Digital Information Management

Get Your Head Out of the Clouds

The way private business and public agencies operate, and the way they view the value of their property and other assets, is being fundamentally altered by the advent of digital data systems. These systems collect massive amounts of information from the people who actively use those systems and from the things connected to those systems. The significance of the change in our infrastructure is amplified by technologies that allow public agencies and private entities to analyze massive amounts of data, for example, to detect patterns that allow for more effective delivery of services. These developments are commonly referred to as Big Data and the Internet of Things (or IoT in tech jargon).

For public agencies in particular, the shift requires rethinking fundamental questions that lie at the heart of open government and public records requirements, including basic questions such as: 

  • What information should be public?
  • What should be collected?
  • What information should be retained? 


Those issues have already arisen as localities have deployed body cameras, but similar questions will come as smart infrastructure systems are deployed. For public agencies and private entities, it is more important than ever to develop clear policies governing use of these systems by employees and contractors. Privacy standards and disclosure statements must also be developed so that users understand their rights — and limitations — on how data may be used. Before, there may have been a clearer line between “personally identifiable information” and information that could be freely distributed without raising privacy concerns. In a world of linked databases, however, it may indeed be possible to acquire information that is very personal from analysis of apparently “impersonal” data.
 
As Big Data and the Internet of Things become integrated into our daily lives, there will be enormous opportunities to improve the efficiencies of basic systems on which we rely. Smart traffic signals can improve traffic flows and provide real-time information to automobiles that respond by altering their routes or smart parking meters may tell drivers where empty spots may be found. But creating more efficient communities, and more efficient businesses, will require significant new investments. Public agencies and private companies will need to work together to develop new approaches to financing that infrastructure.
 

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It will become increasingly important for public agencies that enter into public-private partnerships, or who franchise private alternatives to public transit, to decide at the beginning of the relationship that owns and has access to the data collected through systems operating on public property. In some cases, communities are discovering (too late) that there is a substantial value to the information that can be collected from public property. It will be critically important to ensure that the benefits of these advanced systems are available throughout a community to avoid creating or exacerbating a digital divide that leaves certain parts of a community with inferior services.

Someday We’ll Find It, the Data Connection

 As broadband connectivity increases, Wi-Fi availability expands and everyone walks around with computers in their pockets, it’s only a (short) matter of time until we’re all connected to each other and our things via the Internet.
 
The IoT is advancing rapidly in the public sphere in the areas of water management and waste removal, the electrical “smart grid” and improving transportation — whether it be public transit, smoother automobile traffic, autonomous vehicles or parking cars.
 
Many more applications will emerge to serve us in ways that we can’t even anticipate. But we can begin now to formulate some of the lessons of the IoT for local government and other policymakers. First and most fundamentally, infrastructure investments in traditional communications systems — and in “connected” infrastructure — will be critical to economic development in many communities. Cities that recognize the deep integration of energy, transit, water and broadband networks may be more successful than cities that do not.
 
The more connected everything is electronically, the more information will be generated. Whether the public and public agencies should have access to this data — and how much access — are questions officials will need to decide soon. Information security must be part of any IoT conversation on policy, infrastructure and privacy. Both public and private entities must decide how to best store, track, analyze and share the data these connected devices will produce.

The foundation of any local government is the people it serves. In a connected world, that foundation can be destabilized as communities and public agencies move to electronic delivery of services or advanced services. For example, in some communities, as schools shift to electronic research tools and e-books, a “homework gap” is developing between students who have access to the Internet, and those who do not.
 
To guard against these disparities and other risks, as part of the planning process, it will become important for every community to consider how it can ensure citizens have access to electronic services. That may require the locality to build-out, or enter into partnerships to ensure build-out, of advanced systems to areas that are traditionally underserved. But it also requires considering how citizens who are not now connected because of cost can obtain access to critical information. There are a variety of federal grants and funding sources available to cities taking such technological initiative, and there may have been new opportunities presented in 2017.
 
Communities that wish to take advantage of those new opportunities need to begin developing plans now. In developing plans, it is important to consider how to address disparities that may be embedded within digital systems, and which may lead to digital (and in some cases, less detectable) versions of service and investment redlining.
 
A successful plan considers how problems and opportunities are interrelated and comes up with defensible approaches that enable a city to accomplish its goals without running into serious legal problems.
 

People are getting used to having the world, literally, at their fingertips. Government agencies, however, are mostly still operating in a world littered with paper and unorganized records. There is already a generation of young adults who have come to demand — and expect — instant information gratification. And while the transition to digital information management in public agencies is moving quicker than the law, there is a rapidly growing need for digital information that can be accessed by the public — fast.
 
This expectation, however, comes with a cost. Fulfilling Public Record Act requests, for example, for such things as emails and records, isn’t as easy as a Google search. It takes time and effort by clerks in city offices to sift through loads of information — with no cost recovery for all that work. Cities that want to go paperless have numerous vendors and systems to choose from to assist in those efforts, such as implementing metadata that is machine-readable. But finding the vendor with services that match a city’s needs, and ensuring that those records are created, stored and retrieved within the boundaries of the law, are a challenge.
 
In early 2017, the California Supreme Court decided in City of San Jose v. Superior Court, S218066 that electronic communications on private devices or servers are subject to disclosure under state’s Public Records Act. This means that public agencies now face the burden of searching and retrieving communications about public business from officials’ and employees’ private cell phones and email accounts.
 
Adhering to the regulations in place, including those surrounding records retention, is just the first step. Instructing public officials and staff to keep their private conversations off the public domain and to conduct their public business only on agency platforms will save time and resources — and possibly keep your agency from being the next court test case on public vs. private communication issues.

Both public and private employers are grappling with Digital Information Management of personnel records and communications. As the workforce becomes more spread out and comfortable with telecommuting and social media use, managing information by and about employees is a growing challenge.
 
As employers transition more and more from paper to digital personnel records, there is a host of considerations that could lead to legal trouble if not planned out correctly. For example, how to decide who should have access to personnel files, including those that contain sensitive or extremely sensitive information — like drug screening results or workers’ compensation claims. If these records are stored electronically, how does an employer ensure appropriate access and privacy? What about cybersecurity threats in the form of hacks? There are mechanisms available to guard against these risks, but finding the balance between safety, privacy and the law can be a tricky beam to walk, to say nothing of the costs.
 
Employers are also finding that what was once said around the water cooler is now being shared in emails and online forums and on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and the like. Having clear boundaries in place for employees, and knowing when those may illegally infringe on their private and off-duty activities, can save employers from disputes and lawsuits down the road.

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