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Federal Plans Must Include Funds for Digital Infrastructure

The Biden administration’s proposals to increase funding for physical assets like roads are essential, but should not overshadow the need for digital infrastructure to maximize technology, equity and transparency.

Aerial Photography From Raleigh & Cary NC
Shutterstock/Farid Sani
Infrastructure is one of the hottest topics for the federal government right now, with the Biden administration’s sweeping proposals to repair and modernize over 20,000 miles of bridges, highways and roads. But as the initiative progresses, there exists an important definitional issue that should receive much more attention in Washington: digital infrastructure.

Congress has not debated infrastructure investments since the explosive growth of Internet of Things (IoT) devices and connectivity. Instrumentation as an emerging government technological advancement will, if properly funded, produce transformative advances in how we use, manage, repair and build infrastructure. Connected sensors that monitor water flows, energy usage, bridge vibrations and air quality will produce dramatic advances in resilience and sustainability and help public officials make sure that public investments are more equitably made and maintained. The potential is almost unlimited and ranges from improving the social determinants of health by pre-emptively intervening before poor health outcomes appear to reducing traffic accidents or advancing better pricing and sharing of streets, curbs and sidewalks.

Raleigh, N.C., is a city at the vanguard of this movement, led by Beth Stagner, IT business applications director, and Jim Alberque, GIS and emerging technology manager. Raleigh, thanks to its leadership and an ongoing annual fund for tech innovation, invests in promising new technologies for the city, including those that advance the use of AI and IoT sensors that literally help employees perform better and make decisions with more information. Pattern detection and predictions emanate from instruments embedded in trash cans, parking apps and meters, trash trucks, road sensors, and cameras that anonymously monitor turning movements in order to re-engineer dangerous intersections and much more.

Stagner points to geospatial infrastructure as one of the underlying pillars of the city’s digital architecture, illustrating how it “allows us to integrate and work across multiple platforms and applications. And that’s been really crucial to the city because it brings more city workers out of their silos and causes them to work together.” Alberque, who also manages the GIS architecture, emphasizes that GIS is an integration platform since 90 percent of the city’s data is spatially aware and location-based.

Across the country, digital platforms help cities improve the design of capital projects and guide maintenance by watching rising water levels, calibrating bridge maintenance to vibration analytics or sensing underground cracks that might develop into potholes. Digital platforms coupled with AI also assist city officials in dynamic management of their assets. Curb and sidewalk digital platforms integrate anonymized data concerning parking, ride-share companies, and scooter and pedestrian usage, and guide informed decisions about parking, scooter drop-offs, bike lanes and the placement of outdoor cafes. Or as Alberque says, it’s not just about seeing an object, but asking “why do I see that object? And what is that object going to do? It becomes part of a shared understanding with all of this other information.”

Raleigh’s IT vision statement nicely captures the compelling case for digital infrastructure and IT enablement because it allows “coordinated investment, use of resources and implementation of initiatives for desired outcomes.” No more should officials build a project merely with backward-facing data. No longer should maintenance be scheduled based on simple routines and nor should one agency build without other city officials and the community providing input on equity and sustainability factors. Digital infrastructure advances planning and dynamic iterations in the use of those assets.

Using that data well “exponentially increases your workforce,” according to Stagner. “You have this whole set of other things that are watching, and if you can bring that in, and train it to do such things as pattern detection, workers can make much better and faster decisions.” For these Raleigh leaders, the privacy and security issues are real and need careful attention and public reassurance. But the enormous increase in the scale of the digital exhaust allows faster and better decisions.

Congress should fund digital platforms by clearly including them in the definition of infrastructure while also supporting the technical resources that would encourage broad adoption. Bang for the buck will dramatically increase and results in terms of the environment and equity will be transparent, measurable and better.
Stephen Goldsmith is the Daniel Paul Professor of the Practice of Government and the Director of the Innovations in American Government Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He previously served as Deputy Mayor of New York and Mayor of Indianapolis, where he earned a reputation as one of the country's leaders in public-private partnerships, competition and privatization. Stephen was also the chief domestic policy advisor to the George W. Bush campaign in 2000, the Chair of the Corporation for National and Community Service, and the district attorney for Marion County, Indiana from 1979 to 1990. He has written The Power of Social Innovation; Governing by Network: the New Shape of the Public Sector; Putting Faith in Neighborhoods: Making Cities Work through Grassroots Citizenship; The Twenty-First Century City: Resurrecting Urban America, and The Responsive City: Engaging Communities through Data-Smart Governance.
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