Watch New Mexico Rise: A Conversation with Peter Ambs, CIO, Albuquerque

IMG_5835

Peter Ambs, CIO, City of Albuquerque, NM

How do you implement twenty years’ worth of innovative technology in record time?

Start with a Mayor that has the innovative vision and drive to upgrade years’ worth of obsolete, archaic business systems and processes while simultaneously creating an innovative, entrepreneurial ecosystem that spurs community economic development.

Shortly after taking office, Mayor Richard Berry of the City of Albuquerque, recognized the need to modernize and create efficiencies in how the city works internally and provides services to its citizens. Through his initiatives, Albuquerque became an early innovator of the smart city movement, establishing one of the world’s first open data policies and portals as well as promoting unique purchasing processes which spurred departmental adoption of new technologies and made it easier to collaborate with startups and innovators in civic technology.

I was thrilled when our Albuquerque-based startup, APPCityLife, was invited to collaborate with the city prior to the open data launch. Since then, I’ve had the privilege of seeing those efforts pay off with significant savings to the city, better processes for addressing the needs of citizens, and greater transparency. It has also generated broader community interaction and served as part of the catalyst of change for the city’s entrepreneurial community, resulting in commitments and collaboration with organizations like Living Cities, the Kauffman Foundation, Bloomberg Cities, and Code for America.

ACL.001

I recently visited with Peter Ambs, the City of Albuquerque’s CIO. He is the visionary behind the overhaul of the city’s IT infrastructure as well as the implementation of innovative initiatives such as creating an open data portal and has been a significant driver in New Mexico’s rise. The challenge to innovate, he says, began from the top.

“In the very beginning of Mayor Berry’s tenure, he made it clear that we were to embark upon a mission of improving and optimizing the inefficient and obsolete business systems that were in place and creating a drag on the organization,” says Ambs.  “We were also to create an atmosphere and culture of innovation that would radically transform the government/citizen relationship – we needed to better connect our citizens to City government.”

Lofty goals are important places to start, but turning goals into completed milestones is no easy task. Ambs describes that process. “To do this, we have put digital processes at the core of how we do business and provide city services. By upgrading and implementing functionality within the City’s business systems, we have been able to digitally streamline the Financial, Human Resources, and Procurement process to fully achieve automated workflow processes,” says Ambs. He says those upgrades are already paying off. “Payroll process times have been cut in half, and the time to compile and publish financial reports has been reduced by months.”

But it wasn’t just about upgrading; it was also about bringing in innovation, says Ambs.

“We performed the process improvements while innovating at the same time.  We needed to radically innovate while optimizing operations.  Again, Mayor Berry was central to this as we stood up the transparency and open data portals to match his vison of openness and accountability in government.  By publishing ‘open data’, we spawned the dawning of ‘civic tech’.  We moved data that had traditionally been stored behind city firewalls and made it available to the public. By making this data available, citizens and civic tech developers can take this data and synthesize it into meaningful information which helps create a smarter and more livable city.”

2015-08-03-1438629726-4405242-IMG_7884.PNG

I also had the opportunity to hear Amb’s view of our own company’s role in the city’s adoption of civic tech. “APPCityLife was at the forefront of this movement, creating a portfolio of civic apps for Albuquerque.  A good example is ABQ RIDE, which provides real-time bus location and route schedule information and has transformed how our citizens receive information about our public transportation system.” The app also features route-specific filtered push notices for delays, emergencies or route changes and bike route mapping.

The city worked with several early civic tech startups as they explored new avenues of innovation, including See Click Fix, who collaborated with the city to deliver 311 services to citizens via a mobile app. “The ABQ311 app is another example of how we have digitally connected citizens to City services,” says Ambs. “Early on, Mayor Berry told me he wanted an app where he could take a picture of a situation that needed a City service  – like a pot hole or graffiti – and have that ticket entered and assigned to the City Department responsible for remediation.  We now have that app and many more that provide information and access to City services and amenities.”

Ambs’ long-term plan has allowed the city to move quickly.

Says Ambs, “We adopted the attitude of ‘two-speed’ IT, where one IT area focuses on the running of the business, keeping the lights on, and the other area focuses on innovation and disruptive technologies.  By bifurcating IT this way, we have the ability to go fast (innovative) while not jeopardizing the business of running the City.  We also tend to get the buy-in and sponsorship much better when the business owners (the Departments) own and sponsor their innovation projects; IT becomes more of a facilitator.  A good example of this is our Planning Department, running and owning the new application to allow for online permitting, licensing, and business registrations.”

2015-08-03-1438629673-4877155-IMG_7883.PNG
It was because of the city’s creative approach to innovation projects that our own company was able to build a globally-focused end-to-end mobile platform  for civic app development.  Through apps like ABQ BioPark, which features cool new tech like beacon integration and Roadrunner Food Bank‘s game-changing food finding app, we’ve continued to add civic-focused features. The platform’s rapid prototyping and open source templating features make it possible to quickly and easily integrate mobile and spur innovation to a wider network of cities and govtech companies.

What is most exciting is that Ambs says open data is just the beginning.”We are just now scratching the surface of what open data and innovation can do to create a smarter and more livable city,” he says. “We want to see Albuquerque and its citizens enabled with a raised digital quotient that will sustain innovation such that civic tech companies such as APPCityLife and others can flourish and provide economic mobility to our citizens.”

