processes that support connectivity.  Without technology infrastructure, such as fiber, reliable and secure wired/wireless networks, along with competent personnel, the transition to connected government won’t be successful. 

Operating a connected government requires a fresh approach to collecting and analyzing information. The new approach will involve sophisticated data analysis and business intelligence because smart devices generate massive amounts of data. In a connected government, agencies become more dependent on these streams of data. Therefore, connected devices always have to be operational and monitored. This paradigm introduces the “information value loop” where data is collected, created, aggregated, analyzed and acted on, creating value, which generates the collection of more data from sensors and yet more value.  

In its simplest form, the information value loop can be explained by an effective process found in a growing number of local governments. The city of Huntington Beach, Calif., has installed license plate reader cameras on traffic signals and police cars. The cameras “collect” data as they scan the license plates of cars and “create” data by converting scanned images into recognizable characters. This data is “communicated” with a central server for processing and potentially cross referenced and “aggregated” with other data sources. Next, the data is “analyzed,” and if the data meets certain criteria, a notification is sent to the local law enforcement agency to be “acted” on. 

The process, in turn, creates valuable new information that updates different data sources, which will be reused rapidly. In this example, the outcome, which could be information about a recovered stolen car and arrest of a criminal, could perhaps be even more valuable to the same process and other online processes. 

Information creates value only if analyzed properly. When hundreds of things create value, organizations will have to build complex analytics to use data effectively. For this to happen, the information value loop requires a solid strategy, resources and commitment from the top.     

Cybersecurity Is a Priority

As people and systems become more interconnected, the quantity and value of online information has also increased. So have efforts to steal and exploit that information, harming systems, privacy and information safety. Being connected is now essential, creating new opportunities for innovation and growth for government agencies. To be efficient and effective, employees, vendors and citizens need remote and online access to resources and services. For all of this to work, government leaders must embrace disruptive technologies. This brings risks, however. Government agencies are increasingly a target for cybercrime and attacks.  

The potential for connected government depends on the extent to which agencies can trust the Internet and cyberspace. Government leaders must be aware of privacy and safety issues. Connected devices that monitor the public space may also collect information about individuals without their knowledge or consent. CIOs have to build effective end-to-end security measures, plan ongoing evaluation and vulnerability assessments, implement proactive incident responses, allocate dedicated cybersecurity resources and educate employees on best practices. 

Think Outside the Box and Manage Expectations

Citizens now expect government agencies to deliver online services and uninterrupted connectivity at all times, just like the private sector. This expectation presents a challenge, however, given government’s extremely limited budgetary resources coupled with strict compliance requirements.  

To resolve this problem, government leaders need to become more creative and explore revenue-generating ideas that can help with the high cost of technology. As an example, Huntington Beach acquired 11,000 light poles in the first step towards implementing a broadband strategy. Soon after, the city signed lease contracts with Internet service providers to install smart fusion poles and deploy small cell communications. This will enable Huntington Beach to potentially generate $400,000 in revenue, provide high-capacity mobile connectivity and energy efficient LED lighting for citizens. It will also enable the city to plan and expand future smart applications.  

Conclusion

There used to be a time when government was at the leading edge of technological innovation, but now it has fallen far behind the private sector. If we are to have smart government, its leaders should embrace disruptive technology. We still have many things to do just to stay current in the 21st century. Failure to do so increases exposure to cybersecurity attacks, decreases the ability to meet constituent expectations and obligations, forces us to use outdated, costly processes and, most important, limits the valuable opportunities the digital age brings. 

Ultimately, connected government is not simply about technology, it changes how we work, shape business and manage the economy. Government leaders must empower constituents to make choices, encourage technology partnerships across the private and public sector, and most important, view technology as an enabler to shape the future starting today.

Behzad Zamanian

Behzad Zamanian is the chief information officer for the City of Huntington Beach. He has over 28 years of experience serving the public sector, Fortune 500 firms and higher education institutions. Zamanian has completed his Certified Government CIO program from Rutgers University, He has a B.S. in Computer Information Systems from the California State polytechnic University, and has completed MBA course work from the University of California.