Choosing the right solution

Writing your introductory blog post is a bit like choosing the proper solution for your citizens, especially when you’re dipping your proverbial toes in a very public space. You want to have an impact, communicate clearly and most importantly, do it with honest intent. I’ve been an Innovation Project Manager with Louisville Metro Government’s Office of Performance Improvement & Innovation for two months now after spending several years acclimating to local government in the Department of Information Technology as the team lead for the Web Services team. I’ve been quietly observing the scale and breadth of work that this office performs, following Ernesto Sirolli’s advice to “shut up and listen”.

I became deeply involved with OPI2 originally through a public/private partnership with Waze, and assisted in the creation of an internal service that would enable next generation traffic management and analysis. From that project, I was introduced to our work on the CNET partnership with the Smart Apartment and Smart Home, and I began working closely in developing new and innovative digital services.

It has been relatively apparent for some time now, through work by civic hackers like the Civic Data Alliance (our local Code for America brigade), 18F, USDS, and many, many other groups and individuals that the model for government and how citizens interact with it needs to evolve. The birth and refinement of the internet, and a person’s interaction with private companies through it as a medium, has set an ever increasing barrier of expectation, that as a government we have an ethical and moral imperative to match. Many of these efforts are coalescing under the digital inclusion umbrella, and smart city initiatives, but government agencies need to have a service design approach and methodology to evolve effectively, efficiently and in an accessible manner.

For an entity like a city government, single ecosystem development is ineffectual and an evolutionary dead end. Using a service design methodology, creating a multi-channel experience for citizens enables the highest amount of accessibility and saturation to a diversified population. In this rapidly changing world of smart cities, open data and technology, it’s easy to say that a mobile app, or a website will “fix” that problem a citizen is experiencing. Many government agencies will launch a new mobile app, with no forethought or concern of how to market, explain or socialize the application, analyze performance data about it or how it connects to the larger enterprise work already in progress. Solutions like this are almost never adopted, and are quickly forgotten, becoming ever increasing process or technical debt. Many app stores are littered with discarded remnants of ill conceived “killer apps”.

Dictating solutions for an IT professional is a very natural place to come from, however when it comes to solving problems for my city, I need to be mindful of what my citizens needs actually are. It is a frequent occurrence when you are faced with a problem, when you’re faced with a nail, to use a hammer and in all reality, that’s not what people need.

There are many that only look to profit from an emerging market, or to hop onto a media hype train of a specific type of technology, without fully understanding or exploring the impact and ramifications of that decision. It is important to understand that not all people can afford the latest gadget, purchasing a new device every time a new tech cycle swells. We can only fully understand how to impact a problem by interacting with the community at large to really understand it.

The best advice I’ve received since joining the government sector was at the 2015 Code for America Summit, in Oakland, California. In the opening session of the conference, Catherine Bracy (Director of Community Organizing) recounted that days earlier a close associate of CfA, Jake Brewer had passed away. His family had found a Post-It note on his desk, which exclaimed “Cultivate the Karass”.

Karass: “a group of people who, unknown to themselves, are affiliated or linked in this powerful network greater than the sum of its parts.” — Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle, 1963

The power of the network. Being inclusive, cultivating relationships is the single most powerful effective force I have experienced in my professional career. This gift from Jake Brewer (and Kurt Vonnegut) has influenced and impacted my daily decisions when I think about the technology needs of my community, and how those needs are shared by communities all over the world. I see this same mentality exemplified by my coworkers in OPI2. We connect through public/private partnerships (P3), we collect citizen feedback through projects like CityVoice, we partner in hackathons like Open Data Day, or #HackTheVille, and we open source our work so other communities can benefit from it, like our partnership with IFTTT (GitHub).

All of this underpins my thought process and motivations since starting with Louisville Metro Government three years ago. These have all impacted my decision making process when espousing a service like IFTTT. We have taken a modular, micro-service approach to providing a service to our community at large. Citizens can selectively choose what they engage with, building and creating in new and exciting ways, their own service design package. If they don’t like how Louisville Metro offers air quality in an email digest form, they are empowered to customize and change the applets that we’ve exposed through IFTTT to remix it in a new and exciting way. Don’t like that we’ve chosen to integrate with Philips Hue bulbs? You can reconfigure the service to meet your needs and your technology. A democratic expression of technology.

If we for some reason decide that IFTTT is too constrictive in our approach, we still have the internal development on the microservice APIs that we’ve built to integrate with IFTTT, a foundational level to any new technology service in the future.

We’re not building just an Amazon Alexa skill integration to check your junk day (I mean, we’re doing that too). We’re building a flexible, and innovative approach to what interaction with government will be in the digital age. We’re building services that interface in an agnostic, cross platform way, to accommodate needs that we may not ever have anticipated.

So after two months with the Office of Performance Improvement & Innovation, this is just a little bit of what I have learned by shutting up, and listening. I’ve taken my technology background and experience, and learned to apply it for the greater good of my community, and at the end of the day that’s what I feel like good government is all about.