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Tech and Innovation Work Takes Hold in Anchorage, Alaska

A series of philanthropic partnerships has been key as Anchorage uses gov tech to improve life for its citizens.

Anchorage, Alaska’s innovation team is housed in a unique space, at least in terms of government offices in the state’s most populous city.

The innovation lab, as this space is called, has none of the plain walls or gray cubicles generally associated with government workplaces. Instead, the innovation lab is located on the ground floor of city hall and has an open floor plan, walls covered by colorful post-it notes, white boards brimming with ideas, and plenty of light spilling in through its ample windows — many of which face a bus transit center. This all gives Anchorage’s public servants and residents alike a glimpse of the activity within.

This space is perhaps indicative of how in recent years tech and innovation has begun to take hold within Anchorage’s city government. Technologists there are now working to improve quality of life through open data, smart cities, human-centric design and many other initiatives often found in larger jurisdictions. Fueled by participation in roughly a half-dozen philanthropic programs, this Alaskan city of roughly 300,000 residents has become a regional hub for gov tech, and one need only steal a peek inside the innovation lab to get a sense of what’s happening.

“As people walk into work, they can see us in there,” said Brendan Babb, who became Anchorage’s first chief innovation officer in June 2016. “They can see stuff written on white boards. They don’t know exactly what we’re doing, but it’s useful just for people to see that something different is going on. We’re starting to have more and more people come visit, or convene meetings down here.”

Anchorage is a participant in Bloomberg Philanthropies’ What Works Cities, as well as in the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative. Anchorage is part of Cities of Service, and its aforementioned innovation team is also one of about 20 throughout the nation born of another Bloomberg Philanthropies program. Babb described his role and that of the rest of the innovation team as somewhat of a consultancy, one that can spend months focusing on an issue to make the way business is done every day more efficient.

Projects have so far included increasing economic opportunities in underserved neighborhoods in the city by pinpointing barriers and creating a streamlined website for job seekers, looking at cost of living, and other similar quality of life-related efforts. The list goes on, ranging from simple to exceedingly complex. Sometimes, Babb said, the work is just a matter of putting the right information in the right place, pointing to actions like having restaurant inspection information added to Yelp, or real-time bus info put on Google maps.

Most recently, the innovation team coordinated with the United Kingdom-based Behavioural Insights on a project called Letterpalooza, which was aimed at improving the clarity of government letters. By rethinking the way letters about past due traffic violation fees are worded, this project alone could bring in a significant amount of additional revenue for the city.

The data expertise being fostered in city hall has also begun to extend to other parts of Alaska. Ben Matheson works on the innovation team as a data analyst, and this year he has spent some of his time off of work constructing a series of data visualizations related to the Iditarod, likely the biggest annual event that takes place in Alaska. Matheson said he took this on because he’s a big fan of the Iditarod and also wanted to hone some of his tech skills.

In terms of what the future holds, Babb said that in July the innovation team is planning to pivot its focus to take on the high cost of employee health care, but beyond that the hope is that tech and innovation have become ingrained in Anchorage’s municipal government culture. To that end, the innovation team has made an effort to work with many internal departments.

“We don’t always have the bandwidth to solve everyone’s problems,” Babb said, “but we try to at least give them insights on how best to ideate.”

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.