Spotlight on STIR Cities: Tony Batalla, Head of Information Technology at the City of San Leandro
Tony Batalla is Head of Information Technology at the City of San Leandro. He has helped launch a 10 gigabit internet connection at City Hall and a free, public Wi-Fi system utilizing the City’s fiber optics network. He oversees all aspects of technology, including infrastructure, service delivery, and data management and acts as the senior advisor for City Council on technology issues and policies. He holds an MBA from UCLA Anderson and a BS from the University of San Francisco.
Tony has been working as a city partner with Startup in Residence teams since 2016.
First, tell me about your role with the City of San Leandro. What was your path to civic technology?
I’ve been the director of IT for the City of San Leandro since February 2014. I came from the private sector, where I was a systems engineer and IT service manager for a Swiss pharmaceutical company. But I grew up in San Leandro, and eventually, I decided to move back.
About six months after I moved back, the position of IT Director opened up. I had read about what the city was doing with Lit San Leandro, a public-private partnership to bring high-speed fiber optic networks to the city. I knew they had hired Debbie Acosta as Chief Innovation Officer, and I was inspired by the idea of San Lan becoming a hub for tech innovation. So when the job opened up, I thought — maybe I could see myself working with the city. I applied, they took a chance on me, and I’ve never looked back.
How did you get involved with Startup in Residence? What are some of the challenges you’ve proposed?
Debbie Acosta and I have worked together closely on a number of initiatives, and there’s a strong collaboration between our tech department and Office of Innovation. When STIR expanded from San Francisco to across the region, we were the first city to sign up.
We asked department heads about the challenges they faced. Debbie selected a challenge for industrial economic development and I issued a challenge for an IT budgeting tool. Jeanette Dong was our newly appointed Recreation and Human Services Director. We had just implemented a new system for managing recreation classes and payments, and she saw an opportunity to understand the analytics: How are we performing in terms of enrollment and capacity, and are we meeting the needs of the community?
What have been some of the outcomes of these STIR projects?
The recreation challenge was a grand slam. We worked with a data analytics startup, LotaData, to build a geo-dashboard using the data from our new recreation management system. LotaData created several filters to visualize the system’s demographic information on a map, given the major demographic shifts in the city over the last decade or so. The map proved extremely insightful and gave Jeanette a sense of the makeup of her classes and how these classes were performing.
Since then, I’ve continued working with LotaData to expand their analytics platform to “My SL,” our mobile 311 app and system data. We are set to release a public-facing dashboard for that data. They’re also in talks with the police department to dive into crime analytics and evidence-based policing that could have great ramifications for how we solve crime here.
For cities who are considering joining the program, what do you see as the value of Startup in Residence?
The greatest benefit for cities is that it’s a controlled way to take risks. It’s a chance to experiment that you would never have in a normal procurement. That’s a unique and valuable opportunity for cities.
For instance, LotaData has put in so much time for us. If they were billing us for their services, we couldn’t have even scratched the surface. But, because there’s a strong chance they can open up a huge market, they’re eager to make the project work for us and push themselves to the ends of the earth to deliver what we want.
And if a STIR project fails — and some of ours have — it won’t be on the front page of the paper, you won’t lose money, and you won’t lose your job. You can say, “We gave it a shot, it didn’t work out, and that’s okay.” And that’s kind of the point. You can fail safely. The program allows cities to learn from failure and apply that knowledge to their next project. That’s part of the process of innovation, and STIR enables that process.
My number one advice to cities is that STIR is a considerable time commitment. While you don’t risk money, you do need to invest time for a good outcome.
The cities who will get the most out of the program are dedicated to making the time to consistently test new features and provide detailed feedback so the startup can develop something specific to their needs. If you treat it as a transaction, like you’re buying a commodity, both you and the startup are going to be disappointed.
What about the program’s value for startups?
I’ve worked with five startups now through STIR. If you’re looking to work with governments and break into this market, the program teaches you what makes city officials tick. You learn to speak their language and work through their systems and processes.
Everyone will point to procurement as a challenge. But the reality is, if you’re looking to work with government, you need to be prepared for that. Cities have procurement processes in place that are meant to protect public assets. Be prepared to understand their rationale and you will be more successful working with procurement officers.
As a startup, it’s also a rare opportunity to be embedded with your customer that you just don’t get in a standard contractual procurement.
As the STIR program expands across the country in 2018, are there any products you’d like to see or ideas that you believe need more attention?
Products that are cross-functional. In a large city like San Francisco, that means reaching across departmental silos in areas that don’t normally work together. In smaller cities like San Leandro, it could mean working with other cities collaboratively. Solutions that have that kind of appeal are going to be more and more valuable.
I’m also interested in solutions that demystify the buzzwords and hype around smart cities. For example, with data analytics, framing the conversation as “Here’s how long it takes us to issue a permit” or “Here’s how long it takes us to resolve a complaint.” Helping people understand the data they have, make use of technology to improve their service, and take it from the realm of hype to practice.
Finally, anything startups can do to increase city government security or help them along the path to becoming more cyber security aware. Developing solutions with that in mind rather than as an afterthought.
Finally, what projects have you been working on lately in San Leandro? Any news to share?
Of course, I’m excited about our 2017 STIR projects with Bexi and YoGov. They are still in development, but could be very cool when they officially launch.
I’m excited about our work with LotaData, who came out of the 2016 STIR cohort. As mentioned, we’re launching a public-facing portal and continuing to expand the data analytics platform citywide. The platform is called CityDash and can be viewed at https://citydash.lotadata.com.
Cities like San Francisco have a world-class open data platform and civic tech communities who are engaged and asking for the data. San Leandro doesn’t scale in our civic tech community. So we’re looking at what works in San Francisco and asking, how can we apply it here and make open data useful and valuable? I’m hoping to eventually work with multiple city stakeholders and other cities to develop solutions for open data where we’re all sharing our data together.
We’re working with the Global Cities Teams Challenge by NIST. I’m co-chair of the public WiFi supercluster, and we’ve just published a 74-page blueprint on deploying public WiFi systems. We cover business models, security and authentication, project management, marketing, and much more. This is a great program because it brings together multiple stakeholders — federal, state, local, nonprofit, and the private sector — to share knowledge about smart cities. The idea is to build a foundation so that those who come next will learn from what we’ve done, rather than start from scratch. This is a major part of the innovation process: building on the work that has been done thus far.
In the next year, we’re also going to start looking at broadband more widely, as well as emerging wireless, like IoT, where standards are sorely needed by cities. The blueprints are available as free PDF downloads here: https://pages.nist.gov/GCTC/super-clusters/