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California CIO Amy Tong: Tech Efforts Are Yielding Returns

Technology initiatives begun last year are beginning to yield significant results in areas including wildfire response, accessibility and blockchain, the state chief information officer said at the California Public Sector CIO Academy 2020 in Sacramento.

Amy Tong 2020 CIO Academy
California CIO Amy Tong
Theo Douglas/Techwire
Last year was a time to “plant many, many seeds” for technology projects of all types, the state chief information officer said Wednesday, and those initiatives are already beginning to yield public-facing and internal results.

Amy Tong, state CIO and director of the California Department of Technology (CDT) told attendees at the California Public Sector CIO Academy 2020 in downtown Sacramento that technologists have collaborated with agencies to make considerable progress in wildfire response, artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain, accessibility and elsewhere. Among the takeaways:

• One of two wildfire management projects galvanized last year by Request for Innovative Ideas (RFI2), the “flexible approach to procurement” Gov. Gavin Newsom created in January 2019 by Executive Order, has yielded a ready proof-of-concept (POC). CDT and the Department of General Services worked with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) to complete a procurement with vendor Technosylva on a POC cloud-based subscription product to help firefighters predict the path of a wildfire.

“And that’s going to provide tremendous help when it comes to firefighting notifications and everything that comes with helping with the wildfire situation,” Tong said during opening remarks at the event (which continues Thursday). The CIO told Techwire expanding the POC statewide is “something that Cal Fire is going to have to determine, but they would have the means to do so if they choose to.”

• CDT also worked with the state Department of Rehabilitation to jointly develop an Optical Character Recognition (OCR) bot, to assist it and other agencies in complying with Assembly Bill 434. Signed by former Gov. Jerry Brown in October 2017, that legislation required agency directors and CIOs to ensure their websites met state accessibility standards and could be navigated by all Californians. In practice, however, it’s resulted in some documents being taken down. But Tong said the new OCR bot, “our very first California, AI-driven cognitive technology bot,” will “help accelerate the compliance and remediation of these documents.” The bot, released in November, has remediated 500,000 documents numbering 4.3 million pages in about six weeks, Tong said, urging state staffers who haven’t used it to contact CDT’s help desk. Remediation takes about 20 seconds per page, and cost is about 2 cents for an eight-page document.

• This year, CDT will kick off an AI pilot, the CIO said, to examine existing use cases and learn from departments’ experiences on everything from machine learning to robotic process automation (RPA). Conversations, Tong said, are underway and agencies are already exploring AI. The California Department of Tax and Fee Administration, she noted, is looking at machine learning; the Department of Motor Vehicles is working with RPA; CDT handled cognitive capabilities for the OCR bot, and FI$Cal has worked in data analytics.

• The state Blockchain Working Group is “on the verge of releasing a recommendation in the spring timeframe on the utilization of blockchain in the state of California,” the CIO said. The group counts Tong and CIOs from the state Department of Industrial Relations, the California Environmental Protection Agency and the Franchise Tax Board among its members, along with Assembly Majority Leader Ian Calderon, D-Whittier, and state Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys.

The news could be a harbinger of legislative action. The group has until July 1 to produce a report to the Legislature on blockchain’s uses, risks and benefits, but members have previously discussed prioritizing issues earlier in order to possibly create legislation during the current session.

Theo Douglas is assistant managing editor for Industry Insider — California, and before that was a staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes covering municipal, county and state governments, business and breaking news. He has a Bachelor's degree in Newspaper Journalism and a Master's in History, both from California State University, Long Beach.
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