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What are public sector CIOs thinking and talking about?

As a former CIO, I’m often intrigued by the way CIOs’ roles and expectations are evolving. Less than ten years ago, municipal CIOs were mainly responsible for building and delivering technology; today, they are looked upon as thought leaders. They now provide direction to their business leaders on a range of technologies and nurture talent, collaboration and innovation across the organization and its stakeholders.

When I started my career, GIS was run and used by a select group of professionals who collected, compiled, maintained and published data. We recognized the importance of location and analytics. We held this craft near and dear to our hearts and still do, but now things are changing for the better. More than 5.5 million subscribers around the globe have figured out the value ArcGIS offers.  One billion maps, over 50 million open data downloads, 350,000 organizations – the statistics speak for themselves.  Isn’t it exciting to be on the frontier of transformational technology?

Exciting – yes – and a bit stressful too. We’re in an era of digital transformation. It’s a lot of pressure to keep up with changing technologies as well as the evolving needs and demands of the community you serve. Technology is increasingly being used not only to gather and maintain public information but also to determine how to leverage it to solve problems in our communities. Balancing all these priorities and the added expectation to nurture talent, innovate and invent can be daunting. This brings along a changing role for CIOs, the theme for Esri’s Public Sector CIO Summit this year in Redlands, California. CIOs from government organizations around the world shared stories of how they are transforming their organization, and with it their roles.  The event was thought-provoking and informative – and the sunny weather wasn’t bad either. 

International Public Sector CIO’s came together to learn the latest strategies for delivering GIS across their organizations and to hear from innovators and technology leaders who are paving the way in adapting to a changing world.

Esri President, Jack Dangermond kicked off the event by sharing some examples of the impressive ways people and organizations are innovating with our technology. His message reminded me that ArcGIS supports both comprehensive geographic information systems (GIS) and the simple mapping and location-based applications that the public uses on a day-to-day basis. Esri technology is not only for the professional GIS user; it’s for everyone.

Invention or innovation?

Teri Takai is the executive director of the Center for Digital Government in the US. Emphasizing on the creative use of technology, Takai stated during the conference, “innovation is often found in the application of our best technologies. Innovation doesn’t always require invention.” To that point, most organizations still seem to think that ‘invention’ is the only way to innovate. For example, there’s a misconception that open data is only used to build new apps. But, consider when you include context or narratives about the data, you may not be inventing but innovating.

Municipalities have lots of data and information they use to create places for people to live, work and play. They are, and have always been, service-oriented. When you use workflows, data and context to do work differently–to solve policy initiatives instead of solely focusing on operational work–you innovate. So, my rally call is to move beyond service delivery and into solving policy goals with a focus on business value for data-driven citizenship. Government organizations are well-equipped to do this as they have everything they need: people, processes, data and technology. You don’t necessarily require invention to innovate; as Takai says, you need synergy and collaboration.

Start small, grow big

During a panel discussion with Teri Takai and Therese Empie, Jack Dangermond gave this piece of advice to CIOs: “There is an old saying that you have to do something to be something to have something – forget that and instead just ‘be’.” This rings true for organizations that are overwhelmed by the extent of technology and their community’s requirements but limited by resources.

I encourage municipalities to start small and grow gradually. It’s the first step that counts the most.

When it comes to successful staggered approaches to GIS implementation, Maple Ridge, BC’s Open Government Portal and Brampton, Ontario’s GeoHub Open Data site are excellent examples of municipalities that planned their growth in steps. Both received accolades at this CIO Summit. Go Canadian municipalities!

Organizations don’t innovate overnight. It starts from laying the foundation and creating an organizational framework that supports innovation all around. Esri’s director of Global Business Development, Chris Capelli, simplified the innovation puzzle by showing nine common patterns of ArcGIS use that provide an innovation framework because “spatial reasoning is truly a core competency of life and work”. You can download a poster of these patterns from GeoNet.

Chris Capelli, Director of Global Business Development, Esri shares the nine common patterns of ArcGIS use that provide an innovation framework.

With the help of these patterns, you can:

  1. Map what you have already done (e.g. support emergency response)
  2. Identify gaps (e.g. optimize and enhance field mobility)
  3. Envision what comes next (e.g. engage with constituents)

Brenda Wolfe, senior product manager at Esri, emphasized the significance of citizen volunteering and ownership. Municipal leaders often question why they should engage with their citizens. Wolfe revealed that one hour of volunteer time was calculated to be worth $24.14 in 2016 by the Independent Sector. Think of what that could be worth to your organization if you engaged with your community at large.

