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2000 vs. 2020: How Far Has Gov Tech Come in Two Decades?

At the turn of the millennium, technologists envisioned a future world of autonomous vehicles, online voting and high-flying drones. How does the state of tech in 2020 compare to predictions made on the cusp of Y2K?

by / January/February 2020
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Technology predictions made in 2000 describe city streets awash in autonomous vehicles, citizens voting online from the comfort of their homes, and police solving crimes and thwarting terrorist attacks with facial recognition software, DNA databases and drones.

Some of these tech predictions became reality, while others never came close or were only adopted in a limited fashion. And some — especially in the area of policing — exceeded expectations. And on the eve of the year 2000, the world held its collective breath, anticipating a massively disruptive Y2K computer crash. But that never happened at all, in large part because governments prepared for it. Nevertheless, Y2K hype changed the way governments view and secure digital systems.

Rob Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, said technological advancement sometimes can be too fickle to predict.

“People tend to overestimate the rate of technological change,” said Atkinson, though there are exceptions.

Stephen Goldsmith, director of the Innovations in Government Program and Data-Smart City Solutions at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, said that in some areas, technological advancements have exceeded expectations made in 2000. But governments have not kept up with the pace of change to the degree that could assist their missions even more, he added.

“We still are operating in command control silos and hierarchical systems which tamp down the ability to dramatically use the technological changes,” said Goldsmith.

Here we look at where we were technologically 20 years ago, where we thought we’d be today and where we are in the year 2020.

Autonomous Vehicles

In 2000, technology watchers predicted that by 2020, hundreds of thousands of autonomous vehicles (AVs) would be cruising streets throughout the U.S. The technology has advanced, experts say, but today, only a few thousand AVs are in use in 10 test sites throughout the nation.

Tech engineers, transportation officials and auto industry executives have long eyed AVs as a way to reduce auto accidents and fatalities by eliminating human error. AVs, also known as self-driving vehicles, are also viewed as possible mini-urban transit systems that can pick up a person, drop them off across town, then pick up another rider.

Google and several car manufacturers have invested heavily in AV technology. But Chris Urmson, who worked on AV technology at Google before founding Aurora, a company that makes self-driving car software, said he expects it will take 30 to 50 years before the cars are ubiquitous on U.S. streets. In five to 10 years, he expects modest adoption. The reason for the slow rollout? People need assurances AVs are safe and the industry needs to learn how customers want to use the technology, Urmson said. A recent survey by AAA revealed that 77 percent of U.S. drivers are afraid of the technology, an increase from 63 percent at the end of 2017, probably due to some highly publicized crashes.

Still, governments are setting policy for the vehicles. Some 29 states and the District of Columbia have enacted AV legislation. Governments have set levels of autonomy for the vehicles — ranging from zero automation to level 5, where an automated system performs all driving tasks.

Atkinson said he doesn’t believe the U.S. will get to level 5 for a “long, long time.”

“There are certain problems that may be unsolvable,” Atkinson said, such as developing sensitive enough artificial intelligence to pick up a child dressed in white winter wear during a blizzard.

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Electronic Voting

After the 2000 hanging chads election debacle in Florida, computerized voting was viewed by many as a panacea to slow, sloppy elections. Adoption of electronic voting technology spread quickly, and by the 2016 election, according to the Pew Research Center, 47 percent of voters across the U.S. voted with optical scanners, 28 percent with touchscreens and 19 percent with a combination of both. A small handful of jurisdictions used paper only.

But confidence in electronic voting has waned, in large part because of concerns over Russian interference in the 2016 election. Many jurisdictions are now adopting back-up paper trails — which some view as moving backward technologically.

“We’ve moved back to paper ballots due to security issues,” said William Eggers, executive director of the Deloitte Center for Government Insights. “The progress has been much, much slower [than expected], even reversed.”

By 2020, many experts predicted not just widespread electronic voting, but also online voting from home. In fact, a 1997 Wired article predicted that the majority of Americans would be voting online by 2008. Online voting is offered by only a small number of jurisdictions to some military personnel and expatriates living abroad. The voting uses advanced blockchain technology via an app made by the company Voatz. Voters are assigned a unique ID number and a digital receipt of their votes is sent to a ballot tabulation center. The technology is not without critics, however. The Democratic National Convention, for example, would not approve the use of the technology in next year’s primary in Alaska.

Atkinson said he doesn’t see online voting happening en masse anytime soon, in part because the U.S. government lacked the “courage to put in place digital signatures” for residents that would make them recognizable to online security systems. The small northern European country of Estonia, often viewed as the poster child for digital government, uses such signatures and employs online voting almost exclusively in its elections.

Policing/Surveillance

The digital shift in policing and surveillance in the last 20 years has been tectonic, experts say, although like all tech changes, those agencies with the greatest financial resources have transformed the most. And the changes have amplified thorny issues of privacy.

In 2000, community policing was viewed as an antidote for crime-ridden neighborhoods. Police officers hit the streets — on foot and in cars — to drill down into communities to learn the players — good and bad — so they could disrupt patterns of crime. Now, community policing is aided by things like drones, facial recognition technology, and CCTV cameras and microphones that are monitored in real time. Advances in mapping software and analytics allow police departments to pinpoint hot spots — something known as predictive policing. Arrays of microphones combined with spatial mapping allow police to respond more rapidly to violent incidents. Gunshot detection technology allows more accurate responses to gunshot calls by more closely pinpointing their origins. Chatbots allow police officers to run profile checks and license plate numbers, bypassing dispatchers altogether. And body cams aid in investigations of suspected police abuse or suspect assault on officers. New records management systems also allow officers to make comparisons across cases, and in some cases across jurisdictions.

