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NASCIO Midyear: CIOs Talk AI, Communication

In afternoon sessions at the NASCIO Midyear conference earlier this week, state IT leaders broke into groups to tackle issues both timely and timeless.

BALTIMORE — After nearly two days of networking and sharing ideas, attendees at the NASCIO Midyear conference separated into groups to attend "learning lounges," where public- and private-sector leaders alike shared insights on topics including artificial intelligence (AI) at the state level, as well as the critical skill of communication for a CIO.

Adapting AI for State Use

In one afternoon session, CIOs gathered to explore the growing use of artificial intelligence throughout government. Utah CIO Mike Hussey was joined by Gartner Research Vice President Rick Howard, who offered some broad perspective on how government is using AI now, and how that will change over the next few years.

Howard described public-sector AI use today as in the early stages, citing survey data that revealed that 20 percent of governments are either actively using the technology, or count it among their short-term plans. He cautioned attendees against lagging too far behind adapting consumer technologies for their own use, though, recommending adoption within three years of broad consumer use.

“The bad news is, if you’re not doing something in that space, you’ve got to get going,” Howard said.

In five years, Howard predicted, government will be more intelligent, fueled by three trends he described as transformational: the growth of conversational tools to fulfill citizen needs, increased use of contextual services that are location-aware and the acceleration of the use of an anything-as-a-service subscription model to introduce innovations faster.

And AI, or the term Howard prefers, intelligent automation, is a big part of that transformation. Many in government look to the work being done in Utah as inspiration and justification for their own endeavors — and for good reason.

The state is making a growing amount of state information available on digital assistants like Amazon's Alexa, which citizens can use to do things like practice for the driver’s license test or the notary exam, get real-time transit information, or find out about fishing hot spots.

Utah is also breaking new ground in AI by using a natural language processing tool, Amazon Comprehend, to assess the feedback they get from customers online. Applying the tool to a large set of feedback, the service seeks to broadly analyze citizen sentiment based on the words that are used via customer input tools.

Hussey also talked about a large-scale air quality project in which AI tools, including Elasticsearch, are used to evaluate several kinds of data during weather events like winter inversions, known to lead to pollution spikes. Among the information looked at is air quality, health data, transportation and location-specific Twitter activity.

Taken all together, the data can be powerful evidence to advocate for needed policy changes. As one audience member pointed out, though, not everyone is comfortable with the use of AI, fearing its “Big Brother” connotations. But Hussey says those fears are starting to diminish.

“More and more, individuals are comfortable with that experience,” Hussey said.

CIO as Chief Communicator

In a session on day one of the conference, attendees said the No. 1 thing a CIO needs to be  is a communicator. As one participant explained, you can be a good communicator with a bad strategy, and communication will get you to a good solution.

That idea made its way into day two in a talk on the CIO as "Chief Communicator." Graig Lubsen, director of communication and external affairs for the Indiana Office of Technology (IOT), and Erin Choy, external affairs manager for the Florida Agency for State Technology, shared their advice for how CIOs can maximize their communication skills to get the best results for their states.

In Indiana, Lubsen said, CIO Dewand Neely meets with 10 state agency heads each month to talk about their goals and current projects. In contrast, he only meets with three agency CIOs regularly. That’s because he wants those agency-level tech leaders to own the IT aspects of their departments without interference from IOT. So Neely meets with agency heads and business leaders not to learn their IT goals, but to understand what else they’re trying to achieve and to offer possible technology solutions.

“What’s the middle initial of CIO?” Lubsen asked. “It’s information. You have a lot of information at your fingertips.” Meeting with agency heads allows the state CIO to share that information and to add value to what agency leaders are trying to accomplish, and to have them see IT in that role.

Choy offered similar advice for CIOs communicating with state workers outside the IT department. Chief among them is to remember that agency heads, governors and legislators aren’t necessarily techies.

She had three tips for effective communication: Know your audience, simplify your message and make it relatable.

A key component of her strategy is to use visual aids and analogies to put technical subjects into terms everyone can wrap their heads around. For example, she explains managed security services to legislators as “a landlord-tenant scenario.” The data center is the landlord, and the state agency is a tenant; the tenant needs to be in charge of securing small items, like jewelry, while the landlord looks at securing the whole system more broadly. 

Lauren Harrison is the managing editor for Government Technology magazine. She has a degree in English from the University of California, Berkeley, and 15 years’ experience in book and magazine publishing.