Wolfe’s comments created discussion around using spatial analysis for insights, and how Waze is engaging with the community, including local government, to share real-time traffic and road information, which saves time and money for everyone using the solution.

Nick O'Day, chief data officer at the City of Johns Creek in Georgia, shared that one of their best data victories (or quick wins) was using data from Waze to help allocate funds on certain roadways to improve traffic flow.

Chief Data Officers (CDOs): Barbara Cohn, Colorado Department of Transportation, Sari Ladin-Sienne, City of Los Angeles, Tyler Kleykamp, State of Connecticut and Nick O’Day, City of Johns Creek discuss new opportunities to deploy data as a corporate asset rather than a potential risk to be managed.

The event was packed full of useful nuggets. David Maloney, director of Strategic Partnerships and Development at the National League of Cities, said that the first strategic priority for cities is “almost always economic development,” which is what I see here in Canada too.  This is followed by managing and improving infrastructure, and then enhancing public service and community recreation.

Data and analytics drive value

Another presenter that I found inspirational was Jennifer Belissent, a principal analyst with Forrester. Her talk highlighted research and stats that show data and analytic tools add value to organizational workflows. She focused on descriptive, predictive, prescriptive and pre-emptive analytics, where many municipalities struggle with the ‘last mile’ or getting the value out of these processes.

Belissent cautioned municipalities from getting hung up on titles. This is a new area for most organizations, so you need a ‘champion’ to manage these new processes. Appoint someone to manage data, insights and collaboration, and don’t worry about their title. Typically, municipalities are all focused on data management and governance. However, the time has come to move along the value chain beyond data exploration and action to innovation, which will help you finish the last mile and take advantage of prescriptive and pre-emptive analytical capabilities. This made a lot of sense to me.

As American inventor, Thomas Edison said, “the value of an idea lies in the using of it.” The same can be said of data. I like to say, “the more often and broader you share your data so that others can use it, the more valuable it becomes.” When you focus on managing data, providing insights and fostering collaboration, you’ll be much more successful at crossing that last mile.

Belissent concluded with this interesting thought: governments today are replacing and upgrading their legacy business systems with modern systems with the intention to instantly and inherently gain all the benefits provided by the new systems’ functionalities such as data analytics. Governments need to prepare for this change. She suggested ideas such as assigning a millennial to an executive so they can learn from each other on how to use modern technology and share their ways of thinking, or build an insights centre of excellence to drive value so CIOs can execute on new insight-driven strategies and nurture new insight-driven cultures.

Collaborate for success

Of course, I found the presentation on public/private partnerships by James Killick, Global Partner Manager for Apple Maps, completely fascinating. I love Apple Maps, so I was excited to hear about their collaboration successes with Esri.

Their work with Esri on ArcGIS Indoors is helping organizations develop apps that improve accessibility and enhance customer experience. Some examples include Loud Steps, an indoor navigation app for the visually impaired, and the SFMOMA App, which combines audio content with indoor positioning technology so museum visitors can see and hear art in a whole new way. The SFMOMA App uses Esri’s ArcGIS Indoors application and Apple’s Blue Dot functionality for geofencing. It also leverages the Situational Awareness Widget in Web AppBuilder for ArcGIS for incident reporting and indoor location information.

In alignment with Esri’s and my focus, Apple loves data. Killick encouraged municipalities to share their data with open licences, encouraging them to ensure their data is reusable, meaning data can be downloaded in open formats and read by software, and users have a legal right to reuse it. Apple will use this open data to create better citizen experiences. If Apple can do it – so can you. Go Open Data!

There was so much more to this event, which couldn’t possibly be covered in my blog post; however, it was quite apparent that the role of the CIO is changing from ‘keeping the lights on’ to becoming an inspirational and innovative thought leader. I am looking forward to having a Canadian CIO sit on a panel discussion at the 2019 CIO Public Sector Summit.  If you are interested in hearing more about the 2018 event or getting involved in 2019, please contact me at

And meanwhile, I would leave you with this quote from Phillip Leclair, CIO of the City of Pasadena, “Embrace this digital transformation and just jump in!”