Next week, the U.S. Conference of Mayors is convening in Washington, D.C., bringing together hundreds of mayors from across the country. The theme of this meeting is “Innovations that Lead.”
The theme of the conference is a clear sign that American cities are about to undergo a dramatic transformation, driven primarily by technology like mobile devices and their associated apps, sensors, cloud computing and more — all enabling a host of new services for residents. Everything from parking meters and garbage cans to mail boxes in our cities are continually becoming smarter, increasingly connected and more efficient as parts of a larger city networks. This rapid march towards smarter cities should make it obvious that technology and innovation have an essential role to play in local government and the citizens it serves.
While the prospect of living in a city where online parking meters can alert you to a prime open spot near the football stadium is appealing, it isn’t without its challenges for a city’s mayor and technology staff. Those meters generate lots of data — big data, as we call in in the technology industry — and it has to go somewhere and be managed by someone.
But assuming the technological hurdles of harnessing big data can be surmounted, the big payoff is that cities can monitor and improve traffic in real time, predict and even prevent crime down to specific blocks, and improve emergency response capabilities to save lives. This isn’t the technology of the future; it’s here today, and is being used by forward-thinking cities around the world. According to a TechAmerica survey of state information technology officials, a full 75 percent of respondents said they believe use of big data can save lives, 61 percent agreed that it can improve social and welfare services and 59 percent said it can improve education.
The important thing for these cities will be to find and adopt next generation technology platforms that easily scale to the right size for a city in terms of ease of use, flexibility and cost. I doubt a single mayor at the conference would be opposed to providing innovative apps to residents, but doing it in a fiscally responsible manner has to be a top priority — while recognizing that it can generate efficiencies to help offset the investment.
Adopting a simple, multi-purpose technology platform that ties easily into both legacy city management systems, as well as next generation mobile devices, social information, big data and business software, enables cities to launch new apps not just to provide solutions like service alerts to residents (in and of itself, a high-value service), but also allows residents to provide information back, for example about street light outages, pot holes, or utility disruptions. Some apps I’ve seen even allow residents to track their city’s performance in specific areas, such as property values or crime reduction.
Of course, regardless of the technology cities use to innovate and create interactive apps for its residents, it’s of paramount import that transparency is the number one “feature” of these apps. City residents have to know how data is being used to facilitate the conveniences they enjoy. Transparency breeds trust.
Transparency requirements aside, this transformation is remarkable, and cities that are moving on this front are demonstrating a serious commitment to driving forward with improved constituent satisfaction. But not all technological adoption should be aimed at “engaging the citizen.” As significant employers in local markets, this is a clear opportunity for cities to engage their employees, as well. Capturing employee feedback or observations and integrating that into existing city human resources databases will enable identification of new cost reduction initiatives as well as cut back on fraud, waste and abuse and can facilitate improvement of employee services.
It’s incredibly encouraging to see the U.S. Conference of Mayors recognize transformational power of technology and innovation, and while we in the early stages of witnessing this modernization of local governments, it’s clear that a revolution is coming to local government constituent services — and with it, resident satisfaction. Now if I could just figure out how to pay my parking ticket…