Andrew K Kirk: [00:00:16] Hello. I’m Andrew Kirk CitySourced’s Chief Revenue Officer. And today I’m talking with Brendan Babb the Chief Innovation Officer at the Municipality of Anchorage, Alaska.
As our listeners hopefully know our goal with the GovConnect podcast is to speak with as many interesting and diverse Chief Innovation Officers, Chief Information Officers, and IT leaders in order to learn about their rapidly changing rules and local government.
Today, I’m going to ask Brendan about his background including spending time as a programmer, as a researcher, an academic, as a patent holder, and even someone who has spent time as a Code for America co-captain, and I want to know how this you know really diverse experience has impacted his perspective as the CIO of Alaska’s largest city. Brendan, welcome to GovConnect.
Brendan Babb: [00:01:07] Thank you very much. I’m excited to be on GovConnect.
Andrew K Kirk: [00:01:09] Awesome. Let’s great to have you we’ll get into here, you know the specifics of your career in your background, but I think you may have one of the most Interesting and dynamic sets of experiences to where you got into the role, which you’ve been in for about two years. Do people look at you in amazement? Do they scratch their heads? How do they think about you and they think about your experiences getting to CIO?
Brendan Babb: [00:01:31] Yeah. It’s kind of a strange career path my background’s in mathematics. That’s what I studied in college and got a master’s in mathematics and computer science as well. And it kind of did the programming for a while working for for companies and was always interested in volunteering. My parents do a lot of volunteering and got to a point where I was I was curious about like Engineers Without Borders or Doctors Without Borders. I wanted to try to help do stuff with the talents that I had. So found out about Code for America and some of the volunteer work they do in terms of making government services better and helped start Code for Anchorage here in Anchorage. And found that really fascinating and invigorating awesome.
Andrew K Kirk: [00:02:22] Well, I have done a lot of schooling myself personally and I’ve always said I would have loved to stay in that world as long as possible. Why don’t we go ahead and jump into your background? It sounds like you’ve been quite a bit of schooling with the Masters and then coming out kind of being a lifelong learner.
So if you could give us a few minutes and background as you already started and tell our listeners about how you got to where you are today.
Brendan Babb: [00:02:47] My background was in mathematics. I came back to Anchorage after grad school and was working for an internet telephone or telephone company that became an internet cable telephone company and doing mostly programming. Have worked for a lot of different programming places.
And then I’ve got interested in genetic algorithms. I like to take one course a year at the University. I really enjoy learning new things. And was learning about algorithms that evolved and thought it was really interesting and so started doing research with a professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage on image compression. Kind of doing that on the on the side taking classes while I was working at GCI, which is an internet phone company here in Anchorage. And then really found it interesting and was lucky to get some research jobs at the University and just kind of time working on that mostly on image compression and it led to working with a JPL and NASA on Mars Rover image compression and after several years of research we were lucky enough to get a patent on image compression that does a little better on decompressing images that come back from the Mars Rover, so it was really fun work.
And then from there I did some more programming work and was doing Code for Anchorage some volunteer coating a lot of work on getting bus schedules and Google Maps and we have a lot of applications where you can text in something and it’ll text you back an answer. And that kind of caught the attention of Mayor Berkowitz who had just become mayor and was talking to me about some of the work and I was lucky enough to have him create the Chief Innovation Officer position for me at the Municipality of Anchorage. And it’s my dream job; I love the people I work with and it’s just been great to make small changes that scale across the city.
So just making something a little bit better but having a thousand people use it is really rewarding.
Andrew K Kirk: [00:05:02] So tell us it sounds like you know, two years ago the mayor created this new position and you came in was it something that was already in process and it just seemed like you were a natural fit based on your brigade work, or was it something where you were having conversations because you were engaged and you perhaps planted the idea planted the seed how did that evolve two years ago or so when this role was created?
Brendan Babb: [00:05:28] That’s a great question and I might have to do further research to find out the full answer but there was a section when America which was elected there was a website and you could submit a resume for existing positions.
I submitted one for Chief Data Officer, which wasn’t a position that existed but was recently new position with some cities and some companies. I think after I submitted my resume like a couple weeks later DJ Patel became the first White House Chief Data Officer. So I don’t know if that that spurred the potential but it took about a year after that until there was the Chief Innovation Officer position, which was relatively new in cities at the time. But, I’m excited to see that a lot more cities have that and States now have that as well.
I knew mayor Berkowitz and I think just evolved from there. I’m not sure if they had had a plan for that that did involve me, but that would be something I could ask about him.
