The Atlas = Top 5 Finalist in Conference of Mayors Civic Tech Competition!

U.S. Conference of Mayors selected The Atlas as a Top 5 Finalist in its Civic Tech Competition!

As a top 5 finalist, Atlas CEO Elle Hempen pitched a panel of mayors and answered Q&A this past weekend at U.S. Conference of Mayors conference in Boston.

While we didn’t win the overall prize, The Atlas Team is thrilled to be a top 5 finalist and to have had the opportunity to share our work with the more than 250 mayors in attendance this past weekend.

From U.S. Conference of Mayors…

As part of its 86th Annual Meeting, the U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM) will host a Civic Tech Pitch Competition to spur the development of new technologies to enhance citizen safety, security and community services.  Five startups…will compete for a total of $18,000 in prize monies as they present and defend their apps and solutions before a panel of judges and those in the audience,  who can use the USCM mobile app to cast their votes. The entrepreneurs who will be competing are:

-Nathan Armentrout, Founder & CEO, Casper Security – Casper Security improves neighborhood safety by monitoring abandoned properties and alerting neighbors and cities when danger is imminent at a fraction of the cost of demolition.

-Elle Hempen, CEO, The Atlas – The Atlas is the online community of public officials and innovators replicating what is working in other communities.

-Paul Salama, Chief Evangelist, ClearRoad – ClearRoad is a system that allows for digital per-mile fee collection, a more efficient, fair way to charge for roads.

-Noelle Marcus, Co-Founder, Nesterly – Nesterly connects households with spare space to younger people seeking a place to stay. In a twist that’s unique to Nesterly, young people can also exchange help around the house for lower rent.

-Joel Mahoney, Co-Founder & CEO, OpenCounter – OpenCounter builds tools for local governments to help streamline service delivery to residents. The portals guide applicants through complex permitting workflows so applicants can understand the full scope of projects before they get started.

It was an honor to share the stage with the other 4 finalists – all of the companies have incredible missions and teams – and we’re inspired by their visions for a better world.

Perhaps most importantly, though, we’re stoked to take everything we learned this weekend and apply it to helping our 80 partner cities more efficiently R&D (rip-off & duplicate!) what’s working in other cities!

Atlas CEO Elle Hempen pitching at U.S. Conference of Mayors in Boston this past weekend.

Trickle-Down Tech & Procurement Innovation

Procurement innovation may sound like an oxymoron, but government spending is a common thread in all of our most important policy debates: healthcare, infrastructure, tech. You name it. This post is a response to Jen Pahlka’s call for ideas leading up to Code for America’s 2018 Summit to improve how governments work with technology vendors to deliver better services and more cost-effective outcomes for every taxpayer dollar. That’s a goal we whole-heartedly support, and below are our suggestions for accelerating procurement innovation beyond the tech sector. This post was originally posted on Medium.


By Shalini Vajjhala, CEO of re:focus partners & co-founder of The Atlas Marketplace.


Communities across the country are looking for ways to leapfrog to smarter, more sustainable solutions and reach better outcomes for their residents. And in many communities, tech is beginning to trickle down to the everyday operations of departments traditionally unrelated to IT, like police and housing & redevelopment. But government procurement — the process of actually buying services and products like smart sensors, microgrids and flexible flood barriers — is often a stumbling block. If we don’t make major improvements to the procurement tools that government agencies are required to use, governments officials at all levels are inevitably going to replace failing systems with the same old fixes rather than transitioning to better, cheaper, more sustainable systems.

That’s a terrible outcome for taxpayers and residents alike.

Because our mission The Atlas is to help local governments scale proven urban innovations, we’re unabashedly enthusiastic about improving procurement processes too. It’s impossible to separate one from the other.

PC: Dilbert, via Jon on Tech.

We have been working on innovative infrastructure procurement in the energy, transportation, and water sectors from inside and outside government for over a decade. And we’re incredibly excited about the energy that has emerged from all corners to fix broken procurement systems.

