Ransomware, Robotics and Representation: 2019 in Review
In a collection of Government Technology’s top stories from the past 12 months, we look back on the year that was and take note of the tribulations and transformations in state and local government.
2019 wrought a lot of wrangling over policies to govern how technology is used across and by government. It was a year that started with a shutdown of the federal government, continued with a steady uptick in (reported) cases of ransomware and growing revelations around election security, and also featured plenty of discussion around the role of government in ensuring big technology companies protect citizen privacy. Battles raged locally and nationally over whether current policies strike the right balance of innovation versus local control when it comes to ever-shrinking connectivity infrastructure and an ever-growing set of options for navigating city streets. In the pages that follow, we recap the stories that drew the most interest from Government Technology readers this year. Click through for some hints as to what lies unresolved going into the new decade.
At the top of the year, newly sworn-in California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order aimed at transforming public-sector procurement. The move expanded the role of the state Department of General Services and the California Department of Technology, tasking them with coming up with a more iterative approach dubbed “an Innovation Procurement Sprint.” The move encourages multi-stakeholder collaboration and development work at the beginning of the process, instead of requiring that the solution be strictly prescribed at the outset. A day later, Newsom announced a plan for a new Office of Digital Innovation and an innovation academy. The office would reside under the Government Operations Agency, with an initial startup budget of $36.2 million.
Also in January, the Northern California, Nevada and Utah chapter of AAA — one of the most familiar car-club brands in the country — acquired the largest autonomous vehicle test site in the United States. The West Coast AAA organization purchased GoMentum Station, a 2,100-acre testing site in Concord, Calif., in the Bay Area, as part of an ongoing effort to expand on the site’s numerous testing projects, which range from self-driving personal cars to shuttle vehicles.
The top of the year also saw a prolonged shutdown of the federal government, with state and local governments feeling the effects. State CIOs and CISOs reported that collaborative projects with federal partners were slowing down, with cybersecurity programs especially at risk. Even local CIOs felt the pinch, as they encountered delays in reimbursements for some federally supported programs. Advocates for transparency meanwhile said the shutdown, which ended on Jan. 25, had squeezed the flow of publicly available government data down to a trickle in some cases.
Louisiana took the driver’s license into the modern era in 2019, and as of January, the state was reporting nearly 80,000 downloads of the “LA Wallet” app that serves as a digital form of identification for residents. While a handful of other states have piloted digital licenses in limited experiments, only Iowa and Louisiana have moved toward full-scale adoption of the digital option for the most commonly used form of government identification. “I’m all for technology,” remarked Rep. Ted James, a state legislator from Baton Rouge, who introduced the enabling bill in 2016. Private software development firm Envoc developed the app.
The public at large watched the strange case of Jussie Smollett unfold, as an apparent assault on the Empire actor went from being a hate crime to a hoax. Technology played a major role in the unraveling of Smollett’s tale, with police using tools like data analytics and video surveillance. Chicago has one of the most extensive surveillance camera systems in the country, with police and private-sector cameras enabling detectives to capture critical evidence they need to fight crime.
Also in February, incoming Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis proposed the third revamp of the state’s technology agency since 2005. While the initial details were unclear, the governor’s budget proposal recommended zeroing out the budget of the Agency for State Technology and transferring those funds to the Department of Management Services (DMS). A new Division of State Technologies would reside within DMS.
Philadelphia meanwhile released its SmartCityPHL Roadmap, meant to guide increased innovation and collaboration among the many groups involved in efforts to make the city smarter. The roadmap, which took about a year to develop, offers a series of guiding principles, noting that smart city programs should be locally inspired, innovative, equitable and collaborative. The guide also set some parameters around how technology would be evaluated against multiple goals, including enhancing quality of life and promoting economic development.
As the opioid crisis raged in early 2019, officials in Tempe, Ariz., teamed with Arizona State University researchers on a novel effort. Together they began testing wastewater for traces of opioids — both ingested and intact — to create more detailed and granular data around use of these drugs. They looked for traces of the raw drug — perhaps substances that have been flushed — as well as the drug in a metabolized form, in order to paint a fuller picture of how the epidemic was unfolding and help inform the work of first responders.
