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David Ihrie: You know, my expectation is that technologies will earn their keep on a day-to-day basis. Right? So, we're looking for technologies that will reduce costs, or that will provide a very rapid return on investment. I mean, it's not just technology for its own sake, but how can we help local government operate more efficiently?
Joe Supervielle: That was David Ihrie, CTO of Virginia's Center for Innovative Technology. He and Michael Cannon, CTO of Stafford County, Virginia, discussed how community driven innovation can produce technology that delivers ROI for local governments and quality of life improvements for the public.
This episode is part of our new Voices in Local Government podcast, where we aim to tell stories, inspire ideas, celebrate progress, and acknowledge common challenges local government managers and their teams face. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with topic ideas, situations you'd like feedback on, or if you're interested in participating as a guest.
Joe Supervielle: Welcome to Voices in Local Government, an ICMA podcast. My name is Joe Supervielle, and I'm joined today by Michael Cannon and David Ihrie, two exceptional chief technology officers, to talk about community-driven innovation. Thanks for joining us today, guys.
David Ihrie: Glad to be here.
Mike Cannon: Happy to be here.
Joe Supervielle: So, Michael Cannon, CTO of Stafford County, Virginia. Mike, you were hired as Rockville, Maryland's first-ever IT director in 1999 to address Y2K. Google it, for anyone too young to remember. So, before I start quoting the movie Office Space, just tell me, on January 1, tell me if they thought you were a genius or it was a regrettable panic-hire, after the fact.
Mike Cannon: Initially, they thought I was a genius. But actually, when word got out that no one else was having problems they docked off on that.
Joe Supervielle: Yeah, and on onto the next project, of course.
Mike Cannon: Yep.
Joe Supervielle: And then, on a more serious note, you also help implement the voiceover IP system with a detailed report system in the early 2000s as well. And that ultimately led to a recording of the DC Snipers, which turned out to be an important piece of evidence. So, can you give us the quick backstory on that? Because that's obviously a big deal.
Mike Cannon: Yeah. For those of you that are old enough to remember the sniper incident, it really terrorized the whole DC region. There were sniper attacks on people pumping gas and public spaces. All told, I think it was around eight or nine people that were murdered by the snipers. The FBI and, I guess Montgomery County, it was, set up a national hotline for callers with tips to call in, but the lines were just busy all the time. And the snipers knew when to call in, because they felt they weren't getting credit for one of the murders they committed down in Alabama. So they got frustrated and then decided to just to call Rockville City Police Department, and so one of our dispatchers stayed on the line with them and took down the information. And we had the recording, and I think that was something that was ultimately entered into evidence as part of the trial. And it was the only recording that was known of the snipers at the time.
Joe Supervielle: Yeah. Good example of technology, really helping with something important.
Also with us is David Ihrie, CTO of the Center for Innovative Technology, based here in Virginia as well. David has a knack for coming up with great acronyms to match equally great projects, so can you tell us a little bit about Guard?
David Ihrie: Sure. So, the geo-spatially aware urban approaches for responding to disasters. Guard program actually grew out of the 9/11 attacks in New York City, took down the World Trade Centers. At the time, I was living in the region, got the opportunity to think about technologies that might have supported that, might have improved the situation. And so that, for me, that was my early introduction, both to the responder community, and also the kinds of technologies that could help address the issues that they face every day. Those guys put their lives on the line every day, and ever since, that's been a personal mission: how can we use technology to really address some of those needs?
So that program, I think, was the first. We used some public TV broadcast spectrum to relay information around New York City. I think we were the first program to get broadband video through the tunnels, through the Holland Tunnel, and so forth. It evolved into, I was not involved in the program, but it evolved into a billion-dollar procurement for NYPD and others, so it was a cool way to get introduced to that community and the needs.
Joe Supervielle: Yeah. First responders are always a big topic for local government. So, you were also involved in founding the first, correct me if I get any of this wrong, the first vertically focused cybersecurity accelerator in the country. And we would run out of time before I'm able to understand any of that, so we'll move on to the last tidbit, which is: you're also the first person to replicate the Three Mile Island nuclear accident on a training similar. So, same thing, give us just the quick version on that.
