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Gold Mining

My last posting was about the “goldmine” that exists in the information your government collects every day. It’s a goldmine because this data can be analyzed to determine how to save money by learning what policies and programs work best. Some governments have the internal skills to do this kind of sophisticated analysis or they can contract for those skills. But no government — not even the US Federal government — has the resources to analyze all the data they have. What can you do about that? Maybe there’s an answer in a story about real gold mining from the authors of the book “Wikinomics”[1]:A few years back, Toronto-based gold mining company Goldcorp was in trouble. Besieged by strikes, lingering debts, and an exceedingly high cost of production, the company had terminated mining operations…. [M]ost analysts assumed that the company’s fifty-year old mine in Red Lake, Ontario, was dying. Without evidence of substantial new gold deposits, Goldcorp was likely to fold. Chief Executive Officer Rob McEwen needed a miracle. Frustrated that his in-house geologists couldn’t reliably estimate the value and location of the gold on his property … [he] published his geological data on the Web for all to see and challenged the world to do the prospecting. The “Goldcorp Challenge” made a total of $575,000 in prize money available to participants who submitted the best methods and estimates. Every scrap of information (some 400 megabytes worth) about the 55,000 acre property was revealed on Goldcorp’s Web site. News of the contest spread quickly around the Internet and more than 1,000 virtual prospectors from 50 countries got busy crunching the data. Within weeks, submissions from around the world were flooding into Goldcorp headquarters. There were entries from graduate students, management consultants, mathematicians, military officers, and a virtual army of geologists. “We had applied math, advanced physics, intelligent systems, computer graphics, and organic solutions to inorganic problems. There were capabilities I had never seen before in the industry,” says McEwen. “When I saw the computer graphics, I almost fell out of my chair.” The contestants identified 110 targets on the Red Lake property, more than 80% of which yielded substantial quantities of gold. In fact, since the challenge was initiated, an astounding 8 million ounces of gold have been found — worth well over $3 billion. Not a bad return on a half million dollar investment. You probably won’t be able to offer a prize to analysts, although you might offer to share some of the savings that result from doing things better. But, since the public has an interest in seeing its government work better, unlike a private corporation, maybe you don’t have to offer a prize.And there are many examples on the Internet where people are willing to help out without any obvious monetary reward. Certainly not everyone, but enough people might be interested in the data to take a shot of making sense of it — students or even college professors looking for research projects, retired statisticians, the kinds of folks who live to analyze baseball statistics, and anyone who might find this a challenge.The Obama administration and its new IT leaders have made a big deal about putting its data on the Web. There are dozens of data sets on the Federal site[2], obviously taking care to deal with issues of individual privacy and national security. Although their primary interest is in transparency of government, now that the data is there, we’ll start to see what people out there learn from all that information.Alabama[3] and the District of Columbia, among others, have started to do the same thing.You can benefit a lot more, if you too make your government’s data available on the web for analysis. Then your data, perhaps combined with the Federal data and other sources on the web, can provide you with an even better picture of how to improve your government — better than just using your own data alone. Links: 1. “Innovation in the Age of Mass Collaboration”, Business Week, Feb. 1, 2007 “ open for business”, Government Computer News, May 21, 2009, “Alabama at your fingertips”, Government Computer News, April 20, 2009, Jacknis {encode=”” title=””} July 6, 2009

