AI Is Here To Stay In Your City And Local Government

The news is full of stories and examples about how AI is impacting different industries. From manufacturing to finance, retail to pharmaceuticals, healthcare to insurance, and beyond, it’s no doubt that AI is having a transformative impact on a wide range of industries. Likewise, various firms have been covering for years the impact AI is having on governments worldwide, with countries formulating strategic plans for AI and changing their way of operating in these remote-working reality days. However, not as much attention is placed on how local, state, city, and regional governments are implementing AI. After all, if AI is a transformative technology, shouldn’t we be seeing its impact in our daily interactions with our local government officials?

Gone are the days when governments can afford to be technology backwaters. We’re in a new reality of citizens wanting instant access to information and services. Data needs to be provided quickly, reliably, transparently, securely, and with privacy in mind. Local governments are being called on to be at the cusp of technology adoption tackling such enormous challenges as economic enablement in challenging pandemic days, use of advanced AI technology such as facial recognition while maintaining fairness and equity in matters such as policing, dealing with pressing cybersecurity and data access challenges, using data to enable speedy and reliable elections and access to local government goings-on, and even dealing with the realities of autonomous vehicles roaming their streets. Today’s local governments cannot afford to be any less advanced with their use of technology than the most sophisticated of technology adopters.

That certainly is the opinion of Dan Hoffman who is the City Manager of the city of Winchester, Virginia, and formerly the Assistant City Manager for the city of Gainesville, FL. While this locale might be unknown to many Forbes readers, it certainly represents the vanguard of where local governments are with their use and understanding of AI, machine learning, and advanced analytics. At the recent Data for AI conference, Dan Hoffman shared his ideas on how state and local governments can be more forward-thinking with their adoption of AI and some of the challenges and opportunities that AI presents to local governments. He further shares his views in this follow-up interview for this article.

What are some of the unique challenges around data at the local government level?

Dan Hoffman: Local governments have been facing unprecedented increases in the volume, variety and velocity of data for years. That’s not new. We’re still behind the curve, though, in hiring and retaining the talent to understand it all. What is new is now the sophisticated methods in which the data can be used. Many cities have just gotten to a point where they are somewhat proficient in creating visualizations, dashboards, and performance management tools. Those have allowed for a better understanding of how our cities function, which ultimately helps make better decisions. Now, many AI tools and machine-learning technologies are being offered by vendors that actually facilitate government services by making decisions for us in real time. So, in a world where we’re already struggling to compete with the private sector for analytical and information technology talent, we risk falling even further behind or becoming more reliant on outside vendors to handle our technology and data management needs.

How are local governments approaching technologies such as machine learning and AI?

Dan Hoffman: Over the course of my 20+ year career, I’ve worked for the federal government, a major city, a large urban county, a mid-size college town, and now I’m the City Manager for a small, vibrant city, Winchester, Virginia. Between that experience and being very active with national and international groups focused on government technology and data, I’ve seen a broad spectrum of different approaches to new technologies. This new wave of technology is questioning more of our fundamentals than ever before. In my opinion, jurisdictions that have chosen to hit the “easy button” and rely heavily on vendors or traditional methods will struggle with this new wave. Local jurisdictions must set up policy groups and committees to truly engage the elected bodies on what is possible with AI and machine learning if they want to be successful. Rumors, urban legends, television and movies cannot be where our elected officials become educated on new technologies. They need to be able to explain to their constituents the benefits of these new tools. Cities should also take the next step and engage with their residents on what these tools can and cannot do. For instance, if new intelligent traffic systems can save time and lives, they should not be held back by public fears not based in reality.

How have you seen automation, advanced data analytics, and AI play an increasing role in local government?

Dan Hoffman: To be honest, not much. Automation in a broader sense? Yes, if you consider a lot of the paperless and digital government initiatives of the past decade to be automation. Automation in the leveraging of cyber-physical systems in the real world, not as much. I’m not saying it isn’t happening in small pockets, it’s just not wide scale. Advanced data analytics? Again, it depends on the definition. To me, advanced is more than static dashboards that look pretty and provide basic intel. I see tools like the National Science Foundation (NSF) is developing through their Smart and Connected Communities program as examples of true advanced analytics. Communities should be monitoring those programs and the MetroLab Network for excellent examples of what’s coming in the future. And as for AI, it’s starting to play a role in some isolated areas, but I worry that public misinformation is going to hold it back. We need thoughtful and informed policymaking before we can see it grow at an accelerated pace.

