On December 5, 2017, the Center for Data Innovation hosted its fifth annual U.S. Data Innovation Day conference. With the theme of “Smart Government, Smarter Communities,” the event featured three panels of public and private sector experts discussing how data-driven innovations such as the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence can help improve quality of life and make the government more efficient, as well as how to empower the public sector to once again take the reins as a leader in the use of digital technologies. The discussion proved to be a cause for optimism: administrators at all levels of government are increasingly eager to embrace data-driven innovation, and with the right support, these technologies can help make government dramatically smarter in the near future.
From local governments exploring how data analytics cut costs to federal agencies investigating how they can automate routine processes with AI, panelists agreed that as the public sector learns about the potential benefits of data-driven innovation, its appetite to capture these benefits grows substantially. For example, William Eggers, executive director of the Center for Government Insights at Deloitte, highlighted his recent study finding that with enough investment, AI could save the federal government 1.2 billion labor hours per year through increased productivity and automation. This potential, noted Justin Herman, Emerging Citizens Technology program lead at the General Services Administration, was the reason that 297 government agencies, ranging from the Village of Westmont, Illinois, to the Securities and Exchange Commission, have asked to participate in the the Emerging Citizens Technology program, which brings together public sector officials to share best practices and tools for AI and other technologies.
Unfortunately, some public officials may have flawed perceptions about just what these technologies can offer. For example, Andel Koester, associate director of What Works Cities, noted that many in local government think of smart cities more as an amorphous buzzword rather than a set of tangible technologies and policies that can make cities more efficient and better address the needs of their residents. And Herman urged that if agency officials want to implement AI, they should do their best to ignore all the hype surrounding the technology and instead focus on specific problems they want to solve and then see how AI can help.
Panelists also discussed the challenges that the public sector will need to overcome to effectively capture these benefits. Koester explained that while many are interested in deploying smart city technologies, they want to see examples of other cities that have already done so successfully before they make any investments. Panelists agreed that if the public sector wants to embrace data-driven innovation, it should be more willing to embrace risk. Alec Chalmers, director of public sector vertical sales at Amazon Web Services, described how cloud services can make it more feasible for governments to take risks, fail, and try again as they innovate. And David Bray, executive director of People-Centered Internet, stressed the need for massive reskilling in the public sector if governments want to be able to embrace AI. Finally, Meagan Metzger, founder of decode42, said that as governments strive for digital leadership, they should leverage the expertise of the private sector to make it easier to adopt and use new technologies.
Despite these obstacles, the discussion also highlighted many promising examples of governments using data in innovative ways to solve important challenges. And while governments still have a lot of work to do to fully capture the benefits of data-driven innovation, Data Innovation Day gave every indication that a smarter government is very much within reach.