Thinking Small: 5 Tech Projects That Show Major Benefits Can Come from Modest Investments

State and local government IT leaders are implementing lightweight tech fixes that generate big returns.

by / June 2017

In these days of agile development, with Silicon Valley preaching the virtues of failing fast and moving on, it’s hard to see a place for the traditional great big IT procurement in government.

“There are a ton of applications that are being produced daily that perform simple functions for government. There are a ton of small projects that you can do that have a potentially large impact,” said Mike Barba, a business consulting senior manager at Grant Thornton.

Big projects have gotten a bad reputation over recent years. They can be hard to justify, and when they fail, they fail on a grand scale. “Sometimes if you try to boil the ocean, you can get lost within the projects. People forget about the outcomes they are trying to achieve. They think about goals and milestones but forget about the business value,” Barba said.

Across state and local government, IT leaders these days are doing just the opposite. They are thinking small, implementing lightweight tech fixes that generate big returns. Let’s take a look at five projects that demonstrate how a modest investment in technology can sometimes yield substantial results.

An easy GIS fix

Each year the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development asks cities to take a point-in-time census, a head count of the local homeless population. And each year Aurora, Colo., takes its best shot and comes up short.

Logistical difficulties have made it hard to get an accurate count across this 155-square-mile area, and while it seemed like technology might afford some kind of an assist, city leaders were wary of embracing any big-budget solution. “We had been talking about wanting to go higher tech, but with a lot of new technologies just the thought of doing it is overwhelming,” said Homelessness Program Director Shelley McKittrick.

The city found its fix in a low-budget technology currently emerging as a go-to solution for municipalities seeking lightweight means to address a range of large-scale issues. The solution: GIS, or geographic information systems.

Cities have increasingly turned to GIS to help solve diverse problems. Loudon County, Va., uses it to help farmers identify the best land for growing crops. Georgia officials employ GIS to manage flood plains and prioritize transportation management issues.

Aurora used Esri’s Survey 123 tool, a GIS-enabled smartphone app, to help its volunteers conduct the latest point-in-time survey. The results were dramatic: A homeless population previously estimated at 420 individuals swelled to some 526 people.

“We counted a lot of people who otherwise would not have been counted, people whom we wouldn’t have known were there, and next year we expect to get even more,” McKittrick said. Moreover, the technology driving these improvements was extremely small and simple. “Because we were able to train people on the fly very easily on the day of the count, what seemed like a pretty audacious goal became a little easier and a little more fun.”

On the day of the survey the city sent out 40 volunteers riding in eight vans, all equipped with phones bearing the survey. In addition to a short questionnaire, the app incorporated the ability to pinpoint the location of the homeless individual on a map in real time. This allowed volunteers to work more efficiently, without risk of duplicating one another’s efforts.

Thanks to the GIS app, the teams discovered trends they had not seen in the past, including a local parking lot that had become a gathering place for individuals sleeping in their cars. That information not only rounds out the census but also helps the city to consider how it will address homelessness going forward.

“We can start to say, ‘OK, this is what we need. We need this many units of subsidized housing, we need this many jobs for the people who are able to get back to work.’ Without this data, we didn’t know any of that stuff,” said McKittrick.

Eye in the sky

Bakersfield, Calif., allows citizens to shoot off fireworks on a modest, reasonable scale. That gives some people the idea that they are free to blow up just about any old rocket they please, and that’s a problem for the fire department.

“On the 4th of July you have a large number of folks on the streets using fireworks in a legally authorized manner. But then you have the folks who use large, almost professional-grade mortars and other explosives,” said Fire Chief Doug Greener.

Policing the situation is legally tenuous. The city can issue an administrative citation with fines up to $1,500 if it can catch the miscreants, but that’s hard to do. “We show up in a cul-de-sac and there is smoke and debris and 50 people standing around. Who shot that rocket off? It’s very difficult to nail down,” Greener said.

