Machines that help us think, kick up our communications capacity, magnify our ability to visualize the world, and help us compute and cogitate are at the center of a great revolution happening all around us. We are swimming in an all points big data/mobile computing revolution that has already altered how we watch TV, go to school, commune with our friends and family and consume the news of the day.
The new examination of information technology, done for Tulsa City Hall by Sacramento based PCG is well-written. And the PCG work is a "by the numbers" examination of how many IT people are formally employed at City Hall, what functions are covered and how they're managed and organized -- and it covers the usual suspects in an organizational assessment: it takes an earnest look at overlap, duplicate applications and processes, under investment, City Hall's supposed failure to integrate resources and quash "incompatible" software and hardware, etc. And the PCG outfit puts all this stuff in context by looking at other cities and a slew of national "metrics."
Unfortunately, the PCG work product focuses almost exclusively on the trees and not the forest: it doesn't look at the tectonic forces that are spiking, radically reworking information technology and computing and what IBM has called "service science." And what neither the report nor the authors wrangle with this seismic reshape -- something which ought to be at the core of a re-animated City Hall/public service animal.
Computers, powerful software, and ubiquitous mobile devices are the red hot core of any 21st-century outfit that aspires to real effectiveness, full responsiveness, and the agility needed to respond to the ebb and flow of modern economics, social dynamics, fiscal constraints, and superior service delivery. And if we look at the transcendent role advanced computing is making in industrial design, contemporary defense applications, in moviemaking, on Wall Street, and in many parts of the scientific community, we can imagine how these tool sets could radically transform public services in T-Town. Add the movement to aggressively incorporate citizen smartphone info (via mobile apps) and the peerless potential of novel sensor data networks at ground level, and we enter a brand new realm.
But we also need people -- lots of them at City Hall, who know how to exploit, manage and use these devices and services in exceptional ways -- not specialists, but ordinary workers in parks, the cop shop, in public works, and in the offices managed by our elected folks at City Hall. It's not enough to have a single department filled with wizards who know about this stuff while mainline workers in the City's 26-plus operating departments are by and large kept away from mastering the vital skills needed to manage these tool kits.
In passing, it is important to know that some of the city's most effective folks are staffers called "analysts" or something close to same: these people are basically "hidden" from the central info department at City Hall and are very tech-savvy and know real world stuff as well. It's long past time that City Hall eliminated its dinosaur "infotech" operation and invested in the deep training, agile technologies, and outlook needed to empower all city employees to do what's required. And I'm afraid that the brothers and sisters from Sacramento have merely touched on this model.
Fairness dictates that I tell you that the PCG report does briefly discuss "a decentralized model" that would disperse info tech in a way that's fully consistent with the regime I'm suggesting here. Know this: there are a host of U.S. companies and some middle- to large-sized cities that employ this radical staff empowerment model as well, and again, the PCG people allude briefly to this reality.
We need to smell the coffee: stuff from the '90s has an at best feckless connection to the outsized improvements in policing, utility services, neighborhoods/housing inspections, street conditions, and a bevy of other stuff that would come from open source systems, mobile apps, the "big data" invasion, and an empowered city work force.
City Councilor G.T. Bynum actually has gotten his toes into some of these new notions. It looks like he has been in the same room where some of the new wave stuff has been shown and discussed. And social hacking folks from Code for Tulsa -- confederates of Code for America's national operation are currently working with public works, the transit authority, and other folks at City Hall and elsewhere to bring these rich innovations to Tulsa on a small, toy-like scale. But where are the budgets? The fundamental re-thinking needed to mainstream these big info system gambits? Why aren't some of these new avenues at least broached in the report from our friends from Sacramento?
Another Path: Open-Source Computing
Several U.S. cities have adopted free or open-source software for major parts of their operations. These cities have made aggressive use of non commercial products, Google Apps, open source servers and operating systems. The towns at play, according to a great 2010 International City Management Association, include D.C., L.A., San Francisco, and Portland, among others.
Los Angeles, with 30,000 employees, estimates the great "break" -- which essentially amounts to a turn away from expensive Microsoft annual operating site licenses, heavy reliance on Microsoft's principal office productivity suites, and some related conventional commercial software -- will save between $13.8 million and $50 million in the near term.
Artificial Intelligence and IBM's Watson
Readers may be aware of the fantastic high-performance/natural language system that IBM calls "Watson." Some may recall that Watson defeated a whole slew of world-class human Jeopardy! players nearly three years ago. IBM is now making aggressive use of the natural language interface and the wild problem-solving capacity of Watson in health care, in aerospace design, and in helping scientists with frontier problems in the physical sciences and in drug development. Imagine a voice-managed, Watson-like service at City Hall that helped building owners, developers, architects, and neighborhood people size up new development projects, appraise the fit between a proposed development and our code and subdivision regulations and Tulsa's still-emerging new zoning process. Such a system could work hand-in-hand with the talented but time-pressed staff at the city's development services operation and improve our ability to manage development and growth in ways we can only guess at.
In a couple of weeks, I'll look at the potential of radical new sensor technology, the outsized prospects of mobile applications and what some call citizen participation 2.0 -- all have a humongous link to vastly improving City Hall services via a full embrace of the emerging wave of computing.
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