Emerging Tech Finds Its Place Serving Citizens

Meeting the needs of 4 million residents is no easy task. But its one that IT leaders in Los Angeles accomplish each day with the measured application of technology.

by / February 13, 2018
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In the public sector, technology isn’t about having the newest or the best. In fact, it’s quite the opposite in most cases. Governments, strapped by tight budgets and glacial procurement processes, are typically the last to have the newest stuff and are forced to be creative with what’s around them. 
So, when a project is worth doing, it means taking a step back, surveying the landscape and embracing its particular challenges. For the local governments in Los Angeles, the second largest city in the United States (according to 2015 stats), this process still applies. Size, despite the misconception, does not always corollate with funding.
During a recent session at the Los Angeles Public CIO Academy,* city and county IT leaders discussed the challenges they are leaning into and the problems their solutions were solving for Angelenos.

The Pools Have Eyes

For Mohammed Al Rawi, CIO of Los Angeles County Parks and Recreation, emerging technology is about more than business efficiency — it’s also potentially saving lives. After a recent passive drowning at one county pool, which occurs when a swimmer faints and inhales water, Al Rawi’s team began to look at possible solutions that could better alert lifeguards to a potential incident. 
Because of factors like surface glare and the hard-to-spot nature of this type of drowning, a specialized camera was deployed through one of the pool lights. The information is piped to an on-site server running analytics software that generates alerts to lifeguards via a wrist-worn device.
“In the past, the average time for rescue was 9 seconds, and with this system, it’s 1.7 seconds,” Al Rawi explained.
The “hacking,” as Al Rawi calls it, of the pool is just one of the ways his team is taking IT staff out of just fixing computers and copiers and making themselves valuable partners the rest of the enterprise can depend on for innovation. With more than 2,700 employees and 70,000 acres of parks and open space, the case for emerging technology must always add to what the agency is offering.
“There is always a risk and there is always a challenge to business owners to look into new things and explore new ideas,” he said. “This is true for private sector, so I want you to imagine what happens in public sector — it’s a challenge to the power of 10.”
Al Rawi’s job is also about rethinking what already exists and putting it into a different context. Take, for example, the Wi-Fi offered in some of the county parks. With the help of a Cisco solution geared toward tracking retail experience, the IT team was able to adjust the back end and deploy a valuable data-gathering tool. 
By counting the queries smartphones sent to park Wi-Fi, the department was able to gather unprecedented insights into visitor behavior. Among those is the fact that some 11,000 homeless people slept in parks throughout the month of January.
Unlike the manual counts of the homeless they have relied on in the past, this system passively gathers actionable intelligence to better shape park services, Al Rawi explained.
“It’s changing the perception, proving that IT is a partner and not just an electrician to fix things. That it can really help you solve business problems is what makes me look forward to going to work every day,” he said.

Building a Smarter Library System

Much like L.A. County Parks and Rec, the county’s public library system is also using data to hone its services. Binh Le, assistant director for the department of the CIO with L.A. County Public Libraries, has also been relying on emerging technology to make the system of 87 libraries smarter and more effective.
“Last year, the library was able to extend annual operating hours, around 15,000 hours across our libraries,” Le said. “So, that poses a huge challenge on how we staff our libraries today. We have a limited budget and we are constantly asking our library staff to do more.”
And there are a few technologies that Le sees helping to meet these challenges — including artificial intelligence, intelligent things, applications and analytics, and immersive experience tools.
The deployment of sensor technology is offering a clearer picture of what visitors are coming to the library for, but it also allows insight into how the various branches could be staffed. In the past, any data gathered on the services patrons were using was done manually, “basically a pencil and a checkbox,” Le explained.
Now, heat sensor cameras track anonymized movement through participating branches, giving a glimpse into the migration of visitors. “By the end of this year, we are hoping to install an additional 100 sensors, and then more to come the following year,” he said. 
When it comes to freeing up valuable staff time, Le said that AI and chatbot tech could take “low-end, repetitive tasks,” such as fielding frequently asked questions, and turn them over to a machine that answers not only accurately, but consistently. 
“This really is a game-changer if we can implement these types of services,” he said. “That’s two staff every day, noon to 6 p.m., answering questions, and 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. answering phone calls on repetitive questions.”
“Our No. 1 question is how to reset a pin. So, if you are getting 50 of those questions every day, the bot can do that for you,” Le continued. 
What’s more, a chatbot can be on-call 24/7/365. Plus, a truly smart bot could handle more complex tasks as well, like stack mapping, voice recognition, suggesting books based on preferences and communicating with patrons in their primary languages. 
Le said the county is currently working with Microsoft to develop a conversational agent for the library system.
When all is said and done, Le believes technology can serve as a full-time support mechanism for librarians and customers. The data that tools are pushing out is showing that paraprofessionals could take over many duties currently managed by librarians. A few shifts to the staffing model could free up librarians to focus on multiple locations and more demanding tasks.

