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Collaboration and crowdsourcing, Austin-style: A talk with CIO Stephen Elkins

As a hub of technology and social culture, Austin continues to reinforce its reputation for developing technology-based services to drive the municipal economy. That’s due in part to the efforts of Austin’s chief information officer Stephen Elkins, who since 2010 has promoted community engagement and collaboration -- or as he puts it, “centralized direction in a decentralized environment.”

From enterprise architecture to project roadmaps, Elkins has worked to create a unified framework for bringing departments, citizens and industry to the city’s planning table. Here Elkins shares some of his insights into Austin’s local and regional IT goals with GCN freelance writer Tony Ware.

GCN: Austin has just finished its annual South-by-Southwest gathering. How has your office accommodated this ever-expanding event and what impact has it had on your smart city projects and network infrastructure.

Elkins: When we typically have these large gatherings it’s through the Austin Convention Center, and they’ll bring Cisco in and set up a separate network so it’s not even taxing on our network. Cisco will go in and enable more bandwidth for participants, then they take it down following the conferences. So we don’t see the effects of the conferences in that respect.

The pain points are that as we spread out, it is a challenge having the same level of connectivity to all city sites including libraries. That’s so that’s where projects  like Google Fiber can potentially help out. As we grow as a city, all our city offices can’t be located in the downtown area so as we go further into the community we realize we don’t have the same resources, and we recognize we need to add fiber to those locations.

GCN: What are your plans for using the Google Fiber network?

Elkins: Google, when they come in, offered to add fiber to 100 sites across the city. It’s not city-designated sites only, it’s whatever sites the community has said it would like as connection points. So the benefit is that there are sites where we don’t have [Greater Austin Area Telecommunications Network] fiber, and Google will potentially reach those. Primarily it could start with libraries and grow from there, and we’ve looked at putting up a wireless component down the road that will provide some access potentially over parks and other areas of the city.

GCN: I understand you’re very focused on interdepartmental collaboration. How do you plan your initiatives to benefit the widest range of departments and citizen interests?

Elkins: Our IT leadership gets together monthly in a recently launched group we call the CIO Council, and we discuss as a city where we should go from a technology standpoint. I also coordinate a regional CIO meeting every other month to bring in IT leaders from other agencies in the area, including state, county and school CIOs, the University of Texas, the Department of Public Safety, and CIOs from Houston up to Fort Worth. We look at common problems we’re working on and how can we come up with a strategy that can meet 80 percent of everyone’s needs.

Topics we’ve looked at include vehicle technology, with the idea there that [the auto industry] is trying to add more and more tools to vehicles and we need these devices to connect to each other and transmit information. So if we could standardize on these devices, we could go to car manufacturers specify what should be built into the vehicles so that when we receive them they spend less time in the shop before they roll on the street.

We also talked about cybersecurity: how do we notify each other if we see something at the local level and how do we relay that information to mitigate and fix the problem.

The other area is data sharing; how do we make our data available to the community, not just city data but county data and state data users can mash up.

GCN: Have you considered analytics or big data projects, in public safety, for instance?

Elkins:  We haven’t got into analytics yet, but we are having what we’re calling a data jam in the next couple weeks involving city, county and state data in a hackathon and allowing cross-pollination of our data sets. Something good could come out of that. It also allows for sharing and knowing across the city what various IP shops are doing, and there may be opportunities for economies of scale, sharing applications or contracts.

GCN: With the push to have the open data, are you involved in nonprofit initiatives such as Code for America?

Elkins:  Yes, we were a Code for America city, and they got us started in doing hackathons, which have engaged the community to tell us what they think we should be doing.

One of the targets was an initiative to create a councilmember contribution tracking system so the public could see how much funding was going for a councilmember’s campaign. We looked internally and saw how much it would cost to build it or buy it.  A  group at a hackathon said they could build something without spending taxpayer dollars. I think they came up with a solution that met 75 percent of what we were trying to do, and they turned it over for us to finish it.

I think our direction going forward will be putting forth a problem we’re having, and asking, “Can you citizens, you community members, help us solve it?”

GCN: What are some of the city’s biggest accomplishments in the last four years?

Elkins: Our city’s website was recently ranked nationally. The site is two years old, and folks outside the city see how it can compete with any government website. And we’re constantly evolving it.

We’ve got our open data portal on our site and have just hired a data architect to release more data while relieving fears  from some departments that the data would be used against them.  One data set we included was from our sanitation department, after which some citizens put together a schedule where folks could look online and see when their pickup was scheduled.

Our citizens need to realize the benefits from making our data available. From a transparency standpoint, the number of open-records requests we get are very large, so making our data available will hopefully cut down on that number.

Two years ago we also hired an enterprise architect, and he’s been meeting with departments to look at their business objectives. He’s put together a map that shows where our focus should be as a city to help enable them meet their goals.

GCN: What areas do you most want to improve?

Elkins: I think the private sector has moved faster to accept cloud technology, whereas government has not. I’ve talked to quite a few CIOs on this, and everyone is struggling on contract language. What is the right amount of security to build into a contract to protect yourself while also encouraging firms to want to do business with you. I’ve approached this with the regional council, and we have an opportunity to come up with some common language for cloud contracting. I think that’s an area where we can improve to be comparable.

We’ve been pretty good with virtualization. I want to say we’re over 90-percent virtualized, so we’re maximizing our hardware. On the storage side we need to do a better job; we need a tiered storage strategy. One of the initiatives going forward but is not yet approved is looking at our data center, moving to a collocated facility. The next step after that would be to do managed services and be completely out of the data center business.

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