Tyler Technologies continued its mergers and acquisitions work in February. One of the most established software companies focused on state and local government, Tyler spent $185 million to acquire MicroPact, a federally focused app development platform company. At the time of the acquisition, MicroPact’s customer list included 350 government clients in nearly every state in the union. The deal is one of the largest in Tyler’s history, second only to the $670 million purchase of New World Systems four years ago.
March came in on a scooter and left … on foot, as state and local governments began imposing bans and other limitations on the increasingly popular e-scooter. Some cities banned the use of scooters while others blocked operations of the tech companies that support scooter use. They pointed to incidents of scooters blocking sidewalks, breaking traffic ordinances and causing accidents. Alternative-transport advocates meanwhile said that rather than ban scooters, officials should develop new, more effective regulations.
2019 saw other forms of innovation hit roadblocks as well. In Independence, Mo., for example, officials voted against entering into a contract for smart meters, an idea that had been circulating for several years. Competing vendors offered systems at around $30 million, but city council members denied funding for the effort to replace existing analog meters. Citing more urgent spending priorities, the move underlined the sometimes rocky path to smarter infrastructure.
The First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) continued its push to develop an interoperable high-speed network for emergency responders. In March, officials reported progress on an evolving catalog of apps, including tools for communication, device security and cloud functionality. “Those aren’t just vetted to the same level most commercial apps are. … The provision was always that it would be more secure, more reliable, more resilient, more scalable,” said Mark Golaszewski, executive director of technology and innovation for FirstNet.
Dun & Bradstreet has provided a proprietary system of identifying both grantees and contractors for the federal government for more than 40 years. In March, the General Services Administration chose a new contractor, Ernst & Young, to develop a government-owned system. Some of the grant recipients welcoming the change are state and local governments and data transparency advocates, as an open system will make it easier to track and work with procurement data.
Also in March, a consortium of engineers and scientists took steps to help resolve the immigration crisis at the nation’s southern border: They proposed building an energy park that spans the U.S.-Mexico border’s 1,954 miles. “This is a different kind of initiative that will solve many existing challenges while bringing people together,” the scientists said in a news release, suggesting that the mass of solar energy panels, wind turbines, natural gas pipelines and desalination facilities would form a natural security buffer.
Socrata and Motorola Solutions announced in April that their three-year partnership behind the crime-mapping tool CrimeReports was coming to an end. The widely used online map visualizes crime information from both record-management and computer-aided dispatch systems across the U.S. Motorola said that in spite of the separation from Socrata, it would continue to support the tool.
On the heels of the passage of the California Consumer Privacy Act, the Washington State Legislature worked on its own bill to regulate information-driven technology companies in their use of consumer data and biometric tools like facial recognition. The Washington Privacy Act got some early traction, but in the end stalled due to lingering friction between the views of staunch privacy advocates and big technology firms with large footprints in the state. The bill’s sponsor vowed to try again in 2020.
Further evidence of privacy clashes came in the form of proposed facial recognition technology bans by several governments. In April, a lawmaker in San Francisco suggested banning all city departments from using the technology (the proposal passed in May), and a handful of other cities followed suit. Facial recognition advocates are instead arguing for a more measured approach that includes policies to prevent inappropriate uses, leaving the door open for government to reap the technology’s benefits.
Also in April, Louisville, Ky., announced that Google Fiber would repay the city $3.84 million to make repairs to city roads and other public areas damaged during the company’s halted construction of high-speed Internet infrastructure. City officials vowed that neighborhoods “will look as good or better than they did before the company began construction.” Despite the project coming to a close unfulfilled, Chief of Civic Innovation and Technology Grace Simrall said it encouraged other corporate investment in the city.
In other telecom news, Verizon in April announced a plan to deploy its 5G Ultra Wideband service in 20 more U.S. cities in the coming year, in addition to existing cities Chicago and Minneapolis. The news is but the latest in a torrent of similar commitments from the other big 5G providers, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint. Cities are looking to the spread of 5G to advance their plans for smarter, more connected communities.
