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2015 Best of California Awards Honor Public-Sector Tech, Innovation

The 13th annual awards celebrated excellence in apps, management, collaboration, infrastructure and social media.

Technology professionals from across California gathered at the capital Aug. 13 to attend California Technology Forum 2015, where the most effective and forward-thinking projects in California IT were recognized in this year’s Best of California awards.

Presented by the Center for Digital Government, owned by Government Technology's parent company, e.Republic Inc., the 13th annual Best of California awards celebrated the advancement of public-sector technology and innovation across nine categories. Excellence in apps, management, collaboration, infrastructure and social media were highlighted as examples of what California government technologists should be striving for.

Among the winners recognized was the Alameda County Shuttle Mobile Web Application, which took top honors in the "Best Application Serving an Agency’s Business Needs" category. The app is used by employees and the public to find schedules, routes, stops, maps and announcements pertaining to local public transit, like county-run shuttles and the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) rail system. Judges were impressed by the app itself, but also by the 29 percent increase in ridership reported by the county’s General Service Agency following the app’s launch, and the fact that the app was developed by high school interns at the county IT Department (ITD) during the summer of 2013.

Sybil Gurney, ITD assistant director, said this success stems from a data-sharing initiative that encourages citizen engagement and student outreach, both critical elements to the app’s development.

“Our technology intern program is a little bit different,” Gurney said. “We don’t have people come and do filing and answer phone calls. They actually have to come and do a project. So these two interns came in and they built the shuttle app. They did some requirements to design, to testing, to implementation, and marketing. We also taught them marketing because IT has become the social media with your websites and everything. We also have to learn to market.”

The county’s intern program serves several purposes, Gurney said, which spans beyond project development into recruitment.

“We go to schools, libraries, dojos and we get the word out that we’re a cool place to work,” Gurney said. “We’ve upscaled our website, we attend other hackathons, we do all sorts of things to get our name out there so that people know [they] don’t [have to] just work at Silicon Valley – government is cool, too.”

The California Department of Technology was presented a special award in the "Innovation in Workforce Initiatives" category for its California Project Academy Series, an education program designed to improve the skills of those who lead and participate in California’s technology projects. The program is led by volunteer CIOs and project leaders who relay their experience and knowledge from working on successful projects, a model that saves the state about $1 million, by their estimation. To date, more than 30 academy sessions have been attended by more than 2,400 workers across 66 state departments.

The goal of the program is to improve California’s technology projects, said Christie Borchin, deputy director of the department's Office of Professional Development, and everyone is starting to realize how important the sessions are to that goal.

“With a limited budget, a lot of folks can’t afford to go to some expensive training classes,” Borchin said. “I really, really see this as a service. What’s so cool about this is now we’re in the repeat cycle. Even though we have these Project Academy sessions, they’re on YouTube, they’re close captioned, we’re offering some of the same ones again and we still get new people. People love that in-person human touch perspective.”

The California Project Academy Series is a well executed example of the government trope of “doing more with less.” California has talented technology professionals ready to lend their expertise, and so the Department of Technology looked for a solution that required more brainpower than opening a wallet.

“It’s successful because of the wonderful leaders we have in state government who volunteer their time to put the curriculum together,” Borchin said. “If I didn’t have the sense of volunteerism from former CIOs and project directors, we wouldn’t be successful.”

The San Francisco International Airport (SFO) was presented an award for "Best In-House Developed Application" for its Application-Based Commercial Transport System. The system tracks vehicles in modern taxi and ride-hailing networks like Uber, Lyft and Sidecar, which aren’t equipped with transponders like buses, traditional taxis and other vehicles that enter the airport. The market disruption created by companies like Uber had extended its reach to the airport, and officials saw that they needed an equally disruptive solution to their vehicle-tracking problem. SFO’s technologists developed a system that uses riders’ smartphones to track the vehicles, and about $150,000 in unreported trip fees were identified within the first three months of use. The technology has since been licensed to a third party to be used as a national standard for data interchange between airports and ride networks like Uber.

Government organizations often become stuck in the old way of doing things, and a lesser airport might have conducted a futile search for a way to put transponders onto the vehicles used by Uber, Lyft and Sidecar rather than finding a modern solution. SFO’s innovative thinking, said SFO Chief Information Officer Ian Law, came from a close working relationship between the airport’s technologists and the management. 

“We’re very knitted into our business operations here as an IT function,” Law said. “As our airport operations people started seeing a shift with these transportation companies, … we were there in the discussion with them from the get-go. And I think the rest of it is really just guys who were really interested in technology and technological solutions saying, ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be really interesting if we looked at this in a different way.’”

The technologists saw that the companies themselves were using smartphones to run their transportation networks, so maybe it could work for the airport, too, Law said. It’s easy to look back and say they knew what to do all along, Law said, but their success was only realized through cooperation and groups listening to one another.

“It’s a two way street,” Law said. “The technology guys need to really understand what’s going on the business side of things, as well. They needed to understand the anxieties of people who are charged, day in and day out, with managing ground transportation, and their big worry in life are things like public safety. So, you can’t just come up with solutions in isolation. You have to be working hand in hand with them all the time.”

Visit the Center for Digital Government for a complete list of this year's Best of California winners.

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.