What Role do States Play in the Push to Get Smarter?

IoT projects in cities grab most of the headlines, but there's a place for states.

by / May 27, 2016

There is another actor waiting in the wings, watching as the smart city struts around on the stage, bathed in a national spotlight.

Such is the existence of the smart state: following the smart city movement, helping where it can and all the while working to build itself an identity.

Smart states today seem to have a dual role. They are the setting for smart cities, and might well become an important driver behind the creation of the smart city in America. And though the idea of the “smart state” might not have as much buzz around it, state governments are starting to take up the idea of pursuing more data-driven approaches to their work, separate from local government operations.

THE REALITY OF TODAY

Much of government IT work, especially at the state level, doesn’t revolve around headline-grabbing, cutting-edge projects. No, public IT professionals will alternately describe their day-to-day operations as “keeping the lights on” and “putting out fires.”

“The larger, broader policy discussions sometimes get put on the back burner,” said Amy Glasscock, a senior policy analyst at the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO).

Glasscock’s work as of late has been devoted to understanding the role of concepts like smart government and the Internet of Things (IoT) at the state level.

So far, it seems those concepts aren’t too prevalent on states’ radar. NASCIO’s most recent survey of IT professionals from 47 states and territories found that 76 percent of respondents were not having formal discussions about IoT applications, data collection and security. Of those who did say they were having state-level conversations, about 25 percent said their IT plan referenced IoT.

Nobody participating said they’d formally adopted IoT policies.

Glasscock sees a couple possible reasons for that. One is simply the nature of IoT as an emerging field — one in which the return on investment might not be totally clear.

“When it comes to big initiatives, everyone wants to know: How much is it going to cost?” Glasscock said.

Another reason might have to do with the ways IoT is used. Cities are finding myriad useful applications of ubiquitous connectivity, things that fall very much within the scope of municipal work. In the San Francisco Bay Area, city CIOs are beginning to install sensors in parking spots that can feed information into a platform telling citizens when and where parking is available. In Chicago, the researchers behind the Array of Things project are hoping to use sensors for tasks like identifying flooding in real time.

“The services that cities provide might lend themselves well to IoT applications,” said Glasscock.

States as city coordinators

But that doesn’t mean states won’t touch IoT. Indeed, many think that states can act as a nexus point for local government to make “smart” projects better.

Take roads, for example.

“We have state roads [and] we have city roads, but they all cross and connect with each other,” said David Fletcher, chief technology officer for the Utah Department of Technology Services.

Whenever Utah digs up a road, Fletcher wants to seize the opportunity to lay down fiber. That will support connectivity in the long run — a central component of the Internet of Things — and provide a possible resource for cities in the future.

Another example is water. Utah might get a lot of its water from snowpack that falls in the mountains, but then it flows down to cities, towns and farms where humans and animals use it. There are many different government entities involved in managing water, and Fletcher sees the state as a natural point to coordinate those efforts.

“We have sensors throughout the state that track snow levels, and they report on those snow levels in real time,” he said. “And then we also have sensors that track stream flows so we know how much water is coming down, how much is going to be available. The state and federal government manage reservoirs that become water resources for cities and localities, and so we all work cooperatively to track the availability of the water — how much is used by agriculture versus urban use so that we know there’s enough for various uses.”

Cities help with those efforts by giving the state local water data, and the state handles the dissemination of that information to other government entities that can use it. And as more and more sensors are added to the network, the insights the state can glean from it will only improve.

Helping to coordinate regional efforts between cities has another advantage, according to Illinois CIO Hardik Bhatt. “We can bring a few municipalities in the state together and provide their services from a single operation center so they can reduce overhead,” he said.

It goes back to Fletcher’s point about roads being connected across government jurisdictions: Transportation is one area where it makes sense for cities to work together.

Call that doubly true in Chicagoland, a conglomeration of municipalities that can extend all the way into Wisconsin and Indiana depending on your preferred definition. One of Bhatt’s ideas leading state IT efforts is to consolidate city traffic signal centers together to help create optimal traffic flow.

“If we can start pooling the services together, bringing them closer together to where they can be managed easily and centrally, you can … keep an eye toward efficiency,” he said.

States as smart city enablers

An adjacent role states play is in enabling cities to undertake “smart” projects. California’s Department of Technology has made that a central mission by treating itself as a business. To Chris Cruz, chief of operations for the department, cities and counties are clients who buy services, and the department spends much of its time and resources on customer service to make sure its products are working for those customers.

“We go out and compete for that business just like some of the other private data centers would,” Cruz said.

One of the department’s big pushes is called CalCloud. Through the service, local government entities in California can buy cloud hosting on state-controlled servers, which allows them to cut costs while relying on the state for security.

Launched in 2014, that part of CalCloud appears to be catching on. Cruz said the number of customers with hosting agreements doubled from 14 to 28 between 2014 and 2015.

“We’re driving more adoption every day,” he said, “and there’s more service requests coming in each week.”

Another 40 are using CalCloud’s vendor hosting services. Through that program, the department takes on the responsibility of approaching a vendor, negotiating prices and buying services or licenses from that company. Because so many local government entities participate in the program, the department can negotiate volume pricing — which it has already done with Salesforce.

The department also has worked to help cities build themselves smarter. That’s through a cooperation with the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research. According to Scott Gregory, the department’s geographic information officer, the initiative is meant to provide guidance to cities developing general plans.

