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GCN : May 2014
A hub of technology and crowd culture, Austin, Texas, continues to enhance its reputation for developing technology- based services to drive the municipal economy. That's due in part to the efforts of Austin's chief information of cer Stephen Elkins, who since 2010 has promoted community engagement and collaboration --- or as he puts it, "centralized direction in a decentralized environment." Here Elkins shares some of his insights into Austin's IT goals with GCN freelance writer Tony Ware. GCN: Austin has just nished its an- nual South-by-Southwest gathering. How has your of ce accommodated this event and what impact has it had on your smart city projects? Elkins: When we typically have these large gatherings it's through the Austin Convention Center, and they'll bring Cisco in and set up a separate network so it's not taxing on our network. The pain points are that as we spread out, it is a challenge having the same level of connectivity to all city sites including libraries. As we grow as a city, all our of ces can't be located in the downtown area. So as we go further into the community we realize we don't have the same resources, and we recognize we need to add ber to those locations. That's so that's where projects like Google Fiber can poten- tially help out. GCN: I understand you're very focused on interdepartmental collaboration. How do you plan your initiatives to bene t the widest range of depart- ments and citizen interests? Elkins: Our IT leadership gets to- gether monthly in a recently launched group we call the CIO Council, and we discuss as a city where we should go from a technology standpoint. I also coordinate a regional CIO meeting every other month to bring in IT leaders from other agencies in the area, includ- ing state, county and school CIOs, the University of Texas, the Department of Public Safety, and CIOs from Houston up to Fort Worth. We look at common problems we're working on and how can we come up with a strategy that can meet 80 percent of everyone's needs. We talked about cybersecurity: how do we notify each other if we see something at the local level and how do we relay that information to mitigate and x the problem. The other area is data sharing; how do we make our data available to the community, not just city data but county data and state data users can mash up. GCN: With the push to have the open data, are you involved in nonpro t ini- tiatives such as Code for America? Elkins: Yes, we were a Code for America city, and they got us started doing hackathons, which have en- gaged the community to tell us what they think we should be doing. One of the targets was an initiative to create a contribution tracking system so the public could see how much fund- ing was going for a councilmember's campaign. We looked internally and saw how much it would cost to build it or buy it. A group at a hackathon said they could build something without spending taxpayer dollars. I think our direction going forward will be putting forth a problem we're having, and asking, "Can you citizens, you community members, help us solve it?" GCN: What are some of the city's big- gest accomplishments in the last four years? Elkins: Our city's website was recently ranked nationally. The site is two years old, and folks outside the city see how it can compete with any government website. And we're constantly evolv- ing it. We've got our open data portal on our site and have just hired a data architect to release more data while relieving fears from some departments that the data would be used against them. One data set we included was from our sanitation department, after which some citizens put together a schedule where folks could look online and see when their pickup was sched- uled. Our citizens need to realize the ben- e ts from making our data available. From a transparency standpoint, the number of open-records requests we get are very large, so making our data available will hopefully cut down on that number. • Collaboration Austin-style: A talk with CIO Stephen Elkins BY TONY WARE [BrieFing] 8 GCN MAY 2014 • GCN.COM "I think our direction going forward will be putting forth a problem we're having, and asking, 'Can you citizens, you community members, help us solve it?'" -- STEPHEN ELKINS, AUSTIN CIO