Feb 11 2016

California's New Digital Innovation Office Aims to Create Apps for Residents

The Golden State also wants to collaborate with other states using open source data and technologies.

California, home to Silicon Valley and some of the world’s largest technology giants, is widely seen as a center of innovation. In keeping with that tradition, California’s Department of Technology (CDT) unveiled this week its new Office of Digital Innovation and Technology Engagement.

The office’s goal is to use experimentation and open source technology to create new tools, applications and dashboards for residents to engage government services and be more connected to government, Scott Gregory, California’s state geographic information officer and manager of the new office, told StateTech.

Eventually, California wants the office to work with other states — sharing technology, code and best practices — to develop technology solutions that meet shared goals.

Even though Gregory says “the appetite for innovation” has been apparent in the CDT for some time, the department did not have a good way to harness it. “It was an opportunity for us to start to engage that and start to work toward building infrastructure and building a space to enable innovation to occur,” he says.

Experimenting to Create New Solutions

As the state notes in a blog post, “The first major initiative of the Office of Digital Innovation and Technology Engagement is the creation of an open source development environment, that will reside within CalCloud, called the California Innovation Lab.”

The lab will serve as a testing ground for new open source technologies inside the state’s data center. “This inaugural project for California government will provide a radical shift in the development of potential technology offerings in and by government, as well as transparency with its citizens,” the state says.

A key goal is to create technologies that all California agencies can use, Gregory says. “We want to be able to create the environment to be able to support things like business intelligence, data analytics, database automation and information-sharing protocols that are open and can be consumed all across the enterprise,” he says.

Another goal is to create “commodity-based solutions built on open source technology” and apply those solutions across government agencies. For example, Gregory says, if the office develops an identity-management solution based on open source technology, “it would make a lot more sense from an efficiency and cost-savings perspective” to make it available to all state agencies.

Gregory says the kinds of open source technologies that the office is looking to use will run the gamut, from coding platforms and frameworks like Python and Ruby, to different database constructs like Oracle’s MySQL, to software platforms like Linux and Red Hat. “We’re very much taking an open-minded approach,” he says.

Beyond that, the office wants to develop apps and services that California residents can use to engage government services. Gregory says that ultimately “the market is going to define what they want and what they need.” However, there are a few ideas that the office has kicked around.

One is a dashboard that uses location-specific, citizen-derived data to let residents know which government services are near them and what the wait time might be — for example, at a local Department of Motor Vehicles office. “Pulling that together into an application that helps people live their lives better would be tremendous,” Gregory says. “Based on what [the citizen] wants, it could be customized to their location and needs.”

Those kinds of solutions are the “sweet spot” of what the office is focused on, according to Gregory. “Success will be measured more on a qualitative scale than a quantitative scale,” he says. “Technology will help raise the quality of citizens’ experience with government.”

“I want to be able to develop technologies that pull citizens into the process, that get them more engaged with government by providing them with information to make more data-driven decisions,” he adds.

Cross-Border Collaboration With Other States

The office’s ambitions don’t stop there. Gregory says that California wants to build “a broader nationwide community where states are contributing to the code base.” The collaboration would include areas that all state governments are involved in such as child care, healthcare and public safety, he says.

However, such collaboration is secondary. First “we want to have California step out and have it be the leader it should be,” Gregory says.

Eventually, California plans to leverage open source code platforms like GitHub to share applications it develops with other states governments, which could then revise and enhance those apps. “It would be a crime for us to hang onto that for ourselves,” Gregory says. “What if we shared it with Nevada and Massachusetts?”

Rich Niewiroski Jr./Wikimedia Commons

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