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Building the Digital City (with Jacqueline Lu and John Houweling)
Episode 162nd February 2024 • Let's Think Digital • Think Digital
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As digital technologies become increasingly embedded in the fabric of the built environment, there are real questions about whether our cities, where 8 out of 10 North Americans live, are truly ready to be digital or smart cities. Do we have the right levels of transparency for citizens to know what data is being collected, how, and for what purpose? And are governments ready to use data and technology to improve and modernize our public institutions?

This week, we talk to two amazing guests about these questions.

First up is Jacqueline Lu. She is the President and Co-Founder of Helpful Places, a social impact enterprise that is working to ensure that places we live and work in, and the technologies within them, are helpful and empowering for people and their communities. In this segment, we talk to Jacqueline about her contention that, with all of the digital technologies we are surrounded by, we are already living inside a computer. We also get into Helpful Place's project called the Digital Trust for Places & Routines standard, which is meant to increase the transparency, legibility and accountability of digital technology in the built environment.

Our second conversation is with John Houweling. John is the Director of Data, Analytics and Visualization for York Region in the Greater Toronto Area. John shares his insights from a fascinating career focused on data both in the public and private sectors and his his insights on the importance of data to fuel the digital revolution. We also talk about the digital maturity model that Think Digital has developed with York Region that help public sector organizations better understand what they need to do to make sure they have the capacity to operate effectively in a modern digital world.

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rNuJ_1kx_jY

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Chapters

00:04 Introduction

03:09 Interview with Jacqueline Lu

04:57 The Impact of Digital Technology on Public Spaces

07:38 The Role of Trust in Technology Adoption

12:57 The Digital Trust for Places and Routines Standard

16:02 The Importance of Transparency and Trust in Technology

21:34 Government Adoption of Technology is a Trust Issue

26:44 Interview with John Houweling

29:17 John's Journey and Transition into Government

33:36 Data Sharing and Collaboration

36:52 Digital Academy and Training

40:24 Digital Maturity and Benchmarking

44:38 Adopting Digital Standards

48:37 Conclusion and Final Thoughts from Ryan

Transcripts

Ryan:

I'm Ryan Androsoff, welcome to Let's Think Digital. Look outside your window, what do you see? Neighbors walking from one place to another, kids playing in a park, cars driving down a busy street? Look more closely and you might also see smartphones reporting on a swing that needs repairing on an app, or a smart water meter measuring water consumption, or cameras high above, counting the number of cars passing through an intersection. And if you look even more closely, you might actually see that all around you are streams of data being created, consumed and use to make decisions about our cities, and the built environment around us. Whether you know it or not, we are, as one of our guests provocatively suggested this week, living inside a computer. And this creates real questions about whether our cities where 8 out of 10 people live here in North America, are truly ready to be digital or smart cities. Do we have the right levels of transparency for citizens to know what data is being collected, how it's being collected, and for what purpose? And are governments ready to use data and technology to improve and modernize our public institutions? To answer these questions, we're bringing you two really interesting conversations that we had at the Forward50 conference in Ottawa, back in November. First up is Jacqueline Lu. She is the president and co-founder of Helpful Places, a social impact enterprise that is working to ensure that places we live and work in and the technologies within them, are helpful and empowering for people in their communities. They've got a really interesting project called the Digital Trust for Places and Routine Standard, which is meant to increase the transparency, legibility and accountability of digital technology in the built environment. Jacqueline shares with us what has been motivating this work with the values and approaches that she hopes our future smart cities will embrace. And our second conversation on today's podcast is with John Houweling. John is the director of data analytics and visualization for York region in the Greater Toronto Area. John's had a fascinating career focused on data, both in the public and private sectors. He shares some of his insights on the importance of data to fuel the digital revolution. We also talk about some interesting work that Think Digital has partnered with York Region on, to co-develop a digital maturity model to help public sector organizations better understand what they need to do to make sure they have the capacity to operate effectively, in a modern digital world. I hope you'll enjoy the conversations on today's episode. As always, if you like what you're hearing, make sure to click the like and subscribe buttons below if you're watching on YouTube, or follow the show on your favorite podcast app. Let's dive in.

Ryan:

So I'm really excited to have Jacqueline Lu with us today. Jacqueline, you were speaking this morning here at Forward50 about the work you were doing with your organization Helpful Places. And you've got a fascinating history of working in smart cities in a whole variety of different contexts. Would love for you to maybe just tell us a little bit about yourself and the work that you do and the work that your organization does.

Ryan:

Sure.

