Houston launches new bot in response to Hurricane Harvey

17th January 2018 Jonathan Andrews

Jonathan Andrews met with Lisa Kent, CIO, City of Houston, to discuss her advice on getting the best out of vendor partnerships and how her department played a key role during Hurricane Harvey*

What are your biggest challenges as city CIO?

Certainly we have a tremendous amount of deferred maintenance–like a lot of city organisations, finances are tough–and so we would have liked to have replaced many assets sooner and kept them more modern. But now we are facing the need to go to a cloud strategy to eliminate some of the pressures with maintaining physical infrastructure.

Has being airport Chief Technology Officer (CTO) assisted you in combatting those?

I was officially appointed in October 2016, and came down in an acting capacity about three months earlier. Prior to that I had been with the Houston airport system for 20 years and the last six were as the CTO.

Airports tend to operate as a business and although in Houston the airports are part of the City of Houston, I had a lot of exposure to city government processes, regulations and requirements.

At Houston airports, we were highly focused on the customer which is the passenger. Clearly, we have customers as airlines and concessionaires and parking organisations, but the end focus is always on passenger satisfaction, easing passengers through our facilities both from roadways and garages all the way through terminal checkpoints and customs. What helped me most was that we had a very clear vision and strategy of where we wanted the airport system to go and what our objectives were for passenger satisfaction. We were able to align all of our projects and support initiatives directly to that strategy.

How did you and your team come in to play before, during and after Hurricane Harvey?

IT services are mission critical, particularly depending on which services you talk about. For the HITS organisation, which is the city’s centralised IT system, we are responsible for the public safety radio system, as well as a number of mission critical applications. This includes everything from supporting police and fire infrastructure, some applications like financial systems and the public website for interacting with citizens and providing updates. My team started the planning several days ahead of time.

Houston is used to having hurricane events and so we do have emergency operation plans and continuity of operations-type plans in place. We started several days out and had to identify the people who–we call them Tier 1–will be the folks on site ahead of time and during the event. We had folks stationed in multiple locations and all of our data centres had a least two of our resources. We had folks stationed at the city’s emergency operations centre throughout the event and our job was to keep things running. When things don’t go right, our job is to come up with ‘work arounds’, which we did. Thankfully we had a very good experience where none of our data centres went down but there are lots of impacts to services that when entire buildings are inundated [with water] even third party circuits are at risk. Some of those things happened.

How can CIOs help cities better prepare when faced with natural disasters?

There is a lot to be learned for all different types of disasters and certainly we learn from each other and from some of our past events and make adjustments to how we will respond.

One of the things that was most heartening about other cities and CIOs was the amount of offers for assistance that we got. We had other CIOs from throughout Texas and throughout other states that reached out to me during the event. Texas DIR, the Department of Information Resources, also offered opportunities.

Vendors called us and were ready and willing to provide additional services–that is not something we have contracted–but they recognised that there was a human need and they rose to the occasion and helped us.

Tell us about a current project you are working on with a vendor/supplier?

I’m so glad you asked as the meeting I just came out of was with them–in fact they are just across the hall! One of the outcomes from Hurricane Harvey was a significant increase in call load to our 311 operators [a non-emergency number to reach city services and queries]. We are currently developing a bot with Microsoft to help with 311 services. The intent is to staff that bot with typical questions that Harvey recovery and relief efforts received but really we are building the bot to be able to handle 311 in general. We have seeded that bot with about 2,500 of the most commonly asked questions as well as the additional information pertaining to Harvey recovery efforts.

Some examples would be, ‘When is my recycling going to begin?’, which I believe has already started back just in the last day or two. Questions about debris removal, or how to apply for permits to start a rebuild, those kinds of things we expect the bot to be able to shoulder some of the load and not have the 311 agents do it. We are still working on the bot but expect it to be available sometime in the next couple of weeks.

We chose to call it the Astro bot [named after the 2017 World Series winning baseball team, the Houston Astros]. Some of the concerns were if we named it Harvey it would have a negative feel for citizens. We are hoping for the Astro bot to go live soon and that is certainly an example of technology where the idea came from our increased workload but clearly we’ll be able to use it for a lot of different things.

What does a prospective partner or third party need to do to impress you?

They have to be cost effective. One of our biggest challenges is financial constraint. There has to be business value, like the need to go to the cloud, which means we are able to stay current with the infrastructure without having to go out ourselves and make those purchases. Agility is another example of what the cloud will do for us, enabling us to be more responsive to some of our customer departments and citizen requests.

Partners have to be creative and innovative, the example of the bot is something a vendor brought to us and said, ‘Do you think you could use this?’. There are lots of different ideas that come up from conversations with vendors where they implemented it somewhere else, but the ones that really excite us are those things that nobody has done before. And just in brainstorming some of the problems we have been facing, we jointly come up with some of those ideas. We did some of those things at the Houston airport system which borders on almost product development but there is a place for cities to be involved in that kind of innovation.

What’s the typical mistake vendors or potential partners make when talking to you?

Number one, they are too pushy. Sometimes they make assumptions that only their product is the correct solution and if their product is not selected through a competitive evaluation process they can get bitter about that.

We’re not excited by pushy sales, we are really excited about ideas and innovation and looking for that shared value. They want to sell products while we want that business value. It has to be mutual.

Houston was one of the first cities to join the Cities Changing Diabetes network. Most cities globally have little control or power over healthcare but have to deal with the impacts all the same. Is health an area where as Houston CIO, you are able to play a part?

Absolutely, one product that we support, we’ve named project Ethan. It’s basically medical telehealth, so our emergency medical services’ officials will go out and respond to healthcare calls from citizens and they are able to use Ethan which is a video conferencing type solution to connect a patient to a physician and determine what that patient needs. This includes whether or not they need to be transported to a hospital or if they need something else. That enables a number of things including cost savings for both the patient and the city itself through avoiding transport and the time spent doing that. It’s also about being compassionate to the patient where they feel comfort and confidence from speaking to a physician.

How is Houston implementing innovation into the rebuild after Hurricane Harvey?

Certainly innovation is an aspect. The city in general is trying to get a lot more excitement generated and business development in the city and we do have several different initiatives. My department works on some of them and others come out of a more business development effort but we definitely have ties to the Houston Technology Center and Station Houston [the city’s hub for tech startups and innovation] and the intent to make this a place that small startups want to come and begin their business here. We are doing a lot of things to foster that innovation and a new business startup experience.

*This interview was first published in Connected Cities, the new app from Cities Today for city CIOs and CTOs on digital urban strategies. To get your free copy, click here

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