The first two waves of the IT revolution offered state and local IT leaders amazing opportunities to make government more efficient, improve services and increase transparency. Today, an emerging third wave is making it possible for governments to solve pressing public problems in fundamentally new ways.
The first wave of the computer revolution allowed governments to automate and streamline an array of processes. The second wave — the Internet revolution — led to the deployment of an entirely new set of online government services. Whether a small town uses its municipal website to provide 24×7 access to online services or a state develops a system to allow residents and businesses to pay fees online, IT can help make government more responsive.
Many of these initial e-government applications simply automated existing government activities. This is no small feat — IT applications save taxpayers money by boosting efficiency. But it’s no big deal to simply use new technology to do old things better. What’s revolutionary is using new technology to do new and better things. Think of the personal computer: Although the PC was a major improvement over word processors and calculators, its true revolutionary potential did not emerge until we began using it to do something that was fundamentally new, such as surfing the Internet.
Now we’re reaching a tipping point. The confluence of faster processors, better storage, greater bandwidth and advanced software — coupled with new technologies such as geographic information systems, global positioning systems and distributed sensor networks — makes it possible for state and local governments to harness IT to solve pressing societal challenges in the areas of education, health care, energy and transportation. The communities that are most successful in addressing those challenges will be those that use IT to vastly improve the availability and use of information.
Across the nation, IT is revolutionizing government in myriad ways. For example, San Francisco, where in 2007 a teenager was stabbed in an argument over a parking spot, is installing wireless sensors in 6,000 parking spots. Drivers will be able to find an empty spot automatically by either downloading the information onto their cell phone or reading street signs that are connected to the system. In Philadelphia, city officials have launched a pilot program to put radio frequency ID tags in recycling bins so they can automatically track and reward citizens for recycling. As a result, the participation rate has shot up to 90 percent. And in Washington, D.C., the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority publishes train information online. Commuters can find out when the next train is coming and check for service disruptions from web-enabled mobile phones.
The next wave of e-government will require agencies to digitize even larger quantities of information. Many government IT leaders are already moving their communities in this direction. The Portland (Ore.) Police Department makes crime data available through its online CrimeMapper website. The Kansas Highway Patrol logs all accidents with injuries or fatalities on its website to streamline the process of disseminating crash information to the media and the public.
Data needs to be not only accessible but also reusable. Creating digital data using interoperable standards (such as XML) that can be shared and reused multiplies its value and can prove far more useful than just building a website or application that solves a single problem. For example, in Fairfax County, Va., local leaders are developing a comprehensive online GIS database that covers everything in the county from bus routes to private drinking wells.
If data is accessible and reusable, then citizens and nongovernmental organizations will be able to bring their creativity to bear. For example, volunteers working around the world established the KatrinaHelp Wiki as a clearinghouse for information on multiple disaster recovery efforts. One major initiative — the Katrina PeopleFinder project — aggregated data on survivors from multiple sources into a single repository using an interoperable XML standard called the People Finder Interchange Format.
The potential benefit of making more data accessible and reusable is huge. Take public safety: The United States has more than 2 million miles of onshore oil and natural gas pipelines, operated by roughly 3,000 companies. Unmapped pipelines can cause significant financial and health risks to construction crews or others who might unknowingly dig into them. But communities can create digital maps of these underground hazards by using online GIS databases. Digital images are used to update the online maps in real time, which makes them far more accurate and efficient than the paper maps of the past. In the near future, as local governments and utility companies amass more GIS data on underground pipes and cabling, workers will be able to use GPS-enabled equipment to avoid potential hazards.
When it comes to digital transformation, governments must lead by example. When practical, state and local government should be early adopters of new technology instead of relying on industry to lead the way. For example, government agencies can pursue green IT initiatives by establishing telework policies and creating telework best practices to reduce energy consumption and traffic congestion.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution for every community, but each local government does not need to build its own system from the ground up. Organizations should cooperate in setting common data standards and sharing best practices. It’s also important for government to engage with the private and nonprofit sectors. Working together, state and local leaders can drive investment in the IT infrastructure that’s needed to produce economic growth and improve the quality of life in their communities.
Daniel Castro is senior analyst and Robert Atkinson is president of the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation. They are authors of Digital Quality of Life: Understanding the Personal and Social Benefits of the Information Technology Revolution. Visit their website at itif.org.