Jacqueline:

Sure. So I do consider myself a bit of a recovering public servant having spent almost 20 years in New York City government leading actually the parks department through various stages of digital transfer- transformation, starting with the very first 311 initiative under the Bloomberg administration, you know, helped build the geospatial data practice at the parks department. This was when you know, Mapquest was still new, just dating myself here a little bit, but also like really sort of helped grow the digital capability at the parks department through, through that career culminating and actually a project called the New York City street tree map, which is one of the biggest crowdsourcing projects of asset management quality geospatial data for New York City street trees, 2200 volunteers and 60 community groups. That project lives on now and actually sort of finished my public service career, sort of setting up the open data strategy at the parks department and founding the data analytics team and within an Innovation and Performance Management Division. So that's a little bit about me. And then it was time for me to come back home to Canada. I wasn't entirely sure what I was going to do when I first got here. But then there was this little project that not a ton of people heard about. I'm being... I'm kidding. But Sidewalk Labs was working on a smart city proposal for the Waterfront Toronto, which was the Economic Development Corporation in, in Toronto at the time, and I was sort of given the opportunity to think about, well, what does a public realm technology strategy look like? If you could sort of, you know, think about starting afresh, if you didn't have these sort of really challenging conditions around legacy technology, legacy infrastructure, you know, how could technology really help improve outcomes for public spaces? Of course, that also came along with a fair bit of concern from members of the public and here in Toronto around well, what does it mean to have increasingly digitalized public spaces. And so that, that became a bigger and bigger part of my portfolio as a Sidewalk Labs project, went on. Helpful Places was really, is a social impact enterprise that seeks to shift norms on how technology is deployed in the built environment. And we actually came, we came into being sort of in 2020, after, after the Sidewalk Labs project in Toronto was sunset for a variety of reasons. And the reason we came into being was that while I was at Sidewalk, we did run and open stucco design process and prototyping project that sought to try to answer the question, Well, how could you let residents and visitors in a smart district understand the digital layers that sort of overlay these public spaces? How could you give them notice, what are mechanisms and avenues for them to learn more and follow up? And as an open source project, we were starting to get some traction in those late days of the Sidewalk Labs project. And I wanted to continue that work. And so that was the genesis of Helpful Places. And since then, we've worked with eight and counting different organizations across North America, in Australia, as well as in France, to deploy the open source standard and to try to, you know, see how we could sort of shift, shift to- shift the balance of information in a way that's bit more that's more empowering for the person on the street.

Ryan:

Yeah, it's, it's fascinating. And, you know, I think this notion of technology in our built environment that you were talking about this morning, you know, we're at the Forward50 conference here in Ottawa, where we're recording this interview. And I think people often think about technology in the context of websites, or apps. And they forget that, you know, increasingly, we have such an interconnected, physical digital world right, of sensors and data, you made this comment this morning, that we are essentially living inside of a computer. Which I loved, I thought it was a great turn of phrase. And I'm wondering if you could just unpack that a little bit and how that shapes the work that you're doing at Helpful Places?

Jacqueline:

Sure. 100%. I mean, I think when we think about community spaces, or the built environment, what we see, or what I see are sensors that are collecting data, they're perhaps measuring the movement of goods, the movement of people, they are helping us understand what the environment is looking like. So one of one of the dreams I used to have when I worked in the public sector at parks is like, well, what if the parks could talk to me about the maintenance needs, instead of having to rely on you know, socio economically bias 311 complaint information, just as a for example. So I actually so, so, so when I say we live inside a computer, whether the sensors are involved or not, there's increasingly vast amounts of data that are being captured and collected about how we use spaces, how spaces are being used, and about the environment itself. And those datasets, and those data streams are being used to, at least in the near term, develop insights so that we can understand how these facilities, how these spaces are actually working. Think about the systems like transportation systems is a big area, right? We think about sensors, and sensing. But increasingly, those systems are also starting to make decisions. They're making decisions about how the space might work, how, you know, an environment might be optimized. And so when I say we're living inside a computer, there are all of these digital layers of services and infrastructure that overlay our physical environment, and we can't see them. And we don't know that they're there. And I think that is a challenge when we think about wanting to, you know, following the theme of the Forward50 conference, you know, have technology create a better society for all because how can you begin to participate in a dialogue about the desired outcomes of these technologies, of these AI and decision making systems actually, if you don't know they're there?

Ryan:

Right. Yeah, and there is, I mean, there's clearly a trust layer behind this right? You know, and we've done a lot of recent work around looking at AI in the public sector and what the impacts of it, and when, when there's a disconnect between trust, between people and their governments, which can exist for a whole variety of reasons, but technology can accelerate that. It's tough to make progress. And, you know, you mentioned Sidewalk Labs, I think there's a whole bunch of other examples like that, where when that trust balance gets out of whack, the kind of social licence to be able to pursue some of these potential innovations goes away, in a sense, right?

Jacqueline:

Yeah, no, 100%. I mean, you see this quite prominently, actually, in the United States, where sort of concerns about sensor technologies or surveillance technologies in another word, are sparking the real wave of what are, what are, what are called sort of community control of policing systems or Coops Laws, like sort've, or so-called like surveillance ordinances that seek to put our sort of local legislative responses to this public concern that try to be like, Okay, well, let's move transparency back into the process around these digital systems the same way that in an urban planning process, if you change the way the city works, if you're going to change a street, there's a public dialogue and a discourse about that. And we just simply do not have a corresponding process for the digital systems that have the potential to shape our environments in as impactful way. So for example, like, you know, like even something that might not be sensor driven, but like Google Maps. Okay, it's making routing decisions to guide you where to go. But to who, to what end? And I think it's interesting because even Google Maps, it used to be what was the fastest plate, what was the fastest way to get you from point A to point B, we saw some real, there's been some real implications of that, where streets that were not designed to take heavy traffic are getting increasing amounts of traffic routed to them, right? So that's, that's like an example of how this digital infrastructure is making decisions. But then what's also interesting is how with Google Maps now, you're given an option to be like, well, this is the route that saves you fuel. So again, like they're these systems, are these invisible overlays that helps shape behavior. But you don't know that they're there.