In May, Baltimore city government got hit with a ransomware attack, prompting officials to shut down a majority of its servers. This event followed a March 2018 incident in which Baltimore’s 911 and emergency dispatch systems were similarly incapacitated when ransomware attackers took down the city’s computer-aided dispatch system for some 17 hours. This year’s attack brought a slow and costly recovery, with officials reporting ongoing trouble with payment systems and only two-thirds of the workforce able to use their computers a month later. The nearly $20 million price tag of the event prompted a wave of cybersecurity investments from governments around the country, including in cyberinsurance. Baltimore itself purchased a $20 million policy in October.
Also in May, Seattle Chief Technology Officer Saad Bashir cleaned house, dismissing 14 people in the span of a week from among the department’s directors and middle managers. The move made good on his promise upon taking the job in January to streamline and simplify the IT organization. “All changes reflect the feedback of IT colleagues and our client departments to pivot the department into an agile, outcome-driven and client-centric organization,” Bashir said.
State departments of transportation continue to expand their road mapping capabilities, with several turning to services from Mapillary, a platform that uses machine learning to analyze roadway imagery. The company has 40 million images from 270,000 roadway miles in Utah, Florida, Arizona, Connecticut and Vermont, which use the data for remote surveying that helps contribute to safety decisions. Individual communities can add image data as well, and in the future, Mapillary sees autonomous vehicles as potential image contributors too.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz decided to pull the plug on a decade-long troubled project to build a new vehicle registration and license system in favor of a commercial software package instead. When it was rolled out in 2017, the Minnesota Vehicle Licensing and Registration System (MNLARS) charged the wrong fees and downtime was high. Despite a lot of progress made toward stabilizing the system, Walz opted to buy a ready-made solution as recommended by an independent review of MNLARS. The fraught process rings familiar to observers of big gov tech projects, which often struggle to deliver full functionality on time and on budget.
The North Dakota Legislature made a significant investment this year — $33 million — in unmanned aircraft systems, more commonly known as drones. The funding will support the creation of a dedicated network that would use radar and radio transmissions to enable drones to be flown beyond the line of sight of their operators. State officials, hoping to reap the economic benefits that a growing UAS industry could provide, are working with the FAA to understand and mitigate the risk involved in drones sharing airspace with manned aircraft.
Officials in Rhode Island are the latest to embrace exploratory efforts around blockchain technology. They issued an RFP in June that asks the private sector to help the state delve into potential use cases for the peer-to-peer ledger system in several areas, including records, registration and licensing, and medical marijuana. Acknowledging that the use of blockchain will require major changes to existing policies and processes, Department of Administration spokesperson Brenna McCabe said, “Rhode Island sees the opportunities that blockchain offers for the immutable storage of data that could be useful to business.”
Syracuse, N.Y., will soon begin phasing out more than 17,000 streetlights in favor of connected LED models that enable more granular control over operations and maintenance. As is true of the wave of cities across the country upgrading their streetlights, Syracuse also plans to use the poles for additional data gathering efforts in the future. Attaching sensors will allow officials to count objects like pedestrians and cars, as well as gather environmental data.
The wireless industry and the tech community at large have heralded the advent of 5G technology for its potential to hasten the development of more connected communities, but some cities aren’t yet sold on its merits. One such community is San Diego, where the Planning Commission pressed pause on 5G plans to consider residents’ fears about the aesthetics of more new tower infrastructure adorned with small cells. A recently passed FCC regulation heightened the friction between proponents and skeptics, requiring lower fees and quick approval times from cities for 5G applications.
In June, Maine joined the list of states addressing online data practices through legislation when Gov. Janet Mills signed a law, set to take effect July 1, 2020, that would require Internet service providers to get permission from their customers before they sell any data to a third party. The law also includes companies that provide Internet access via cellular networks. California has a similar law, though that piece of legislation requires consumers to “opt out” of their ISP’s data sharing practices. Maine’s new law is expected to face legal challenges.