Andrew K Kirk: [00:06:32] Sounds like you’re a forward-thinking person. Once you’ve got it didn’t ask questions get in the job. Move forward so that’s great! Something interesting I think about you is you’ve got this programmers background, you’ve got this really hard science and math and understanding being images and how to compress those.
Something at CitySourced that we’ve previously written about is the shift, we think that’s happening in definitely the IT side of local government. I think traditionally Innovation people think of Technology where, in the early days, 20 30 40 years ago, it was really the people who understood the core technology. They were technologist themselves, they were selected for leadership.
However today more and more it seems that focuses almost as much on business process and more importantly the human aspects necessary to make technological shifts successful. How do you think about those skills? And how does your background as a programmer hinder your work, but also serve as kind of a great success in the work that you do because you are a technologist at heart?
Brendan Babb: [00:07:42] I think it helps me understand some of the software processes that are used within government. So it gives me an advantage in knowing what I think might be possible or or not possible for solutions. But then also a lot of the work I’ve done is an optimization or improving processes either improving image compression or some work some other patents I have on error detection and correction, but really kind of diving down into literally the bits used in processes and trying to see if there’s a way to do something just slightly better.
So I think that helps me in terms of looking at day to day work a lot of the people I work with in the city are fantastic. They are just busy every day delivering services to residents so they don’t often get the time to stand back and and tweak their processes to make them better. They do what they can but I have the luxury of being able to take a look at potential changes and work with frontline staff and see if we can test whether something would work better or not.
And if it doesn’t work better than we’ve just done a quick test and don’t have to pursue it. And if it looks like it does work better and looks like it’ll scale then try to see if we can make some process changes or policy changes. I’m super lucky because I get to work with experts in their field and and just learn what they think would improve stuff and were able to measure it and make changes that seem to impact stuff.
So that’s a lot of fun because it gives you a variety of different problems you’re solving and I’m not the expert in the problems, but I get to work with experts and learn learn new things all the time
Andrew K Kirk: [00:09:35] Interesting. I’d like to. A little something there, you mentioned at the beginning your expertise in image processing and how you compress those. And once you have a static image and you’re really looking at the very granular data really interesting problem, but then you correspond that to a city which is literally living organisms in your park and the streets and snowplow and potholes, to the residents that you serve, and probably most importantly to you the internal staff that makes up the city. They’re constantly changing and moving.
So how much of your background in looking at problems and looking really granularly for opportunities for change and innovation helped you and how much was kind of a big surprise once you stepped in and kind of rolled up your sleeves and looked at what the city was on a day-to-day basis kind of caught you off guard and maybe set you back potentially a little?
Brendan Babb: [00:10:32] I think one thing that’s great is when your new you get a lot of leeway to ask questions. Like I was legitimately curious about how things worked or why we were doing them a certain way. So when you ask “why why are we doing that”?
You’re not asking from a I think this is the wrong way to do it. You’re just trying to learn how processes work. So I spent a lot of time in the first six months talking to different people and just trying to learn as much as I could about how things worked if they done that way because a bunch of reasons or if that’s just the way they’ve always been done and if there were ways that we could change that for what could be changed. So so I think it helped just having the experience of optimizing things.
And then also in my background I used to do some theater. I took much acting classes because I wanted to direct theater. So just in my spare time I did that but I wanted to take acting classes first. So I knew what I was asking people to do when I was the director of the the play and that was just interesting learning how to work with people and also just the creative process of trying different things within a group. The great thing is in theater is someone will have an idea and you can just try it right there. Let’s try that idea out versus another idea and just see how it feels for the actors and see how it reads from from the audience and just doing these really small quick tests. I think with something that it’s been useful for me when I’m working with people on technical solutions, but also just process solutions and personalities.
Andrew K Kirk: [00:12:11] Being unafraid to ask questions is incredibly valuable characteristic and for some people the farther that they move up the charter the higher they get into leadership that can be a difficult challenge and they think oh, I don’t want others to see that I’m uninformed or I don’t know so I just won’t ask the questions and clearly that serve you well in this case.
So tell us about your i-team and specifically why did you create a separate Innovation Team apart from other departments?
Brendan Babb: [00:12:44] Yeah we encourage is. Very lucky to be one of seven Innovation teams in this latest cohort from a Bloomberg Philanthropies Anchorage has four or five different Bloomberg Philanthropies government Innovation programs: Cities of Service, What Works Cities, Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership and a couple others.
But one of the ones that I’m most excited about is the Innovation Team, we were asked to apply because we had Chief Innovation Officer and we really put a lot of hard effort with other people in the mayor’s staff and other people in the city to get in a solid application. And then we were lucky to get this grant which is a three-year grant for $1.5 million dollars from Bloomberg Philanthropies to set up an innovation team, which is kind of a high-level consultancy group for the mayor’s office.
