The public/private technology gap


The technological gap between what is available and what is used by public agencies is currently wider than at any time in my career, and that goes back quite a way. I can recall about 25 years ago standing on the Verrazano Bridge deck, mid-span, on a Friday afternoon. I had a cell phone the size of a brick to my ear and I was talking about getting some documents to my home the next day. Communication of data was not instant and we relied on first-generation cellular and overnight delivery services. I knew as I spoke on that phone that our lives were to be altered in ways that I could barely grasp. However, the point that I want to make here is that both public agencies and companies had the same access to technology.

That is not the same today, and let’s be clear, the public agencies have not been able to keep up. There is a laundry list of why, which includes public procurement cycle times, public salary structures, difficulty recruiting the best technical people, and so on. I don’t think that we can fix all or even some of these problems easily or quickly. Rather we need to adapt to the technical environment in which we live so that the latest advances can be applied in the public sector.

Lets talk for a moment about the ‘what’. App developers are able to take public data feeds, enhance them and offer a service to the public in a few days of development time. Cheers to the agencies for making travel time – and schedule in the case of transit – data available easily and freely to developers. The downside is that publicly provided websites often provide less information and functionality than the privately provided ones.

How can agencies deal with this gap? They can hire developers and try to stay abreast of the field, but this is not going to work because the most talented developers turn out app after app in different industries and are uninterested in a life of public service. Deny the developers the data stream? That would be a disservice to the public and a Luddite approach to the current environment.

Let me suggest a third way, a way to fully engage with state-of-the-art technology and to at the same time fulfill the public mission of the transportation agencies. Provide the data free of charge to app developers, as many forward-thinking agencies already do, and require that the developers, then do not make the data stream that they offer, proprietary.

Secondly, see how to incorporate other data that the app offers back into the public agency website or app. If the agencies can’t get ahead of, or even keep up with developers, they should find a way to incorporate their innovations into the public offerings. Here is a way forward that is a win-win.

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