Small, driverless delivery vehicles are finding their way onto U.S. college campuses and city streets. In Ann Arbor, Mich., Refraction AI is testing its version, which has three wheels and is about the size of a large wheelbarrow. The $5,000 vehicles go about 15 mph and stay in the bike lanes, out of the way of normal vehicle traffic, but they’re capable of carrying as much as 100 pounds, suitable for grocery or takeout delivery.
Like Washington state, New York’s attempt at passing sweeping data privacy legislation also failed to get over the finish line. Among other protections, the proposal would have put the onus to act as “information fiduciary” on companies that have consumer data. The bill would have also allowed individuals to sue tech companies for data breaches and other cases of data use overreach. Technology trade groups pointed to the unintended effects of Europe’s GDPR legislation in stifling innovation as reason not to support the proposal.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards declared a state of emergency following a series of cyberattacks on several school districts in the northern part of the state. The declaration is thought to be the first ever made tied to a cybersecurity incident. Computer systems and phone lines were affected, and a newly created emergency cybersupport function was activated, which allowed multiple coordinating agencies to aid in the response.
The Ryuk strain of ransomware hit the Georgia Department of Public Safety in June, prompting the agency to take all of its servers offline. The same strain was behind several other notable attacks on government, including two on Florida cities in which officials opted to pay the ransom. But Georgia Chief Information Security Officer David Allen said that was not a solution the state considered. “It’s not part of our policy to pay ransom,” he said.
Major police tech provider Motorola Solutions acquired body camera maker WatchGuard in June, consolidating the market around one of the most hyped pieces of law enforcement technology in recent years. In addition to body cams, WatchGuard offers in-car cameras and cloud storage for police video. The move by Motorola complements a couple of other purchases this year: Vigilant Solutions, maker of license plate readers, and Avtec, an emergency dispatch company.
Budding partnerships between Amazon and local law enforcement agencies are bringing privacy concerns to the forefront, yet again. Doorbell-camera maker Ring, bought by Amazon in 2018, is a tool used by homeowners to keep eyes on their front porch. Used largely as a home security device, the video Ring captures has value for local police departments who are now partnering with the company to get access to footage that could help solve crimes. Critics voice Big Brother concerns, worsened by claims that Amazon gets too much influence over police communication about the partnerships.
Cabarrus County, N.C., fell victim to a social engineering attack to the tune of $2.5 million in August. Sophisticated criminals impersonating a general contracting firm convinced officials to provide banking information, offering valid-looking documentation to back up their requests. The investigation included the local Sheriff’s Office and the FBI, and some of the misdirected funds were recovered by the county.
One-way streets in unfamiliar cities can pose a big challenge for drivers. Officials in Las Vegas used sensors to quantify the size of the risk in a pilot program, finding that it was much more significant than they thought. While improved signage helped some, officials were committed to a data-driven approach that analyzed near-misses and enabled real-time response using edge computing. “At the end of the day, for us, it’s no longer about being called a ‘smart city,’” said CIO Michael Sherwood. “It’s about being a ‘connected community.’”
After nearly two dozen local governments in Texas were hit by a ransomware attack, the state government stepped in to help. The attack, which took place Aug. 16, has been called one of the largest coordinated attacks of its kind ever seen in the U.S. The state Department of Information Resources worked with multiple federal and state authorities, including the FBI, DHS and the state’s division of emergency management, to share information, investigate, and deploy technical resources to affected communities.
With the potential to calculate an exponentially greater number of computational problems at speeds that dwarf what traditional computers can do, quantum computing is continuing to move from theory to reality. Once confined to high-tech labs, quantum computers are beginning to tackle a range of problems in science, health care, business and government. Many big tech firms are investing heavily in quantum research and development, with some experts predicting commercial uses in the next decade.
Utah County, Utah, showcased a much-watched blockchain-based mobile voting app in September. The county demonstrated live on Facebook how anyone can audit the authenticity of the 22 municipal election votes that were cast by eligible overseas voters using the Voatz app in the county’s recent election. First used in West Virginia as a secure alternative to email ballots previously made available to military members voting from overseas, officials in Utah demonstrated how individual blocks within the chain can be examined to verify that candidates got the votes they were due.