David Ihrie: We were working at training simulators where they bring the operators of the power plants in to practice their skills. This was for Con Edison in New York, at the Indian Point plant. And then Three Mile Island happened. And, for the computer buffs out there, the whole simulation, it was a large room. It was probably 50 yards long, with all sorts of dials and everything. The whole thing was run off of one of the old DEC PDP-8 computers with 64 kilobytes of memory. When the accident happened, nobody could really replicate it. It evolved over about two or three days, and nobody could really replicate on the training simulators.
Previously, they had just been able to do small scenarios. So, if this light goes out, what does that mean in which switch do you throw? Rather than the very complex evolution that happened in that particular accident. I learned some laws of physics and thermodynamics and managed to ride some 4 Train, and we were able to actually run it for the full two or three days of the evolution. So that was-
Joe Supervielle: Yeah.
David Ihrie: That was pretty interesting.
Joe Supervielle: Well. That was just both scratching the surface. Now that the audience has your credentials, your CTO credentials, we can get into the topic today, which is community-driven innovation. Specifically, about the Stafford County Smart Testbed. So, let's start with you, Mike. Tell me just the basics. What is it? How did it start? What was your vision for it?
Mike Cannon: Sure. Well, first of all, I have to give some credit to ICMA, as I was called on to write an article on smart cities in PM Magazine about four years ago. And that led to a chance to present at a conference, where I met David, on smart cities, and he invited me to a workshop. And we, throughout.... I told him about our downtown Stafford, which we were looking to build.
It's still in the planning stages, but we're moving along with the first phase. This is a mixed-use development. We have a private developer for our first phase of seven acres, and another 23 acres that will be county land that will go through an RFP process to identify a partner for a public-private partnership.
But that really piqued David's interest, and we talked about some of the projects he's working on and looking to fund, and do, and we've found that it was a really good fit to look at how we could collaborate, to look at how we could make that downtown Stafford smart. And as that evolved, and we went through some planning for that, the idea came up, "Well, what if we were to have a testbed, where we could start testing and validating these technologies before they would go into a live setting, like a downtown environment?" And that's where the concept of the Virginia Smart Community Testbed evolved.
Joe Supervielle: And, David, can you chime in on CIT's own mission? Obviously, it's not a local government entity, but what was the role of your organization? And how did it fit in with what Mike just explained?
David Ihrie: Well, so, CIT is actually an extension of state government in Virginia. We have a mission for economic development for the Commonwealth. I ended up with the smart communities portfolio, I think around the time that Mike described that we met. We were trying to understand what that is, on behalf of the Commonwealth. What are the technologies? What does it mean? It's a buzzword, and the first question I always get, whenever I talk to audiences is, "Well, what do you mean?"
And so, we spent a fair amount of time. What does that really mean? And then the opportunity to put it into practice in a real-world setting, like Stafford was contemplating.... You know, I'm a techie, but wow. The opportunity to get stuff out of the lab and actually into the real world and into operational settings is really exciting, from a technology point of view. And then, given my background, an interest in public safety, certainly for a community that's a critical piece of the community services. And the responsibility of the local government.
So, we have this state-wide charter. This was a perfect opportunity. I think it's continued to be the case, increasingly so, that local governments, or county governments are on the front line, right? If you look at where the ransomware attacks are happening now, it's cities. It's local governments. If you look where, who responds first to emergencies? It's local governments. And so, I think, increasingly, that's really the critical customer base for a lot of these technologies that we're looking at.
Joe Supervielle: Yeah. And you both just kind of touched on my next question, which was the why, or what is the purpose? The tangible benefits to the public is ultimately what we're getting at. How does this project take that into mind? How do you keep it community driven?
