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Los Angeles Joins Google's Government Innovation Lab

The city has announced plans to launch five major projects using Google innovation methods, including one that will help tackle homelessness.

The Google Government Innovation Lab opened with intrigue last year as the program, touting a curriculum for moonshot ideas and free technology, delivered more than a dozen projects in three California counties. Now the city of Los Angeles, and its roughly 4 million residents, are jump-starting the program to launch innovations of their own.

L.A.’s recently appointed Senior Technology Advisor Jeanne Holm confirmed the city’s participation, saying the program, re-branded as “Angels Lab,” is an attempt to answer five pressing citywide challenges. The ambitious goals — or as Google has coined them, "moonshots" — will be developed by five teams as Google guides the city with problem-solving strategies like quick prototyping and “failing fast." Los Angeles has already selected its five impact areas. These include civic engagement, homelessness, city hiring, emergency management and economic development.

The Google projects are driven by 50-plus staffers divided into five startup-like teams, an approach that has worked in Kern, Alameda and San Joaquin counties. The Angels Lab will use people from various departments, ages, seniority and other demographics. Their work is funded through the city's $1 Million Innovation Fund established in 2014. The money will help scale successful ideas from the lab after the six-week program ends in August with a presentation of ideas on Aug. 25.

“We ended up getting representation from about half the city departments, which was good,” Holm said. “Some of our youngest participants are 22 years old and maybe one is close to 80.”

Of all the obstacles L.A. is confronting, homelessness is one of the most pressing. In May, the Los Angeles Times reported that city and county homelessness increased to 47,000 people — with 28,000 of those city residents. The rising tally signified an 11 percent jump for the city compared to January the year before, and for L.A. County, the figure translated into a 5.7 percent increase.

“I think the most intractable issue we've faced is homelessness and the city has made a huge commitment of $138 million this year, pledged to help house people and move them into permanent housing.” Holm said.

The lab will enhance this work by pioneering a predictive analytics platform to identify early signs of homelessness so social services can assist.

“We're hoping to be able to crack some of the code,” Holm said. We’ll ask what are the indicators three months, six months, nine months ahead, before a person or family falls into homelessness.”

The other impact areas have yet to finalize specific projects, but if San Joaquin County’s experience is any indication, the work is likely to be ongoing.

San Joaquin Administrator Monica Nino said her county’s five 2015 Google projects are in various stages of completion.

Its new website, now revamped and easily searchable, replaced its predecessor in a beta launch. Economic development Web pages to connect business to resources are still being added. A project to reduce the average entry-level hiring times from 40 days to seven — an impressive feat — has been realized in more than a few departments, with other departments awaiting online testing software to achieve similar results.

The last two projects — a tool for foster care placement and a mentorship platform for youth on probation — have been delayed. The mentorship platform did not receive bids in its RFP, and the county is waiting to see if state funding will arrive to turn the foster care tool into a statewide solution.

Whatever happens, Nino said the county is committed to seeing all of these projects through and is leveraging instruction from the lab for further initiatives.

“We don’t want to allow the waters to calm,” Nino said. “We want to continue to enhance our work and provide better services.”

Evidence of this can be found in the board of supervisors' approval of 2016-2017 expenditures. Following Nino’s recommendation, the board allocated $500,000 to continue countywide innovation projects, including the expansion of credit and debit card use for online transactions.

Representatives from Kern and Alameda counties were not immediately available for comment.

Los Angeles has high yet realistic expectations for its "moonshot" projects. Holm, who worked for 17 years as the digital strategy manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, compared the city’s civic tech aspirations to NASA’s intended Mars landing — a grand objective that must be broken down using scientific processes “to turn it into small, doable problems.”

“The thing about a moonshot is that the end goal is extreme and inspirational,” Holm said. “Yet, in the meantime, there's a whole lot of hard work to get from step, to step, to step, to get you there ... I think that's really where we're at with this.”

Los Angeles CIO Ted Ross said the lab builds on much of the work the city has done in the past with regard to open data, civic tech, and making tech more accessible to residents.

“We're excited about the Google Innovation Lab because it's not only an opportunity to sit down and tackle five major challenges and continue the work we're trying to do around innovation for the city of L.A., but we're excited because it helps us bloom and grow,” Ross said. “We want to use both technology and good process of operations to make life better for every Angelino.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article listed Ted Ross as the former L.A. CTO when Ross is L.A.'s current CIO.

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.