The Center for Data Innovation spoke with Daniel Hoffman, chief innovation officer for Montgomery County, Maryland. Hoffman discussed the county’s effort to facilitate the use of open data as well as the challenges that face municipal governments trying to create fully smart cities.
Joshua New: What are some of the challenges of being Montgomery County’s first chief innovation officer?
Daniel Hoffman: Being the first is really a double-edged sword. It has allowed me to really create and define the role based on practices from folks that have this role elsewhere. There’s a bunch of us that have come online in the past few years in this type of job. I can take the best of what I’ve seen around the country and make something that fits the needs of Montgomery County. On the other hand, there are a lot of expectations that come with the title “chief innovation officer.” “Innovation” has become a catch-all word with a lot attached to it, and I often wonder if this title is just a fad. I always need to focus on how to extract long-lasting value from this role. Regardless of the word we use, the underlying principles can never go away for a successful organization.
I find there are three basic criteria for this role to be successful. You have to be agile, you have to be iterative, and you have to think like an entrepreneur. This means prototyping, piloting, testing, tinkering, and so on. Then, you have to be aware of return of investment, otherwise it’s just play. I love play, but I’m getting paid to identify things that bring value for the county. And, the things we do have to be, by definition, experimental or risky in nature. It’s an exploiters versus explorers situation. You need exploiters like process-improvement and efficiency people that can extract the most value from limited resources. They are the folks that make sure the buses run on time and that trash gets picked up efficiently. But explorers are the ones that survey the landscape to identify opportunities that come from new technologies. Explorers find ways to adapt and do things differently before it’s too late. I’ve been lucky to be an explorer for Montgomery County. We’ve positioned the innovation program within the Office of the County Executive which allows us to avoid getting deep into the weeds of a particular niche. Establishing this definition for the role has been one of its biggest challenges.
Other than having to continually manage expectations that I’m not just the “mobile app guy” or just the “hackathon guy,” the biggest obstacle is the role’s public nature. Compare this to private sector research and development (R&D), as a lot of what I do could be considered public sector R&D. The private sector can write off a failed experiment and move on to the next idea. It knows its job is to test as many things as possible. In my situation, everything is open. This means you have to build an expectation amongst executives and the public alike that some things just won’t work and that that’s okay.
New: You helped launch the “Thingstitute” in early 2015 to help spur the development of Internet of Things projects in Montgomery County. What has the Thingstitute done so far, and what do you hope it can accomplish in the future?
Hoffman: So the Thingstitute was really born out of something called the SCALE project. When we first got involved with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Smart America Project—now called the Global Cities Team Challenge—the SCALE project was designed to deliver Internet of Things devices to vulnerable populations to understand their impact on first-responder activities. After that, we realized we needed to formalize the initiative to grow and add other test beds. The Thingstitute now has a bigger facility and workshop, and we’ve moved our test-bed to a large senior-living facility where we’ve deployed sensors that monitor air, water, and health.
We’re just finishing the first phase and are moving on to the second phase. We have about 15 or 20 volunteers in the facility to deploy Internet of Things devices. So far, it’s been going well. I’m excited about our next test-bed where we’ll be focusing on agriculture. We’ll have an amazing team of big tech companies, startups, and academic institutions using the same test-bed philosophy to help us better understand how the Internet of Things can affect agriculture.
Hopefully, if all goes well, we will also be doing something with corrections later this year. This is something that I think could prove a really compelling use for the Internet of Things because incarcerations is such a high-risk situation for society. Our role in corrections is critical because if we do it right, someone returns to society and can start paying in to the greater good. If we don’t do this right, they end up being a drain on society. And that’s not even counting all of the peripheral costs of incarcerations, like court fees and law enforcement. If the Internet of Things and data can help here, I think it would be hugely beneficial.
Overall, the Thingstitute is designed to manage these test-beds and encourage sharing knowledge. We have a partnership with Kansas City to share what we’re learning. If the Thingstitute positions the county as a leader in this space, that would be great, too. I think we’re in a unique position, given our proximity to the federal government, to NIST, and to policy groups, and given that we are a large urban county. We’re well-suited to play a leadership role in the evolution of the Internet of Things in the public sector.
New: Another one of your projects is helping the county’s firefighters develop smart firefighting tools. What does this kind of technology look like, and why is it so important?