Mike Cannon: Well, I think there, it's keeping the public informed. Keeping our board of supervisors informed. And, really, being able to demonstrate the benefit and how these use cases can improve public safety, the environment, and other themes of the types of use cases we have in the testbed. But it's all really about improving the quality of life of our citizens. And using this as a model that can be replicated in other communities throughout the Commonwealth, and, actually, the US, as we prove and validate these technologies and can provide specific examples of how these can be used in other communities.
Joe Supervielle: And the "prove and validate," that's the test part of this. It's not just the lab. In theory, this might work. It's a good idea. You're actually, I don't know if deploying is the right word, but you're getting it out there and really seeing what happens in the real-life setting.
David Ihrie: Yeah, we're really deploying. One example is flood sensors. We have a number of those. We're deploying about a dozen in Stafford County, right? And the county GIS folks do the mapping. They've helped us decide where to locate those things in places that flood a lot. And so now, we have the sensors. Today, we were doing some installation, and now it's, "How can we derive the operational benefit from those things?" Through advanced warning. And certainly, we've seen, over the last couple of weeks, flood situations in Tennessee and other parts. This is a big deal. I don't know, Mike, maybe you want to-
Mike Cannon: Sure. Yeah, I-
David Ihrie: Talk about this specific case or anything?
Mike Cannon: Sure. We have a partnership with Waze, our GIS folks do, so we see their potentially some triggering of alerts through Waze, so that when drivers are encountering a flooded area, that they can be alerted. The other thing in a specific use case we're looking at in Stafford is we have a road that routinely floods to a point where it's impassable, even with just three-quarters of an inch of rain, sometimes even half an inch, will trigger it. And when that happens, a whole community is severed from the ability to get out, unfortunately.
Ultimately, we need to raise the level of the road up. It's going to cost several million dollars and many years to solve, but this flood sensor technology we look at could trigger some gates that could close the roads, so that we don't have cars traveling in harm's way. We're also building a bypass, a temporary bypass road, so we could have gates open up the bypass road at the same time as the main road is closed. And those can all be triggered through those smart sensors, so I think that's a case of where we can actually.... It really public safety thing that can be addressed through, through something that seems very simple as a flood sensor, but there's a lot of sophisticated technology behind it.
Joe Supervielle: That example, it's not just catastrophic flooding. It's, like you said, a half-inch of rain. Might not seem like a big deal, but it closes a road and that impacts people's lives. It is a safety hazard. So, I think a good example where the technology is not just for the most extreme circumstances. It can really help everyday people.
David Ihrie: And what we found, to prove value propositions to a community or to a local government, budgets are incredibly tight, right? I think that's part of the metric that we use. A technology has to earn its living on a day-to-day basis, not just when there's an event.
Joe Supervielle: Yeah. Another question I had is: how do you measure success, whether the big picture for the entire project, or individual technologies that are being tested? How is success measured? Who's in charge of that? Who's to say? It seems like it might be a little bit intangible, but what does success look like to each of you?
David Ihrie: Well, a simple measure is: does somebody pick up the technology and want to adopt it? We did a grand opening at the end of May for the Testbed, and since that time, actually three of the technologies that we demonstrated have now been adopted by the county for operational use. There was a tethered drone that the, the Sheriff's offices have adopted. There's a security piece that Mike and his team have adopted. I think that's one clear metric, right? I mean, if we're demonstrating technologies that people want to adopt and use, then that's success. And, Mike, you speak to the demand end of that equation.
Mike Cannon: Sure, yeah. I think, also, the feedback we get from our citizens is vital too. And public safety folks as well. I think, in the tethered drone case, we can see a lot of benefit in using it for event management, when we need to have a public safety presence or a situational awareness. Also, for traffic management. We have a lot of traffic on 95 that runs through Stafford-
Joe Supervielle: Yes. The infamous area, there on 95.
Mike Cannon: Everyone that's been down through there on a weekend, knows what I'm talking about. We get a lot of traffic incidents. Car accidents and fender benders, all that kind of stuff, so to be able to have a drone flying, perhaps on the perimeter of 95, being able to provide situational awareness is something we see as perhaps the next step as we evolve our drone use cases that we're doing.