Ryan:

No, and you know, to use the behavioral economics kind of language, like they're nudges. Right? And there's, there's these nudges embedded in code. But to your point, in some cases, they may not even be intentional, right? It's, yeah, it's and I think it's, you know, it's interesting, I mean, at a local level to, you know, one of the challenges, obviously, is capacity, right, is having the resources to navigate some of these sometimes very delicate and tricky, technical, ethical, you know, data issues. So obviously, the work that you're doing now is to help organizations and municipalities and governments around the world in this area of transparency and trust, and I'm curious for you to talk a little bit about the the DTPR, right, Digital Trust for Place, and Routines. You know, and you shared it this morning again at your Forward50 talk, you know, as a bit of a, you know, a lexicon to be able to understand that built environment and the technology embedded, but be great if you could kind of explain what it is, and how you're seeing, you know, jurisdictions around the world starting to leverage it?

Jacqueline:

Okay. This is where sometimes I'm like, where's the picture? So Digital Trust for Places and Routines really started as, as an inquiry, as thinking about like, well, what are ways, what are ways to help people understand these digital layers? And we really started sort of, like pretty open ended, there was an idea that there was, there should be signage, there was an idea that probably like iconography is probably part of the answer. But we were actually pretty open minded when we first started it. And it was interesting to see, you know, starting by talking to the experts around like, well, in order for, you know, an individual to be able to make decisions about whether or not a technology is trustworthy, what should they know? And so we were able to then sort of like work with all of these privacy experts and smart cities experts to understand the, essentially the taxonomy or the categories of information that they felt needed to be surfaced about every sort of digital solution, in order for someone to be able to make an assessment about that. And so that, that insight, or that input sort of helped us think about like, well, is there a way to structure this information in a consistent way? Because we've all fallen down the rabbit hole, or maybe you just clicked right through onto what that privacy, that privacy notice, so what's it's saying? And so it was like, Well, you know, how can we put some structure to this information so that it can start to become a bit more legible. So the core part of DTPR is actually a data standard, and a taxonomy in a data structure. To try to take all of the concepts that are commonly sort of surfaced or investigated in a privacy impact assessment or in a trustworthy AI assessment or an AI assessment. And to literally turn it into structured information. So that's the starting point it.

Ryan:

And how does it, how does it manifest itself for somebody you know, who wants to access? And I think some of the examples you showed, like it could with a QR code on a sign in a park, right?

Jacqueline:

Yeah. Yeah. So the so the data standard has a visual representation. So do we do imagine that the data standard has an iconography that goes along with it, that there is a consistent pattern does that- it's really a design system, has a consistent pattern where these concepts are presented in a consistent fashion in the same way that information is presented consistently on a nutritional label right for food. So that if you want to answer a particular thing, then you can actually go there and find it. And so what we... so that sort of is like sort of one of the uses of the underlying data structure or the taxonomy is this data chain, which is where we actually go through like, accountable entity, purpose, technology type, data type, you know, privacy implications, data retention, storage, and access, and use that to basically like construct a description of the technology that gets at, you know, I'd say like, 80-85%, of what ought to be provided in a privacy impact assessment.

Ryan:

And is it a mix of kind of like what the technology is and how it's being used, I guess?

Jacqueline:

Yeah, purpose is critical as like in the user research. So. So a big part of how we designed DTPR was intentionally Yes, let's talk to the experts. But we were very deliberate in sort of seeing this like, well, we want this to be useful for members of the public. And so that's where you need to go from, like, you know, the very long list of things that experts say you need to be able to communicate to something that matters to a person in the moment. And in particular, when we're talking, when we're talking about these embedded technologies, what are actually the main things they want to know in that moment, versus everything that you know, you should or could or might want to know, if you have the time. And so through the design process, we worked with Code for Canada, and their grit program to test our early prototypes, really, in pushing and asking the question, well, this is everything about this technology. But what do you need to know as you're going about your day, as you're moving through public spaces? The answer became really clear, but wanted to know the purpose, they wanted to know if they could be seen. They wanted to know who was accountable for that technology to be there. And then they wanted to have a mechanism to follow up and find out more. And so that also then turned into part of the guidelines for the open source standard, which says, signage in a public space should always address these four core questions. And so that is how that starts to manifest and, and so you think about how a structured data set can then be expressed through different forms of communication, whether it's a physical sign, a website. But that there's a consistency as you go through all of those different things as the goal is to basically have, you know, person on the street have to do a lot less work to figure out what's going on.