But these new technologies require humans to make sense of the streams of data. The Chicago Police Department created six high-tech police hubs — Strategic Decision Support Centers — to cull through data using a blend of human and computer analytics to develop police response. Other cities have similar centers.

The surveillance technologies also open up difficult issues of privacy. Throughout the nation, cities are enacting laws to place parameters around police surveillance. Seattle has enacted a law to review and place restrictions on use of the technology in all its city departments. San Francisco is among a small group of cities that have banned the use of facial recognition technology in all its municipal buildings, and other cities are considering similar bans.

Consumer Hardware/Internet

Few people in 2000 imagined that by 2020, millions of people across the planet would carry a mini computer in their pockets that could be used as a phone, camera, TV, stereo, security system activator and portal for millions of computer applications that can do everything from locate your airplane boarding pass to fetch you a ride on a freelancer-driven taxi. High-tech consumer hardware and applications have exploded over the past two decades, and not just because of the smartphone. From Bluetooth devices to virtual reality headsets, smart refrigerators and drones — not to mention the wide range of devices connected through the Internet of Things, or IoT — consumers have massive connectivity and convenience through an array of gadgets unimagined 20 years ago.

“Part of the reason we’ve made such progress [in this area],” said Atkinson, “is there is no role for government and no opposition.”

The Internet also has exploded beyond expectations. From 2000 to 2010, the number of Internet users increased 500 percent, from 361 million worldwide to almost 2 billion. Now, close to 4 billion people throughout the world use the Internet. People go online for everything from buying groceries and clothes to finding a date. They can register their cars online, earn a college degree, shop for houses and apply for a mortgage.

But the increase in online traffic spawned an increase in cyberbullying, scamming and people just generally behaving badly in the comments sections of articles and other forums. Darker forces lurk online as well, from bad actors looking to victimize youth for human trafficking to racist zealots looking to spew hate and spread their ideology. As awareness has grown of potential dangers online, organizations have sprung up to teach online safety, with schools playing an important role in educating kids about digital dangers. But the attack surface is vast, and the nature and scope of threats seem to evolve ever more quickly.

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Y2K/Security

At 12:00 a.m. on Jan. 1 in the year 2000, computer systems throughout the world were predicted to crash due to outdated programming that could not read years ending in 00. That debacle was avoided, in large part because of massive reprogramming efforts by  governments large and small. Y2k was a wake-up call on computer upgrades and cybersecurity. It helped spawn a massive industry in firewall and anti-virus software — but some experts say governments still have a long way to go to keep up with cyberthreats.

“This needs to be much, much higher on the priority list for governments, mayors and legislative bodies,” said Eggers.

Cyberattacks are growing for governments large and small. Data shows that in the past year they’ve spiked dramatically, particularly ransomware. There is no central authority that officially tracks cyberattacks, but cybersecurity firms do. An analysis of data shows 47 reported ransomware attacks on government in 2016, compared with 77 in 2019, just through Sept. 30.

To shore up cybersecurity, governments are working with big data analytics to understand trends and patterns to reveal larger threats, including those coming from the inside. They’ve employed “ethical hackers” to search for vulnerabilities. Employees unknowingly clicking on a link or downloading an attachment have brought down entire networks, leading to massive increases in staff cybersecurity training programs. Cybersecurity has grown from a basic systems administrations function to one of the largest sectors in IT, estimated to be worth more than $155.74 billion in 2019.

Still, said Eggers, “the level of sophistication in government is not high enough.”

Citizen Engagement/Social Media

On and around the year 2000, governments started to come online with websites that offered citizens information about services, public meetings and government leaders. But the sites were static, offering little interaction with users. Over time, governments retooled their websites to allow for citizen signup for city services and other programs, but the progress was slow. In his book Delivering on the Digital, William Eggers argued that the glitch-ridden launch of the federal Affordable Care Act website in 2013 woke governments up to the failings in their digital presences from a user perspective. Large-scale reimaginings got underway.

Now, governments’ digital presence is greatly expanded as they strive to create Amazon-like experiences for citizens online. In addition to offering more service enrollments online, governments have opened up huge troves of data for citizens to mine, map and otherwise visualize what’s happening in their communities.

“Open data and open government was on the way in 2000, but not anything like what we see today with the tools that are available and the third-party use,” said Goldsmith.

Social media outreach also has evolved into a staple form of government communication. Jurisdictions use various channels to advise community members in real time about events, natural disasters, public service disruptions and other issues. Elected officials also communicate directly with their constituents via social media.

But Goldsmith argues that governments could be doing more “sentiment mining,” or consuming of residents’ social media feeds to identify problems earlier or pinpoint concerns about governance that could inform official decisions.

“What is immature is the mining of social media so they can better understand the trends of their residents … digest the information and make it into policy,” said Goldsmith.

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Pamela Martineau Contributing Writer

Pamela Martineau is a freelance writer based in Portland, Maine. She moved to Portland in 2019 after a 30-year stint living and working in California. A UC Berkeley graduate, Pamela worked at numerous daily newspapers including The Sacramento Bee. As a freelance writer, she has written about health care, education, technology, climate change, and water issues. She has two adult sons and a mischievous cocker spaniel.

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