David Ihrie: Well, and I think also the partnerships are a critical metric, right? In the case of the flood sensors, actually, the federal government, DHS Science and Technology paid for the development of the sensors. And they claim it as, they're excited that it's a success by the fact that we can bring it into a community and actually use it, right? The test factory partnered with Verizon non 5G, and they've put in 5G capability, both indoor and outdoor. And that stretch of 95 that Mike just described is also infamous for not very good cell coverage through there. So, if we can extend that capability, so that, suddenly there's good coverage in that stretch of the road, it really opens up a lot of possibilities.
Joe Supervielle: Now, is there a different timeline or launch date? Like, some of these projects, it seems like, are pretty feasible and can be implemented quickly. Are there may be more ambitious ideas or projects that allow for a longer time, and maybe a little bit more investment? And it might be a little bit longer before we find out if it's a success or not? How does that work when it's a more ambitious plan?
Mike Cannon: I think it really depends on what the goal or intent of the use case is, and if it's something that can easily be replicated. For example, the case I gave of the flood sensors will probably take a year or so to fully build out with the gates and everything else. So, we view this as a multi-year endeavor with the testbed, and we're each year working to watch new use cases around a number of areas, mostly focused on public safety in the environment.
David Ihrie: But, if you think about building a new downtown from scratch, right? I think the expectation is that's going to be a core place in the county for 50 years, 100 years, indefinitely, going forward. And so, when we talk about infrastructure and technology, it's got to be able to survive those long-term time evolutions. It's got to be able to be refreshed and relevant.
Joe Supervielle: And that goes back, Mike mentioned earlier about communicating with the public if something's going on and there are big investments, and they don't necessarily get to see the either immediate or kind of quick results. So, whose job is that to, within the county or the local government, to help spread that message? And maybe explain that, "Hey, this other project's going to take a while, but long-term, it's going to be very beneficial for everyone."
David Ihrie: One of the things that we look at is: we each have different roles in funding the evolution of the technologies, right? So, from a CIT perspective, we have some state budget ability to make initial investments to demonstrate some of these technologies, and I think the handoff then is when it starts to be adopted for operational use. But part of my job is to piece together funding. Federal funding. State funding. We partner on grant opportunities. And in a couple of cases, for example, there's a virtual reality piece that's going on, that's being funded through the commercial venture capital market. So, I think it's really, "What's appropriate to the technology and the use?" And then, "When do you hand it off for adoption?"
Joe Supervielle: Yeah. Sorry, go ahead, Mike.
Mike Cannon: Go ahead. Sorry. So, and then, for example, with the downtown Stafford, ultimately the market will help decide that too. We want to build and future-proof, as much as we can, the infrastructure. Building the conduits in the fiber, and hopefully smart lighting, and 5G, and that core infrastructure. But ultimately, the market will determine it. And whether developers will find enough of a benefit, which I believe they will, given how much things have transformed digitally in just let every aspect of our lives. And as long as that trend continues and developers see the market for it, then I think you'll see these things implemented and there will be a chance to build upon them as time evolves, too.
Joe Supervielle: Yeah. David mentioned what, maybe it could be a trigger word for a lot of people in local government, which is funding. Some of our audience might be hearing this and thinking, "It's great. It's interesting. But who pays for this? How's it getting done?" So, can you explain? I know CIT is involved a little bit. Maybe the technology vendors themselves have some skin in the game. Just talk to our audience about the money, cause it's about the technology and about helping the public. But, as we all know, there's a bill at the end, so....
David Ihrie: Again, I mentioned that my expectation is that technologies will earn their keep on a day-to-day basis, right? We’re looking for technologies that will reduce costs or that will provide a very rapid return on investment. It's not just technology for its own sake, but how can we help local government operate more efficiently? For another example, one of the companies that we're working with does in-building energy management, right? And we've worked with, with another fairly large customer, venue customer, where we've projected, we can save them about a million dollars a year in operating costs for no.... From a builder's point of view, they have essentially the same upfront capital investment in terms of the equipment and so forth, as long as they specify it reasonably, they can save these operating costs downstream. So, I think we're, we're looking for that.