Trickle down tech

With smart sensors and IoT discussions entering every sector from energy to water to waste management, tech has begun to permeate nearly every city department. Public works, housing, police, transit…technology has begun to trickle down to all of these. As difficult as technology procurement is, the tech sector has one major advantage over lots of other sectors: iteration. IT systems evolve much faster than other large conventional infrastructure. For all those IT officials and vendors who have struggled through brutally slow and difficult procurement processes, we’re not saying the procurement in tech is fast or nimble, only that it has the potential to learn and improve more quickly in comparison to other sectors. As a reference point, just think about how much more frequently a city replaces software than it does a public transit system.

The comparative speed of turnover and tech service innovations offers an opportunity to experiment, iterate, and continuously improve procurement processes, where other more static sectors don’t have the same luxury. Water infrastructure is perhaps the most compelling counterpoint. The battle to replace 150-year old pipes is quietly raging under our streets, as various vendors and industry associations are working furiously to tilt the balance of hundreds of local procurement decisions. You can update a government website or replace servers on a fairly regular basis, but the stakes are higher with once-a-century procurement decisions. A city (hopefully) only buys a whole water system once in a generation.

We would love to see the kinds of govtech procurement innovations CFA is seeking through its Summit reach professionals from other sectors, like water utilities and transportation agencies, and to have the lessons learned from IT Directors, Chief Innovation Officers and vendors alike translated for small and medium sized cities that are all eager to leapfrog to smarter, safer, and more sustainable infrastructure solutions.

Procuring the wrong thing well is not a good outcome.

In our work in the water sector we’ve seen first hand the difference between between asking: “How can my city get the best value on a new water treatment plant?” and “What options do we have for reducing flooding in our city?” Both questions could be the starting point for streamlining procurement. They each frame an important problem, but the former presumes a narrow end outcome that limits possible solutions and the latter creates space for game-changing innovations in design and financing.

PC: Jon on Tech.

All procurement is a means to an end. Procurement innovation isn’t an end by itself.

It’s easy to lose sight of that, given how complex large procurement processes have become. Lots of efforts have focused on streamlining various rules, regulations, and purchasing processes. These things are all important, but less discussed and even more important is how to identify the ideal outcome and turn that vision into a clear scope of work (SOW). The sweet spot between focus, efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and creativity is tough to find. Government officials need better resources to help envision the best possible ends, not only support in streamlining the means.

Groups like the X-Prize Foundation have lots of experience in framing problems and competitions to generate the widest, most innovative, and relevant sets of possible solutions. Let’s bring these folks — the people with the most experience in framing problems to encourage creative problem-solving — together with government officials to frame better desired outcomes and scopes of work, before governments get into the weeds of procurement processes.

The best defense is a good offense.

Procurement is all about managing risk and liability. The risk of awarding contracts to inappropriate providers (a councilmember’s brother-in-law) or ending up far short of a prescribed outcome or service (the half-built transit system) are two among many that keep public servants up at night. Cities like Boston have flipped this dynamic on its head by using innovative procurement tools, like Requests for Ideas, to put the onus on vendors to show how their cool new thing can help Boston solve its core challenges. Boston had to do a lot of work to frame these challenges well (see above), but tools like RFIs, competitions, and performance-based RFPs can and should be far more widely tested and applied to attract new ideas, new partnerships, and new resources.

We’re tackling this problem now, in partnership with the Kresge Foundation and US Water Alliance, by working with six cities across the US to translate big city procurement experiments into replicable tools for smaller cities looking to tackle legacy water system issues.

Kudos to the Code for America team for reaching out widely. We’re glad to have the chance to #weighinonCfASummit and eager to hear what other folks think.

One of our favorite sayings is: “In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is.”

So here’s to fixing procurement in practice and making life better for government officials, vendors, and most importantly, the communities they both serve.


Want to learn more? Here are some more articles that may be interesting to you:

Announcement! Mayor Berry Joins The Atlas

We’re thrilled to announce that Hon. RJ Berry (Former Mayor, Albuquerque NM) has joined The Atlas Marketplace as Senior Advisor. Mayor Berry, a former two-term Mayor of Albuquerque, is known for his innovative approach to government. His passion for bringing diverse groups together to solve persistent and complex urban challenges resulted in efficiency measures that produced $34 million in taxpayer savings, expanded use of public-private partnerships, streamlined infrastructure planning and financing, and improvements in educational attainment and workforce development. You can read Mayor Berry’s full biography here.