So the goal is to take two or three complex problems that the city is wrestling with, that the mayor’s passionate about and really take the time to do deep dive research on the problem and try to find the root causes. And then we focus on data driven solutions and human-centered design, which is really just going and asking the people that are using the services or dealing with the problem going and interviewing them and and seeing and shadowing them and seeing how how they interact with the problems what are their pain points, what are their barriers, and getting ideas and following those ideas and realizing their dead end and then going back to other ideas.
So right now we started on increasing economic opportunities for three neighborhoods in Anchorage. And that’s let us to do some work force development projects with Code for America. We had a fellowship them up here last year and that led to a website that they’re basically tried to prepare you for what you might need before you went to apply for a job. Like if you have an ID and and various certifications, so it’s kind of a TurboTax for going to get a job. It asks recent events and narrows searches to to websites or resources you might need. And then through our research for each kind of focus now to food insecurity and we are doing work on WICK, which is women infant and children assistance and SNAP which is used to be food stamps and then food pantries and kind of looking at the ecosystem to try to have people be less food insecure and it’s been great.
I have a team Patrick McDonald’s that design strategist, Ben Matheson is our Data Analyst, and we just had Emily Bokar start this week on Monday. She’s our Innovation strategist and and Suzi Marshall used to be on our team as well, and now is the director of IT here in the Municipality of Anchorage.
So it’s been great to be able to we have an innovation lab on the first floor with a lot of Windows people walk by and we have orange painted walls and are a lot of Post-its do a lot of stuff with Post-its. And it’s great to work with experts and learn about their problems and and get the luxury of time to actually to spend deep diving into how to solve these problems
Andrew K Kirk: [00:00:13] As you mentioned Anchorage is a participant in Bloomberg Philanthropies. What Works Cities, Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, and is part of the Cities of Service just to name a few. That seems like a lot of external initiatives. Obviously the $1.5 million dollars was wonderful, but does it ever feel overwhelming to have all these external parties involved in the work that you’re doing?
Brendan Babb: [00:00:40] That’s a great question. Initially no. I mean it’s been great to have these resources and it’s brought in new people to work with the city. Sometimes I wonder if we had more people that we could we could fully explore some of the program’s more, but I am often thrilled to leverage three or four different programs together to come up with a solution. Some of the What Works Cities some of the connections I’ve made there and then Cities of Service did some work on food insecurity and resilience so they did some Community Gardens in School Gardens and we’ve been able to leverage that work with the i-team to as a starting place.
So it’s been great having the multiple programs and leveraging them. I mean at the end of the day, we’re super lucky to have all these programs, but I just want to use these amazing Lego pieces to come up with solutions that make services better for residents in Anchorage. So to have a richer canvas of paints to paint with this is fantastic.
Andrew K Kirk: [00:01:41] What is it about Anchorage that made you such a good candidate as a recipient for all these different Awards? Is it the characteristics of the population? Is it something about the size or even the way that the city was organized? How do you think all of these came together? I know that’s a large question to probably undertake. But if you could think of a couple things
Brendan Babb: [00:02:01] No, no , that’s a great question. There’s definitely a cachet with Alaska a lot of people want to come and visit Alaska. I was born in Fairbanks, Alaska and have lived in Anchorage most of my life and it is just phenomenally beautiful place. You can be I work at City Hall Downtown and 15 minutes or 10 minutes I can be out the middle of the woods nowhere and it seems like no one’s ever been there before. The ability for a work-life balance is really incredible. We have 220 parks and 200 miles of bike trails and ski trails and it’s just it’s really beautiful here.
But then I would say a lot of credit goes to Mayor Berkowitz and his staff. They have just the mayor is always pushing me forward and I’m pretty far forward to begin with but he has fantastic ideas and always is challenging the staff and its departments and directors to take him out past where he can see. So he always you come up with a great idea and he rewards you but then like how quickly can we implement that or how what if we did this or how do we extend that so, status quo being the answer for why we’re doing something is not acceptable to him.
If you can say why we’re doing it but if it’s because we’ve just always done it that way. He will ask you a lot more questions after that. So I think he’s been a great driver and he’s surrounded himself with a great staff and great directors and people that were already here are fantastic as well. And it’s just a combination of being at the right time and the right moment and having the right people and. It’s been really fun to work in this environment great.
Andrew K Kirk: [00:03:42] So I think if I could distill that down, make your city of place that the award committee wants to come and visit on vacation. I think the takeaway point from all that.
