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Year in Review: Eight Gov Tech Issues to Watch in 2019

In looking over GT coverage in 2018, a number of major themes emerged — like microtransit and the rise of ransomware — that highlight where government’s attention was and what will be on priority lists in 2019.

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Throughout the year, the editorial staff at Government Technology works to bring readers the news they need — from security breaches to tales of tech success — to make public-sector IT smart, more efficient and more accessible. In looking back at our most-read stories of 2018, a number of themes emerged that offer a glimpse at what the next chapter holds.

Click through for the major issues of the year that will stay on prority lists in 2019. For our most popular stories of the year, see Year in Review: The Most Read Gov Tech Stories of 2018.

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5G

“5G deployment is not imminent at all,” said Doug Dawson of CCG Consulting, a telecommunications advisory firm, in an interview with GT in early 2018. But this year’s headlines might lead to a different conclusion.

Possibly the buzziest term in telecom this year, major carriers aggressively lobbied to pepper urban communities with the small cell technology that brings speeds 10 times faster than 4G with lower latency. A big part of the effort was changing the rules to make it easier for telecoms to install the cells that power 5G. FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr explained in February that rules governing infrastructure were crafted with hundred-foot 3G and 4G towers in mind, not backpack-sized 5G equipment. “It’s the regulatory equivalent of requiring a commercial pilot license to fly a paper airplane,” he said, citing concerns that high costs and cumbersome red tape would put the U.S. at a disadvantage on the world stage.

Many local communities pushed back, fearing the loss of local control over decisions within their borders. Nevertheless, the FCC decided in late September to ease the path for 5G by requiring localities to speed up application processing times and limiting what cities can charge for cell installations on new and existing poles.

Several communities had already laid significant groundwork in advance of the FCC decision, seeing its potential to set them up for sophisticated smart city endeavors requiring a foundation of sound connectivity. 5G rollouts from both AT&T and Verizon began to dot the map in 2018. Verizon chose Sacramento, Calif., and Los Angeles, as well as Indianapolis and Houston, while AT&T set up the service in 12 cities including New Orleans, Oklahoma City, Dallas, Raleigh and Jacksonville, Fla. These lists will grow in 2019 as 5G continues to proliferate and second-wave cities look to apply the lessons learned from early adopters.

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Blockchain

In terms of hype, government couldn’t seem to get beyond blockchain when it came to emerging tech in 2018. Jurisdictions large and small moved from speculation about the distributed ledger technology to concrete pilots that tested whether it was feasible: Could blockchain improve everything from voting to finance?

In January, 11 state legislatures introduced bills to either regulate financial tech like blockchain-based cryptocurrency or to create an environment where entrepreneurs might take advantage of the state’s attitude toward cutting-edge technology. For example, Arizona introduced SB 1091, which would allow residents to pay their taxes via cryptocurrency, and the Illinois Blockchain Task Force released its first report, finding that the tech would enhance digital transformation and economic development in the state.

Berkeley, Calif., moved to see what blockchain could do for the city’s municipal bonds by announcing a partnership with startup neighborly and the University of California, Berkeley’s Blockchain Lab. In what would be the first-ever tokenized muni bond, the city would sell debt the way it always has to fund projects outside the scope of its budget, but it would be digitally recorded in a public ledger. Putting bonds on blockchain would also speed up a traditionally plodding government process and would allow the city to pursue bonds that are much smaller than usual. Berkeley plans to put the money toward programs to help the homeless and create more affordable housing in the pricey Bay Area city.

Amid ongoing debates about the virtues and drawbacks of electronic voting, West Virginia took online elections to a new level and became the first state to allow online voting via blockchain. In partnership with Voatz, a Boston-based startup, a small pilot offered to some military service members stationed overseas allowed them to vote in the state’s May 8 primary election quickly, securely and anonymously. Despite some skepticism, West Virginia opted to extend the limited test of the system to the Nov. 6 general elections.

The idea behind these pilots and others is that blockchain could create an unhackable record of government transactions in a world where cybersecurity is at the fore of every CIO’s mind. But although 2018 saw a small groundswell of blockchain projects, the concept has yet to gain too much ground. 2019 can expect to see a similar trickle of pilots, though critical mass may still prove out of reach.

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FirstNet

As one GT headline read late last year, 2018 was poised to be the year for public safety networks.

The last days of 2017 saw a flurry of activity as a remaining handful of holdout states opted to join FirstNet by the Dec. 28 deadline, including California Gov. Jerry Brown making his final decision on the matter late that night. But even after all 50 states plus six territories joined the dedicated  communications network for first responders, the story was just beginning.

Verizon had already announced the creation of a similar network to FirstNet to offer a competitive alternative for public safety agencies that would give first responders priority access to its system to speed communications. FirstNet, with partner AT&T, would instead create new priority levels for emergency services personnel and law enforcement to respond to emergencies and communicate more quickly. Both systems launched just days apart at the end of March in limited introductions.

