IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Disruptive Technology that Could Transform Government-Citizen Relationships

Examples across the spectrum prove that leading-edge technology is spilling into the public sector today.

William Gibson, the science fiction writer who coined the term “cyberspace,” once said: “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” That may be exactly the way to look at the selection of disruptive technologies we have chosen to highlight in eight critical areas of government, ranging from public safety to health to transportation. Powerful combinations of digital, mobile, social, geographic and video innovations already are changing the public’s expectations and the services available. They just aren’t evenly distributed yet. And, of course, the pace of technological change is clearly accelerating. Can government agencies seize the opportunity and harness these innovations to become more efficient and responsive to citizens?

Public Safety: Wearable Tech Is Transforming Emergency Response

The wearable technology market is expected to grow from $20 billion in 2015 to almost $70 billion in 2025, according to research firm IDTechEx. As commercial applications bloom, more will find their way into the public sector and emergency response.

police officer
This year has seen an increase in the number of police departments using body cameras. And already under development are wireless devices that monitor a responder’s breathing, heart rate and blood pressure, as well as potentially harmful environmental conditions, and relay concerns back to incident command.

But rather than sitting back and waiting for the market to develop, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is determined to spur innovation in the field. DHS’ research and development arm is funding a startup accelerator program called Emerge managed by the Center for Innovative Technology (CIT), a Virginia-based nonprofit. Two accelerators, in Texas and Illinois, will work with 10 to 15 startups this year to develop wearable products and adopt them for first responder use.

DHS is using a broad definition of wearable technology, including physiological sensors, high-performance materials, health support such as hydration, communications capabilities and situational awareness.

David Ihrie, CIT’s chief technology officer, said that although it probably won’t be part of this cohort, an example of the type of startup the accelerators would be working with is a company founded by a tennis pro that focuses on eye-tracking. “They work with sports teams to enhance performance to see where the players’ focus is,” he said. They also have cameras that point outward to overlay in real time where you are looking in a scene versus what is going on. “So from a situational awareness and training point of view for first responders, that was interesting,” Ihrie said, adding that eye-tracking also enables some physiological monitoring. “If a responder gets a concussion, their eye motions change. That kind of dual use also is interesting.”

Emerge startups will demonstrate their products in September.

Health & Human Services: ‘Hot-Spotting’ for Population Health Management

A hot health-care trend is population health management: using data to improve health at a community level as well as an individual level. The growth in sophistication of GIS tools has allowed public health researchers to more clearly identify and start addressing health resource disparities.

Dr. Jeffrey Brenner, a Camden, N.J.-based physician, uses data gathered in a health information exchange (HIE) to target high-cost individuals. The Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers uses the HIE data to identify high-cost “hot spots” — high-rise buildings where a large number of hospital emergency room “super users” live. By identifying and working with these individuals on patient-centered care coordination issues, the coalition has been able to reduce emergency room use and in-patient stays.

Speaking at the recent Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society annual conference in Chicago, Dr. Brian Jacobs, chief medical information officer for the Children’s National Health System in Washington, D.C., said that care model redesign needs to encompass other factors beyond patient encounters with clinicians. Geospatial analytics can bring qualitative and quantitative information forward in augmenting traditional approaches to health care, he said.

Many factors around the patient don’t make it into the electronic health record, Jacobs said, including diet, exercise, medication compliance, pollution and climate. “There are all these things in the environment that providers have no visibility into,” he said. Understanding geographic distribution can impact targeting of epidemiology, prevention, treatment and research efforts. An example he gave was burns affecting infants in Washington, D.C. By geocoding data on 344 children who had scalds or contact burns, researchers were able to create hot-spot representations of where these burns were occurring and develop a targeted public awareness campaign around lowering water temperatures, and the rates of burns dramatically decreased.

Parks & Recreation: Tracking Trees for a Better Future

A combination of advances in mobile data collection systems and geocoding lets natural resources and parks agencies be more proactive about collecting tree data, managing urban forests and quantifying their value, as forests become increasingly important resources in an era of climate change.  

bus on a street
Philadelphia Parks and Recreation has added approximately 2 million trees to its database in the past few years. It plans to create a digital management system for all of them. Los Angeles City Parks uses the Davey Tree Expert Co.’s Web-based TreeKeeper management software to manage existing tree inventories and administer work orders. The department can also more easily look at species balance to manage against pests, disease and drought.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has completed an analysis of street trees and canopy cover for 19 communities in the northeastern part of the state. It used a software suite from the USDA Forest Service, called i-Tree, that provides urban and community forestry analysis and benefits assessment tools. The i-Tree tools help communities of all sizes strengthen their urban forest management and advocacy efforts by quantifying the environmental services that trees provide and the structure of the urban forest.

