2016: The Year in Tech / States and Counties Get Smart, Digital

In the third quarter of 2016, winners of the Digital States and Digital Counties surveys were announced, among many other things.


Governments have been moving to act more like startups, but IT vendors voiced concerns that 18F, the primary digital service working to modernize federal websites, apps and systems, may jeopardize lucrative contracts. At a House subcommittee hearing in June, lobbyists from the IT Alliance for Public Sector and the Software and Information Industry Association alleged that 18F was hindering profits by acting as both a procurement policymaker and as a tech competitor inside the General Services Administration. And some said 18F was fighting an uphill battle from the beginning in its work to disrupt traditional procedures. “Another mission to be funded out of the same amount of resources is always going to be an imposition, and frankly, that’s how [the Federal Acquisition Service] always felt about 18F — as a bit of an imposition,” former GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini said in July.

Former GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini
July 28, 2014- Dan Tangherlini, GSA Administrator (left) Bryan Hannegan and Dan Arvizu discuss the High Performance Super Computer, Peregrine, during a tour of the ESIF. (Photo by Dennis Schroeder / NREL)
Dennis Schroeder/Dennis Schroeder / NREL

Former GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini tours the National Renewable Energy Lab's Energy Systems Integration Facility. Photo via Flickr/Dennis Schroeder/NREL.

As the presidential election neared, reports began to come out that voter records systems had been breached in a number of states. The information of around 200,000 individuals was compromised by a July 12 cybersecurity breach, the Illinois State Board of Elections reported. Officials with the board said the breach was first noticed in the main voter database system in the form of an SQL injection. In September, a U.S. Department of Homeland Security official said hackers had targeted the voter registration systems of 20 U.S. states, successfully infiltrating four of them.

While data and tech initiatives have the potential to reinvent nearly every aspect of government, the people and workforce side must be kept in mind as cities evolve. Stephen Goldsmith, director of the Innovations in American Government Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, pointed out that the public-sector workforce must understand “both policy and data, enabling them to understand the social context, deploy the necessary analysis and craft targeted solutions for the most pressing civic problems.” Without trained and motived employees, tech is just tech.


Image courtesy David Kidd/Shutterstock.com

A major player in the state’s electricity system, the California Independent System Operator received federal approval in June to launch a program that allows people with small-scale electricity technology, like an electric vehicle, to aggregate together and sell energy and services on the state’s wholesale market. But early looks at the idea suggested that it won’t be much of an option for most rooftop solar customers — rather, the program appears more likely to act as a means of giving people with other emerging technologies a way to profit from their assets.

In 2014 the Center for Digital Government began work with state, local and industry officials to develop best practices around cloud and as-a-service procurements. The goal of the effort was to remove 80 percent of the terms and conditions contracting workload, leaving only 20 percent for public-sector organizations to iron out with their vendors. With Utah taking a leading role, state officials and their partners have been hashing out the details of what will equate to a collective procurement agreement expected to benefit more than 34 states through the National Association of State Procurement Officers’ Value Point program.


One app dominated phone screens and the news this year: Pokemon Go. The game, which uses augmented reality and GPS, had millions of users walking (and in some cases driving) around in hopes they would “catch them all.” Some cities took advantage of the craze by promoting public spaces as PokeStops, but the game also raised the issue of the use of unsanctioned apps on government-owned devices. The app also showed that augmented reality may be an avenue for digital engagement and continued conversations about where gamification could fit in government outreach.


At the GoMentum Station testing grounds near the San Francisco Bay Area, Otto, a company led by former Google employees, demonstrated how self-driving semi-trucks may improve transportation: A suite of sensors will increase safety and let drivers sleep. Data collection will aid decision-making in real time while providing information back to transportation departments. Congestion can be reduced by keeping big rigs off the roads when traffic is backed up by allowing the trucks to keep moving all night, even when drivers are tired. And by driving more efficiently, fuel use will improve.

Cincinnati officials are hoping to use data to improve dispatch and emergency response. By identifying and predicting when and where calls are likely to occur based on historical data, the city will be better positioned to improve its offerings. The information has already offered valuable insights: The city will likely need to hire more medical transport units to combat the increasing workload — there were 54,000 medical transport incidents in 2015 compared to 45,000 in 2012.

In Ottawa County, Mich., all government workers participate in the Disney Way customer service training. The training is a part of the county’s 4 Cs initiative — customer service, communication, cultural intelligence and creativity — and as of August nearly all of the 1,000 county employees had taken the training, including the 28 IT staff members. “Part of it is to understand that IT is not a department that works behind closed doors,” said David Hulst, Ottawa County’s innovation and technology director.

"Partners" statue / Walt Disney, Mickey Mouse
Image via Flickr/ Joe Penniston

Smart city practitioners point to a number of overseas efforts as models U.S. cities should emulate. One such example is Singapore, where leaders are looking to supplement current initiatives with a sprawling sensor and camera network that tracks vehicle and pedestrian movement, weather and waste. The data will feed into a Virtual Singapore map, offering intelligence to city officials to aid in disaster management and planning.


According to the Center for Digital Government, (owned by Government Technology’s parent company, e.Republic), states are on the upswing when it comes to technology. The 2016 Digital States Survey, released in September, awarded more A grades than ever before, with straight A’s going to a growing group. 2014 A states Michigan, Utah and Missouri were joined by Virginia and Ohio this year. Top-achieving states set themselves apart by their focus on cybersecurity, shared services, cloud infrastructure, transparency and citizen engagement.


Law enforcement agencies continue to apply analytics technology to everyday policing, layering crime stats on top of other related data sets to help make decisions on the best use of police resources. Santa Cruz, Calif., for one, uses the PredPol system, short for predictive policing, to feed its officers 15 likely zones for four crime types as they begin their shifts. It’s a way to stretch resources that pairs well with community policing strategies, according to Deputy Chief Steve Clark.    

Over the past few years, several best practices for public-sector websites have risen to the surface, apparent from a quick look at this year’s winners in the annual Best of the Web competition, also from the Center for Digital Government. The state of Maryland, Baltimore County, Md., and Denver’s sites, awarded in September, offer clean, simple designs that are responsive across devices and personalized to each visitor, while also reflecting a commitment to transparency and engagement. But Government Technology readers want to know what’s next for public-sector portals. Perhaps the one thing that unites current thinking on the matter is the realization that the rapid pace of technological change makes it impossible to plan for tomorrow’s needs, today. “The hard thing is that we don’t know what the big thing is going to be in 10 years, so the solution is to use tools that are adaptable,” said Lauren Lockwood, chief digital officer in Boston.

Sept. 16 marked the finale of the 2016 Startup in Residence program as the 14 companies along with Bay Area cities discussed how they rethought and developed solutions for critical services. The initiative, which unites startups with city departments to design tech solutions, was pioneered by San Francisco, and this year expanded to include the California cities of West Sacramento, San Leandro and Oakland. The regional program will return for 2017, and both startups and counties can apply to participate.


Image via startupinresidence.org

Also in September, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott got a first look at another autonomous transportation innovation — an electric, driverless freight shuttle system developed at Texas A&M. A burgeoning area of smarter transportation research and development, the system would help mitigate the disproportionate damage done by semi-trucks to public roadways and air quality by moving goods between the Port of Houston and a hub outside of the port’s congested part of town. 

Back to the 2016 Year in Review