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Google Government Innovation Lab Open for Business

Google officially opens its innovation lab to help government solve challenges, with six spots for jurisdictions available in 2015.

RENO, Nev. -- Google has announced the official launch of its Government Innovation Labs, with California’s Alameda and Kern counties as pilot jurisdictions. Another four spots will open for others localities later this year for the free service.

James Waterman, Google’s regional manager for state and local government, publicized the news during his keynote address at the Government Social Media Conference & Expo in Reno on April 30. He said the program, first unveiled in January, will provide officials at all levels of government access to Google’s suite of enterprise apps, developers and experts for consultation on beneficial services both inside and outside of Google.

Waterman further committed the Silicon Valley giant to providing up to 50 Chromebooks for each of the 50 leaders from both the private and public sectors who participate in each locality. Whether the programs are long term or short term will vary depending upon their scopes, he said, and each jurisdiction will be allowed to tackle five specific issues within their region.

“Each leadership team gets to pick five hard pressing challenges and in a Google-like way, we come together and we bring this kind of 10X, moonshot-type of thinking approach,” Waterman said.

As an example, he highlighted the city of Chicago’s use of its team — in a contracted partnership — to map public works projects for service departments. Instead of conducting a $1 million study to solve the problem and then contracting a costly remedy, Waterman said Google mapped Chicago’s public works projects for only $500,000 total with innovative leadership thinking. He added that the return on investment that same year was $14.5 million.

“Rather than spend a million to talk about doing it, here’s a city that spent less to actually do it,” Waterman said.

To jumpstart the program, Alameda and Kern counties are tackling the issues of workforce development, health and safety, and economic advancement for disadvantaged communities. Some specific projects include mapping career paths to skill sets and educational opportunities, answering challenges within recidivism, and creating support for veterans and first responders.

As part of the Government Innovation Lab, which is conducted mostly online with a few in-person meetings, leadership teams will be sent through a six-week journey to identify what innovation means for their jurisdictions. Afterward, Waterman said, they’ll paint a picture of possible solutions using a palette of different technologies. These could translate to data visualization tools, search functionality, mapping, or open data solutions with such companies as Socrata — mentioned specifically by Waterman. Once the tech choices are decided upon, Google developers will be tasked to implement projects within roughly 90 days.

“Bringing in developers, we can actually build these solutions in front of their very eyes,” Waterman said.

Ultimately, however, Waterman underscored that the real goal isn’t just to solve hand-to-mouth problems for communities — it's to institutionalize innovation practices to make those practices the default for government problem solving using technology as a support.

“It’s the leaders, it’s these innovators, that need to recognize that when they’re staring at that clean canvas, that these [tech] elements exist,” Waterman said. “It’s these leaders that need to organize these elements to make great advancements in society.”

While there are four slots still open for the lab's inaugural year, Waterman said Google is opening discussions with jurisdictions to cement the last four soon. Cities and agencies interested in the program can contact Google through its Google Apps for Government page.

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.