Said Mayor Berry:

“As Mayor of Albuquerque, I was proud of our efforts to bolster the entrepreneurial ecosystem for startups and other creative small companies to drive economic development, create jobs, and improve city services. Now I am proud to continue that mission, but in a different role – as Senior Advisor to The Atlas Marketplace. The Atlas is an online community that facilitates learning between cities to accelerate the uptake of innovative infrastructure and technology solutions by highlighting what’s working in communities around the world. I enthusiastically support The Atlas mission and I am excited to continue working with civic-minded individuals who are dedicated to making our communities smarter, safer and more prosperous. As a public servant and an entrepreneur myself, I look forward to providing insight around key business decisions, as The Atlas seeks to expand beyond its initial 50 partner cities.”

 

Mayor RJ Berry
PC: Steven St. John

 

Said Elle Hempen, CEO of The Atlas Marketplace:

“We are excited to have Mayor Berry join The Atlas Marketplace. Not only does he have a deep understanding of how and why cities make important decisions, he also has deep expertise and experience in the infrastructure industry. We will rely on his strategic guidance – alongside Mayor Nutter’s – to inform how we effectively match cities to solutions.”

 

Mayor Berry will join The Atlas team for this week’s U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in Washington, D.C.


Follow Mayor Berry on Twitter.

Follow The Atlas on Twitter, Linkedin & Facebook.

Smart Cities Have Arrived in Atlanta

Learn about Atlas partner city Atlanta’s recent coming-of-age party for smart cities, and about how Atlanta is establishing a thriving ecosystem of local government, startups, telecom, NGOs, and universities to solve some of the city’s toughest problems.


By Kirk Talbott (Executive Director for Smart Cities, City of Atlanta)

 

Debutante balls, quinceañeras, bar mitzvahs, cotillions, sweet 16s…they all have something in common: they signal to society that a young person has come of age, that he or she is ready to be taken seriously, that he or she is poised to enter adult society. If that’s the case, then smart cities technologies may have had their coming-of-age celebration in Atlanta this fall.

 

The event, dubbed “Experience Smart ATL,” was an adult book fair of sorts. All of the folks involved in smart cities projects in Atlanta — spanning half a dozen departments and dozens of vendors, large and small — came together to present their efforts to over 350 attendees. Each project had a tabletop and participants went from table to table to learn about the scope and scale of ongoing smart cities efforts in Atlanta.

 

Interacting with the exhibits and reflecting on the diversity of problems that smart cities technologies are solving in Atlanta, you couldn’t help but be struck by an overwhelming sense, “Smart cities technologies are not a passing fad. They’re real, they’re here to stay, and this is a good thing.”

 

I know it’s my job, but even my head spun with all of the different opportunities there are to improve city services, as well as with the realization that we’re only currently pursuing a small percentage of those opportunities. This was exactly why we put on Experience Smart ATL — to signal that smart cities have arrived in Atlanta. 

 

Over 350 attendees experience interactive smart technology activities

But that wasn’t the only reason. There were several other motivations that drove us to invest a couple of months into throwing this smart city coming-of-age party. The event:

 

  1. Consolidated Atlanta’s disparate smart cities projects under one umbrella. This is making it easier for city government to weave a comprehensive narrative about its efforts to use technology to solve Atlanta’s toughest problems.
  2. Incentivized project teams to publish and polish efforts that are still underway. There’s nothing like a public event to encourage staff to consolidate project materials and decide how to tell their story!
  3. Focused the vendor community on improving city services. Walking through the event, it was obvious that smart cities efforts in Atlanta are so much bigger than just one vendor, product or partnership, and as a result, vendors came away with a better appreciation of their role within the city’s larger efforts.

