What have we learned in 2013?
In looking back at the year that was, it seems too easy just to ask, what have we learned? The question becomes more interesting when you ask, what have we learned that will still matter five years from now? Such was the genius of Father Guido Sarducci’s 5-minute University, the old SNL sketch that has been the inspiration for this year-end column since its inception.
Predictions are a dangerous game, but the track record over the last dozen years is not too shabby. At the risk of tempting fate, here are 500 words about five things that will still matter to the public-sector IT community five years from now.
1. Ownership is optional: It is telling that a number of new government data centers were justified as economic development projects, not because they were essential to government operations. While Arkansas picked up a used data center in a killer deal this year and the new administration in Washington state began to turn the corner on what to do with excess capacity of its overbuilt facility, few public CIOs harbor aspirations to get a new data center for themselves when there are options — including everything-as-a-service and increasingly interesting cloud formations, including those offered by other public entities.
2. Data opens preferred futures: Policymakers have long looked to finite sets of clean data from discrete sources to demonstrate causation in assessing policy effectiveness and program performance. That’s good. The orientation is now shifting to finding correlations in limitless volumes, variety and velocity of data — including wild data — to confirm hunches and surface possibilities that would otherwise have remained hidden. That’s better.
3. Analytics change behavior: Minneapolis CIO Otto Doll argues convincingly that the value of analytics in the near term is as a subversively helpful way to get agencies to share data. Longer term, the descriptive powers of these analytic tools will extend into the predictive and even prescriptive. The latter is both exciting and a little scary — helping policymakers make data-informed decisions about how best to bend the curve, even with the Minority Report-like shadows that hang over such a prospect.
4. Light poles are smarter than they look: It’s become rather commonplace to piggyback cell sites, wireless and other communication antenna on public utility poles, but that undersells their potential value. Taken together, power, telephone and light poles have the makings of an intelligent operations platform — i.e., a civic-built environment for not only wireless, but also air monitoring, virus detection, gunshot listening stations and other sensor networks.
5. Dot-gov may be the only gov some people ever know: There is no need to pile on the botched HealthCare.gov rollout, but it is useful to say a couple of things out loud. Whatever else it demonstrated, the furor over the site marked an important coming-of-age moment for the e-government movement. Just a few years ago, it really would not have mattered if any particular government website went down because the Web was regarded in many circles as only an “alternative delivery mechanism.” No more. The Web is now how programs are implemented — even huge ones that touch tens of millions of people. We need to get it right — not just next time but every time.
As difficult as they often are, rights of initiation are a both a mark of earned legitimacy and a starting point for what’s next. As Calvin said to Hobbes on their last published toboggan ride together, “It’s a magical world, ol’ buddy. … Let’s go exploring!”
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