When you talk about the communications kinds of things, there are some good use cases out there where people put advertising on kiosks and so forth. But, in the end, I think in the larger picture, and Mike maybe you can expand on this as well. We're really working with Stafford economic development. The mission's really economic development for the county. I think, what we would expect to see over a little bit longer timeframe is, an acceleration of growth of the business base, the tax base, the number of people who want to live there, those kinds of things.
Mike Cannon: And we have a specific program to draw entrepreneurs, and we do a monthly Lunch and Learn series where we bring and invite entrepreneurs in to, on specific topics that are of interest in the world of IOT and smart cities. And, Internet of Things, by the way, is what IOT stands for. Some people call it Internet of Everything, but it's this whole idea of sensors that are connected and can communicate over a network. So, I want to just lay that out so we're not getting into a large argument or....
David Ihrie: Yeah. Buzzword soup. But one other point on the funding, Joe. You mentioned funding as a trigger word. I think the other thing that we're anticipating now, this year with, with the infrastructure bill, and with the federal budget, and so forth, there are, maybe for the first time in our generation, we're on the verge of really substantial investments in infrastructure. And that's part of what this is about. It's not only restoring old bridges and things like that. I think it's about, "How can we build a robust infrastructure for the future?" And I think Congress is close to being able to move forward with that, so the expectation is there'll be a large amount of federal dollars that will also be available to support this.
Joe Supervielle: Yeah. That's been an ongoing topic with ICMA and its members for a while now. How much money, how to get the money. What can it be used for? Not, which dancer might change by the time this actually publishes? But you said it. Once-in-a-lifetime investment opportunity for long-term infrastructure, and it's not just the physical things like roads or bridges. The connections, the technology, it's all part of it. So, exciting times are people like you two, definitely.
Mike Cannon: And, as David was talking about you could buy infrastructure that's manual in nature that has no data element or digitalization of it. Or you can buy things that are. And that's, I think, one key message we want to get across is, when you're looking at replacing infrastructure, make sure it's IP-enabled. Make sure it has way of collecting data that, hopefully, can be used to benefit whatever operation or problem you're trying to solve.
Joe Supervielle: So, again, going back to our audience. They're listening, you've convinced them, this is a great idea. It's going to help the community. There's real purpose behind it, both on tangible benefits to the community, but also long-term economics. So, if their question is, "Well, what next? What's my first step?" A CTO somewhere else in America hasn't really met someone like David yet, Mike. So, what would you suggest, either of you, they do as their first step to try and look into this? Or even start building something? Just taking a first step. What do they do next?
David Ihrie: Let me start. The catch-phrase-community driven innovation that you mentioned that we use. What I've seen is that you need a nucleus of motivated people at the community level, or no matter what the technology bit is, it's not going to succeed. We've been really fortunate in Stafford to have a really strong partnership. The county administrator, the economic development office, the tourism office, the public works group, and Mike and the CTO team just have been outstanding partners. I think, to me, that's really the first challenge. Do you have enough support from the local area to be able to move something forward? And if you have that nucleus, we can help grow it.
Specifically, in Virginia, the testbed is intended as a resource that people can come to. We're happy to share those lessons learned, to share the technologies that we've tried and the experiences with that. We hope we'll be a national resource for that. Somewhat limited capacity, but we're happy to talk to people, and we've had inquiries from New York to South Carolina. We're doing some of the stuff with the environmental sensors in California. My experience with communities is that they're really interested in helping each other, and we want to support that. Mike, I-
Mike Cannon: Sure, and I think it's a little openness to take a little risk too, because obviously you're making a risk in what you're going to do and betting a little bit on the future, but I think learning from others is, is a great way to do that. There's a tremendous amount of information out there on smart cities and there's groups like Smart City Works, and others, that you could contact or be part of. By all means, you're welcome to reach out to us. We're happy to help, and I think that's an important thing for all of the governments, as we've found that we all work better when we can share ideas and work together in organizations like ICMA and do help facilitate that. Appreciate all that ICMA does in that respect.