Last year the city opted for a low-cost fix in the form of two $1,500 drone aircraft. Each comes with a high-def camera and a tablet that can be mounted in a command vehicle. “In terms of technology it is fairly reasonably priced for what it does,” Greener said.

A shakedown flight last July 4 proved that the drones may be an asset in the effort to control over-the-top fireworks. “We really were able to get a very quick 360-degree view of a good portion of the city, and we could see that the illegal fireworks activity was truly citywide,” Greener said. “In fact, in an after-action report we talked to the council and advised them that this is not just any one part of town or any specific neighborhood. This is a widespread issue.”

Fire officials had long suspected that this was true, but they needed to prove it in order to make the case for future Independence Day resources. “You can say it all day long, but unless you can show it visually, it doesn’t have the same impact.”

While the fire department is still pondering privacy issues surrounding drone use, Greener is convinced this lightweight technology will help his people subdue a messy situation.

“We could carpet the city with firefighters but it would be very, very expensive,” he said. “When you consider the price of this technology, and you weigh that against personnel costs, this is going to be a very cost-effective way to boost our process and make us more efficient.”

Remote-control landscaping

Welcome to Travis County, Texas, (pop. 1.1 million) where outdoor amenities rank high: There are roughly 40 parks here spread out across some 1,200 square miles.

It’s up to the park rangers to water all that grass. They are the ones who turn the sprinklers on and off, and it’s a daunting task. “You can imagine it is very time-consuming. You have to drive a lot,” said county CIO Tanya Acevedo. “For park rangers, this is not what they want to spend their time doing.”

SprinklerThe county found a tidy answer to this geographically sprawling problem. It assigned IP addresses to park sprinklers in order to make them operable from a remote location.

The IP-enabled sprinklers became possible with the completion of a countywide fiber backbone that was years in the making. “Now that the fiber is built out and we can put IPs on sprinklers, the rangers no longer have to drive hundreds of miles. They can literally operate it through a browser,” Acevedo said. “So this allows them to focus on other things, like beautifying the parks and making them safe.”

The rollout, which should be completed by the end of the year, will also enable the county to make better use of its resources. “When someone has to drive to each location, you can only be so good in terms of when you turn it on and when you turn it off. Now when it rains we can turn them off right away, rather than have them run for hours while it is raining,” she said.

County officials didn’t have sprinklers in mind when they deployed the extensive fiber backbone. They were just trying to meet the rising expectations of the citizenry, many of whom reside in the famously progressive city of Austin.

“The people who go to these parks are high tech, they want wireless capabilities, so we were really meeting that need. Enabling IP-based sprinklers was sort of a happy afterthought,” Acevedo said. “The first intention was just to service the constituents and get them the wireless connectivity they needed.”

Looking ahead, IT leaders see a range of additional uses for their high-speed connectivity. “We want to put sensors on the manhole covers so anytime they are opened, it will activate a security notification. We are looking at attaching cameras, and also using it to control lighting, heating [and] air conditioning” in county facilities, Acevedo said. “We see a lot of possibilities.”

Tapping academia

When Rhode Island tech leaders seek maximum bang for minimum buck, they turn to local universities. Students aren’t just low-cost labor. They’re also a source of fresh perspectives.

“We are trying to build our talent pipeline with innovative, creative and technologically savvy people,” said Kevin Parker, Rhode Island’s director of government innovation. “If we went to a traditional consulting company for our technology problems, we may not get that same organic diversity of thought. This helps us to shift the cultural mindset, to shift the way we think.”

He described a recent crop of student interns as a model of how this works. “These are young people with fascinating backgrounds,” he said. “For example, Nick Sarazen writes music professionally and is a cognitive, linguistics and psychological science student at Brown University. We are seeking very diverse perspectives, which helps us introduce new ideas to the work we are doing.”

By garnering a diverse group of students, the innovation team can drive new and unexpected outcomes. “We want to make enhancements to the user experience in the RI.gov platform, so we have our designer-in-residence, Sherry Wu, from the Rhode Island School of Design, who has brought new ideas and new bandwidth to help create an e-government solution that makes sense to our end users,” Parker said. “We often struggle with having a human-centered design approach to citizen interaction. By partnering with the student population, we can facilitate emerging approaches and get a fresh set of eyes.”

