August 4, 2014 - From the August, 2014 issue

LA’s Chief Innovation Technology Officer Champions Agile Apps

Peter Marx joined the City of Los Angeles as its first Chief Innovation Technology Officer in February, leaving a job in the private sector at Qualcomm Labs to assume the position. Marx sat down with TPR to outline opportunities for technological improvement in the city. He notes historic obstacles to public sector innovation—a political culture unfamiliar with the tech world’s reliance on iteration and fail-fast mantra. Marx identifies promising projects underway—including LA City’s Open Data initiative, and MyLA311 app—and offers ideas for the future. He also touches on lessons learned from other like cities.

Peter Marx

“Useful data, by definition, is the thing we’re looking to get into the hands of innovators.” —Peter Marx

“It takes on average 450 days to procure a service, which means that by definition you’re always buying not last year’s service, but the year-and-a-half-before-that’s service.” —Peter Marx

Peter, as the City of LA’s first Chief Innovation Technology Officer, elaborate on your public management responsibilities. 

Peter Marx: The title represents the desire, specifically by Mayor Garcetti, to bring a focus on innovation and technology to the city that may not have been there for a while. We’re living in an age when technology is changing almost everything. All of us carry smartphones. Not that long ago, we would have considered those devices far off in the future. We’re seeing those same technologies—whether they’re sensors, processors, displays, or connectivity—begin to change the city environment around us. 

Now you can deliver a city service not through 311, a voice telephone call, but rather offer a more sophisticated service through innovative uses of current technologies to answer questions like: “How do I pay for my parking?” “How do I get onto the bus or the subway?” “How do I interface with my public agencies?” “How do I learn about the environment around me?” “How do I understand safety?” This makes the city government available to individuals wherever they are, whoever they are, and whenever they need it, in a more modern way.

Public officials who have championed technology innovation and sophisticated communication systems have historically faced two challenges. First, by the time government procures “new” technology, it’s typically out of date. If successfully purchased and installed, the jurisdiction is wedded to a technology that is terribly difficult to update and modify. Second, public management consistently confronts a protected workforce that often prefers the familiar and resists “change.” Your thoughts on both of these leadership challenges would be appreciated.

They’re independent issues. We’re in a time of rapidly changing technologies. There are many technologies from the past that people have invested into, like social networks that don’t exist anymore or music stored on magnetic cassettes formerly known as 8-tracks. I think of these as The Eagle’s “Hotel California.” If you remember from the song, you check in and you can never get out again. Many, many folks have gone into those spaces, and here we are in a world where technology is changing almost before our eyes. It’s growing faster and developing faster than any of us could have possibly expected in the past. We have to be cognizant about that.

It’s a methodology question. There are highly successful companies out there—brand names that we all know—that changed their methodology from large design, development, acceptance criteria, and provisioning. They moved to an agile methodology: fail early, fail fast. Deliver a minimally viable product and then iterate, and iterate, and iterate. If you’re able to get something out that the people can start working with, you can start getting consumer feedback rapidly. Your customers—the residents, visitors, and businesses in the City of LA—can actually work with you to develop your product. The joke goes, “How do you know a mobile app is dead?” “You know because it hasn’t been updated recently.” 

Traditional software development methodology says we procure it, we design it, we develop it, we deliver it, and then we don’t think about it ever again. More modern development methodologies say we develop something really early, it’s basic but functional, and then we iterate upon the service continuously. 

Peter, elaborate on how you were enticed from the private sector—your resume includes high-level work at Qualcomm, Vivendi-Universal, and Electronic Arts—to accept LA Mayor Garcetti’s offer, especially considering the city’s current fiscal condition.

It’s a rare opportunity to take a strategic technology innovation job inside of a large organization, which happens to be the city where I was born, and be able to make a positive impact. I would say it’s a two-way street. I’m gaining an incredible education here. But the city also benefits from having folks who are energetic and bring diverse backgrounds, opinions, and experiences to try to influence where the city should go. 

I think of my job as threefold: It’s working with the tech industry, whether media and entertainment, consumer packaged goods, or online services—those are all familiar spaces; it’s working to make the city services better for the people who live, work, and visit here; but in addition, it’s recognizing that technology is changing the city around us. This is very much a place where I get to have a front row seat and even participate in how technology is going to change the infrastructure and experience of being in the city. 

We’re going to see in the not-too-distant future the emergence of connected vehicles and autonomous vehicles. We’re literally going to watch streets in front of us change to accommodate vehicles and people using technologies that are developing right now. How often do you get a chance to work inside the second-biggest city in the country—a technology capital—and influence how that city adapts to these technologies?

Commentators have noted that techies typically view government suspiciously. Were there colleagues at Qualcomm who thought your decision to accept the City of LA’s Chief Innovation Technology Officer position was unenlightened? What actually motivated you to go “inside the belly of the beast”—the City of Los Angeles—to assist its adaptation to ever-changing information technologies?

First off, when I told Qualcomm that I was going to go take this job, the reaction was uniformly positive. In fact, the executive vice president for whom I worked sent a note pretty widely across the organization essentially congratulating me on the job, which is fairly unusual when you’re leaving a company. 

