Louisville, Kentucky’s chief technology manager works with civic-tech innovators every day. That sounds to me like a good way to make a city smart. But that’s only the beginning.
First comes openness, and not just open data. Ed Blayney welcomes the innovators. He stands in stark contrast with the cold eyes and stiff silos some of them face when they come to offer a city helpful, usually free new technology.
It’s not easy for city administrators, says Blayney. “They have their nose down in their day-to-day work and you’re asking them to change the way they do their jobs. It’s not easy changing people’s minds.” Cultures, least of all in government, don’t change nimbly.
Imagine the U.S. Army. A few years ago, he was second in command of a 135-person infantry company for 26 months, including 12 months in Kunar Province, Afghanistan.
More recently, civic tech has given Blayney exposure to stuff he couldn’t get from government alone, he says. Just out of grad school with a masters of public administration, he joined the city’s Office of Performance Improvement and Innovation.
There Blayney, in a part time position, grabbed the tech ball that others in the office missed. He worked closely with the civic tech community which, he says, was already doing good work in Louisville but was still hungry for more impact. In his first year, Blayney and the civic tech gang finished three projects, he says, each with excellent effect. Another one of his early projects was partnering with Waze, making Louisville the fifth U.S. city to do so. With the Waze data, the city got new macro and even micro views of its traffic congestion and air quality. That led him to a variety of transportation projects.
“I see transportation as kind of the baseball of smart cities,” referring to the scouting innovations described in the book Moneyball about the Oakland A’s baseball team. That and some other data among the “tons” of unused data told him much more than others believed it could.
“‘Smart cities’ almost seems magical,” he says. “‘Civic technology’ seems boring and basic, and more approachable … To me, civic technology is the new civic infrastructure.” Civic infrastructure has become more than just roads, sewers, and streetlights.
What’s more, civic tech defines IT’s new role. IT’s role used to be making sure everyone’s computers and email worked. “Now its role is exploding beyond the walls of government.” It’s about the civic tech that’s permeating the community, whether it’s fiber or data-collection sensors. He says, “IT in 50 years will look a lot more like public works than a back office IT shop.”
How do we get there from here? It’s a long haul. All the new technology and data and the profound if subtle changes in how we think about it is a big challenge for everyone, for people in government and citizens alike.
“My job is to help us chart the course forward” for what he sees as the new IT. He uses various descriptors for his job — data science advisor, smart-city project manager, and “change agent for data and technology inside a government.” He says, “I’m a government person who does technology as opposed to a technology person who does government. That’s my job.” And if as the metaphor goes, data is the new oil, or technology is the new steam engine, or “smart” is the new “rich and famous,” he’s just sprung the gate.
“You have to be tenacious and cool to get stuff done,” he says. Now after four years, he says doors seem to have opened for him. “It’s just like I passed some sort of time in service.”
Though he doesn’t think people resisted consciously, he says, they might have thought the new technology and all that was some kind of a fad. He says, “This is not, you know, something that’s going away.”
MORE BY BLAYNEY See “We Need More Mad Scientists” on Medium. He describes what he calls a “mad scientist” approach for local governments. It includes, for example, using “fiction or narratives to paint a picture of your ideal community in 2050” — a tactic, by the way, that I find particularly interesting and hopeful. There’s also much more by him on Medium for any student of civic tech and smart cities. I recommend it.