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Thursday, May 24, 2018 by Chad Swiatecki

Get smart: Tech leaders seeking solutions to Austin’s data, hardware challenges

Describing the patchwork of roughly a dozen information management systems her employees have to use to manage the city’s affordable and low-income housing network, Rosie Truelove said it’s time for Austin’s tech sector to help the city run smarter. With data siloed because of incompatible system architecture and other related technology problems, she said she’s limited in her role as director of Neighborhood Housing and Community Development.

While laying out her department’s need for a central data management platform to members of Austin’s technology community on Monday, Truelove joined managers from more than a dozen departments within city government in helping to frame the problems local government needs help solving.

“We’re not a big fancy city department that’s flush with cash to buy new systems, but what we do have are some scrappy people who are savvy enough to build some really cool access databases,” Truelove said at the civic priorities forum held by the Austin CityUP nonprofit, which is seeking ways to make Austin a smarter city. “What I would love more than anything for my employees is to get rid of all of those and to get one system to rule them all.”

The event saw presentations from departments such as Austin Code, Fleet Services and Austin Public Library, as well as the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority and Austin Energy, share where they’ve made advancements using technology and where they’ve been stymied and need the expertise and resources of the city’s many tech startups or large corporations such as Dell Inc.

Common themes emerged over the course of the presentations, with issues related to housing, transportation and general management of data as some of the most robust opportunities for tech companies to get involved and enter into contracts with the city.

Monday’s event was the first in a series of forums between the city and Austin CityUP, with pilot projects expected to be started and demoed to city managers by the end of the year in hopes of making it easier for small tech service and hardware providers to do business with the city.

“As it is now, there’s multiple layers, and in a department that needs a tech solution internally, and they have the budget, they can acquire the software package they need for that one problem, but doing anything larger in scale is more challenging,” said Jay Boisseau, founder and executive director of Austin CityUP. “It’s challenging for some companies to figure out how to work with them and cover the many administrative dimensions that come with that. And there’s more a question of small companies don’t know about the opportunities that are out there to help the city. But we’re hopeful we can bridge that gap.”

Boisseau said Dell executives who attended the forum have already expressed interest in offering solutions to some of the data and hardware problems discussed there, suggesting improvements in how the city functions could come soon.

Paul O’Brien, founder and chief executive officer of Media Tech Ventures, said the opportunities for the public and private sectors to work together are intriguing, but there will need to be some adjustments in terms of timelines and expectations.

“Private sector in technology is moving at a pace that is breakneck and can rarely afford to slow down in support of things that could create challenges,” he said. “Public groups are often five years behind. I can think of 10 different companies just in town that are solving these problems already and I find myself wondering why (the city) is not using them. It’s either those companies aren’t aware of the need on the part of the city, which is easily addressable, or they’re already working on the solution that we’ll need five or 10 years from now.”

Photo by H. Michael Miley made available through a Creative Commons license.

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