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Zombie Software Is Just One Obstacle for Building Smarter Cities

Zombie software, or systems that have been maintained well past the expiration date, are just one symptom of outdated procurement processes for cities.

by / May 10, 2017
From left to right, San Leandro Chief Innovation Officer Deborah Acosta, San Jose Chief Innovation Officer Shireen Santosham, Seattle Chief Technology Officer Michael Mattmiller and Philadelphia Chief Information Officer Charles Brennan. Government Technology/Ryan McCauley

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Sitting in the heart of Silicon Valley, IT officials gathered to discuss how they're working to create smarter, more responsive communities. Chief information and technology officers from Philadelphia; San Jose, Calif.; San Leandro, Calif.; and Seattle helped break down some of the biggest hurdles, and what steps they're taking to overcome them.

Procurement processes will always remain a sticking point for many public agencies. Some of the most entrenched stereotypes of how government agencies operate revolve around bureaucratic-rooted onerous procurement procedures. This is sometimes a justified criticism, explained Philadelphia CIO Charles Brennan.

As an IT official from one of the country’s oldest and most historic cities, Brennan understands the frustration vendors experience when trying to do business with Philadelphia. “In many ways," he said, "it is easier to get money than it is to spend it.”

One holdover regulation for vendors looking to work with the city is for the company to disclose whether it had ever been involved in the slave trade. Another antiquated regulation was the need for any software to use four-digit year codes for fear of a Y2K apocalypse. The city has several software systems that are over 30 years old, he explained.

With constrained budgets and lack of proper procurement processes to replace systems quickly and efficiently, the only other option is to keep old software on life support. The systems continue to be used and repaired rather than replaced. The systems are so old, Brennan explained, that it's really like dealing with zombie versions of software that should’ve been replaced long ago.

One defense for seemingly excessive procurement processes is for cities to establish what their values are and ensure that any potential partners share the same standards.

“The provisions are there for a reason,” said Seattle Chief Technology Officer Michael Mattmiller, who understands both sides of the equation as he previously worked with Microsoft and joined the city three years ago. For example, he said Seattle is committed to keeping resident data security safe and private, therefore any RFP or RFI released by the city requires respondents to include rigorous data security protocols.

One of the largest opportunities for economic development that cities are pursuing in the smart city space is the overhaul of their transportation systems. Where to start, however, depends on whom you ask.

San Jose recently spoke with 30 autonomous vehicle manufacturers to gain insight for a demonstration pilot project it hopes to have concrete ideas for later this year. Shireen Santosham, the city's chief innovation officer, is hoping to create designated testing zones near the airport, the Diridon rail station and Stevens Creek west to San Carlos, a high-traffic corridor that connects the area with job centers.

By working closely with the AV manufacturers, the city is working to make sure any partnership enhances the quality of life for residents.

“How do we make sure that as the technology is implemented, that it really benefits our residents?" Santosham said. "It must be developed in a way that is clean, incentivizes sharing and also is beneficial to the industry, and we need to be having that conversation now.”

For San Leandro, just 30 miles north, the vision is muddied due to uncertainty of what infrastructure environment is suitable for next-gen vehicles.

City Chief Innovation Officer Deborah Acosta explained that San Leandro is hoping to leverage its fiber loop to entice connected vehicles. The final recipe for how cities should prepare themselves for a future with connected and autonomous vehicles remains unfinished. Must sensors be embedded throughout the built environment, or will the vehicles themselves shoulder the entire burden?

Whether or not autonomous vehicles end up populating the streets of San Leandro, the fiber that has been laid serves as the base for all smart city activity in the future. The city sent out a smart city RFI earlier this year, and expects to begin sorting through responses and launching projects in the near future, explained Acosta.

Philadelphia is also prepping the foundation for its smart city ascendance. The city entered a partnership with Comcast in late 2015 to rapidly expand the number of fiber-optic lines throughout the city that will hopefully significantly increase connectivity for residents. After all, explained Brennan, “it's the backbone that counts.”

Ryan McCauley Former Staff Writer

Ryan McCauley was a staff writer for Government Technology magazine from October 2016 through July 2017, and previously served as the publication's editorial assistant.

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