“Our goal was to use i-Tree to create fact sheets so that decision-makers — mayors and city councilors — can see the value of their trees,” said Tracy Salisbury, northeast region urban forestry coordinator for the Natural Resources Department. Municipal budgets are tight and it’s difficult to fund forestry programs, she added. “We want to show them the value in a new light. Some municipalities have created these fact sheets and been able to get elected officials to rethink budget cuts.”

Public Works: New Benefits Emerge from Traditional Infrastructure

As regions of the country seek renewable sources to replace energy from coal-fired power plants, city public works agencies are turning to new approaches for conservation and energy production.

In January the Portland Water Bureau (PWB) in Oregon flipped the on switch for the first project in the U.S. to produce energy from in-pipe hydropower in a municipal water pipeline.

PWB partnered with a Portland-based startup called Lucid Energy Inc., a provider of renewable energy systems for in-pipe hydropower. The company’s system, which it says was installed at no cost to PWB or the city of Portland, uses the gravity-fed flow of water inside a PWB pipeline to spin four 42-inch turbines that are now producing electricity for Portland General Electric customers under a 20-year power purchase agreement with the utility.

“Water agencies are looking for ways to be more energy efficient, energy utilities are seeking more renewable sources of energy and investors are seeking opportunities in smart water and energy infrastructure,” said Gregg Semler, president and CEO of Lucid Energy, in a statement. “The industry is looking to Portland as an example of how all of these entities can partner to take advantage of in-pipe hydropower to generate investment returns and reduce the cost of delivering clean, safe drinking water.”

A PBS NewsHour report on the project noted that Lucid is negotiating agreements with San Antonio and New York City, and hopes to have more pipes and turbines in place in Portland over the next few years.

Corrections: Video-Based Tools Transform Prisons and Jails

Videoconferencing is disrupting business as usual in U.S. jails and prisons in two ways: One is the rising use of telemedicine to reduce inmate health-care costs and to increase access to certain types of care for prisoners. The other is video visitation between inmates and families.

A March 2015 report by Southern California Public Radio noted that the federal court-appointed receiver overseeing inmate health care in California is reviewing telemedicine capabilities to reduce costly overtime billing by physicians and nurses at prisons. In one year, overtime has more than doubled for this branch of corrections, from more than $12 million to nearly $30 million.

The Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, which cares for 22,000 inmates in 27 facilities, including the Baltimore city jail, was spending $5 million to $6 million annually in transport and overtime pay to take prisoners to off-site clinics. It recently made a significant investment in telehealth equipment in partnership with its private-sector partner, Pittsburgh-based Wexford Health Sources Inc. Dr. Thomas Lehman, Wexford’s corporate medical director, said Maryland is not alone in expressing interest in expanding the equipment’s use. “When we look at the new bids and proposals, all corrections departments across the country are now interested, not only from the aspect of public safety and decreasing overtime costs, but also of delivering good care and access to specialists for inmate patients.”

A January 2015 report by the Prison Policy Initiative estimated that more than 500 facilities in 43 states and the District of Columbia are experimenting with video visitation, and prison and jail telephone companies have started to bundle this feature into phone contracts. Research has found that increasing the number of visits with family members reduces both recidivism and prison violations, and visitation via video may be more convenient for some family members.

But the Prison Policy Initiative report was critical of how video visitation has been deployed so far, saying it is “ironically the least prevalent in state prisons, where it would be the most useful given the remote locations of such facilities, and the most common in county jails where the potential benefits are fewer.”

Finance & Budgeting: Data Portals Offer Transparency at Unprecedented Levels

The transparency and open data movements have hit the government finance sector in a big way and promise to be an area of innovation in the years ahead.

A partnership between Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel and the finance visualization startup OpenGov will result in one of the most sweeping statewide transparency efforts to date.

