Modern Interconnectedness Demands Regional Solutions
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Modern Interconnectedness Demands Regional Solutions

Jon Walton, CIO, San Mateo County
Jon Walton, CIO, San Mateo County

Jon Walton, CIO, San Mateo County

We live in an extraordinary time in the history of human civilization— never before has the globe been “flatter” and people more interdependent. In every context imaginable—business, personal, and political—one cannot ignore the power of these new connections. Businesses and individuals have embraced these trends and their power (e.g. many can’t remember the last time they spoke to a bank teller or called a restaurant or hotel for reservations), yet government is often considered a laggard. There is actually a good reason for much of this, as government, by design, is meant to be more deliberate and risk-averse.

The San Mateo County (SMC) provides critical services to its residents, including public safety, health, social services, housing, parks, and a host of other services. However, in an era where technology is changing so rapidly, our government agency—like all others— needs to recognize and embrace the larger trends while implementing new solutions in the context of its larger mission and constraints. Much of this is done by leveraging technology to better engage with our residents, including providing more and better information as well as providing many of our core services better, faster, or more efficiently. However, we can’t take our eye off of our “day job”; the Information Services Department (ISD)—the technology department within the County—is responsible for supporting a very large and varied organization, with over 20 departments and approximately 6,000 employees, who in turn provide a host of critical services to almost three-quarters of a million residents. This is why ISD recently created a new division of Planning and Research to have a dedicated team focused on long-term planning and building new solutions to meet the future needs of our organization and our community.

 The role of every government agency is to look beyond its own borders to create connections— on a technical level, a physical level, and even an interpersonal level 

The San Mateo County and ISD recognized a few years ago that in order to better facilitate the connections between government and its residents, our government must ensure that its residents have high-speed connectivity and access to the myriad of resources and applications that the County and others are putting online. Although we live in the heart of Silicon Valley, we still have a significant digital divide among our residents. This is why in 2015 we launched SMC Public Wi-Fi to provide free Wi-Fi connectivity throughout our county, particularly in underserved communities. We believe that this program supports educational opportunities for students, spurs local economic development, and provides greater access to County services. Recent survey data collected from users of the Wi-Fi system, particularly those with otherwise limited access to high-speed internet services, demonstrates that they are seeing all of these benefits.

The success of this program demonstrated that the role of government needs to change in an era characterized by greater interconnectedness and interdependence among all sectors of our economy and society. Governments can—and should—work together to effectively and efficiently provide a set of regional services to our residents. Information doesn’t stay siloed within one “jurisdiction,” so why should our services? All public and private entities are seeing the same trends, which include a migration of data and applications to cloud services, the ubiquity of mobile access, the Internet of Things, Big Data, and new security challenges. In this spirit, last year ISD began an effort to create a multi-jurisdictional fiber optic network to be shared and leveraged by government agencies across our county (including cities and school districts), in partnership with private-sector businesses and non-profits. This partnership model is particularly powerful in San Mateo County as there is no single dominant city that would naturally take the lead on such an effort. Additionally, many of the county’s smaller cities and agencies don’t have the technical resources to address these problems on their own.

The goals of the shared fiber project include:

• Connecting key locations in each city in the county with high-speed fiber (including city halls, fire stations, police stations, etc.);

• Enhancing collaboration and information sharing with organizations like hospitals, libraries, schools, and public safety agencies;

• Providing network infrastructure resiliency for continuity as well as disaster readiness and recovery; and

• Enabling municipalities to leverage the benefits of high-speed fiber for economic development, infrastructure enhancement and serving the public good.

The County believes that this multi-jurisdictional model is the best approach to provide an effective infrastructure to meet all of the above goals. It is clear that the fiber infrastructure will yield economic development benefits, attract more businesses to local cities, and enable “smart city” initiatives. Public safety would be enhanced through better data sharing among first responders and improving disaster preparedness and response. Lastly, a regional connectivity infrastructure would enable all government institutions to provide residents with better access to services, including having better connected schools, libraries, and community organizations.

The response from local cities, school districts, and libraries has been overwhelmingly positive, as they all understand the value of essentially creating a “smart region” that is able to best serve all of our residents and provide a bridge for technologies and applications that have yet to be developed but no doubt will be valuable in furthering each agency’s mission.

The County plans to complete the fiber network this year, including repurposing a Joint Powers Agreement (JPA) among the relevant agencies as well as connecting eight locations and creating redundant connections to two interconnect Internet sites. Following this work, our consortium will add additional city and other agency connections to the fiber backbone based on costs and other factors to prioritize those new connections.

In part due to the County’s leadership in leading these regional solutions, the Global City Teams Challenge (GCTC) recently added a Public WiFi SuperCluster with the County of San Mateo on its leadership team. GCTC, organized by the National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST) as well as US Ignite, is a collaborative platform enabling local governments, nonprofit organizations, academic institutions, technologists and private corporations from all over the world to form project teams, or “Action Clusters”, in order to work on groundbreaking Internet of Things applications within the smart city environment. The Public WiFi SuperCluster will develop blueprints and implementation plans to allow individual communities to deploy public WiFi infrastructure, applications, and solutions. These blueprints, implementation plans, and other findings will be presented at the GCTC Expo scheduled for later this year.

It is clear that we’re on the right approach. In our increasingly interconnected world, the role of every government agency is to look beyond its own borders to create connections—on a technical level, a physical level, and even an interpersonal level—so that is the basis of our regional approach and perspective. We know we have great potential to both serve the public much better and be more efficient with taxpayer dollars in the process. This will only be enhanced by looking at every challenge through the lens of our larger community and thinking of all solutions as regional. Technology will help us together create better connections among people and between people and their government.

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