Universities seek to fill local government’s tech gap

As the technological needs of cities grow by leaps and bounds, traditional government structures are struggling to keep up. With lumbering bureaucracies and limited budgets, local governments simply can’t hire the people they need or train their existing employees to keep up with the demands of 21st century governance.

This is where universities come in. In places like New York and Chicago, local research universities and municipal governments have long partnered on solving local issues.

And last year Bloomberg Philanthropies launched its “What Works Cities Initiative,” which seeks to help cities better their use of data to improve governance and the lives of residents. Universities are a critical component of that model.

University of Miami hopes to foster that same sort of relationship here, through its three-year-old Interactive Media program.

“Certain universities have transformative effects,” said Kim Grinfeder, the founder and director of the program, which is part of the School of Communication. “Miami doesn’t have that presence.”

The three-year-old master’s level interdisciplinary design and technology program brings in everyone from artists to bankers. Students have projected what Miami will look like with sea level rise, mapped out local breweries, and demonstrated the health impact of not giving food workers sick days. While only a handful of students are expected to take their classroom skills to the public sector when they graduate, while they are enrolled UM wants to throw their energy and innovative approaches at some of the biggest challenges facing local government.

“We want to be disruptive on pretty much every level,” said Grinfeder.

Last semester, Prof. Clay Ewing’s class was assigned the monumental task of making Miami-Dade County’s 311 Dashboard – the portal for all the service requests received across the county, everything from pothole repairs to tree trimming – a usable tool.

For four months, the students tackled every aspect of the dashboard, from mapping all the service requests to making information searchable by users.

At the end of it, while the overhaul was not complete, the students had made much more progress than expected by Mike Sarasti, a program manager for Miami-Dade County ‘s Community Information and Outreach department and the government-side supervisor for the project.

For him and the students, the semester-long partnership underscored how complementary local government and universities’ work could be, with MDC providing real data and projects with a purpose and the university bringing the technical know-how and experts like Prof. Alberto Cairo, a leader in the data visualization field.

“The government isn’t hiring data scientists at the level they need to be hired yet. There’s a tremendous opportunity to leverage the research,” said Sarasti.

“It’s a notorious vacuum we have here. We have a lot of smart people, but you don’t necessarily have the people that can do a lot of the statistical work. It’s not even in their job description,” he added. “We haven’t had the time as an organization to dedicate fully to immersing ourselves in this research. The people in the front lines are actually fixing the pot holes.”

And some students have drifted naturally toward projects with a public focus. Jennifer Hernandez, a part-time student who also works at the university, launched Sunshine Traffic for her data visualization class with Cairo. The goal is to help people see and understand traffic patterns, from commuting routines to the most congested corridors.

“We all know that the Palmetto [Expressway] has a traffic jam… but when you start looking into why, it’s quite fascinating. You find that most jobs in Miami-Dade County are located more on the east side, but the area most people live in is the west – Kendall, Doral, even by Miami [Metro] Zoo,” Hernandez said.

“When it comes to the issue of traffic, the local government is going to continue approaching it in a traditional way because of the bureaucracy. You have to have a meeting, you have to have a budget, you need funds. It’s a very lengthy process. When it comes to something like traffic, making data available to citizens, who are the ones who are going to make an impact in the short term, [is a step forward],” Hernandez said. “The open data initiative, I think it’s great because it’s the citizens who tend to do innovation… I’m just an individual. I get the data and I get creative with it.”

Programs like the Interactive Media program and the movement toward open data are “opening a whole new world where citizens can make an impact by being creative and using the tools we have available,” she added.

UM isn’t the only university being tapped by Miami-Dade County. Research by Florida International University’s climate change and sea level rise experts is frequently used by the county in municipal planning, according to Sarasti.

But the city will not benefit from the universities’ know-how to the fullest if they can’t figure out how to keep them here. Grinfeder acknowledged it can be hard to keep alumni in the Miami area.

Kelsey Kjeldsen, one of the students who worked on the 311 dashboard, agreed. She is in her final semester and while she wants to stay in Miami after graduation, finding a job commensurate with her skills is harder here than in New York or Silicon Valley.

“In Miami, I do find it a little bit difficult to find where these places [are] or get an opening,” she said.

Connecting the university to Miami-Dade County has become a major focus of the university in recent years. An engagement office was opened in 2011 that focuses on finding those voids that the university can fill – and finding ways to keep students focused on the local community after graduation.

“Universities have a lot of resources that they can bring to bear in addressing community-wide concerns,” said Robin Bachin, the assistant provost for civic and community engagement at UM. “What our civic function can be is how we can best leverage those resources to meet needs being unaddressed in other sectors.”