By July, FirstNet reported that more than 1,500 agencies had joined the network, and early adopters immediately saw its benefits. The Sheriff’s Office in Brazos County, Texas, was the first agency in that state to join FirstNet and found that the new classifications offered increased its coverage across the large jurisdiction from 60 to 100 percent.

However, the vast majority of the country’s 18,000 local law enforcement agencies have joined neither FirstNet nor Verizon’s network, perhaps because they are reluctant to try something that isn’t yet completely proven. “What happens when a department adopts it? How do you communicate? How are officers given equipment? How do they use the voice and texting when driving to a call?” asked Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum. “There are just practical issues. A lot of policing is a word-of-mouth kind of enterprise in which people will look to hear what’s working and what isn’t.”

But as wildfires, hurricanes and other disasters continue to make headlines in seemingly increasing numbers, it may be likely that more first responder agencies will find favor even in unknown tech if it means saving more lives. 

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Human-Centered Design

Government has the reputation of being stagnant, behind the curve and difficult to interact with, and traditionally its websites reflect that. But 2018 saw real change start to gain ground. While state and local sites were previously built to make sense to internal staff, or what internal staff thought they knew about how users accessed services, the concept of “human-centered design” has begun to take hold. It means gov tech leaders are starting to think about how end users, both staff and residents alike, actually use their services, a concept that has been critical to the success of private companies like Amazon and Apple. Just like a user can buy a book from Amazon with only a couple intuitive clicks, what if they could, say, renew a driver’s license the same way?

In practice, this has meant everything from implementing chatbots and voice assistants to simply making more services available online. In January, Orlando, Fla.’s innovation director found the city had 225 services that could be pushed to the Web and set an aggressive timeline to make 50 live by summer. Chicago developed its own municipal ID that would make access to services easier for residents who needed them. The CityKey card was created through meetings with stakeholders across Chicago, all giving input into how the card should work and accounting for individuals’ unique needs.

Perhaps the biggest story of the year came from Civilla, a Detroit design studio that has made human-centered design its focus. The company took a close look at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) benefits application, talking to actual users of the unwieldy 45-page paper document to apply for help from the state, such as food assistance. They created a 100-foot “blueprint” that visually communicated the massive hurdles Michigan was asking its citizens to overcome to get the services they needed. More importantly, they got state officials to come look at it and walk through a simulation of navigating the existing system. In January, MDHHS adopted a new, trim form of the application based on Civilla’s redesign — it’s now just 18 pages long.

As technology becomes more integral not only to the daily lives of citizens but also to every aspect of the government experience, we can expect to see even more human-centered design baked into the gov tech of the future. It’ll be tougher to get a project through to delivery without user testing in 2019. 

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Micromobility

The quest to solve the perennial first-mile, last-mile problem made new headway in 2018: Cities across the country looked at new ways to use microtransit to make it easier and more efficient to get from point A to point B. And while everyone agrees that there need to be effective, affordable options for residents of all communities to get from home to work, school and services, public- and private-sector groups — not to mention citizens themselves — haven’t yet arrived at the best way to achieve transit utopia.

This year the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (L.A. Metro) looked into creating a microtransit system to offer door-to-door service, similar to ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lift. The agency contracted with three companies to do feasibility studies for where such a service might prove useful. In 2017, L.A. Metro’s ridership dropped 4.4 percent from 2016. Other cities have partnered with agencies like Strava’s public partnership arm, Strava Metro, and other apps that track biking and pedestrian routes to use data from app users about where the city should plan its cycling infrastructure. While this brings questions of privacy, companies report that they can’t track just one rider or a single trip.

But what really stole headlines in 2018 were e-scooters. And bike-shares. And bike-share companies rolling out e-scooters. It’s seemingly the perfect solution to the last-mile problem. But when scooters descended on cities from New York to San Diego, government wasn’t prepared for the problems they brought: dockless scooters left strewn on already-crowded sidewalks; users flouting safety rules; run-ins with cars; and more. In a particularly destructive move, some Southern Californians expressed their dislike for scooters from companies like Bird and Lime by setting them on fire, smearing them with feces and dumping them into the ocean.

Many governments, however, are learning to work with the scooters, not against them. While some cities like Denver initially banned the two-wheelers completely, they began to let them back on the streets with new permits and other regulations. Other cities are working with providers to add geofencing capabilities to contain where scooters can be used. So it seems the scooters — and bikes and Ubers and more — are here to stay. What ground will they gain in 2019? 

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Net Neutrality

The watershed decision by the Federal Communications Commission that overturned Obama-era net neutrality protections took place in December 2017, despite the impassioned efforts of local officials and public-sector technology leaders lobbying on the front lines of the debate for a free and open Internet.