I’d argue that the technology world is a little bit afraid of government, and that the government world is a little bit afraid of what technology can do. It’s fascinating from a sociological point of view to see where these two things come together.

I’ll come back to autonomous vehicles. You hear inside of the tech world that government is probably going to be the reason why self-driving cars don’t take off. It’s funny— from inside government, I hear a lot of people saying, “How soon? How quickly? How do we accommodate this?” There’s a real disconnect between perceptions on both sides. 

Government is not going to stop self-driving cars. Entities like the State of California, which is issuing driver’s licenses starting in September for drivers of self-driving cars, are actually trying to facilitate this. I think that’s fascinating. 

Returning to your public management responsibilities, some have asserted that your “modern” approach to innovating via technology directly challenges a public-sector culture that historically dis-incentivizes “failing early and failing fast.” How are you presently instilling a “tech” culture within the city that’s more supportive of Mayor Garcetti’s innovation agenda?

I’m just one person, and we all know the limitations of budget, process, procurement, and so on. City government has been around for a very, very long time. I don’t expect that we’re going to magically change an entire culture that has developed over many years and is very good at what it does. However, that doesn’t mean we aren’t able to do things that make the city more liveable, more responsive, and a better user experience. 

Could you offer some examples?  

Let’s talk about something very foundational. The mayor, controller, and City Council set up an Open Data portal. We took data that had previously resided solely inside of proprietary systems—“Hotel Californias,” if you will—and made them available for outside people to use. Suddenly app developers (not necessarily the government) and web developers (not necessarily the government) can use city assets—this data, for example—to make services (again, not necessarily the government) that make our city a better place.

Your reference to the city’s controller inspires noting that this past month’s TPR included an interview of LA City Controller Ron Galperin, in which he prioritized public transparency. Elaborate on how you are assisting the Controller’s Office in implementing his agenda?

There are two points of cooperation in working with Controller Galperin. One is that we are using the same platform—Socrata—for both data from the Controller’s Office and for the generic and varied City Data. That’s super important. It means less for IT to support. We can now educate developers and service providers uniformly against that platform. It’s the same one that the federal government and the State of California use. 

We’re also working to make people aware that they can use these data sets and then iterate and innovate upon them, which is really key. They have data that relates to the controller’s functionality. The city also provides data that relates to public safety, building and safety, the locations of street lights, etc. It’s not necessarily financial data, but it’s on the same platform.

Could you elaborate more on the data sets now being collected and shared by the city?

One of the original data sets we published included not only crime reports to the LAPD, but also accident reports. They’re set so that the geographic centroids are either an intersection or the middle of a block, so that we’re not tying it to somebody’s personal home address. Now you can go across the city and actually see the safest and most dangerous places—not only from a crime point of view, but also from a vehicular-traffic-accident point of view.

What are the management challenges of collecting and sharing accurate LA City data sets?

There’s a lot of data out there. Not all of it is accurate. Data also grows old really quickly. I would argue that timely data is important. Generally accurate data is important. Useful data, by definition, is the thing we’re looking to get into the hands of innovators. 


I don’t think that it’s realistic to aspire to have any organization—private or public—held accountable for delivering 100-percent accurate, 100-percent reliable, 100-percent useful data at every moment. We’re trying to make the data available so that people can use it, iterate upon it, and innovate upon it. The data is delivered as-is. 

The US Census Bureau publishes their data every 10 years. In between these large updates, they publish interim data. That data is accurate only in as much as the Census data folks are able to get it at the time of the Census. What’s more, that data grows old—people move, communities develop. 

The Census figures out the geographic location of every street address in the country. It only does that every 10 years—development happens more quickly than that. Is the Census Bureau required to have accurate data for that entire 10 years? No, it is as accurate as they can make it given the limitations of censusing. But making those limitations clear beforehand allows companies like Google to still make useful maps using original Census data. People can then correct that data and suggest what does or doesn’t exist to Google. 

MyLA311MyLA311 is an LA City app that your office is supporting. How is it, or will it be, used by the public?

MyLA311 is an app that allows people to make service requests to the city. You can report a broken streetlight, a pothole, and even connect with LADWP to pay your bill. It’s for straightforward city services. The vision is to make it more comprehensive. Right now, when a user of that app makes a report, essentially it becomes a transaction that goes right into the city. The user doesn’t get communicated with afterward. Setting up Customer Relations Management, where each resident who reports something to the city is treated as a relationship as opposed to a service request, is super important. 

With Amazon, you immediately receive confirmation of an order. They tell you that your order is being packed, is being shipped, is on the truck, and is delivered. Finally, they ask how you felt about the whole thing. That’s a relationship management system. That’s where the city—as a very large, multifaceted service provider—needs to go.

What are the next steps the City of LA will be taking to move aggressively from aspirational goals to the delivery of useful digital services to the public?

When you are developing a digital service, a lot of companies—Amazon and Google being examples—have demonstrated that when you deliver a first product and iterate continuously as your users do things, that’s obviously much better. 

The city’s procurement system and organization is much more about large milestone deliveries. So there’s a gap between what the city is structured to do and where current development methodologies for digital services need to go.