As of spring 2017, the department had three student interns on the books, with several more planned for the coming months. “We have seen the traditional gargantuan tech projects that go on until the end of time,” Parker said. The student-centric effort offers a “lighter, more agile approach.”

In addition to the internships, the department also reaches out to the local academic community through its Government Innovation League, launched in February. Through the program, about 20 staffers from 10 government agencies have committed to spending 20 percent of their time in the state’s innovation office. They come with specific problems, and the innovation team helps to pair them with local students who bring solutions.

Finally, the innovation team is looking to tap directly into the resources of academia by offering up government case studies for classroom use.

“We want to take the interesting problems in government and incorporate them into classes,” said Billy Watterson, director of programs in the Governor’s Office of Innovation. “For example, we are always looking for ways to make it easier for residents to find answers to their questions. So we are looking to partner with university programs where students use natural language in computer science to look at problems like that.”

Government can see big gains by tying itself this closely to the academic world. “It’s a way to get your foot in the door, to show students that you can in fact get interesting things done in state government, where we always have a challenge in trying to attract top talent,” Watterson said.

Repurposed software

Sometimes the business of government gets so big, it can be hard to keep track of it all. That was the situation in the Riverside, Calif., Innovation and Technology Department in mid-2015. Every Monday the team would gather to review Excel spreadsheets tracking the status of some 130 projects, from new systems to new apps to software upgrades.

This was messy and ineffective, so department leaders went scouting for a simple, inexpensive fix. Turning to SharePoint, a Microsoft product they already owned, they built “The Hive,” a workflow tool that consolidates the department’s project management information.

Here’s the kicker. Other city departments got a look at The Hive and realized they needed a similar solution, so the IT team scaled it up. Two years later the system is hosting data on 2,800 projects from virtually every city agency.

“Once the users got excited, that started the snowball effect. Now we have more demand for more workflows than we ever thought possible,” said Lea Deesing, the city’s chief innovation officer.

The tool’s growth happened organically. IT leaders showed others how they could access The Hive to track projects the technology team was working on. That sparked interest, and things took off from there.

Now city utilities are using it to track construction projects and substation improvements. There’s a pilot project underway to develop a workflow process for submitting employee injury reports. The marketing department uses The Hive to manage requests for marketing collateral citywide. The system can store mixed media, so they also are using it as a repository for collateral. “When someone wants a modified version of a flier or a newsletter next year, they can refer back to those materials and have them available,” Deesing said.

More than just helping to track projects, the system aids department leaders in driving specific performance outcomes. Riverside’s strategic plan lays out concrete performance measures, and departments use The Hive to chart that data in support of quarterly reviews. “Our goals as department heads have to tie in with those specific goals that are laid out in the strategic plan, and this gives us a way to track our progress on those goals and to give timely updates,” Deesing said.

The IT team continues to develop the system’s functionality. Right now it is working on a dashboard that will make things more legible and hopefully help to highlight any issues that may be developing around performance metrics.

Let’s recall that all this was built on the back of a software platform the city already owned. “It it is very seductive to look to trendy new software vendors who make wide-reaching promises about their products,” Deesing said. “But repurposing the tools your organization already owns and leveraging those tools in a creative way can bring value to your organization.”

What do all these projects have in common? In each case, tech leaders thought small and won big. They used simple fixes to tackle complex problems.

Some say it’s the future of government IT.

“There are budgets driving this, and there are political realities. And it also is a way of reducing overall risk,” Barba said. “Sometimes by going small, by using something canned that does 80 or 90 percent of what you want right out of the box, you have a better chance of achieving results quickly.”

Adam Stone Contributing Writer

A seasoned journalist with 20+ years' experience, Adam Stone covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics. His work has appeared in dozens of general and niche publications nationwide.