Ryan:

Because, because I imagine, you know, one of the challenges is, there's almost a bit of an accessibility paradox on this, I mean, accessibility in the broad sense of the people who probably most will benefit from knowing about the technology that's in their environment and how it's being used, may be the ones with the lowest digital literacy. And and you know, being able to communicate that information in a way that people can broadly understand not just those who may have expertise in technology, I imagine that must be part of the challenge of how you kind of simplify that in a way that can be broadly understood by people.

Jacqueline:

And that is partly why there is sort of thinking about iconography at an entry point, right? It's still very technical, the concepts are still complex. But, you know, we have, there are many examples of how visual iconography or visual languages are used in the present day to communicate complex concepts. The Creative Commons logos are probably the most well known and relevant, but we also have things like food labeling, and then certainly nutritional labels like I don't know that I grew up learning or have like,

Ryan:

No, me neither,

Jacqueline:

inherently knew how to, how to read one of those, but as like through repeated sort of exposure and understanding and being honestly like, taught how to digest that information. Now I'm like, oh, okay, now I can understand how I can use this information to make some decisions, and to be more informed. So there is... there is an educational aspect of this and trying to, in thinking about like, you know, what does legibility look like? Are these concepts sort of like understandable, but we're also very realistic. It took the universal symbol signs, so like the accessibility symbols that you see in train stations and in airports that let you navigate the space, no matter where you are in the world, no matter what language you speak, that took 25 years to become sort of widely accepted and known. And, and so that's where, yes, there is a digital literacy, and an accessibility piece to it. But that, in a way is sort of like a long game. And I think does require sort of public sector and standards-based organizations to take that first step. Because that's where you actually get to like network effects.

Ryan:

Absolutely. But it's no, but I think you're rightly pointing out it's a process, right. And this, this becomes almost a generational effort to get people more aware of the technology around them, how it's being used, and I guess to some degree, have ownership over it right.

Jacqueline:

And to be able to participate in the conversation.

Jacqueline:

Right? So I think this is where thinking about trust, when people don't have information, and they're worried about something, then the space gets filled up with worst case scenarios, I don't know, and that's actually where sort of like polarization starts to really start to happen. And I think if you know, I'm a technology optimist, I really believe that technology has the potential to solve some of our most complicated problems. But if we can't even be on the same page about what the thing is, then we're not going to have a conversation about it. And it's not going to- and that, that is going to just be very difficult and out of reach. And I'd say that the sort of trust problem around technology is not just limited to thinking about sensors, and technology in the built environment as well. I worked in public sector transformation for a digital transformation for a long time. And for a while, when I first started this work, I was like, Well, how did, how did I work start- working in trust in technology that I worked in parks department, I did 311 Call Center, I did tree mapping. Feels... how did I get from there to here? But what I realized a few months ago was like, Oh, actually, internal adoption, government adoption of new technologies is also a trust issue. When I was working with forestry crews to implement a new work management system, I really needed to work with them so that they would believe that changing their ways of working was going to result in a better outcome. Right, so that, that is also a trust issue. And so I think we can talk about public trust and emerging technologies. But I think also when we think about digital government, and the change management that's necessary to get there. Those are also trust questions, because we're telling people, and we're letting people know, like this technology has the potential to make things better. But you need to believe that that's possible. And I think that's really hard to attain, if you don't have the information, and the work is not being done to help bring you along.

Ryan:

Yes.

Ryan:

And the work that you're doing in this space is now starting to get adopted in places around the world, which is exciting. I think you said there's seven or eight different jurisdictions that are now using this approach to be able to share information about about kind of smart cities types of technologies?

Jacqueline:

Yeah, they're, we're working with eight different organizations with several more in the pipeline around the world, where they are exploring the use of a standard like this, or of this system to support their communication and sort of technology rollout strategies with a particular focus on public spaces. So yeah, so we're pretty, we're pretty excited about, pretty excited about that. And I think what is interesting is that we are seeing that the public, you know, even if they, you know, they, when, when the system is deployed, they still have questions. And what we are seeing is that the taxonomy does do the job of helping demystify the technology to a sufficient degree, where then they're able to engage with those organizations around the desired outcomes and the potential of that technology to shift service delivery or to shift processes that they sort of, like understood to be true about how their community worked. And I think when we you know, our hope is to sort of have technology improve society for everyone. We need to get to that outcomes conversation, the technical details about how the tech works, who has access to this data, is it shared? Am I, can I be seen? Those are all crucial conversations. And what we're seeing is that if you can't get answer those to some level, or at least be fourth- sufficiently forthcoming, and how that would work, you're not going to get to an outcomes conversation, because there's just too much fakeness for people to be able to grapple with it.

Ryan:

It's, you know, I sometimes talk about a social license, right? And I think if government is going to be able to be innovative, at some point, it has to maintain that social license to be able to do it. And, you know, the type of work that you're doing, I think, is an incredible example of how we're, you know, as a society, need to change our awareness of our technology landscape and empower people, right, to, to navigate that. So if people want to learn more about the work you're doing, where can they go?