Hoffman: It just so happens that we just wrote a chapter on this in a new publication put out by NIST and the National Fire Protection Research Foundation called the Research Roadmap for Smart Firefighting. It’s a pretty substantive guide to smart firefighting and it should help guide research funding for the foreseeable future.
Our chapter, though it may not sound very exciting, deals with the non-fire data user applications, focusing on alerting, notifications, risk-based inspections, and adaptable signage for transit and evacuation. I think this is hugely important because firefighting is one of those areas where new technologies can play a significant role in saving lives. Firefighters put out fires, obviously, but they often have a joint fire and rescue function. Eighty percent of our firefighting calls are calls for assistance, rather than for a fire. Understanding fires is important, but there’s so much potential to get better data into the hand of a first responder while they are en route to these assistance calls, and this is a great opportunity. Montgomery County is largely urban and dense, so cutting down response times is tricky. Figuring out how to cut this down is important, but I’m more focused on getting more information into the hands of firefighters and paramedics so they can be better informed about what they’re walking into and deploy the right resources on the first try. Whether its data off of a sensor or data on building codes, getting that information to our dispatch sensor to pass it along to firefighters is really the next step in firefighting.
Its one of those examples that show how dramatic the effects that the Internet of Things will have on the public sector. We’re seeing some of these changes in things like parking management, but that’s not a lifesaving example. And, until we figure out how to move the hodge-podge of data from sensors and protocols to the actual people that need it and build applications with it, we can’t really get anywhere with smart firefighting.
New: Montgomery County passed its open data law in 2012, and the Montgomery County Innovation Program oversees the annual Open Data Town Halls, which serve as a chance for the community to weigh in on open data efforts and hackathons to make better use of this data. What is the value of these events?
Hoffman: In the way we’ve structured the open data program in the county, we have the CountyStat group that serves as the internal ombudsman. They go after and find data that departments have or need and represent the internal data needs for the county. The innovation, program, which I oversee, represents the public needs. That’s why we run the town halls and do the hackathons—we do a lot of public outreach and try to make open data a real benefit for people.
I’m lucky to have access to a really great open data project team in our Department of technology Services. They have three people working full time on our program making sure it’s running well. They make sure we publish things according to our operations manual and according to our prioritization plan for our data inventory. We had created a scorecard for every piece of data, which is something that nobody has done before, because we wanted to determine what the most important data was and what we should publish first. It will take us years to publish everything, so we wanted to make sure the most important things happened first. Now the project team governs this.
The investment that the county executives made in open data demonstrates our commitment to transparency, but it’s also something that has to be justified. In an era of shrinking budgets, we need to be able to say why publishing something is important. The public outreach is important for letting people know what we have and how it could help them or their business.
New: I’ve heard you speak several times on smart cities. While Montgomery County isn’t a “city” per se, how far off do you think it is? What are some of the major roadblocks?
Hoffman: It’s really tough to say. What I do know is that nobody is going to make a sensor or system to the Montgomery County specification. We might get a single point solution that meets our transportation needs, or fire service needs, but until there’s a strong national or international protocol put in place, it’s going to be really hard for cities have that fully networked smart city we keep hearing about.
Truth be told, we can’t afford to deploy enough devices to become smart enough to reach that ideal. We own a relatively small percentage of the built environment which means we can’t really be fully connected. We have roads, but beyond that, people spend the vast majority of their lives in their offices and homes. Until there are these common standards and protocols, we’re going to have a diverse ecosystem of vendors and products that take proprietary approaches. There isn’t a week that goes by that I don’t get a pitch from someone trying to sell me their Internet of Things platform that can supposedly integrate everything, which I find funny.
Until there are interoperable, open standards that people adhere to, it’s going to be close to impossible to have these smart cities. We’ll be confined to siloed, point solutions that don’t talk to each other. I don’t think we should sit on our hands and wait for that day to come—now is very much the time to experiment—but any city, no matter how connected they are, will be limited until a firefighter en route to a scene can access real-time data on what’s happening in a building, or have an intersection that can adapt to a changing environment or be repurposed for an emergency evacuation situation. We know we could do all of these things, but it will be out of reach until the industry matures enough and we have common standards in place. Now that we have major companies putting together alliances to have this conversation on an international level, it will happen eventually, I just couldn’t tell you when.