What kept state lawmakers (and the GT newsroom) busy in 2018, though, was crafting state-by-state responses to what was widely perceived by policymakers on both sides of the aisle as a blow to freedom of information online. In January, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock signed an executive order that would prevent providers of Internet service in the state from slowing down content as allowed by the repeal of net neutrality. A handful of other governors did the same, while separate efforts to protect net neutrality are also underway in the form of legal challenges by more than 20 state attorneys general.

As for legislative efforts, the National Conference of State Legislatures counts more than 70 bills in 30 states aimed at preserving elements of net neutrality, but not many have passed. Oregon, Vermont, Washington and California are the only states that successfully passed pro-net-neutrality laws this year. But when California Gov. Jerry Brown signed SB 822 into law, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a swift legal response — filing a suit to keep it from going into effect, calling the bill “unlawful and anti-consumer.” Big telecom is expected to take similar action, all but promising that the net neutrality battle will continue unabated in 2019.  

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Privacy

2018 will go down as the year that privacy came to the forefront. In March, news broke that political consulting company Cambridge Analytica mined data from tens of millions of Facebook users and used it in service of President Trump’s campaign.

“The lack of oversight on how data is stored and how political advertisements are sold raises concerns about the integrity of American elections as well as privacy rights,” wrote Sens. John Kennedy, R.-La., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., in a letter asking for Mark Zuckerberg and his counterparts at Twitter and Google to appear before the United States Senate. Zuckerberg famously appeared in April, assuring policymakers that the social media giant would refine its privacy policies and sever ties with Cambridge Analytica. The scandal sent Facebook’s stock values plummeting, while revealing a startling gap in understanding on the part of lawmakers on the basic tenets of the Internet economy.

In late May, Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation, known as GDPR, went into effect, ushering in a vast new set of rights for European citizens related to the collection, use and protection of personal data. As GT reported at the time, direct impacts to state and local government in the U.S. as a result of GDPR were minimal, but it did generate a lot of conversation about whether American policies should be revised to include similar protections.

California led the way on that front in June when the Legislature raced to get a bill before the governor to keep the issue off the November ballot. With an effective date of January 2020, the measure gives companies some time to adjust their operations to comply. Under the bill, consumers have the right to know how their data is being used, the right to have their data deleted, the right to prevent their data from being sold and protection from retaliation if they opt out of data collection and sale.  

Privacy issues are increasingly bubbling up around smart city deployments, which often hinge on a significant amount of data collection. And while it makes sense that more data on things like pedestrian movements, transit use, crime, etc., can help inform better public policy, it opens up the possibility of that data being misused. It’s a phenomenon that’s contributing to the rise of the government chief privacy officer (CPO). Several new CPOs were named in 2018, and many argue they deserve a seat at the table as smart city plans are being formulated, rather than on the eve of project launch, or worse, after privacy has been compromised. 

Expect the privacy debate to rage on well into 2019, as organizations in government and the private sector move toward more transparent privacy practices that aim to better protect personally identifiable information. But as the steady flow of data breaches regularly reminds us, it’ll be a bumpy road. 

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Ransomware

It was all hands on deck in Atlanta in March, when a ransomware attack compromised key city systems and prompted many agencies to revert to manual processes for things like police incident reports and municipal court cases. The event also left many staff computers inoperable, with untold impacts on productivity and citizen service. The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security were early partners in the response, along with teams from Microsoft and Cisco. Most impacted systems were restored by June, but certain details remain unclear, including whether the police department has regained access to archived video. The initial demand by the attackers was for roughly $51,000 in the virtual currency bitcoin, but one estimate put the total cost of the response at $17 million.

The magnitude of the Atlanta ransomware incident brought the issue into focus for many across state and local government in 2018. Cybersecurity Ventures estimates that damages from ransomware will hit $11.5 billion in 2019, and some of that impact will be in government. In short, 2018 taught us that ransomware attackers’ methods are getting more sophisticated. It’s no longer a problem that can be avoided with far-reaching backup protocols.

Nor is it always a one-and-done attack. Once a system is deemed vulnerable, it’s more likely to be hit again. The Colorado Department of Transportation learned this in 2018 when a late February ransomware strike remained dormant on the network and then reappeared in a slightly different form a couple weeks later, surprising the agency that had already taken the necessary steps to recover.  Baltimore’s 911 system fell victim to ransomware in March too, taking the city’s emergency dispatch system offline during a busy weekend, slowing responses due to manual call-taking that lengthened processing times.

Cybersecurity remained the biggest worry of state, city and county chief information officers in 2018 — with no end in sight — and attacks like these help justify spending on more robust protections. This year, having cyberinsurance became more common than not having it, as revealed by Center for Digital Government (owned by Government Technology’s parent company, e.Republic) surveys. Expect cyberinsurance adoption rates to continue this upward trend in 2019, with many jurisdictions seeking specific protections for ransomware attacks. 

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