David Ihrie: Just one other point there. I think we're about maybe at the third or fourth generation of this evolution of smart communities, and so there are a lot of lessons learned, right? There are a lot of pitfalls that people have experienced along the way, and so I think it's important for somebody who's interested in looking at this, or, as Mike says, to really find the resources that are out there talk. There's a pretty good data set around some things not to do, as well as some things to do.
Joe Supervielle: Yeah. And Mike said, I think, the community-driven, it's not just a catchphrase. I think, I don't want to say selling it, but sometimes when a CTO has big ideas or big aspirations, the people who do the numbers or the budget, or whatever else, they might get a little weary. But if someone can sell it on, again, the benefits to the community, and the long-term economic development, I think that would be important to push it forward and get some people on your side to start building the momentum.
David Ihrie: That's what's worked for us, so....
Joe Supervielle: Well, thanks for sharing the story on the testbed. I had one last question to close, as long as I have two excellent CTOs here. I wanted to ask, excluding cybersecurity, because we all know that that's a big thing out there for local government, almost impossible to solve entirely. Everyone's got to address it somehow. This podcast will address it in-depth on an upcoming episode. So, excluding the cybersecurity angle, what do you think is the single-biggest opportunity or threat local government faces in terms of technology today? Mike, start with you.
Mike Cannon: Sure. I think the biggest challenge has been, and probably still continues, is staffing and funding, and I'll kind of group them together but they are intertwined. A lot of local governments have legacy systems that need to be upgraded and transformed. I think the pandemic has accelerated that at a level we've never seen before, and I think local governments are going to need to continue that momentum going forward.
I think it's been probably the most significant time ever in most CIO's careers or CTO's careers that I've found that I've spoken to. To be living through this pandemic and seeing the kind of change that we've gone through. So, I would say that, and the biggest threat, it's really hard to not talk about security, so I think that's clearly one. But also funding and support from the public, and from your board, and everything else. You have to continually sell what you're doing and justify the benefit of it. There is a PR part of it, and really being able to keep folks educated about what you're doing.
David Ihrie: Yeah, I would echo that in terms of the community acceptance, and we're seeing that now across pretty much every technology introduction that that comes along. We were spending a lot of time on issues like privacy, and transparency, and communication, the PR that Mike mentioned. If you're not open and letting people get their questions answered, it's almost certain to fail. And so that's a big deal.
And the other thing. I echo Mike, and your comments about cybersecurity, but let me put a slightly different twist on it. I think that, in the end, smart communities really come down to better collection, sharing, and use of data. And when we talk about IOT, it's really, "How do you have a better understanding of what's going on in your world?" And the ability to manage that data on the back end: how do you share it? How do you protect it? How do you get it to get synergies across different departments? I think is really a fundamental challenge. It absolutely depends on cybersecurity, but having the best cybersecurity in the world, even if it's bulletproof, if you don't manage the data, well, you're not going to reap the benefits.
Joe Supervielle: All right. Well, appreciate the info on that. Maybe we'll follow up on the cyber topic another time. But today I just really appreciate you sharing with the audience about the Smart Testbed in Stafford County, and just really great things technology can do for the public out there. So, David. Mike. Thanks again for your time today.
David Ihrie: Yeah, thanks. It's been great.
Michael Cannon, Chief Technology Officer, Stafford County, Virginia
David Ihrie, Chief Technology Officer, Virginia Innovation Partnership Corporation (formerly Center for Innovative Technology)
Michael Cannon, Chief Technology Officer, Stafford County, Virginia, and David Ihrie, Chief Technology Officer, Virginia Innovation Partnership Corporation (formerly Center for Innovative Technology), discuss technology testing and deployment that leads to real-world community benefits in public safety, quality of life, economically and more.