City Software: From Silos to Platform

By Barbara Thornton. Originally published 9-27-14 as a guest post  in  Sangeet Paul Choudary‘s blog Platform Thinking, The New Rules of Business in a Networked World.  This post leverages the Magnet – Tools & Rules – Data framework that Choudary first alluded to in a Harvard Business Review article here.  In this post, Barbara uses this Platform Thinking framework to layout a structure for thinking of the smart-city-as-a-platform. 
Municipalities are beginning to go digital, both for internal workflow processes and for new ways to engage with their citizens.  Since municipalities first started investing in computers in the late 1960’s, cities relied on computers to crunch large amounts of data on taxes, road repair costs, etc. and spit out paper reports for managers to interpret.  Cities have traditionally created islands of software that fail to communicate with each other. Police departments had one kind of software.  Libraries had another.
Today, Instead of separate islands of software that don’t communicate, cities must imagine a platform that supports and interconnects all the digital functionality the city needs to serve internal operating requirements and to engage with citizens.  To make the right choices about designing such a platform, cities will need to apply Platform Thinking, starting with an overview of what they have, where they want to go and what they need to get there.Here are the top ten rules for municipalities who are considering a major investment in their software infrastructure.

PULL – The Magnet

1.  Identify the core interactions: Define all key users of municipal data and their needs and intentions. This includes city departments, non-profits, utilities, county, state and federal agencies and citizens.

2.  Define the data that powers these interactions: What data could make existing interactions more efficient? What new interactions could the available data power?

FACILITATE – Tools and Rules

1.  Lay out the toolbox: List the requirements of a city software platform. One software system or many? Closed source or open source? Virtuous circle or static? Citizen users or staff only?

2.  List the software tools needed to create the software platform the city envisions for its constituents. Will some current software programs need to be shelved or re-designed? Will they need to be linked to each other and common data bases? What new software tools are needed?

3.  Design governance and rules: List rules for designing and operating a city software system. What are the core principles governing investment in and use of software? Who are the constituents who will benefit? How will access be provided? How will accuracy be maintained? How will privacy be ensured?

4.   Ensure user privacy, citizen privacy and data security. How will this be accomplished? Who will be responsible? Who will have oversight for quality control?

MATCH – Data

1.  Identify the data producers: Take a look at the data you have from city operations, both directly related to the city’s data gathering responsibilities and from other agencies that serve the city. From property tax bills to dog licenses, cities have a tremendous amount of useful data. It’s yours, don’t give it away. It can be combined with census and other data to improve city services.

2.  Identify the data consumers: As a governmental entity cities have legal, regulatory and political requirements to meet.

MEASURE – Metrics

1.  Measure usefulness. How does it improve efficiency and repeatability of the core interactions? Citizen engagement? Legal and regulatory compliance?

The ultimate goal of a new, 21st century city-as-a-platform is that it can operate a virtuous feedback loop where the suppliers of information feed the needed data to the users of information and that those users have an opportunity to interact with the data in ways that will refresh and reshape the supply of data that is provided so that new data sources and software tools evolve to meet new user needs.

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