microphones in a server room

Keep the public involved in tech programs, CTO advises

To successfully roll out of technology initiatives, city officials ensure their infrastructure can handle communications – whether between internet-of-things devices and the cloud or city office phone lines. One communication avenue they shouldn't neglect, however, is with the public.

“When I first came to the city, I learned we made some missteps when engaging with the city around new technology,” Seattle CTO Michael Mattmiller told GCN.

Residents of Seattle, especially privacy advocates, had raised alarms about some of the city’s technology projects -- particularly security cameras and drones. “And perhaps the kicker was, we installed a Wi-Fi mesh network in downtown,” he said.

The mesh network was designed to provide greater capacity for first responders and sensor backhaul. The public, however, thought it was a way to track cell phone signals. The city even came forward with documentation to show it wasn’t possible to use the technology in such a fashion.

That’s why, when the city's Department of Transportation told Mattmiller a month later it had installed a system that did just that -- tracked cell signals to better understand pedestrian traffic -- he immediately reached out to the advocacy community. He called advocates like the American Civil Liberties Union to explain why the city needed the data to help with planning efforts and walk local members through their concerns. Seattle also hired a third-party company to conduct a technology audit.

“The public believed in the value, the public believed we took the right precautionary steps, and that solution has turned out to be very beneficial to our community,” he said.

Now, as the city plans to hire its first smart city coordinator, a vital part of job will be communication with the public, he said

“It is incumbent on cities to demonstrate the value of these projects in a way that’s measurable and can be felt by our communities,” Mattmiller said.

About the Author

Matt Leonard is a former reporter for GCN.

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