Can you provide some real world examples of how these technologies have made a positive impact?

Dan Hoffman: We’re beginning to see some impacts in intelligent traffic systems across the country. It’s the area that I think has the most near-term potential for expanded use and community benefit. I like to focus on the people creating these solutions if I want to know what’s happening on the forefront. I follow the work of people like Jen Duthie with the City of Austin Transportation Department. Alex Pazuchanics, formerly of Pittsburgh and now with Seattle, is a real leader and doing some amazing things. Personally, I was also very proud of the work I was doing with Dr. Sanjay Ranka and Dr. Lily Elefteriadou at the University of Florida, funded by NSF, that fused together a variety of data streams to help identify high risk intersections. They’re about a year into a three-year project that I feel has great potential.

What are some of the unique challenges local governments face when it comes to adoption of AI?

Dan Hoffman: As I alluded to earlier, public perception is a hinderance to adoption and there is so much misinformation floating around. The private sector hasn’t always set the best example either in the way it has used AI. In the future, an open and transparent local government will use AI to improve services, make more efficient use of taxpayer dollars, and, in some cases, save lives. Unfortunately, the first exposure many people have had with AI are very sophisticated marketing campaigns that feel, at best, somewhat intrusive.

Where do you see AI having the biggest impact at the local level?

Dan Hoffman: In the near-term, it will make cities more sustainable and enhance quality of life through improved traffic flow and mobility and better environmental controls (i.e. stormwater systems and solid waste management). In time though, I see AI having an impact as big, if not bigger, in public safety. However, those will take longer to develop and trust for obvious reasons. Adoption in the first responder community will also take time as those systems are traditionally more expensive and require more standards and training. Although, when the time comes, there will be huge leaps in AI tools that help prevent fires and medical emergencies. We’re already seeing AI tools employed by groups like the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children making great strides in fighting child sex abuse. So, we’re seeing larger national organizations use AI for public safety, it’s just a matter of time before it is more common at the local level.

What are some challenges local governments face around data privacy, transparency, and security?    

Dan Hoffman: The relationship between local governments and data will always be a complicated one and vastly different than the private sector’s. Unlike most private sector organizations, our mission is to protect our residents, bolster economic growth, educate our youth, ensure the smooth flow of goods and people around the city, and more. That’s an incredibly diverse set of functions. So, let’s go back to the question: privacy, security, and transparency?! A local government must balance all three of those things across a widely diverse group of functional areas, while adhering to public information laws and securing very sensitive data about residents. That’s a huge task. When you have the dual charge of privacy and transparency with limited resources, the job is never easy.

What can local governments do to develop an AI ready workforce, including upskilling their current workforce around data and AI skills?

Dan Hoffman:  Finally, an easy question! Unfortunately, the answer is “spend money.” Don’t cut your training budget. Make sure your technology positions have a competitive salary. Tie certifications to performance-based pay. Local jurisdictions can compensate for some of that with better work-life balance, but that only goes so far. You can also appeal to those who want to have more purpose in their professional life. When the systems you support save lives or support a community, that really helps you feel good at the end of the day.

What AI technologies are you most looking forward to in the coming years?

Dan Hoffman: I’ve mentioned life-saving technologies, traffic systems, and more so far. Given the challenges faced by COVID-19, I could also point to new tools that help monitor, stop and prevent outbreaks. Although, many of those tools will be employed at the state or federal level. Instead, I’ll spend the last question talking about something every local jurisdiction must manage, solid waste. There are so many new tools and systems emerging every year that will not only save money for cities but also have a positive environmental impact. Countries like Sweden are leading the way in this arena. Less than 1% of their waste goes to a landfill. A lack of compost facilities, increasing tipping fees, and a struggling recycling market are increasing the financial pressures on cities. Places like Sweden are using a variety of technologies to turn their waste into fuel for buses and taxis, heat homes through district heating, and more. I’ll be watching very closely how they apply AI to what is already a fantastic system.

A good City Manager learns from others and shares what they have learned with their peers. They can’t lead on all fronts, but they can experiment and lead in the areas most important to their residents. Just as Winchester learns from the successes of others around the world, we’ll also lead and share our successes with others.

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