Jacqueline:

Sure. So you know, my, our social impact enterprise, our name is Helpful Places, you can find us online. But to learn more about Digital Trust for Places and Routines, or the DTPR standard. You should go to our website, which is DTPR.io. And you can there, you can sign up for our community Slack, you can email us, you can ask us questions. And yeah!

Ryan:

Wonderful. We'll be sure to put those those links in the notes for the episode. Jacqueline, thank you. This is great to learn about the work you're doing. And I think it's inspiring work, I think it's important work. And as you said, it's, you know, it's helping people kind of navigate this information diet they have in the same way we have nutritional labels to help with that, you know, the physical diet, your food diet, I think this notion of kind of nutritional labels for the technology diets that we have fascinating concept. I'm glad you're working on it and it's exciting work. We'll be following that of great interest.

Jacqueline:

All right. Thank you so much.

Ryan:

Thank you.

Ryan:

John, welcome to Let's Think Digital.

John:

Well, thanks, Ryan. Appreciated.

Ryan:

Great to have you with us. So John, I'll get you to maybe tell us a little bit about you know, the work that you do. You're joining us from York region, which is a regional government in the Toronto area, we've had the pleasure of doing some work together over the last few years, we did a workshop session here at Forward50 at the Forward50 conference in Ottawa together, maybe tell people a little bit just about your position and the work that you do with York Region.

John:

Okay. I'm Director of Data Analytics and Visualization Services and has... in that role, what we're responsible for is basically getting data or putting data to work. That's our mantra. So I really, and it's together putting data to work. So it's that recognition that we need to work with others in order to be able to, you know, bring that data together. Our CAO, many years ago, I guess, when I first got there about 10 years ago, 12 years ago, he said to me, we've got a lot of data, and it's now time to start using it. So I really liked this mantra, and really helps galvanize the whole thing. And it's got a sort of a blue collar thing to it, and together putting data to work. And I think that's, that's what we're trying to do. So. And we're doing that in many different ways. So, you know, whether we're working with the groups, we put a data platform in place with for shared data. And we've done that with our IT partners, we've worked on and in from, well, the clerks, which is another partner of ours have built an information security classification system. So classifies data, so we know what data can be made open to the public, what data can then go or shouldn't be because it has P-HIPAA or PIPA. So it's got that on it. So yeah, we're say, we're doing that, we have data scientists working with us that are doing the analytics. So one of the things we're doing now is looking at use cases. And that's part of putting data to work. And the other thing that we've done is we, in 2019, we worked with Price Waterhouse Cooper. And we created a data and analytics master plan, and that's our strategy. And it had a number of pillars and we worked on with, we're work we worked on implementing that. And now just recently, we've just launched DNA 2.0, right, data analysis master plan 2.0. So yeah, that's what we're working on.

Ryan:

Which is a lot. There's a lot of activity going on in that space. And, yeah, I mean, you know, in the work we've been doing together for the last couple years, I've been impressed at the municipal level, you know, I think York's at a pretty impressive data program. I mean, I'm curious, you know, your personal journey, because you've worked in the data space for a while, but not always in government, right? I mean, you were outside government before coming in. I'm curious, you know, if you had expectations about what it would be late to lead a data team in the public sector, and you know, what the surprises might have been about that?

John:

Well, you're right. I started off in the private sector. I was one of the first three employees for ESRI Canada. Then I moved to the provincial government, the Ontario Provincial Government into the Ministry of Natural Resources. And then I moved into ministry of Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing and started Land Information Ontario. And the reason I say that is because that was about sharing data, right. And so that was within government and we tend outside of government. So that was, and the reason I started Land Information Ontario, or we call it Onlus, at the time, was to basically start getting data out to the public. And because at that point in time, a lot of groups were trying to charge for data. And I didn't agree with that, I believe that that data should be freely available. And that's in 1996, in that timeframe or something like that. And then I went back into the private sector and worked for the small company for a little while, and then went to EZRI to run their Ontario region. And then I came out in 2011. So after 15 years, with ESRI again, running the Ontario region, I came back out and I wanted, and the reason that came out is because I wanted to build something. And, you know, you build stuff in the private sector, but it's different. I wanted to build something and I wanted to prove that you could build a data informed organization. And since then, I've moved from data driven to data informed because there's always got and that sort of thing.

Ryan:

Yep.

John:

And then next, now I'm on data empowered, I'm really interested in this empowered concept, that you're empowering people, self-serve, those sorts of things, to use data in their everyday job, and they can do it themselves. And how do you set that up? And how do you make that easy for them?

Ryan:

And do you see that appetite for it? Because I you know, because when I when I think about digital broadly, of which I think data is the fuel?

John:

Totally.

Ryan:

You know, I think back to even 10 or 15 years ago, where a lot of leadership, you know, kind of discussions, I think people in senior positions almost viewed digital as a fad, right? There was this kind of notion of like Ah they're doing it, but like it's not a real thing. I think that has changed. And I think the conversation around data has changed, too. But I'm curious if you're seeing that as well.

