Introducing ARGO, the world’s first public data utility

“Citizens of the 21st century need public technologists like citizens of the 19th century needed municipal engineers to build the drains and clean water supplies.”

-A manifesto for public technology

Cities face a wave of change. Global upheaval and digital disruption challenge cities in unprecedented ways. Meanwhile, a Cambrian explosion of promising case studies across the globe highlights how honest and effective use of data and digital services can transform how cities’ provision basic public services. Yet only 0.64% of cities across America have an open data portal,[1] let alone any deployment of advanced analytics targeted to improve service delivery. Entire municipal sectors like water have largely missed the public technologist movement led by Code for America, 18F and the network of Chief Data Officers across the country.

More deeply a time traveler from the 50’s would find the operational practices of many municipalities strangely familiar. Nothing equal to the development over a century ago of professional water utilities or universal public schooling — institutions that implemented nearly ubiquitous access to clean water and essentially eradicated illiteracy in America — has been developed for the digital era. The future of government operations remains a frontier.

Applied Research in Government Operations or “ARGO” exists to help cities surf that wave of change. Offering a new take on the long standing excitement over smart cities, ARGO offers unique public data infrastructure that integrates mission critical datasets to deploy analytics that support municipal managers in moving the needle on important public problems. In building this new public data infrastructure, ARGO proceeds from a fundamental conviction in the importance of public service, an appreciation for historical context in pioneering the new and a pragmatic ethos embracing the “art of the possible” with an “instruction to deliver.” Our core founding team graduated together from New York’s Center for Urban Science and Progress (“CUSP”), a core node in the rapidly maturing smart cities movement.

ARGO’s Kraken public data infrastructure

ARGO’s Kraken public data infrastructure builds from its successful integration of water use and contextual information across California’s 410 major urban water retailers, powering the first ever assessment of Governor Brown’s statewide water efficiency targets for 4% of what the state budgeted. Uniquely, ARGO develops and deploys open source analytics in deep collaboration with municipal partners, iterating and even committing code together. Those analytics have already saved over $20 million for participating water utilities and are powering the transformation of the water industry.

Kraken abstracts across urban domains and has been piloted for street quality data integration utilizing ARGO’s next generation SQUID-powered Pavement Condition Index. This platform is uniquely publicly owned and operated, similar to how any world leading California water utility is run. And unlike many initiatives in the Global Smart Cities movement, ARGO’s Kraken developed after a year of iteration with municipal water utility partners and will be redeployed only after a thorough data discovery process to define challenges common across cities that analytics can help move the needle on.

Purpose-built for public data with privacy considerations, Kraken not only powers ARGO analytics but also builds a bridge between municipal managers and academic researchers. The water data work involves securely sharing data with a network of world leading academic institutions including Stanford and much of the UC system. Kraken will expand this successful data sharing pilot to a global marketplace of ideas, where any qualified researcher from anywhere on the planet can access data instrumental to social science research subject to municipal partner permission. In addition to raw inputs, open data will also include meaningfully curated results from that research marketplace that can be shared with the public through media organizations and trusted community partners.

More than simply developing “smart” cities, ARGO aims to help set a new standard of excellence in honest and effective government. California’s historic drought and first ever statewide urban water use restrictions exemplifies how climate change challenges cities across the globe to adapt. Schools across the globe work to prepare their students for a rapidly digitizing economy. Cities everywhere struggle with the mundane work of street maintenance and even knowing where all their potholes are. Government is far from the entire answer, but has a foundational role to play in addressing those challenges. ARGO will support cities by pioneering new data infrastructure so municipal managers have all the tools they need to surf this wave of change confidently and boldly through the next century.

As Marc Andreesseen famously said, “software is eating the world” and all the underlying technology necessary to deliver digitally native city operations already exists. As many in the civic, gov, and urban tech worlds know deeply, the need is not technological but rather technocratic excellence to pioneer new procurement protocols, new iterative urban planning practices, and new modes of government operations. Aiming to stand on the shoulders of giants, we created ARGO to manage public data with the technical excellence and public stewardship ethos of California’s best (and often world leading) water utilities we have the honor of working with. While many say transforming how government operates is impossible, a fools errand akin to Jason’s impossible quest for the Golden Fleece, we see the underlying shift as inevitable. Public administration is not a metaphysic, and the way the Romans administered their aqueducts differs deeply from the way we do in California today.

Genuine, real change is not only possible but needed as we stand on the “cusp between old and new institutional orders. Between the waning of national/global power and the waxing of urban power.” Those challenges are much, much larger than our merry little band of Argonauts, and we are honored and humbled to be able to do our part. And as we look out on that new frontier for government operations we know a secret hiding in plain sight: that ultimately, the biggest barrier we face is our own imagination.

“On May 31st, ARGO will introduce its `Kraken` public data infrastructure. And you’ll see why 2017 won’t shape up with all the 1984 overtones you see in the news. The Civic Hall Community is warmly invited to attend. Please RSVP here.”

[1] Calculated based on numbers available from the Open Knowledge Foundation Census of US City Open Data Portals and the National League of Cities.