Governing in the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Los Angeles is nothing if not gigantic. While some might argue its size gives it an advantage when it comes to leading in gov tech, others might say it makes it that much more difficult. The city’s diverse population only increases the challenges of serving every citizen equally and quickly.
As Deputy CIO and Assistant General Manager Joyce Jinde Edson explained, technology is the key to excelling in these conditions. 
“In order to connect government to that diverse environment, we’ve got to do it digitally,” she said. “Really the only way we can do this is to use technology, emerging technology, not bleeding edge, but cutting edge, to our advantage.”
Like many other governments, the city of L.A. is seeing talent retire and skill gaps form. Budgets tend to stay level or decline, and it’s the same for resources. Couple all of this with what she calls the “Amazon effect” and you are left with expectations that government has never seen before — immediate and complete service at the click of a mouse. 
“When we take a look at new technology to use, it’s done with the approach that it’s very strategic. It’s something that we can use, retool a little bit, tweak a little bit, use again … That’s what gets projects moved up to the top for us.”
One area where technology is coming into play is through chatbots. The City Hall Internet Personality (CHIP) is a 24/7/365 link to city information and has laid the groundwork for other AI devices to follow. The city also has had its own Amazon Alexa skill for two years and is looking to push out into other in-home assistant technology.
The trick here will be making sure all of these devices are tied into the same code and deliver the same information, Edson explained. “The critical part of this is that the backend for all of these chatbots is exactly the same, that they all home back in to the same code.”
While voice assistants and chatbots may not be new in the sense that they have been on the market for a few years, the city is also looking at how it can meet its staffing challenges with new tools. Virtual reality is one opportunity in this space. 
Communications helmets worn by — and frequently broken by — firefighters were requiring in-person training for repairs. Now, virtual reality (VR) headsets are allowing technicians to work through issues with informational overlays that walk them through the repair process.
The city is also branching out when it comes to partnerships around technology. In addition to working with the civic data community at large, 14 area universities are also being tapped for their expertise in different areas, said Jeanne Holm, senior technology advisor to Mayor Eric Garcetti.
One such partnership is breaking down the barriers to earthquake sensor data held by the U.S. Geological Survey and turning it into a regional earthquake early warning system. Holm said the project will ultimately give residents lead time before an earthquake hits their location. The GPS-enabled app would alert them to the impending quake, while providing other details like the duration and severity in their exact location.
“We are able with a mobile app to give one to two minutes of warning to a huge population that an earthquake is coming and how severe it will be at your specific geography,” she said. “By the end of the year, we will have this rolled out to every single person in Los Angeles who wants it.”
The machine-readable application programming interface (API) will also allow other automation around alerts, like raising firehouse doors and cranes in the port.

Editor's note: The Los Angeles Public Sector CIO Academy is an event hosted by Government Technology.

Eyragon Eidam Web Editor

Eyragon Eidam is the Web editor for Government Technology magazine, after previously serving as  assistant news editor and covering such topics as legislation, social media and public safety. He can be reached at eeidam@erepublic.com.