John:

Well, in our organization, big time. And I'm starting to see it elsewhere. I'm now seeing data strategies as a lot you know, that government agencies, including municipalities, are now getting data strategies, Ontario government, the federal government, which you're starting to see it in the municipality. So I think that has changed. I can assure you we've been very fortunate in, in York Region, in that we've had senior management that have been onside all along, whether whether was the former CAO, or and my boss, the Commissioner, and then the new CAO, they're all very data literate. And understand that data is the fuel of the digital.

Ryan:

Yeah. And I often think there's almost, there's an advantage with municipal governments because they are closer to the people, right? Like, sometimes, you know, we do a lot of work at the federal level, I worked in the federal government for many years. And sometimes the kind of data holdings you have there can seem a little abstract. Whereas my sense is, and I'm curious if if you're going to share this view, municipalities, I mean, in the open data realm, they were actually mainly city governments that were actually leading the pack. And I think it's because they had very tangible data, you know, things like, as you said, land information or like transit information, that seems much more applicable to people's daily lives.

John:

I totally agree. I think because I've been in the province. And I think it's more data for policy types of things. In the municipality, it's operational data. So it's your, your SCADA systems, it's your what, that's a well water, wastewater system, it's your transit systems, very operational. And when you can, you know, help those organizations use that data to gain insights, it's really important. The other thing that, the reason I like the open data movement is about sharing of data, one of the most important things you could do to get this thing moving, is let people know, they aren't the data owners. They're the data stewards, and they need to share data, you need to get a policy in place that basically makes it mandatory to share data, obviously, with P-FIPA, and P-HIPPA, and all that stuff and things. And but they share data. So you change the conversation from Why should I share my data to why shouldn't you share your data? And that data sharing is critical?

Ryan:

Well, and particularly in York Region, which I think if people aren't aware of this as a regional government, it's kind of this two level government, right, where you've got- is it seven or eight munici-

John:

Nine,

Ryan:

nine municipalities that are part of the regional government. And you've actually set up an interesting structure with with what's called the York Info Partnership, right, to kind of push that if you can talk about that a bit. I think that'd be interesting. Because it's it's not just you know, in some cases, data in your control, you actually trying to get nine different partners aligned on this?

John:

Well, it's really important when you're providing shared services, as you said, two tier government or, yeah, we'll start with two tiered government. So yeah, well, we did and I didn't start the York Info, that was started well before me, but it was very much focused on GIS geographic information systems and getting the most out of that because it was costly and we wanted everybody to build muscle in that particular area, which they did. And then in about 20, I guess when I got there about 20, I was in 2011, I came over probably in around 2012-2013, we started moving it to, because there was GIS muscle, we started moving in into a data group, and recognize that we needed to start sharing data on things like water wastewater, which was something and we set up, we set up a platform for sharing, which we call the data cooperative. And you can think about it as a open data amongst partners. And so it's not open to the public, but it's open data amongst the partners. And so you know, when a, when a field worker out in Markham wants to see the sewer and water lines, you can see she/he can see the water lines in their particular area, but they can see the big pipe from the region and how it all connects. And so that kind of shared service is important. The Onlus, the reason I started Onlus, which was, became Lio,

Ryan:

That's the land registery?

John:

Yeah...well, land, it's the wildland information, Ontario. Yeah, so and that was about sharing, again, mostly geographic data. But the reason I started that was to basically start... for policy purposes, you wanted to get data from the municipalities in order to influence the policies from the province. And you wanted also that data to check whether or not those policies were actually working. And so that's why, that's how Lio, Land Information Ontario came into being. So again, that sharing of data so that other groups in that in that sort of data supply chain, have the data they need in order to be able to do their jobs. So that's, yeah,

Ryan:

Yeah, no, fascinating. One of the other things I want to talk about was, I think, you know, just broadly speaking, York has over the last few years, really kind of jumped into the digital government era in a real way to try to kind of move things forward. You know, there's a digital strategy York has come up with, there's a digital leadership team, you have been kind of leading a digital academy initiative to get it off the ground. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about kind of the different pieces of that, and how, you know, over the last five or six years, York has been trying to go through its own digital transformation journey.

John:

Yeah, there's been a lot of work in York Region in its digital transformation. And one of the things you need to know is we're very decentralized organization with data teams, information teams, and technology teams. And so you know, how do you bring that all together? And how do you determine the priorities? And we heard that from Catherine Luelo this morning, you know, yes, you can, there's nice to do all these little things at the edge. But if you've got a foundation that you need to work on, how do you get the resources and set the priorities that it's the foundation that needs to be done. So we're starting, it's been a long journey, I wouldn't say we've got it perfect. But we set up the digital leadership team, in order to basically determine priorities and set the strategy for data information and technology in the region. That wasn't at the commissioner level, it was at the director level from the various groups reporting into the CAO. I think that that needs some more work, because I think you do need the seat at the, at the senior management table. And recently, my commissioner is now the head of digital leadership team. And he's, he's now, he's sitting at that table. So that's one thing. So that's, that's the governance piece. The second piece, of course, is literacy, and, you know, becoming digital fluent. And so, and that's really important. One of my favorite books is The Digital Mindset. And it's all about, you know, those attitudes, behaviors, gets to the digital standards. And how do you make sure that staff are digitally literate, or digitally fluent enough that they that when a large scale system gets built with them, that it actually lands and it implements and so that they have the skills necessary and the desire necessary to implement that with you so that. The digital Academy is training, it's, it's, it is a combination of the data information and technology group, so that has been going really well. We'll be, we'll be adding more stuff on. And we've been very fortunate, we've worked a lot with the Canada School of Public Service. And managed to get some of their materials and we've York-ified them, and that's gone really well, so we don't have to redo it. And we purchase courses from, in our particular case from dataliteracy.com. And then we train all of our people, or whoever wants to take it, it's on our internal thing. So that's the that's the literacies piece.

