With the city’s economy and neighborhoods on the mend, Detroit is now searching for someone to fill a unique new supporting role called the “director of emerging technology.”
A post on Code For America’s jobs board describes an official who will lead an Innovation & Emerging Technology team that partners “with city departments and agencies to identify and build digital tools that solve civic problems and information challenges.” The role, located within the Department of Innovation & Technology, will be central in supporting a city that is starting to see some positive financial and social trends.
City Chief Information Officer Beth Niblock told StateScoop that the job, which the city has received about a dozen applications for so far, will probably one of the most fun and interesting in Detroit, thanks to an executive leadership team and panel of department director heads who are willing to experiment.
“They’re willing to try all kinds of stuff, so you’re not trying to convince somebody to try something,” Niblock said. “It’s a culture that is really very open and accepting and pushes you to not only do this new emerging thing, but pushes you to do even more with it than you thought you could do.”
The new hire will replace Garlin Gilchrist, who formerly held the role before leaving the city to run for public office. He recently took a position as executive director of the Center for Social Media Responsibility at the University of Michigan.
Technologies that fall under the category of “emerging” for Detroit include drones, police body cameras, car-mounted cameras, artificial intelligence, facial recognition, video analytics, digital voice assistants and chatbots.
“All of those things have really come into their own in the last few years, so if you have a team that’s out there really looking at what’s there and how it can be used, it’s going to help you when you have to make bigger system choices,” Niblock said, noting the importance of building modular open-source solutions that can be reused if they are designed with flexibility and future use in mind.
Detroit has learned within the last several years just how important it is to use every tool at its disposal to turn around what seemed at times a desperate situation. Widespread crime and blight accompanied an economic downturn that bottomed out with the city filing for bankruptcy in December 2014.
But a report released by the city last month reveals a balanced budget for a third straight year. With a $53.8 million operating surplus in its $1.3 billion general fund, officials say they expect the state oversight board created when they filed for bankruptcy to be waived this spring.
A common refrain from government technologists is that technology is meant to be an enabler. In Detroit, that will mean supporting the agenda of popular Democratic Mayor Mike Duggan, who has named education, neighborhood revitalization, corridor and transportation investments among his top priorities. In a State of the City speech on Tuesday night, Duggan highlighted some of Detroit’s recent achievements and upcoming redevelopment plans, indicating the kinds of projects the new hire will be expected to support. One program, Detroit Promise, guarantees college tuition to children who meet certain requirements. ,
The public safety statistics are looking better, too, including a 40 percent drop in carjackings since 2015, a 30 percent decline in homicides since 2012 and 37 percent fewer fires since 2014.
The city is also taking control of its blight, scheduling more than $90 million in road improvements for this year. In October, Duggan unveiled a plan to invest $125 million in bond funds to revitalize neighborhoods in commercial corridors. The city is putting $100 million within the next four years specifically toward blight remediation, and Duggan says the goal is eliminate every vacant “unsalvageable” commercial property on major streets by the end of 2019.
Niblock, who left her CIO post in Louisville, Kentucky, and headed to Detroit in 2014 to help with the rebuilding effort, said the city has been mounting GoPro cameras on vehicles and driving them around neighborhoods as a way to stay appraised of how buildings are doing amid a “very dynamic” urban environment.
The job posting notes a requirement for “maintaining a healthy dose of skepticism towards shiny new technologies and buzzwords.”
“We’re not up on whatever’s new just to be new, but it’s got to have value in it,” Niblock said. “We have got to find really interesting ways to fill needs.”