Brendan Babb: [00:03:52] That that’ll get you in the door, but then you have to be able to deliver and we have fantastic employees that are doing amazing stuff all the time. But I mean you could get one Grant just by having the visit possibly but you really have to be able to execute and and everyone’s done a fantastic job doing that.
Crowdsourcing Data [00:04:09]
Andrew K Kirk: [00:04:09] That’s a great point. I was looking at some of the work that you have done online and this is before you were ever even a city employee and maybe even before you were involved with Code for America. And you had a TED Talk there in Alaska and it was all about the power of crowdsourcing and it resonated with me personally because when CitySourced originally began almost nine years ago, we really focused only on three one one service request reporting and the name CitySourced was actually based off this concept of kinda sourcing from the residents and within your city.
So since you have that background, I was just curious do you think that this concept of crowdsourcing as a whole has made a significant and meaningful impact on local government and why or why not?
Brendan Babb: [00:04:57] Yes, I think it has I think it’s been a gradual growth but especially 3-1-1 numbers and applications where you like CitySourced where you can record this information from residents, then when you have a data set that you can start analyzing, I think it really helps you come up with unique solutions or tackle problems you not of known are there.
So just seeing some of that data and I’m impressed with Leigh Tami and Cincinnati. She has been looking at some data for people that their Emergency Services interacts with and then being able to track if opioids are involved and being able to kind of hotspot or dive into some GIS information about opioid use and try to use that to help with challenges there.
I’ve seen other cities look at people that are frequently calling for ambulances or calling 9-1-1 and be able to find people that are frequently doing that and see if social services or case managers can help with that. So getting this information is great.
Also, the thing that I love about crowdsourcing is I was looking at something where it was a game where you kind of folded proteins that scientists have created but they just made it available for other people, to play and there was someone who managed the shoe store and she was the best at folding proteins like. So just being able to find people in the community that might you know, not think of doing that but have a this ability that is the best in the world and being able to harness that is I think a great potential. Also I think the citizen engagement that you get where people can see that they’re making an impact on making their Community better I think helps trust in government and and helps the government perform better as a little a little over-the-top there.
Andrew K Kirk: [00:06:53] But right so you have that direct impact whether its data sharing or citizens submitting information, but then I think you hit that secondary indirect, which is that maybe a first stepping stone into more engagement by the citizen within their their local government and within their Community even becoming aware of what is out there and at the most basic level, what does my city or county even do for me? So that’s really interesting stuff.
Looking at role, but perhaps expanding out to our listeners who are on Innovation teams or our Chief Innovation Officers. What do you think are the biggest challenges facing you and others in that role today?
Brendan Babb: [00:07:37] I think one challenge can be you have dedicated public servants in in cities everywhere and they’ve been through multiple administration’s and the chief Innovation officer, if it’s new can be seen kind of as a flavor of the month, and and people can say oh we’ve kind of this is something we can just kind of wait out this mayor’s term or Administration.
They’re like trying to find one challenge is is not making more work for the Departments that you’re trying to help but really trying to listen to the department see what their problems are. See if you can get a quick win initially to help show that there’s value because you need to learn kind of about the process from the experts but try to see if you can help with some immediate immediate things. So just kind of winning the trust of departments and the people that you’re working with I think is a challenge.
I often joke that I kind of have a Harry Potter type title like Minister of Dark Arts or Chief Innovation Officer. So so really trying to people know that I want to encourage them to implement solutions they already know. They already know things that will make things better.
Like I don’t have to bring any new ideas. I have tons of ideas. I have a great network of other cities I can borrow ideas from. But really the staff here in the City of Anchorage already knows how to make things better. They just often don’t have the time because they’re so busy providing great services to residents and I want to give them space to try out their idea see if it works if it works celebrate the. If doesn’t then that’s something the The Innovation Team did or that Chief Innovation Officer did that didn’t work out.
I want to give them the cover and the space to create new things because I’m lucky to have four patents, but a lot of it’s because people have trusted me and given me enough space to really experiment and fail hundreds of times. And failing and government is is hard because you are accused of wasting taxpayer money or you get written up in the newspaper, but but It’s hard to improve things without being able to experiment. And we’re super excited when there’s new smartphones that come out and companies that are experimenting, we really encourage that in the corporate world, but that’s something we should encourage governments to do to be not waste money, but to methodically try small experiment see if things could be made better. And then Implement them because that’s how things improve.
Andrew K Kirk: [00:10:07] There were two things that a lot. There was a lot in there but two things that I really took away that resonated with me one is that we call the idea of you don’t want to be the shiny new toy, right? Because the shiny toy is exciting for 6-12 months, but then it can wear off and that can happen in local government in the terms of the next election cycle or next administration so it’s it’s a cool that you’re thinking about that and not wanting to have that effect.
