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The Group Giving Arizona Local Government a Hand With AI

Experts across the greater Phoenix region recently came together for a workshop hosted by the local consortium, The Connective, that provides resources to help local government understand the risks and rewards of AI.

A concept image of two hands putting puzzle pieces together.
Technology leaders in Arizona are working together to advance the thoughtful regulation and responsible adoption of artificial intelligence.

The Connective, the smart region consortium in the greater Phoenix region, is offering its members a collaborative environment to develop and deploy technology solutions.

Ben Williams, program manager for the organization, explained that with all that is happening in federal, state and local government, officials do not always have the capacity or time to explore all the available tech solutions under their own power. A consortium like The Connective can act as a capacity builder to help bridge that gap, as the group’s leaders are able to research industry solutions and convening members pass this knowledge along.

Workshops are one way the consortium convenes members to talk about this research, learn from one another, and find shared solutions.

During a recent workshop event held by the group, “AI for Local Government Leaders,” speakers presented on several topics, including laying the groundwork for AI and cybersecurity and data privacy in AI. Through lecture-based information sharing and hands-on demonstrations, the workshop provided a space for government and industry members to better understand the risk and potential of the technology.

The workshop focused on AI in three major categories: operations and efficiency, innovation and policy. Williams said these were identified as priorities for city leaders.

One common challenge Williams has seen for local governments is a lack of knowledge on how to get started with AI. He added that a lack of comprehensive policies being in place to guide usage is a potential barrier.

Williams pointed to the example set in the city of Tempe as a success story, crediting the city’s Chief Data and Analytics Officer Stephanie Deitrick for her role in crafting and releasing a policy to guide AI use there.

Deitrick acknowledged that the city was able to be an early adopter of a policy because of work that started a couple of years ago when she was made aware of the need for such a policy through the What Works Cities certification criteria. That criteria had a component related to automated decision-making, and Deitrick realized there wasn’t a structure in place and set out to create one.

When generative AI tools became publicly available recently, Tempe had already laid the groundwork for a policy, which took less than two months to craft and put before the City Council. She opted for a policy rather than guidelines so that the rules could be enforced.

During the workshop, Deitrick said she heard people sharing concerns about how to get started and what AI will mean for their city; her advice was to think of implementing AI the way one would think about bringing on a new employee.

“When you bring on a new employee, that employee has a job description that explains what their role is going to be,” she explained. “They’re not in a silo … they’re part of a team.”

By being transparent about the role of AI within the city, government can ensure that the technology is used as intended. While Deitrick noted that the rise in GenAI tools has spurred a lot of conversation, she also noted that implementing this policy has spurred greater discussion about potential applications for AI in other areas.

“And so I feel like people who weren’t talking about it before are starting to have those conversations,” she said.

Gilbert, Ariz., is another member city that participated in the workshop that has been working to advance understanding and use of the technology. A notable step in that direction was the November 2023 appointment of the city’s assistant CTO Eugene Meija to the chief AI strategy and transformation officer role.

Meija explained that in this new role, the city’s approach to AI will be a high-level one across the organization. He noted that it is taking a cautious approach and putting in standards, but the creation of an official policy is a longer process.

“We really want to move at the speed of business,” Meija said.

For Gilbert, specific use cases are still being explored, but the city is encouraging city employees to experiment with certain tools. The city also formed an advisory committee to help create governance for these efforts.

And while he advises other cities to take a similarly cautious approach, he thinks it’s important that they practice early buy in: introduce training and education opportunities and start exploring frameworks to guide use, rather than waiting.

“What I would say is: get started,” Meija said.

The Connective plans to continue hosting two workshops annually, Williams said. One potential topic The Connective may explore in a future workshop is data sharing. Another event planned for this year will give cities the chance to share their successes with tech solutions.
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.