 

Half a dozen City departments and dozens of vendors presented their smart city initiatives

The practicalities involved in putting on the event were straightforward and surprisingly cheap. The City’s out of pocket expense was just a few hundred dollars, as General Assembly generously donated the space, and content for the booths came from existing project teams. When it came to invitations, we were careful about our intended audience, as this event was not meant to supplement or replace our existing, on-the-ground community engagement efforts with citizens. Instead, we encouraged Atlanta leaders — academics, marketing professionals, lawyers, entrepreneurs — from many different sectors that have an interest in municipal innovation, technology and smart cities to participate. Being clear about who was attending allowed us to tailor the event to be more specific and more relevant and not, for example, spend a lot of time explaining the basics of cloud technology.

One of the more unique aspects of the event was that it was democratic: all of the project teams (and vendors) had the same small table top displays. This was equally true of huge telecom companies and of tiny local startups.

 

For example, AT&T presented a small sample of the technologies and smart city solutions they have installed in the city in a modest booth display near a group of Georgia Tech students that had built a creative prototype display of events and movement on the Atlanta Beltline. This was a subtle, but important, signal of the event’s focus on how Atlanta is using smart cities technologies to improve citizen services, and is a large part of why the event felt (and looked) so different from a conference expo floor.

 

One of many vendors during the #ExperienceSmartATL event

For other cities interested in throwing a coming-of-age event for smart cities in their community, I have one major piece of advice: be pure in your intent.

 

It’s essential to know precisely why you’re having the event. Otherwise, mission-creep will abound, and before you know it, you’ll be managing the expo floor of another smart cities conference. Don’t hesitate to say no to the hangers-on, the folks who want to participate but who are not actively working with your local government on a specific project or technology.

 

Atlanta’s commitment to using technology to improve city services has come of age; smart cities efforts permeate dozens of different city departments, from watershed management to IT, and the technologies are here to stay. The City of Atlanta continues to formalize and improve the process of identifying new and emerging technologies that can solve problems across the city and improve the quality of life for everyone in the region. As the market matures and more advances are offered in the future, the city looks forward to finding and implementing those solutions that make our region the most attractive place to live and visit. But that process doesn’t happen by default.

 

To learn more about Atlanta’s smart cities efforts, visit smartatl.atlantaga.gov.


This article was originally posted on our Medium publication, CitySpeak.

Smarty Pants

Sometimes walking into conference exhibitions, we feel like we’re living in the Silicon Valley parody of TechCrunch. But, after attending Smart Cities Silicon Valley this week, we feel genuinely energized about the range of city-centric technologies being developed and deployed to make local governments more efficient and effective, while also improving our daily lives.

Here are some of the companies and technologies that caught our eye:

Echelon: We know that LED lighting reduces energy use and saves money, but this adaptive control system lets a city adjust streetlights block by block to better match neighborhood needs. This level of responsiveness is pretty great from a public safety and economic development standpoint too.

Fybr: Knowing that legacy water and sewer systems are something many cities in the US are dealing with, we were most excited about their ability to provide real time insights into the operations of wastewater, stormwater, energy and streets systems on one dashboard. Not only will that save utility and public works staff time (and $) but it may also help cities find opportunities for system integration.

CNX: Last mile broadband expansion is a big issue for a lot of small and mid-size cities. Making the permitting process easier for both cities and companies, using a platform like theirs, will go a long way towards solving it.

Ike: These digital kiosks are cool not only because they provide guidance to tourists, visibility to local businesses, and are designed to match the local vibe…but also because they generate revenue for the cities that deploy them.

Inrix: They’re doing a lot of thinking about how autonomous vehicles will impact our cities. Also, after getting to play with their system we’re hoping my next car comes with Inrix navigation.

LocalIntel: We loved that this unique data-driven economic development support is applicable to nearly everyone, including the small cities that often need the most support. Also, we appreciate their CEO’s commitment to keeping operating costs down so they can continue offering affordable solutions.

Ingenu: Still wrapping our heads around this one, but it sounds like this network is designed specifically to support smart city deployments – and ensures that monitoring flood sensors won’t be impacted by our constant streaming of The West Wing.

Hitachi: Obviously not a small company, but one that is doing innovative work to improve public safety and streamline emergency response by aggregating data captured by everything from video feeds to social media.

We’re looking forward to understanding more about the tangible benefits (and any challenges) that these, and other smart solutions, are providing for cities and their citizens.

