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County taps startups for automation

Officials in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, are looking to digitize and automate paper-based process at several agencies through a program that encourages governments, startups and small businesses to collaborate on solutions.

City Innovate’s Startup in Residence (STIR) program recently announced that 50 civic challenges -- including six in Cuyahoga County -- have been selected to receive proposed solutions from businesses through Nov. 20. After that, the governments will work with the companies for 16 weeks to hone the solution to meet their needs, although there is no guarantee of a contract award at the end.

To determine the projects best-suited for STIR, Catherine Tkachyk, Cuyahoga County chief innovation and performance officer, and Matt Hrubey, performance consultant at the county’s Office of Innovation and Performance, met with staff from county departments and agencies and evaluated their pitches based on several criteria: timing, cost and needs vs. wants.

The question they wanted to answer, Hrubey said, was, “what are the best options for Cuyahoga County overall to show improvement?”

For example, the Delinquent Tax Outreach Unit wanted a way to automate outreach efforts. When residents don’t pay their property taxes on time, "they get penalties, fees and they all add up and eventually lead to … foreclosure,” Tkachyk said.

That’s a situation prime for artificial intelligence and machine learning technology that can identify trends and what prompts people to pay on time. With that information, the department can predict when people may miss a payment and alert them before it happens, she added.

The Division of Children and Family Services is also looking to automation for efficiency. Case workers spend hours in their cars and then have to manually enter that time each month into reports to get reimbursed for mileage. An ideal solution would automatically track caseworkers' mileage using their smartphones and allow for notes about why, for example,  they didn’t take the most direct route to a location, Tkachyk said.

The Office of Early Childhood wants an automated solution to handle key management functions of the county’s Universal Pre-Kindergarten program. A single platform would allow the office to eliminate paper, communicate with schools and parents electronically, capture the data that’s coming in and use it in a functional way – namely, creating visualizations.

For those three challenges, Tkachyk said solutions likely already exist. She’s hoping STIR can help the county determine the best one.

“[STIR] allows us to be involved in design and share a little bit of what the intricacies are of our county and what works for us,” she said. “Sometimes what’s off the shelf, especially if it’s made for large organizations, they don’t always work.”

The Development Department, for example, wants a more specialized digital solution to make business decision-makers aware of land and buildings available for business use. A tool exists for residential properties, but not commercial, Hrubey said.

“We know where the information is in a lot of cases, where we have it, but how to get it in one location and how to do that in a way that’s useful, that’s what we’re hoping to get through our … partnership and the startup,” Tkachyk said.

The county's two other challenges are related to law enforcement. The Sheriff’s Department hopes to digitize the process by which employees request shifts and time off -- a task they must now do by paper and submit in person.  The department also wants to improve tracking of visitors and others coming and going from Cuyahoga County Jail. Currently, visitors get a printout that identifies them as such, but there’s no way to guarantee that they have left when they were supposed to.

“A number of these challenges are really related to moving from [a] very cumbersome process to more streamlined processes and using technology to then enhance the streamlined process,” Tkachyk said. We want to "spend more time on the front-end service of actually serving our residents instead of spending a lot of our efforts doing the paperwork, doing the backend work.”

Another goal behind participating in STIR is to get employees interested in solving problems and conducting county business in new ways. “With this program, I think we’re also hoping to engage some of the [staff's] creativity,” she said. “They can be part of the solution.”

Once the proposals are in next month, the county will handle them through the standard procurement process, Hrubey said. The companies’ residency will start at the end of January.

The STIR program began in San Francisco in 2014 and now includes city, county, regional government and state participants from across North America. One successful civic solution to come out of the program is Binti, an application that streamlines the process for becoming a foster parent. It saves San Francisco Human Services Agency workers 20% to 40% of their time and increases the foster system’s capacity by 300%.

Other cities and challenges participating in the 2019 STIR program include:

  • Takoma Park, Md., which is looking to identify and connect residents with workforce programs and resources.
  • Carlsbad, Calif., which wants an integrated solution to feed city right-of-way data directly into the Waze for Cities program to improve communication of traffic information to residents.
  • Chula Vista, Calif., which seeks a way to improve connectivity for first responders' drone operations.

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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