“Local government can access authoritative data content from the state, for example: Where are the known floodplains in the state? Where are the known earthquake faults?” Gregory said.

Cities can then submit their general plans back to the state for help and guidance, which can encourage smart growth in areas ranging from energy consumption to water management.

In addition, the department has an open data platform to make useful information available to local government entities within California, which Gregory said will support smart city projects.

“[That helps] these smart city initiatives move toward modernizing design, modernizing their approach to initiatives that then touch the IT … sectors,” Gregory said. “So for example, things like sensor networks, sensors that help us understand traffic throughout the region, things like energy usage and smart grid, being able to understand what our energy consumption is throughout buildings and then conversely what happens with greenhouse gases after that.”

Smart states

Aside from helping cities get smart, states are beginning to craft strategies to become “smart” themselves.

In fact, that’s a big goal for Bhatt — one of the few state CIOs working on an official smart state strategy, supported by Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner.

“The idea is over the next three years we want to be not only the smartest state in the U.S., but our competition is Singapore, Dubai and others,” said Bhatt. “And I think we can do that.”

Part of that is consolidating operations. Much like bringing cities together to achieve efficiency, Bhatt said breaking down silos between departments can help state government run smoother.

After taking the role of CIO, he identified 62 data silos in Illinois state government. “If you think about creating a department out of 62 existing silos, it’s kind of like mergers and acquisitions,” Bhatt said. “So you’re working on streamlining.”

There are also services that states tend to handle more than cities — transportation, health and human services and water management. While states work with local government on all those services, they are also the places where public-sector IT thought leaders see opportunity for smart states to carve out an identity.

For instance, state operations often require fleets of vehicles. Bhatt said those vehicles can be managed efficiently, much in the same way that airports coordinate the comings and goings of planes through central command centers.

“We have a huge fleet of satellite vehicles between the cop cars and everything else,” he said. “So we’re looking at how … we apply those principles on our side.”

Smart transportation today can mean establishing multi-jurisdiction control centers, which Utah has already done. But tomorrow’s smart state transportation efforts might have to take into account things like connected vehicles and self-driving cars. The U.S. Department of Transportation is moving full steam ahead on those efforts, having put up millions of dollars in funding for government entities to test vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure connections. The agency has also started the rulemaking process to require new cars to support those capabilities.

So in the future, states might be using various technologies to coordinate traffic flow, optimize snow removal and build infrastructure smarter.

There’s also a need for states to get smart about how they fund their transportation efforts. Because government on all levels in the U.S. is pushing for alternative fuel vehicles, it will eventually need to find a substitute for the gasoline tax that funds road work today.

States such as Oregon and California are testing systems that tax people based on how much they drive instead of how much gas they buy. Though these projects are only in the pilot phases, one approach to measuring miles is plugging in connected devices to car ports. Since car ports have been standardized since the late 1990s, most passenger vehicles can accommodate the devices. And those devices can do more than just report miles traveled — they can provide information about the health of the car.

Smart state-type water management projects are beginning to materialize too. Aside from Utah’s coordination of data from various water managers, California has used technology in recent years to help its statewide water conservation efforts amid a historically bad drought. The Department of Technology launched an application for citizens to report the overuse of water toward the end of 2015. Since then, it’s received more than 10,000 reports through the app.

“The idea is this: You have neighbors, businesses or parks who are overwatering. We have a modal application now that allows citizens to take a picture of that, provide a description and then send it to the state,” said Gregory.

The state then finds the water entity responsible for that user and lets them know about the potential problem in their system. “The key here … is that these decisions are data-driven,” Gregory said. “It’s not broad-swath here, it’s more surgical.”

That’s a common refrain in any kind of “smart government” project, and part of why Bhatt said that analytics is probably the single most important piece of technology on his radar today.

In the future, he hopes to apply that motif of surgical intervention to health and human services in Illinois. Bhatt believes that data can help the state identify people who use a lot of government services, which can then help agencies intervene earlier to help those people before their problems worsen.

“It’s very tough to know — who are those 20 percent of Illinois citizens who are using 80 percent of our health and human services … and how can we serve them more efficiently?” Bhatt said.

What does it mean to be smart?

With both the federal government and cities pushing for “smart” projects, it might be inevitable that states eventually get smart too.

“I think it’s coming, but I think it’s something that cities [are ahead of states on], being smaller and having the kind of services that lend themselves to this,” NASCIO’s Glasscock said.

What direction the smart state movement goes in is a different matter, and might depend on how states set their priorities.

CIOs like Bhatt see some commonalities between “smart” government projects that should serve as guideposts. “At the end of the day, it’s how … you use technology to improve government efficiency and keep an eye toward economic goals,” he said.

For Fletcher, that means automation.

“You remove a lot of the human intervention so that ultimately a lot of this is machine-to-machine, so that the data drives control systems whether that’s in fire detection and response, or humidity in buildings or smart power systems,” he said. “And then it impacts individuals, getting the information to individuals and their systems.”

And ultimately, the focus areas of smart states are unclear. They might lean more toward helping cities or they might sway toward state operations.

So is one approach more important or prevalent than the other?

“I don’t know that the state CIOs would have an overwhelming answer on that, one way or the other,” Glasscock said.  

Ben Miller Staff Writer

Ben Miller is the business beat staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.