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Why innovation has never been easier

The Utah Department of Technology Services (DTS) gets many things right when it comes to trying new technologies, but sometimes it strikes out. For instance, it created a Google Glass transit application that let users could see when their bus was going to arrive.

“It wasn’t a huge investment because we already had the application for mobile platforms, so we just adapted it to Google Glass. We had a few users, but you know what happened there,” Utah CTO Dave Fletcher said of the device’s failure to catch on. “I think eventually we’ll have some more devices that become more common, but not yet.”

Other attempts at innovation have had more success. Fletcher pointed to creating a skill for the Amazon Echo. “One of the fun ones I think people liked was implementing the hunting and fishing -- particularly fishing -- hotspots on the Echo, where you can interact with the device and ask it where the best fishing spots are, and it will respond with the latest fishing reports for locations that you’re interested in,” he said.

DTS is widely recognized as a leader among state and local government innovators, but trying new technology is something any agency can do.

“Just like anything else, you see some early adopters and you see some that are well behind the curve, but I think overall the perception that the government resists innovation and new technologies is somewhat inaccurate,” said Nolan Jones, general manager of NIC subsidiary Kansas Information Consortium. Government offices across the country are experimenting with "this new technology to see how it will really benefit their folks,” he said.

One technology that agencies are testing is the chatbot, a computer program that can “converse” with users online. They not only benefit customers who want quick answers but also help government offices, which can devote less staff time to fielding phone calls

“It’s just a smart way of interacting with individuals so that people get quickly the information they want, but also it helps from the government side to reduce phone calls, increase customer satisfaction,  those sorts of things,” Jones said. “I think that’s something we’re going to see even greater adoption on.”

Another technology with growing power is virtual reality, he added. Some cities and states are using it to offer state house tours and “access” to other otherwise restricted areas, but it also has potential for use in law enforcement training. Other up-and-comers include voice-enabled technologies such as Echo and Apple’s Siri, which, like Utah's fishing skill, pair logic with chatbots, creating a natural new starting point for citizen/government interaction.

But innovation doesn’t have to stem from completely new technologies, Fletcher said.

“A lot of innovation involves integrating data and existing services in new ways,” he said. The state's Watershed Restoration Initiative, for example, marries geographic information systems with project management to track hundreds of projects among dozens of partners. "Being able to use existing technologies in new ways is really, I think, one of the biggest drivers of innovation that we’ll see in the next few years, as well as integrating that with new technologies,” Fletcher added.

At the federal level, the General Services Administration’s Emerging Citizen Technology program is taking existing resources and repurposing them using open data and readily available software to create AI personal assistants. This summer, 12 federal agencies joined an initiative to create prototypes of voice-activated assistants, chatbots, intelligent websites and automated call centers, Justin Herman, lead for the program, wrote in a June blog post.  

Any government agency can adopt AI personal assistants without disturbing the budget, Herman said in an interview with GCN. “Just to apply data into already open developer toolkits, all it takes is time,” Herman said. “One agency could do this with a six-pack of beer and two pizzas over a weekend.”

No time like the present

Herman said he sees no reason for agencies to wait on trying new technology. “Let’s forget the word ‘intelligent,’ let’s forget ‘machine learning’" and the other terms that polarize people, with some thinking  they must pursue the latest technology and others dismissing it as  "just hype,” he said. “I’ll tell you it’s neither of those, because it’s now. This isn’t the future, and if we only frame it as ‘these are the programs of the future,’ we’re ignoring the mission needs and the impact that can be made today.”

Herman subscribes to the “No Wrong Door Approach,” meaning that government agencies should stop approaching chatbots, mobile apps, web forms and call centers as separate entities, but rather as united entrees to government interaction. There will be “AI augmentation of the call center, of the web forms on the website, of the mobile app and of the chatbot, and all of it is processed and made actionable and digestible,” Herman said.

Meanwhile, Jones is looking to the future by watching new technology deployed in the private sector today. “The new iPhone X is starting to introduce new technologies [like facial recognition] that are not quite ready for adoption by government, but I think it will be interesting to see how those will evolve and how they’ll be leveraged over the next few years,” he said.

Overcoming obstacles

Impediments to experimenting with new technologies include budget and resource constraints, security concerns and taxpayer perception of wastefulness. But those are not new obstacles for governments to overcome.

“Agency leaders face all kinds of challenges in their jobs, and I think finding ways to get these technologies implemented is just another one." Jones said. "It’s no bigger, no smaller than many of the other challenges they face.”

He likened the adoption of new technologies to the adoption of websites 20 or so years ago. They went from being “a new thing for many government agencies, and now it’s pretty standard. I think these kinds of technologies will hit that same curve or growth pattern,” he said.

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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