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Public sector IT that inspires

In Utah, Texas and New Jersey, government tech solutions are saving time, money, and even lives

By James Daly

  • A single sign‑on platform provides state residents access to 1,300 digital services
  • Machine learning techniques help health agencies identify fraudulent opioid prescriptions
  • A network of river gauges and sensors first installed in the 1980s has expanded into an IoT‑driven flood‑warning system

Government IT has deservedly gotten a bum rap over the years. Most state and federal agencies are operating today with the same silos, hierarchies and bureaucracies they’ve had in place for decades. A lot of government IT shops still muddle along on servers from the 1990s.

The rise of artificial intelligence and other advanced technologies, however, is putting more pressure on governments to catch up with the private sector.

“It’s not just about asking if a government site can look better,” says Jennifer Pahlka, founder and executive director of Code for America. “It’s about more focused use of technology. And all of this must be in the service of better government. You can have a service that looks nice, but if it’s not instrumented well to spot where the bottlenecks in the system are at the moment they’re happening, then it’s going to fall short.”

While public sector IT is hardly experiencing a revolution, we found interesting experiments at all levels of the U.S. government. Some initiatives are even saving lives. Here’s a look at public‑sector tech programs that are moving the needle for both citizens and government employees.



Utah unifies

Ever try getting what you need quickly from government services online? It can often result in banging your head on the keyboard.

Utah has created an online portal, UtahID, that pulls off a minor miracle when it comes to accessing government information. It provides a single sign‑on platform for citizens to tap into some 1,300 online services, from bulletins on fishing hot spots to notary exams and prep for driver’s license tests.

UtahID gets about 4.5 million visits a month, which is impressive for a state with just three million people. “We have a fairly digitally savvy population since we’ve been promoting it for a while now,” says Utah CTO Dave Fletcher.

The state also offers a portal that helps entrepreneurs run their businesses. It includes information about company registration, workers’ compensation, tax liability and payments, and more.

Individual state agencies also benefit from these moves, since a platform approach offers the surest way to connect  disparate information systems and agencies. “We have a consolidated IT operation statewide,” says Fletcher.

Fletcher is pleased with the coordination efforts and progress so far, but notes that there is still work to be done. “There are 700 IT employees in the state’s Department of Transportation alone,” he says. “It’s always a challenge to ensure we’re providing good services to agencies like transportation, human services and healthcare.”

In Texas, a river runs through IT

In Texas as in many states, it’s not uncommon for lives to be turned upside down by hurricanes and flash floods.  These dangerous events often happen quickly, leaving residents scrambling for their lives.

Hydromet, a network of more than 275 connected river sensors and weather gauges in Texas, serves as a kind of life‑saving Internet of Things for residents along more than 600 miles in the floodplain of the Colorado River.

Managed by the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) in Austin, and originally conceived in the 1980s, Hydromet tracks real‑time stream flows, lake levels, temperature, rainfall, humidity, and other metrics. It pushes updates every 15 minutes so citizens and first responders can get advance warning of approaching floods. Additional gauges help LCRA build forecast models to aid in flood operations.

“Hydromet is an important resource for people throughout the lower Colorado,” says Clara Tuma, public information officer at the LCRA. “We’re in the middle of Flash Flood Alley, and that kind of near real‑time information can be invaluable as people make decisions about how best to protect themselves and their property.”

LCRA managers are now exploring how to help emergency responders geo‑target smartphones of citizens in specific areas where flooding is imminent, so that cities and counties can issue more accurate warnings.



Fighting opioid addiction in the cloud

The opioid crisis that is tearing lives apart across the U.S. has a powerful new foe—New Jersey IT.

The New Jersey Prescription Monitoring Program (NJPMP) is a state initiative that monitors nearly 90 million records of opioid prescriptions and dispensations, and makes them available to 15 states from Maine to West Virginia.

The Garden State has a keen interest in making this work. According to new preliminary state data, New Jersey saw 2,750 drug overdose fatalities in 2017—nearly eight per day on average. That number represents a 24% increase over the same figure for 2016.

NJPMP is a cloud‑based platform that uses machine learning techniques to determine if an opioid user is being overprescribed. For example, the program employs anomaly detection and geospatial analysis to identify individuals who may have traveled hundreds of miles to acquire opioids.

Before dispensing prescribed medications, pharmacists can check the NJPMP website and request a patient’s prescription history. If they believe a patient is abusing a controlled substance, they can report it to the NJPMP.

Earlier this year, the NJPMP helped identify a doctor who had prescribed more than 150,000 units of powerful opioid pain medications over the previous year, with 80% of those prescriptions going to patients with daily morphine levels that exceeded limits recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

State officials suspended one doctor’s license after a pharmacist filed a complaint with the NJPMP’s suspicious activity site..“It’s about coordination,” says New Jersey attorney general Gurbir Grewal. “That’s what’s required to combat this epidemic.”

There are signs that the added enforcement is paying off. Recent data released by the state shows a 39 percent drop in the rate of Schedule II opioid prescriptions processed and dosage units dispensed between 2014 and 2018. 

James Daly is a business and technology journalist based in Alameda, California.

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