Beyond The Inbox And Outbox

Every day, the employees of your government follow the same routine. They have a stack of problems, applications, forms and the like in their inbox. It may be a real, old-fashioned inbox with lots of paper or the computer-based equivalent. Doing the best they can, they then work through the pile and, we hope, with wisdom and efficiency, they process the incoming tasks and then move them to the outbox. As far as many employees are concerned, their work is done when the thing is put in the outbox.However, for the people who run the government, this represents more than a ledger of what came in and what went out. It is a gold mine of information. Especially because of all the automation that has been put in place in government agencies, it is also an easily accessible gold mine.Unfortunately, this gold mine is often ignored. But if that data is analyzed, you will discover the patterns that can help you improve government programs and policies. Consider two examples, from very different areas, of what statistical analysis of that data can tell you:• What kinds of programs have worked best for which kinds of prisoners? (This knowledge can be used to come up with better treatment and assignment of prisoners at intake.)• Who has used the public golf courses at what times of the week and day? (This can identify where you might want to offer new programs targeted at particular groups of residents to even out usage during the day and get more golf fees.) In 2007, Professor Ian Ayres wrote a book, “SuperCrunchers: Why Thinking-By-Numbers Is The New Way To Be Smart”, in which he described how various organizations are using statistical analysis to dramatically improve their performance. One of its chapters, “Government By Chance”, provides public sector examples and offers an interesting idea. Imagine a world where people looked to the IRS as a source for useful information. The IRS could tell a small business that it might be spending too much on advertising or tell an individual that the aver¬age taxpayer in her income bracket gave mote to charity or made a larger IRA contribution. Heck, the IRS could probably produce fairly accurate estimates about the probability that small businesses (or even marriages) would fail. In fact, I’m told that Visa already does predict the probability of divorce based on credit card purchases (so that it can make better predictions of default risk). Of course, this is all a bit Orwellian. I might not particularly want to get a note from the IRS saying my marriage is at risk. But I might at least want the option of having the government make predictions about various aspects of my life. Instead of thinking of the IRS as solely a taker, we might also think of it as an information provider. We could even change its name to the “Information & Revenue Service.” This is yet another example, though, of moving the public sector from a transactional view of citizens to something more helpful. While even the author admits the IRS example is a scary, there are other possibilities that are not scary and that your residents would like. The use of the data the government collects for better policy and better service to citizens is what I call “learning how to drive the government” because it is different from the usual fad and fashion approach to policy. Too often policy debates are like a driver in a car who cannot see outside the windows. So the driver keeps going until the car hits a wall, at which point the usual reaction is to go in the opposite direction until the same thing happens again. This accounts for the feeling the pendulum swinging in public policy debates, rather than real learning occurring. When everyday data is analyzed, it is like being able to look out the windows and figure out what direction to drive.Norm Jacknis {encode=”” title=””} June 15, 2009

Make Room For The Future

It’s not news to anyone that the Obama Administration’s stimulus program amounts to one of the largest public works programs since the Great Depression. During that era, the economist Lord Keynes was quoted as saying that workers should be paid to dig holes in the ground and then fill them up again because the wages the workers received would create consumer demand and so boost the economy. Today’s television pundits often forget that Keynes added that “It is not reasonable, however, that a sensible community should be content to remain dependent on such fortuitous and often wasteful mitigations when once we understand the influences upon which effective demand depends.” Whether or not you agree with the Keynes approach to fighting the current recession, it would seem that, other things being equal, it is better to spend the money in ways that build a foundation for future economic growth than to merely jack up consumer demand.That is perhaps why President Obama calls his program the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. So, as the stimulus funds start flowing to local and state governments around the country, the leaders of those governments should ensure that the money is treated as an investment for the future. If, for example, all we do is re-pave the highways of the 1950s, we will have wasted a tremendous opportunity.Earlier this year, a paper prepared for the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors — the people in local governments who deal with these issues — recommended a program that would make room for the future. They called it JULIET, for Joint Underground Location of Infrastructure for Electric and Telecommunications. The program suggests that local governments, thinking about the future, insist that conduit for these basic utilities be built into any highway/road construction. The report notes that this might add about $10-30,000 per mile in construction costs — a fairly small percentage of typical highway mileage costs. But it would save about 70% of the costs of deploying fiber networks in a community because the largest cost in such projects is not the technology, but opening up the roads and laying down the conduit. With the stimulus construction money, the roads will already be opened up.The deployment of fiber networks doesn’t just provide high speed Internet services, but also offers an opportunity to build in smart management of infrastructure. That same conduit, which can be used to reduce the cost of getting a high speed fiber network into your community, can also be the backbone for a network of sensors that monitor traffic on the highway and even the condition of the highways and bridges — so your public works personnel will be notified when damage is still minor and less expensive than the big emergency projects that take you and your budget by surprise. That same conduit can also be the backbone for smart energy management and smart grids, which can enable the government and its residents to reduce their energy costs and greenhouse gases.Around the world, local government leaders have recognized that the future will involve broadband and the smart management of the public infrastructure. Both of these should be incorporated in the plans for any stimulus spending.Sooner or later, the recession will be over. Then will come the reviews of each government’s performance. Will you want it said that your government spent the stimulus money just to revive the consumer sector of the economy or that you also took advantage of the opportunity to gain the additional benefit of laying the foundation for the future viability of your community? Norm Jacknis {encode=”” title=””} June 1, 2009