John:

Well, and I was just gonna say, I mean, I think the fact that York has this kind of internal digital academy, for a municipal government-

John:

2018,

Ryan:

since 2018, that's quite unique, right. I mean, you know, big governments, at the federal government, some provincial governments have done that. But I think the fact that York has kind of put that focus on education is a really, you know, something you should be proud of, I think in terms of your digital journeys around it.

John:

Yeah, I'm pretty. Yeah, yeah, it was, it started as the data academy but we switched it to a digital academy pretty quickly. And I just, I just don't know how you make, you know, projects land internally, and especially large scale projects, if you don't have that training, because people, you know, staff need to feel that they have the skill sets necessary in order to be able to implement these systems, or else they're just gonna say, No, we're not, you know, there will be a hard time with them, as you know.

Ryan:

Absolutely. So then one of the things we've been working on together for the last year and a bit has been thinking about digital maturity. And thinking about how we measure digital maturity in the context of an organization, you know, something I see a lot of is, is government organizations are at various stages on their digital journey. But it's tough when you're kind of in flight to be able to reflect and see where you're at. You know, and this was a conversation we started having a year and a half ago, and there was kind of a mutual interest in us co-eveloping a digital maturity model. You're here in part because we ran a workshop together yesterday at Forward50 here in Ottawa, talking about the digital maturity project, and be curious to kind of get your, your take on why this was important to York at kind of this moment, to step back and think about, you know, what is your digital maturity? And how do you assess it?

John:

Yeah, I think one of the main reasons is that we have been on a journey, but how do you measure if you've been successful or not? And, and where are you? And is there differences across the organization? Like how you know, which, and then that might all feed into content for the digital academy. So, yeah, we were very interested at this point to say, Okay, where are we on this, on this path? And then what we'd like to do in a year or two, as you know, is to measure again, or go out again, and see if we've actually, you know, have we increased in certain areas or we haven't. It will help us to also determine if we're, you know, low in a particular area, do we need to put resources and time into that specific area at this point, at this point in time, and then measure in a year or two and say, hey, you know, the work that you did, it was all worthwhile look at that the digital maturity in our organization has gone up in that area. So that, that's the main, you know, those are the main reasons. And of course, over time, we'd like to be able to measure against peers too. See, you know, how we done in with peers. In the end, it's really about, you know, how do you allocate resources in the best possible place in order to make sure your, your digital transformation journey is going well, or is going to go well, and so well, that's how it that's what's going to help.

Ryan:

And the prioritization, I guess, in a way, right, because I mean, you know, I think it can be a double-edged sword, but you were talking about benchmarking against other peers. I mean, I'd be curious, your take on whether that competitive pressure is a helpful thing or not? Because I mean, there's always the worry that if it's totally driven by that, you know.

John:

Oh, I wouldn't want it like that.

Ryan:

Yeah, but, but but there can be some positive sides, I think when people can actually see how they're doing against peers, and just frankly, we're all human. You know, we see that, we want it to better I mean, is that is that something you think kind of more broadly speaking, would be useful for municipalities across the board?

John:

Oh, absolutely. I mean, we compare ourselves with municipalities the same size, like other regional governments, on all kinds of initiatives, you know, how are they doing? Doesn't mean we have to be at the top or the best or whatever, but how are they doing? And can we learn from them from best practices? And vice versa? No, I think it's really important. And I don't see it as a, you know, a competitive thing. It's about a success and how to become successful. So yeah, I definitely would like to see us compared to peers over time, that's for sure.

Ryan:

Yep. No, it's it's been, it's been an interesting project, we're excited to kind of see where this goes. And I, again, I think this notion of letting people be able to step outside of their comfort zone and see themselves, you know, somewhat objectively is an important thing, because it's tough when we're in kind of the middle of it, right, to know how we're doing and where we're going.

John:

Yeah, that is the point about getting like someone like a company like yours, to do it, do it for us, then it's, it is seen to be much more objective and get some, you know, recommendations or observations on, you know, what, what you guys have seen in it, and I think that's really important to take, you know, up through the channels.

Ryan:

And I would say just even like the journey through it, I think it can be an educational tool in and of itself, right people, people going through the process, right?