Peter, Controller Galperin has said that he doesn’t want to push ahead until there’s some reform of the procurement process—so you can fail and iterate to get to goal. Talk a little bit about what we all could do to help reform that procurement process.

I’m not an expert in city procurement. I understand from the Information Technology Agency that it takes on average 450 days to procure a service, which means that by definition you’re always buying not last year’s service, but the year-and-a-half-before-that’s service. That’s difficult. However, I do think that government can enable a lot of private and other public entities to deliver better services. 

I’ll point to the Open Data site. I don’t know that using city money is always the way that you have to do everything. There are lots of folks out there willing to do things. They just simply need the government to help them—providing data, access, or an API—for them to build a service. 

For example, we have had a lot of communications providers ask how we can make a permitting system that is more efficient, so that they can deploy the broadband everyone needs. It’s not the city government saying, “We’re going to pay for the broadband to be deployed across the infrastructure.” The private world is already saying, “In fact, we want to do more. How do we make the city more efficient at working with us on permits?” Now the Department of Building and Safety is looking into ways to help those private providers provide better broadband infrastructure across the city. Let’s do more of that.

Before concluding this interview, share which cities and regions you are benchmarking yourself against. From which jurisdictions could the City of LA learn the most about adopting innovative technologies?

Really, really large cities like Los Angeles are in a class unto themselves in the United States. Looking at New York, there are lessons for us to learn—whether it’s around resiliency, big data, or a metrics-and-performance-driven culture. New York is not the model for LA, but it’s certainly a great place to learn from.

Some smaller cities like Minneapolis and Seattle are perhaps a little bit less diverse but very solidly run. You can look at the way Portland has done open data, for example. I put that at the top of the school. Smaller cities are more agile than us. I have family in Minnesota and in New York, and lots and lots of connections to cities across North America, like all of us do. It’s hard for us not to be influenced by people who are doing a really good job.

Los Angeles, because it’s so diverse and so large, can take those lessons. At the end of the day, we’re going to do something different.

In the private sector, I have worked all over the world. I launched a business at Qualcomm where we spent two years in Tokyo and Osaka working with companies, rail systems, and everything else. Japan writ large is really interesting because it has been well ahead of other societies in use of mobile phones. Think about NTT DoCoMo’s iMode service from the early 2000s. That’s a good place to try really early things because its population is already used to living on mobile devices. They’re very, very educated. There are fantastic lessons there.

Two of the largest train stations in the world exist inside of Tokyo—Tokyo Station and Shinjuku. An incredible number of people pass through. Look at what they’ve done with payment systems and information delivery about schedules. Cities like Paris, Shanghai, and Singapore are the classic examples. You look at cities being grown out of nothing in the Emirates, like Dubai, which are sort of fantastic. Barcelona prides itself on being a smarter city. We would be remiss if we weren’t aware of all of that.

It’s one thing to professionally advance from Qualcomm to JPL. It’s another to leave Qualcomm for a position with the City of LA, without the latter having a dedicated budget. How could our readers help you achieve your goals?

Readers need to bring their realistic expectations and not accept the status quo. The city, the county, and the government world appears unchanging. I would argue that it’s not unchanging. 

I would argue that the more participation we see from the community—whether it is a community of techies, businesses, or residents—the better. The more push that we get, the better. Coming from the private sector, I look at government and see a large service provider. We are all paying for a service, so let’s see if we can have the most responsive service. That’s a two-way conversation. 

I’ll give you a simple example. The parking meters out front take credit cards. That parking meter connects wirelessly to a payment mechanism, allowing you to use a modern form of payment to pay for a parking space. OK, great. Demand more of them. Now if you drive into Downtown Los Angeles, you can call 511 and use a voice interface that’s similar to Siri or Google’s voice response system to ask, “Where is there available parking in Downtown Los Angeles? I’m going to 5th and Grand.” The system will tell you where there’s available parking because the parking lots and the parking meters are wirelessly connected to a service. 40 percent of every car trip is spent looking for parking. Why wouldn’t drivers now expect their government to make it easier to find the parking spaces that they’re ultimately paying for?

Lastly, what should be the benchmarks for judging your success in a year’s time?

I think we’re already delivering some early wins. On the last day of May and the first day of June, we held a conference at City Hall, #techLA, promoting the opening of the Open Data portal. We thought that we’d have a hackathon, with as many as 200 people there. We ended up having a couple thousand people—and turned it into not only a hackathon, but also a youth hackathon. We held a jobs fair, a tech fair, and 10 panel discussions on everything from the connected city, to big data and visualization, to autonomous vehicles, to the future of mobility. We also set up the Mayor’s Council on Technology and Innovation. 

These are foundational things done very early on. Some started long before I joined the city, like the open data work. Now I think you’ll have to measure our success by how much people start to use those things, and how much we start to have demand for the next forum at City Hall. How do we look outside our world and see other people using the tools we’re beginning to provide to deliver more apps and more services? That is really essential. If it takes a year and a half to procure something, will we have delivered a new service from the city government within a year? Unlikely.


© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.