WyCo's Chief Knowledge Officer On His Passion For Public Service And Google

Sep 16, 2016

Alan Howze
Credit Twitter

In an effort to take advantage of expanding local government data capabilities, the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas, has hired Alan Howze to fill a new position — chief knowledge officer. The role merges public service, government efficiency, and transparency, several things he is passionate about, Howze said in a Facebook post.

Before his move to Kansas, Howze worked as a fellow at IBM's Center for Business of Government and the Partnership for Public Service. He was also a senior staffer for former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, and in 2014 ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the Arlington County Board of Commissioners. 

In his new role as chief knowledge officer, Howze said he is picking up on a policy direction set by the county commission and Mayor Mark Holland. Howze explained what that direction entailed and expounded on some of the challenges in a conversation with host Steve Kraske on KCUR's Up To Date. 

Interview highlights:

On the role of a chief knowledge officer

It is somewhat unique ... this model of putting into one department information technology and mapping technology, which is an incredibly powerful analytic tool.

Almost everything that the government does in a jurisdiction is connected to some sort of property or a street address or something like that. [We have] the ability to use special technology and mapping to identify both opportunities for improvement, but also analyze how we can tackle some of these challenges and how can we begin to visualize patterns that might help us to drive better solutions.

I’ll give you a tangible example. One of the challenges [in Wyandotte County] is blighted properties ... and there are efforts underway across the Unified Government to think about how we address that. We can take data from multiple departments, lay that up against each other and visualize it on a map. It really gives the policy makers, the elected officials, the tools to make better decisions.

On closing the digital divide in Kansas City, Kansas

If there were easy answers, I think they would have been done already. You’ve got the challenge, for example, of absentee landlords. When Google came in and set up their “fiberhoods” they were offering to come in and connect for a very low fee into households. Even if tenants would want that, if they can’t get the permission from a landlord — this may be an absentee landlord or somebody who’s just not interested in paying that small connection charge — then it becomes very hard to connect.

Now [what] we’re really thinking about is wireless an opportunity. Are there other ways to get around some of these barriers, to really provide that digital connectivity? [Wireless internet] is in the toolkit.

Another piece is … when [Google] came in, they said they’d connect up 130 public spaces across the community for free, and so they have gone through a multi-year process to get connections into Housing Authority places, into senior living areas, into community centers to provide public spaces where people can get access.

On rethinking the delivery of government services

I’ll give you a personal example from moving here with my family from Virginia and the challenges when you come into a new community. Getting set up, getting your driver’s license, purchasing a home, doing the taxes, all that kind of stuff; it is not a simple process. It requires multiple steps and it requires you to go to multiple places. For people who don’t have the same flexibility that my wife and I do, that means taking a day off work multiple times in order to just get the basic services that you’re required to get from your government. That’s a simple example but it highlights the opportunities we have to really improve customer service.

On Google Fiber's influence in KCK

I think it’d be hard to overstate the signal [Google Fiber] sent, and the boost that gave, to the community. In addition to the direct benefits that it’s had in terms of connecting up houses, it’s had an indirect benefit on bringing competition into the marketplace. Now other providers — AT&T and others — are providing much higher speeds at much lower costs. It’s provided a whole cascade of effects in terms of helping to support the growth of a startup community that wasn’t necessarily there before. The direct benefits are measurable. The indirect benefits are, in some ways, very difficult to calculate but are very important.

On the potential of "smart cities"

Think of data as a new and emerging natural resource. Just as clean water and electricity fundamentally changed cities 120 years ago, the same potential holds for using information. Everything from, how do we make our water system more efficient — so instead of losing, say, 50 percent of the water that runs through a system through leaks, maybe we can reduce that to ten percent — and save a lot of money on infrastructure and costs. How can we apply that to trash pick-up, to population health? Once you shift how you think about using data and information to help cross this full range of areas, it really is an exciting time for cities.

Luke X. Martin is a freelance contributor for KCUR 89.3 and an associate producer for 'Up To Date.' He can be reached at luke@kcur.org.