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Nebraska Senator Aims to Break Down Siloes, Open Up Data

While cognizant of many national technology issues, such as drones and security, Nebraska Sen. Dan Watermeier believes the Cornhusker State needs to concentrate on the basics, like GIS data collection and information-sharing.

Nebraska Sen. Dan Watermeier doesn’t have the kind of professional foundation most people would consider “technology-savvy.” He’s a farmer by trade. But don’t let his background in agriculture fool you -- Watermeier is very much up on the latest tech trends and how they are going to impact the Cornhusker State’s future.

In an interview with Government Technology, Watermeier explained his focus is on developing policy that enables Nebraska state departments to become more efficient through data-sharing and other high-tech amenities. And while he’s aware of some of the bigger national tech issues such as drone use and data privacy, he’s a firm believer in modernizing his state’s operations through technology before tackling other subjects.

The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.   

Government Technology: You’ve been referred to as “our advocate for IT to the Legislature” by Nebraska State CIO Brenda Decker. Where does your passion and interest for technology issues stem from?

Dan Watermeier:  My background is in farming and agriculture. I was one of the first people in the early 1990s to adapt GPS equipment on the combines. We map all of our ground, we use variable-rate technology and we use auto-steer. We’re headed toward getting down to two to four centimeters of accuracy. That kind of technology is what I consider hands-on.

But the real technology I want to focus on in the Legislature is … what will take us 20 to 40 years in the future. I’ve always had the understanding that departments don’t talk to one another. There are overlapping costs for doing the same thing. In Nebraska, we have a CIO, but it still seems like departments are too unwilling to share their information. That’s where I want to go with technology and find ways to [break those siloes].

They all need to support each other. These innovative technologies need to be shared. Emergency management, public safety, natural health, agriculture, natural resource applications. For example, In Nebraska, we’re very concerned about water, and there’s so much information that’s tied up in the Department of Natural Resources. Some of that stuff needs to be shared with the Department of Roads. We’ve got to be able to pull all of these pieces of the puzzle together.

GT: You’re a non-voting member of the Nebraska Information Technology Commission which reviews large IT project proposals and makes recommendations to the Nebraska Legislature. How did you get involved with the Commission and what’s its purpose?

DW: I’m on the Commission, because to be eligible, you have to be a member of the Nebraska Transportation and Telecommunications Committee. I serve on that, and the Commission selects someone on that committee to be [its liaison].  I’m a non-voting member who participates because I’m going to be the one that would bring any bills to the floor and I don’t want to show any influence there.

The lieutenant governor [Lavon Heidemann] is the chair. There are representatives from about five different subject areas. It’s very extensive and we really bring in a lot of private-sector people to get their input.

GT: You didn’t carry much technology legislation this year. Why was that? What were the major technology issues the Nebraska Legislature dealt with during the last session?

DW: We really didn’t have what I would consider a big [technology] impact this year. But we’ve got a next-generation 911 study going on this summer that’s being done by the Nebraska Public Service Commission. I want to see where that goes. But I see my job as just a wake-up call for the other senators to make everyone aware how important it is to get next-generation 911 up to speed and make people understand it. I just don’t think we have that understanding yet.

As far as other technology things, in Nebraska we had a situation with the statewide radio system that the Nebraska State Patrol and a lot of counties use. We spent quite a bit of money on that before I came into the Legislature. But now it’s not coming up to speed like it should and it’s receiving a lot of criticism. So I want to be in a position to say we’re going to improve that … because people are becoming mildly disappointed about the type of service they’re getting out of the investment we’ve made in this.

GT: There are a lot of bigger national topics that have come to light in the last few years, from data privacy to community broadband systems and expanding drone use by law enforcement agencies. Have you given thought to any of those three areas and potentially drafting legislation on them?

DW: One of the things I’ve always considered myself as is a long-range planner. The things in the news – I probably won’t get involved. I have an interest in drones and security. But I want to focus more on the policy that gets us past the real short-term concerns and questions and gets us where we need to be. My big focus is going to remain on the idea that we need to invest in GIS data collection and be able to share between departments. It’s not sexy to talk about that stuff. It’s fun to talk about drones. The policy stuff is boring, but it’s more important in my opinion. So that’s what I want to spend my time on.

Obviously, I do need to be involved in next-generation 911 and special mapping and the security of this stuff. We have to be involved in that. But I want to make sure we have policy in place, so when I leave here … we’re prepared for 50 years from now.

GT: What do you see as your biggest challenge regarding technology policy in the years ahead?

DW: It’s pretty obvious what technology has done. It has made things easier, reliable and faster. But it also brings up the security of the data. Every step forward we take on that, it seems we take a half-step back sometimes. We’ve been fortunate not to lose anything in Nebraska so far, but we’ve watched what has gone on in the country. But as a state Legislature, I’d say we’re not as versed in the fine details of things, but we understand the value of it.

But the No. 1 issue for me in IT is being prepared for the future. We need to keep ourselves flexible so we’re all on the same page. There’s fear of maybe private industry coming in and taking ownership of our data, or one government agency paying money to get the data back out of there. We need to keep control of the data and taking ownership of it. That takes responsibility. I don’t want to get hung up on the detail work of IT stuff. I want to focus on the internal policy to manage our data.

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines from 2011 to mid-2015.