What other smart city technologies have you been impressed by?

4380

THAT’S THE NUMBER OF HOURS SINCE THE ATLAS LAUNCHED!

We’ve learned a lot from our growing network of users in the past 6 months (welcomed Boulder & Burlington this week!). In honor of the occasion, here are 6 things we’re thinking about and using to inform future Atlas development:

Cities (and counties, and utilities) “don’t have the opportunity to swing and miss.” When making large, long-term infrastructure investments, cost efficiency, community health, and safety are top of mind — that’s why tried and tested solutions are often preferred. But we also know there are new, transformative infrastructure solutions being deployed here in the US and around the world every day. That is why we’re doubling down our efforts to unearth those installed solutions. Our goal is to help cities leapfrog to these new infrastructure solutions by making them easier to discover and easier to compare.  In addition, we’re exploring new partnerships that will help to directly connect our city users with a network of urban innovators.

And on that point…We’ve been really excited to learn about The Ray and other infrastructure demonstration sites like the Hempstead Energy Innovation Park or the new Claiborne Corridor Innovation District developing in New Orleans (an Atlas city user!). If the Atlas is like an Ikea catalogue, these demonstration sites are like an Ikea showroom. Not only can the city, and its citizens, interact with and understand innovative technologies, the demonstration sites also helps real solutions prove their worth. Before leaving public service, The Atlas Marketplace CEO Elle Hempen worked with Israel’s Ministry of Environment to understand how they supported water technology demonstration in public systems. Elle learned that some of Israel’s success in supporting innovative technologies was due to a willingness in local governments to create safe spaces for testing (and sometimes failure). Bravo to those doing the hard work of innovation here in the US, we’re excited to work with you!

In December of 2016, the City of Boston (also an Atlas city user!) released a request for information that asked for new ideas to improve its streets. Why is that so exciting? First, the RFI was purposely written in plain language, void of overly technical jargon, to maximize the number of respondents. Second, they asked that respondents ditch the pitch: instead of flashy PowerPoint presentations, the City asked respondents to demonstrate community engagement and to focus on tangible value for residents. This RFI, combined with Boston’s Smart City Playbook, aim to help ensure pilot projects are successful and leading-edge solutions can scale. Cool, right? Check out the ideas they received.

We know cities learn best from other cities. But when peers aren’t available, city employees revert to familiar resources – using, for example, Google and Pinterest to brainstorm solutions for their top infrastructure challenges. That’s why we’re leveraging the power of social networks in the Atlas. The Atlas works more like Match.com than Facebook or Twitter. An integrated matching algorithm identifies cities around the world facing similar challenges, and uses that information to find solutions that are most relevant to the local needs of an Atlas user. Want to act on the information? Users can message other city and company representatives to understand how projects are working and replicate them more easily.

Many of our city users are upgrading their aging water and wastewater infrastructure. This trend matches data from across the country: Onvia has reported a 21% increase in water and sewer maintenance contracts, 55% of which were issued by cities. What are some of the most interesting solutions to managing leaky pipes? One solution piloted in Australia caught our eye. TaKaDu is a cloud based big data system that uses raw data from multiple sources – meaning it often doesn’t require additional equipment be installed. In addition, the data platform can learn normal system behavior so not only does it detect problems quickly, but it can also predict problem spots. Talk about smart water!

Everyday technologies like Uber and Amazon have increased citizen expectations for on-demand delivery of goods and services. Those expectations now also extend to their local government. In addition, there is a new generation of government professionals who already accept technology as solutions to inefficiencies. Both reasons explain why technology solutions for government is a rapidly growing market. But even with a boost in visibility, many small and mid-size companies with technology based solutions for public agencies struggle to “get the word out.” (We’ve heard those exact words from countless companies at this point!) That is why to achieve our mission of helping cities leapfrog to modern infrastructure, we are helping raise the awareness of the companies who are building inventive solutions. Through the Atlas, we want to open the door and give city decision makers the information they need – from how the project is working, to how it was financed and contracted – to close the deal.

Have other ideas about how the Atlas can improve how infrastructure is found, compared, and procured? Leave a comment here or let us know @_The_Atlas!