It’s been a privilege to have been even a small part of the changes happening in Albuquerque. Thanks to the committed efforts of many in our community like Peter Ambs, we’ve made the leap not just into the present but are moving full steam ahead into the future of civic tech. It’s exciting to watch New Mexico rise.

This post also published on What’s APPening® and Huffington Post.
Note: APPCityLife has worked with the City of Albuquerque since 2012.

Advertisements

How Urban Tech is Disruptive Government Procurement

(originally published on What’s APPening)
IMG_6565I spent the past few days with our COO at the Smart City Startups Festival in Miami, Florida, interacting with some of today’s most visionary, innovative urban tech startup founders who are disrupting almost every facet of the urban landscape. All of the startups showcased at the summit have the potential of changing the future of our cities. Some are implementing solutions which are quite ingenious in their simplicity, like Loveland Technologies, which makes ownership of land parcels transparent (and raised funds through creative sales of inches of Detroit land parcels through “inchvestors”, and Vizalytics, which filters through the cacophony of data to help small businesses quickly understand what policies, work orders, or inspections will directly affect their business. Other showcased teams are immersed in big ideas like those of, BRCK, whose rugged tech is bringing internet access to remote regions of the globe. It was an incredible honor to have the opportunity to demonstrate how our own company, APPCityLife, is helping deliver powerful mobile apps in cities which can change the way people interact with their city, from being able to get to a job on time by using a real-time tracking app for transit to finding out about distributions of fresh fruits and vegetables at a local food bank.

IMG_3988But the invention of cool urban tech doesn’t mean it’s going to be available to you, the citizen, any time soon. One of the biggest barriers to getting this tech into the real world remains the challenge of navigating archaic government procurement policies. If you think waiting in the customer service line of a Department of Motor Vehicles is a practice in frustration, try pushing a single contract through almost any city government. But there is good news. Because the clamor for better tech is now coming from within and without government agencies, some civic leaders, organizations and entrepreneurs are exploring alternative paths to engage with urban tech startups.

Nonprofits like the Knight Foundation, the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, Living Cities, Bloomberg PhilanthropiesNew Cities Foundation as well as many others funding programs aimed at disrupting solutions for select issues such as education, entrepreneurship and economic development. In addition, organizations like Code for America have also helped to disrupt through advocacy, by forming brigades of volunteers within communities to address local issues, and by deploying carefully selected fellows into select cities each year to address a particular need. Other organizations, like Citymart, are focused on disrupting the procurement process itself. With several successes under their belt within the European community, the Barcelona-based company has opened an office in New York City’s Civic Hall and signed on several initial cities to participate in a series of challenges which invite innovative urban tech startups to submit solutions with the chance to move forward with a larger contract should an initial pilot prove successful.

Made with Repix (http://repix.it)

And then there are the city administrators who are choosing to disrupt the way they work with urban tech startups. One nugget of advice often shared by government administrators is for startups to work for free. I have to admit that the advice that startup founders should work for cities for free can be a bit disconcerting, if only because it is almost always given by someone who not only stands to benefit from free tech but is certainly not working for their own government agency for free. While this model does have its benefits, there are also drawbacks that must be taken into account. When a startup is delivering a service for free, they are far more likely to run out of cash and leave a government agency adrift with a non-working technology – and no one to hold accountable. Additionally, entering the market with a free model may help startups determine the willingness to use a technology, but that is not the same a willingness to pay for that same technology. When founders give away services to any customer, government or otherwise, it is very difficult to begin charging at some later date. We’ve seen this free-first model pay off in very big ways, but it takes setting up clear boundaries ahead of time as to what parts of service will be free, how long the free model will last, what next steps will be possible if initial free phase is a success, etc. When a free-first model can prove a startup’s ability to deliver and the city’s ability to save money or deliver services better, it can be an excellent opportunity to get a foot in the door and disrupt the status-quo. But when it is not set up with clear expectations and end dates, it can eat a startup’s budget with nothing to show for it.

Here are a few additional ways we’ve found to be successful in disrupting current procurement policies to get new urban tech into the hands of the people who need it. When startups devise business models which generate revenue from sources outside of government, it becomes a win-win for everyone around. In addition, proving future savings to a government agency can be a good way for urban tech founders to gain early customers. If new tech will streamline processes, improve efficiencies, or encourage citizens to embrace more affordable options – and if the startup can track the data needed to prove those cost savings, every sale after the initial pilot will be easier. And lastly, when founders take the time to understand the problems a city department is facing – what their biggest headache is within a specific task or as an agency – and when a startup can show that their tech will solve that problem, founders can gain the buy-in and willingness from the government to find money or babysit a contract through procurement processes to gain access to that pain-reliving solution.

Of course, the bigger issue is the procurement policies themselves. Most have not kept up with emerging civic tech. But we cannot afford to wait for politicians and legislators hash out the nuance of new policies. Working at the slow pace of policy change is not an acceptable solution for anyone. Until better procedures manage to gain enough votes to become law, those of us within the urban tech community must continue to disrupt not only the way cities interact with the people who live there but the way cities work with urban tech startups. As a society, we cannot wait for legislators to get up to speed and pass laws that make sense for this new world of smart cities – there is too much at stake. When we have the power to lift entire communities out of poverty by delivering better city services like reliable transit or helping deliver needed supports like food-finding apps to food banks, there is a moral imperative to find new ways to foster urban tech startups and deliver the successful solutions throughout the world.