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San Jose CIO: AI ‘Challenges Us to Think Differently’

The Silicon Valley city has marked itself as a leader in AI with establishment of the GovAI Coalition and early adoption of guidelines — and CIO Khaled Tawfik says AI will likely change how leaders approach technology.

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The advent of artificial intelligence is helping San Jose, Calif., officials adopt a more proactive strategy toward technology and service, and they continue to look closely at how it should do that.

San Jose leadership has been working in recent months to capitalize on the rapid evolution of AI. The city was an early adopter of guidelines on generative AI in August. In March, the city-led GovAI Coalition released a resource toolkit to help other localities implement their own AI policies.

And at last week’s coalition meeting, officials announced early approval of a new AI city administration policy still in early stages. The policy, San Jose CIO Khaled Tawfik said in an interview, builds on guidelines already in place and was developed collaboratively with coalition member cities, in alignment with the coalition’s recently released template.

“It’s really defining how we deal with AI,” he said, noting that it helps outline things the city should look for when purchasing AI-based solutions and offers guidelines to reduce risk. The policy has been approved by the city manager.

According to Tawfik, the emergence of AI has helped leaders see new opportunities in the way it delivers services to the public, enabling a more proactive approach to solve challenges for residents: “So, it really challenges us to think differently,” he said.

AI, Tawfik said, is an interrupting technology and one that is challenging city technologists to re-examine its service delivery model to serve the public more efficiently — and potentially, more cost-effectively.

Currently, they are trying to understand the technology’s potential risks and benefits. The city has a good understanding of AI and has invested significant time in developing guidelines to reduce risk, its CIO said, but the learning process is ongoing.

Part of this process involves leveraging hands-on experience with AI tools to see them in action. Last year, the city started an AI pilot to assess the effectiveness of AI tools from four vendors. The pilot involves a vehicle with cameras on it that drives through the city to detect objects on the street: specifically, potholes, vehicles and objects left by illegal dumping.

By setting these three targets, officials hope to gain an understanding of how accurately the vendors can detect specific objects on the streets and how different vendors handle sensitive data to reduce harm. Tawfik said that the vehicle will conduct three more “runs” prior to concluding the first stage of the pilot. Then the city plans to publish a report on its findings.

The potential impact, the CIO said, is that AI could help the city change its service model to be more proactive rather than reactive. AI could help the city detect cracks in the road before they can develop and fix them more quickly and cost-efficiently — rather than waiting for a pothole to develop and be reported. The pilot may also help the city remove items that were illegally dumped or identify hot zones where dumping happens frequently to concentrate response efforts to that area.

The GovAI Coalition is another major area of work on AI. Tawfik said that when the coalition was launched in November, the city was overwhelmed with interest from other agencies.

“AI is moving fast, so it’s really hard for San Jose to tackle this challenge alone,” he explained, underlining the value of dividing the work with committed partners. More than 200 agencies have joined the coalition; new members are welcome.

The coalition’s first phase of work involved convening these agencies to develop and deliver the resource toolkit. Last week's meeting marked the end of this phase; the second phase kicks off this month, with what Tawfik describes as a “call for action.”

With these tools in place, Tawfik says the goal is to see policies and pilots implemented in different coalition cities, to monitor their impact, and have agencies report findings back to the coalition.

In 2022 as he joined San Jose, Tawfik told Industry Insider — California* that attracting talent was a top priority, which it still is today. Being that San Jose is in Silicon Valley, he said, a lot of talent is already there, but so is competition to attract it. The work the city is doing in AI, particularly through the coalition, is helping draw talent to the area.

“And that’s really one of the things that the coalition can help us with,” he said, explaining that it enables a division of the work so that one city does not need to have all of the talent needed for a program as the lift can be a shared one. This, the CIO said, will allow lower costs and expedited solution development — and will enable cities to rely on their own specialized talents and skills in the process.

*Industry Insider — California is part of e.Republic, Government Technology's parent company.
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.