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Balancing Emerging Tech with Citizen Need in California

California Chief Information Officer Amy Tong explains how technology is helping combat deadly wildfires, her approach to making state agencies digitally accessible and ensuring Internet connectivity for all.

by / March 2020

As chief information officer for the country’s most populous state, and the world’s fifth largest economy, Amy Tong’s work leading the California Department of Technology is no small task. In the position since 2016, Tong brings extensive state IT experience in a number of agencies to her work that encompasses not only what’s next in tech, but making sure all residents of the state’s diverse communities can access state services.

1. How is the Department of Technology working to help efforts to combat California’s growing wildfire problem?

In response to the immediate need, we very quickly stood up a website that is a central hub of all of the emergency response information available at response.ca.gov. We’re trying to make information distribution to the residents of California a lot easier, and rather than projecting a list of websites and resource centers across the state, whether at the state or local level, we consolidated all this useful information into a one-stop location. And we specifically made the website very lightweight and easy to access, knowing that when people are in the middle of an evacuation, for example, they’re not going to have good connectivity, and they just want to get to help quickly. It’s part of a culture change we’re making toward human-centered design. It’s about what’s most convenient for the user. 

2. What else are you working on to make government more accessible?

We were seeing that many state agencies were falling behind in coming into compliance with AB 434 [a 2017 law requiring that all state websites be accessible for all users]. But it’s not due to a lack of trying; it’s just that many of the state entities have decades of historical documents that need to be posted for transparency purposes and ease of access. So the Department of Technology was able to work with Microsoft Cognitive Services and the Department of Rehabilitation to develop our OCR [optical character recognition] bot specifically to allow any department to run through attachments in a batch process and turn them into text files using AI, at a rate of about 20 seconds per page. 

3. How do you address cybersecurity relative to those new technologies?

The awareness that everything you do needs to have a cybersecurity mindset has become quite prevalent. So for all the portals that we roll out — in addition to the performance check, redundancy check and resiliency check — a cybersecurity check is part of the routine. We know that ultimately data needs to be very safe and protected.

We are in the midst of working with the administration on a data use agreement for all of the cabinet agencies that would address all of these sensitive personal data issues. While that policy side is being worked through, our technology side is gearing up for expanding the data platform to be able to address the exchange of that sensitive data. It’s going back to that human-centered design thinking. Many departments are serving the same client, and we need to have the ability to look at what services an individual is receiving from the state and therefore improve their experience in dealing with government. 

4. What are you doing to ensure connectivity for all Californians?

We have the privilege to lead the Broadband for All initiative. This is an essential part of state infrastructure, knowing everybody is relying on digital services to help with their routine, their work, forgetting that many in rural communities or even urban areas do not have good coverage and don’t have access to information. It’s part of a digital equity conversation. We can focus on the front end to build beautiful apps, but if we don’t have a way to deliver them, it defeats the purpose. Technology these days is not a support role. It’s an enabler for how we deliver services and it’s very comprehensive.

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Lauren Harrison Managing Editor

Lauren Harrison is the managing editor for Government Technology magazine. She has a degree in English from the University of California, Berkeley, and more than 10 years’ experience in book and magazine publishing.

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