John:

Yeah. That's part of that whole changing attitudes and behaviors, which the it's based on the 10 Digital Standards, plus some other stuff. But that's, that's that changing event and that digital mindset, right. And I think that you're right, and that's engaging users, being part of it, and then they're learning and changing as it goes along.

Ryan:

And actually, you mentioned the Digital Standards. I wanted to mention this because I think it's actually a unique story that not a lot of people know, is when York was putting together its digital strategies, digital plan, you made the decision to adopt the 10 Digital Standards from the federal government.

John:

Yeah.

Ryan:

Curious if you maybe can kind of explain why that decision was made versus creating your own?

John:

Well, we thought, couple of things, I mean, creating your own, it's going to take a long time. So that was one thing. And we looked around seeing, you know, what were others doing? And we felt that those 10 Digital Standards really addressed the kinds of things that we were looking for, those kinds of behaviors and attitudes that would help us on in our digital journey. So yeah, I think that was why, like, why, you know, why roll your own sort of, you know?

Ryan:

Yeah, why, why reinvent the wheel? Exactly.

John:

And the other thing is, the bonus has been, you know, we get things from the Canada School of Public Service, we got their training from the 10 Digital Standards, and we were able to take from them, and and York-ify it. And so what a bonus, and if we have, you know, having all different groups with different kinds of standards, like, I don't know, if it's the best thing, you know, being able to align, I think isn't a bad thing.

Ryan:

Yeah. And it's, I think the last, you know, decade, we've seen a lot of governments around the world kind of have these digital standards proliferate. They're all very similar. They all have very similar things in there. And I actually thought it was a very smart decision to say, instead of putting all that effort into kind of building something new, why not borrow what we have, and see if we can have some alignment around that?

John:

Yeah, I think it was a good decision in hindsight, yeah. We've got a long ways to go to implementing them, how do you really get them into the fabric, as someone said earlier, and it's going to take a while, I mean, we have trained over 100 users on the digital standard so far, but that, you know, there's a lot more to go.

Ryan:

A long way to go for sure. So last question I really want to ask you about is, you know, you've had kind of a unique career path, having been in the private sector, being in the province, being in the city, you know, for somebody who may be listening who is potentially interested in public service, but may be wary about jumping into government for a variety reasons. You know, we know recruitments hard these days.

John:

Yes, it is.

Ryan:

You know, and it's tough to be sometimes for those who have, you know, skill sets, you know, if they're data scientists, if they are computer programmers, whatever the case may be, we've heard a lot at the conference about talent, right? That ability to bring people in? What would your pitch be to people as to like, you know, why they may want to come work in government, and specifically, why they may want to come work in municipal government?

John:

Well, I think you are close to in many cases, if you do it in your own community, you're helping your own community out. And so that, I think that, and I think younger children or younger people, nowadays, they like that, that the ability to give back to their community. And I think, and we get well, well trained, there's good training in the in there, and I think it is a good place to make a difference. And that's at the end of the day, it's about you know, have I, at the end of the day, you look at your, and I'm at the end of my career pretty well. And so, you know, have we made a difference? And, you know, I came out, what, 12 years ago out of private sector, and that was what I was, like I said to you, I wanted to be part of building something. And so, and I think we've done a really good job, thank you know, I've had an amazing team around me, or good, good consultants. Which I, you know, provided thought leadership, and had, we have many new students coming in, and lots, lots of interest and coming to our organization and being part of something, there's momentum there, right? And if you provide something that people can vision or a mantra that people can be part of. People want to be part of that.

Ryan:

Yeah, that's great. I mean, momentum is something that is sometimes it a little bit of short supply these days. So great. Yeah. So great to hear that you've got some and thank you for the work that you've done to kind of push this forward.

John:

Well, thanks. And thank you for everything, too.

Ryan:

Well thanks so much, John, for joining us, really appreciate it.

John:

Thanks.

Ryan:

As Jacqueline said, we are already living in a world where digital technologies and data are omnipresent whether or not our institutions are ready for it. That's why we were inspired to develop our digital maturity assessment model that John and I talked about. That ability to help public sector organizations build capacity to be effective in the digital era is so important, and in my experience can only be achieved by first holding up a mirror to understand where you are. I think digital, we're planning to roll out our digital maturity assessment with other government organizations in the coming months. If you're interested, be sure to check out the link in the notes for today's episode, or reach out to me directly to set up a conversation. And that's the show for this week. Tell us what you think. Do you agree with Jacqueline that we're already living in the computer? Are you interested in learning more about this concept of digital maturity? If you're watching on YouTube, tell us in the comments below. Email us at podcast@thinkdigital.ca, or use the #letsthinkdigital on social media. And while you're at it, make sure to like and subscribe. If you're listening to us on your favorite podcast app and you liked this episode, be sure to give us a five star review afterwards. And remember to go to letsthinkdigital.ca and sign up for our newsletter and also to catch up on past episodes of the podcast. Today's episode of Let's Think Digital was produced by myself, Wayne Chu, and Aislinn Bornais. Thanks so much for listening. And let's keep thinking digital.

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