Smart Communities Can Do Something About The Recession

This week the Intelligent Community Forum (ICF) is holding its annual awards ceremony in New York from among the top seven communities around the world who have been the best examples of using broadband technology. While your community may not be in the top 7, many of you have some degree of broadband networks covering a majority of the residents in your area.The theme is how the governments of smart communities can respond to a deep recession. I’ve been asked to give the keynote speech and so I thought I should devote this post to some of the ideas I’ll be presenting.The overriding message is quite simple: take advantage of the network that exists in your community. Using that network wisely can save money in the government, help your residents reduce their costs and even create more wealth in your community — which, of course, is the best way to get out of a recession.Your government can save money in several ways. First, those organizations that have integrated the controls of their buildings and other physical facilities into their data networks have been able to achieve substantial savings. The State of Missouri, with a thousand buildings, has been able to reduce its energy costs alone by $20 million a year (about a $1 per square foot). You can get greater employee productivity by getting public employees out of the office so they can do their work, which is often in the field. The network lets them work where their tasks takes them — while managers can still observe and even participate in that work when necessary. While telecommuting has been a long standing program of many governments, it is time to think of mobile telecommuting instead.The Internet and network connectivity you have also makes it possible to provide and to use the best, most cost effective software and services. If your government has strong IT capabilities, then offer these services to others so you can spread your IT costs over a larger base. If your government isn’t strong in IT, then use these services since they may be cheaper than trying to do it yourself.Of course, readers of this blog will not be surprised that I also think that some paid-for government services can instead be provided for free by letting your residents use the Internet to help each other.You can help your residents reduce their own costs, especially the time and money they spend in traffic and the money they spend on energy use. There are good examples of local governments offering all sorts of network-based services that reduce the time people spend in traffic. Some have even set up smart work centers, which eliminate the need for people to travel all the way downtown, but enable them to virtually participate in the workplace of their employers. You can also eliminate travel for your residents if government services are available over the Internet and on smart phones, instead of just in government offices. These services can now include videoconference meetings over the Internet and real collaborative interaction between public employees and residents.Through the use of smart home energy controllers (and, beyond that, smart grids) your residents can save money on their energy use. In the Pacific Northwest, one recent trial found that just letting people use the Internet to know about their energy usage and to do something about that no matter where they were resulted in an average energy cost reduction of 10%.In various ways, the investments that have been made in broadband have direct economic benefits. For example, one study found that every dollar in broadband investments yielded ten in economic growth. And broadband has direct impact on the growth and profitability of businesses. But you can help those businesses learn how to use the Internet better, even offering assistance with Virtual Trade Missions and videoconferencing. For many of you, the broadband network investment has been made. Now is the time to use to respond in recessionary times by reducing your government costs, your citizens’ cost of living and by ramping up economic growth.To see more details on this, take a look at the complete presentation at {filedir_2}Intelligent_Communities_In_A_Recessionx.pdfNorm Jacknis {encode=”” title=””} May 11, 2009

Customer Service? Ask a Volunteer

This post is not about a completely new idea, at least not for readers of this blog. It is a continuation and reinforcement of an earlier post, titled “Create Public Services By Enabling People To Serve Each Other”, in which I described the idea of government leaders facilitating citizen collaboration as a way of delivering at least the first line of public services. We’re not talking about just getting citizen “input”, but instead this is about creating citizen action.The reason for this posting is an article in today’s New York Times Business Section,titled “Customer Service? Ask a Volunteer.” It describes the way that Verizon uses unpaid volunteers to supply customer service — If you remember the last post, this isn’t new. Among other companies, ATT has done the same thing for awhile at But the article describes in some detail how Verizon runs this service and what motivates the minority of volunteers who are willing stand up and become leaders of the volunteer community. In government, we would call these people auxiliary deputies in a police force or doyennes in a special park.As I noted before, what these private companies have learned is that people who do not work for the company are often more credible with other customers than employees. When these companies use these public forums, of course, they need to have a certain tolerance for criticism. Looked at the right way, though, this criticism is a form of free market research and can alert a company early to a brewing problem before that problem gets completely out of hand. That same logic applies to government. Given the declining fiscal outlook for the next few years, citizen collaboration may be the only way that some public services can be adequately sustained in the future. I suppose that Verizon, which arguably does not have the greatest reputation for customer service, feels that it cannot do any worse with volunteers. That Verizon can get people to do this is a marvel to me. It should be much easier in the public sector, since people have a direct interest in the success of their community and government.And government can start with some basic services where the only necessary expertise is having gone through the process before. So, a senior who has gone through the process of applying for “meals on wheels” or para-transit can help a senior who hasn’t done so yet. Similarly, a parent with older kids can be the one who can explain how to another parent with younger kids how to enroll for Parks Department programs. What examples can you add to this list? Please write to me at {encode=”” title=””}Norm Jacknis {encode=”” title=””} April 27, 2009