State agencies continue to expand the number of services they offer their customers digitally. Case in point is the Virginia Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation’s recently launched platform that makes professional licenses accessible from any connected device. The solution from Greenville, S.C.-based managed IT provider Merit taps into publicly available data, serving it up in a much more user-friendly way than the previous solution.
Noting the steep rise in ransomware attacks against U.S. cities in 2019, GT columnist Daniel Castro, the vice president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation and director of the Center for Data Innovation, argues that cities should not pay. Although most cybersecurity leaders offer the same advice, the practice is still lucrative for ransomware attackers. “It is time for state legislatures to step in and pass laws to tie the hands of city and county officials,” Castro wrote.
A company called Govlaunch has been retooled to be an “innovation wiki,” a closed platform for local government employees to share information on what they’re working on. Any verified local government employee can join the private community, add projects and search the site’s more than 20,000 pages to learn about other jurisdictions’ approaches to problems they may also be facing.
2020 will mark the first digital Census, and while responding online won’t be the only way to participate, the federal government is providing less support for manual count methods this time around. As a result, communities are pouring more resources into digital literacy efforts to ensure hard-to-count people show up in the final numbers. Increasingly, local leaders are turning to a project out of New York called the Census 2020 Hard to Count Map to focus their efforts. The map offers a detailed visual look at communities that had low reporting percentages in the last Census.
Gov tech company CivicPlus added to its growing portfolio of integrated communications software offerings in October when it acquired competitor SeeClickFix, which will keep its name and integrate into Civic Plus’ existing catalog. SeeClickFix’s citizen-reporting tool for municipal issues like potholes will work alongside the tool CP Connect, a solution that is more focused on administrative, back-end needs.
Experts say that midsize metropolitan areas like Sacramento, Calif., and Denver will serve as integral test beds for innovation around smart city and transportation technologies. These cities are predicted to see the most growth in coming years, meaning they are prime areas for ensuring technology and mobility grow commensurate with population and needs like equity. In larger metro areas, said former Kansas City, Mo., chief innovation officer Bob Bennett, the focus is often more siloed policy issues, like public safety or education. Midsize cities can look at transit across those areas and how it can impact quality of life.
In a controversial move, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced a proposal, pending approval by the city council, to merge the Department of Innovation and Technology with the Department of Fleet Management beginning in 2020. The positions of CIO and chief data officer, unfilled roles as of press time, would become part of the mayor’s office. Critics argue that moving IT leadership away from day-to-day operations would be a misstep, while Lightfoot believes it will boost efficiency, transparency and equity.
Virginia was one of a few pioneering states that entered into a so-called “mega contract” for outsourced IT in the 2000s. But in recent years, that approach has fallen out of favor. A review by the state’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission found some shortcomings in performance and reliability as Virginia navigated its way out of its arrangement with contractor Northrop Grumman in favor of a multi-supplier model managed by a professional integrator. State CIO Nelson Moe, however, expressed confidence in the “long-term view” of the shift to the new model.
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, introduced the Restoring, Enhancing, Securing, and Promoting Our Nation’s Safety Efforts Act or RESPONSE Act, a controversial bill that allows schools to purchase algorithm-based technology to monitor and index student social media accounts to prevent mass shootings. Critics contend there is no evidence large-scale policing is effective and question the ethics of such an invasive practice, yet school districts all over the country have employed social media monitoring tools for several years.
An increase in targeted cyberattacks on government in the last 18 months prompted a debate regarding the level of transparency public officials should have with their constituents. While some policymakers default to complete transparency, many CIOs instead favor a more cautious strategy. Revealing details about attempted attacks might be considered a challenge to other bad actors, while providing information about successful attacks could encourage hackers to exploit known vulnerabilities before they’ve been remedied.
Seattle has joined Chicago in using a new tool from SADA Systems that plots construction and other projects that could impact people’s ability to seamlessly navigate city streets. dotMaps offers a visual look at a variety of potential disruptions, offering value for residents as well as city staff. First conceived as primarily a tool for city agencies to coordinate their work, the publicly available map also informs viewers of public events that could disrupt street or sidewalk access.