Solutions for an urbanized future

Anything called FutureGov gets your attention. The promise of 2 days rethinking what governance means in the 21st century would get anyone excited. In Canberra. With the senior executive from Australian (and some state) government agencies, private sector and some universities.

But it turns out that FutureGov is both an aspiration, and an object. FutureGov is an initiative of a magazine by the same name started by New Zealand’s former Chief Information Officer so the lens through which we were looking was (pretty exclusively) ICT.

I was invited by NCS – the Singapore Government’s information technology unit – to act as a conversation lead on why information technology had a role to play in a more urbanized Australia. This is not new. Most of the global tech companies have some sort of offering highlighting the advantages of integrating monitoring and control systems to better manage resources like urban infrastructure; water, energy, transport etc. IBM and Cisco chief among them. But where NCS differs is that it can talk from first hand experience as the client – as government – on how these new systems are applied and how their use can improve internal cross agency communication. It moves it away from ‘tech’ to a more nuanced conversation on the value of sharing information, the challenge of legacy systems, and on the interface between internal needs of government, and the opportunities of converting the universe of data available to government in to a intuitive user experience.

NCS brings this together in their Solutions for an Urbanised Future – a topic I was asked to explore over the 2 days in what was a form of group speed-date. Between occasional keynote speakers and panel discussions, conference delegates rotated between tables ‘hosted’ by a mediator and an expert in a chosen field. Credit to NCS for being the sole champion for the opportunities of new technologies for the built environment in a room discussing (basically) the dangers of open data (and why you might need to buy some extra tech to manage the terrible risk).

For a conference called ‘FutureGov’ there was a surprising lack of the ‘vision thing’ in most keynote speakers with the exception of the First Assistant Secretary of the Dept of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy Richard Windeyer who started to explore just how technologies like 3D printing might impact on the trade in goods, how we move around to trade (or not) and how this might spark the design of new business models. A look down the program was promising; citizen-centric services, emerging platforms, democratising data (interestingly nothing on the real threats to government data; the rise of the hacker and citizen-led data journalism. Nothing either on Gamification).

The discussions we led focused on an aspirational model; shifting from analogue and disconnected decision making between jurisdictions to a responsive urban operating system based on datasets drawn from anywhere and able to function as a predictive tool to beta test policies or programs in a simulated environment (assume a new rail line or second airport. Or programs like simplifying the number and design of forms etc). A dream also at the core of the ETH/Singapore Future Cities Lab collaboration.

While an underlying theme of FutureGov was the value of data, more important than having datasets is what we do with the data. The value is more in the capacity to interrogate layers of data that aren’t always seen in context. And then the special thing that happens when data is entered into geospatial models to locate ‘values’ in a ‘place’. MIT’s Senseable Lab comes to mind. (Similar to a post on AURIN’s work in Australia which you can find here).

Agencies like Geoscience Australia and the Dept of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries deal with spatialised data. Agencies like Human Services don’t. There are valid concerns around individuals privacy and the fear that fine grain data might turn people into targets for heavy handed enforcement of some sort (as the Institute for Criminology kept reminding us). But then consider the New York Times’ work mapping the ‘unknown’ character of police enforcement, crime & illegal guns in NYC. There’s a link between data, it’s visualization and the chance for more targeted responses by government. And sometimes this relies on moving beyond just a blurred picture of a place.

Over the course of 2 days we sketched out how we might clarify responsibilities around data collation and take some of the stress out of ‘smaller’ agencies inputting and drawing from these datasets, and how ‘lead’ agencies might be tasked to drive a more consistent architecture for the information in the first place. For example, Health might be a lead agent who shepherds smaller agencies like Dept of Veterans Affairs through the process. Health, education, infrastructure, defence, environment might have prime responsibility to collect & collate data families. And then – working with AGMIO – further synthesize these 5 key datasets.

And when the question of responsibility came up (who’s accountable for all this data and who ‘owns it’?) we drew on parallels from the built environment and the assemblage of complex projects in the BIM environment. Also not fully resolved, but not the end of the world as once feared.

The aspirational model got strong support, but there’s some basic groundwork needed first, it seems. Australia’s technology champion, AGIMO has published standards and frameworks but there’s a way to go before data within and between governments share a common language so meaning can be extracted.

FutureGov was a really valuable insight in to the CIO’s world but couldn’t help thinking of how conversations about the emerging opportunities of technology would be boosted by some perspective outside the core ICT discipline; in particular those who design the interface with technology systems like the User Experience crowd. Any discipline benefits from external perspectives but it’s especially important for ICT given the tendency for government to see it only from the ‘supply side’ (risks, security, management). And forget that its about the ‘demand side’ – the user.

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