The initiative offers 3,900-plus local governments — from townships, cities and counties to school districts and more — a chance to place revenues and expenditures online free of charge through the state’s budget transparency site Citizens will be able to track local government revenues and expenditures via interactive graphs that illustrate not only a bird’s-eye view of a budget, but also the granular details of check-by-check spending.

Across the country, other cities and counties are moving toward financial transparency as well. In Oakland, Calif., OpenOakland, a civic-tech innovation brigade from Code for America, has developed a visualization tool called Open Budget to allow the public to explore the city budget. A conversation feature lets users ask questions and discuss every line item of the city budget.

Residents in Houston can take part in a Budget Bootcamp, a Code for Houston project that was conceptualized at a city-sponsored hackathon to help citizens better visualize and understand the city’s annual operating costs. When it was introduced in 2013, City Finance Director Kelly Dowe said, “Budget Bootcamp has something for every budget/policy wonk. Whether you want to break down our revenues for FY14, see the trends over time or see how the city’s taxpayer-supported general fund transforms from revenues into department expenditures, this application is a terrific step in terms of financial education and transparency.”

No doubt, other cities, counties and states will feel pressure to follow suit if they haven’t already.

DMV: Drivers’ Licenses: There Will Soon Be an App for That

The laminated driver’s license you keep in your wallet may eventually give way to an app on your smartphone, and that change may have wider significance for how citizens interact digitally with their government. Legislatures in at least three states have seen bills introduced authorizing their transportation departments to begin piloting digital drivers’ licenses.

The Iowa Department of Transportation announced in December 2014 that it has a driver’s license app under development. Officials say it could transform the citizen/government relationship. Mark Lowe, director of the Motor Vehicle Division at the Iowa DOT, said the idea isn’t yet to replace the traditional driver’s license, but to first offer the app as an alternative to the temporary paper licenses issued before permanent licenses are mailed out, then as a supplement to permanent licenses, and maybe someday as an optional full replacement.

The Delaware Legislature passed a bill in January 2015 to study and consider using a digital driver’s license, noting that its residents routinely use smartphones in their daily lives and that there are financial and environmental costs of producing plastic drivers’ licenses. In California, Assemblymember Matt Dababneh, D-Encino, introduced legislation that would allow the DMV to develop a digital driver’s license mobile app.

“I think the longer-term prospect is if you can really be successful in establishing a driver’s license as an app, it really transforms the way we can interact with the customer,” Iowa’s Lowe said. “Instead of a thing in your pocket, it becomes a customer relationship.”

Transportation & Mass Transit: Big Breakthroughs Are Just Around the Corner

Nothing is likely to be more disruptive to transportation, mass transit and urban planning than the double whammy of connected vehicle technology and autonomous vehicles.

The U.S. Department of Transportation expects great things from the connected vehicles of the future ­— and that future may be just around the corner. Vehicle-to-infrastructure communication capabilities and anonymous information from passengers’ wireless devices relayed through dedicated short-range connections could provide transportation agencies with improved traffic, transit and parking data, making it easier to manage transportation systems and improve traffic safety.

Now regions around the country are positioning themselves as connected vehicle (CV) research hubs. In September, the U.S. DOT will name the first wave of CV pilot deployment project sites. One region vying to take part is Chattanooga, Tenn., where a team, including experts from Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Tennessee, is joining stakeholders from the state government, private companies, commercial vehicle operators and freight shippers. CV applications being considered for the proposed deployment include dynamic speed harmonization, an application that aims to recommend target speeds in response to congestion, incidents and road conditions to maximize throughput and reduce crashes, and eco-traffic signal timing, an application that uses data collected wirelessly from vehicles (and other sources) to optimize the performance of traffic signals, thus reducing fuel consumption and emissions.

On the autonomous vehicle front, the Contra Costa County Transportation Authority in Northern California has opened the GoMentum Station research center to test connected and autonomous vehicle technology. The county and authority want to position the GoMentum Station, located in Concord, Calif., as a cutting-edge research and development site that will create new jobs and businesses as the technology involved in building autonomous cars continues to advance.

“Our roads cannot continue to grow larger, they must grow smarter,” said Concord Mayor Timothy Grayson. “Concord is poised to become the largest site in the world for autonomous and connected vehicle testing.”