And the second one is kind of normalizing failure and making it okay. And I think the first person I’ve talked to said well, I can tell departments directly I’ll absorb the heat if there is any failure. So that’s one thing you’re doing I think to normalize failure. Are there other things that you’re doing within the organization to make the right kinds of failure feel a little bit more comfortable or acceptable.
Teaching People to Fish
Brendan Babb: [00:10:59] Yeah, I think so. I mean we were lucky to have a behavioral insights team as part of What Works Cities came up here and did a workshop about two years ago in the well, I guess a year and a half and we had a workshop and we had a lot of different departments in there and we were focusing on a known problem, a treasury letter that we had that went out. If you got a speeding ticket never paid it eventually would make it back to us and we turn it over to third party collections and we were hoping to have people pay those.
So we took the letter and had about 30 people and a workshop and taught them some basic behavioral insights techniques. And then we broke into three teams. We purposely chose the team so there were people from different departments because I wanted people to learn about other departments and then we had our legal municipal attorney review the letter and he he said you could change almost everything on it. So we had people take a look at the letter and come up with compete come up with different ways to make the letter better by making it making the paper pink making we used to just have the citation number. So you get this thing three years later and you had no idea what it was for we have it lists like oh, this is for when you were speeding 8 miles over the speed limit and it was great to just have people realize they could change stuff and they came up with great ideas to make the letter better and we had a thing at the end of the day where we had the muni manager and other people be the judges and decide who won and we ended up combining the three groups ideas and started sending out these letters and testing them and they started performing better immediately.
Treasury was getting phone calls on the collection plan that people didn’t know about and people were setting up collection plans and ultimately treasury got really excited. They did a bunch of other changes and we spent $18,000 sending out letters and after all the changes they made they estimate they’re going to get a million dollars over a year of additional revenue and they got $500,000 in the first year just from from making making changes and getting excited about making changes.
And so my goal is for people to be able to learn new techniques. I want to teach people to fish. Fishings really big in Alaska. I want to teach people and departments how to fish so that they can implement techniques and make their own decisions. I mean, I’m excited to have an innovation team and I wanted to go on for for 10-15 years. But ultimately, I want the city to not need an innovation team that separate I want them to be able to innovate within their own departments have tools and techniques support for trying new things and constantly be learning new techniques.
It’s great when a department makes changes gets to implement them and that it does better they get really excited. And it’s it’s really fun to watch.
Rapid 3 Q’s
Andrew K Kirk: [00:13:54] Great. Now, let’s move into a staple of all of our interviews and let’s get started with our rapid three questions. So starting off number one Citysourced is all about the power that local governments can have and delivering more services via a smartphone. So what type of phone do you use and what’s your favorite mobile app?
Brendan Babb: [00:14:14] I have an iPhone x and I end up using the Google Maps a lot just because I like to walk from my house and I helped get real-time bus information in Google Maps, but try to see walk like half the distance to work and see if I can catch a bus for the other half and if the bus isn’t coming there then I just walk the rest of the way but it just makes a little fun to see more time multimodal transportation.
And also for me to kind of check to make sure that the data were providing is working right and then also dark sky which is kind of a hyper local weather app and it they’re getting more information about Anchorage, but you try to just get a weather prediction for the next 1 hour, the next 15 minutes in the zip code you’re currently in or like really hyper local to where you are.
Andrew K Kirk: [00:15:07] Number two. What’s one book you most recommend or give away?
Brendan Babb: [00:15:12] It’s a book called biomimicry and it’s basically it’s a great book. I think I’ve given out three or four copies. It is trying to learn from what evolution is done in terms of how nature is solve certain problems and basically leveraging what nature or indigenous people have have used to solve problems and doing engineering solutions from that. There’s stuff to the fins on humpback. Whales and how they are. Both you more power swimming that was used on wind turbines. There’s a kingfisher is able to dive into the water without making much of a splash and that ended up being used on the Japanese bullet trains when they were going through tunnels, so they didn’t cause sonic booms. So just kind of looking how Nature has solved problems and trying to use that as a jumping off point.
A lot of my works been with genetic algorithms and machine learning. So I’m basically evolving solutions so that’s something I find really interesting.
Andrew K Kirk: [00:16:11] Three what’s one tool software or even a non-technical hack that you are using to improve your life well to slightly change that one of the non Tech Solutions we have here at the city is a compost exchange program.
And it basically we found out that people wanted compost. And what it is is you we just gave out buckets to people and they would put food scraps in it. You bring the bucket to the landfill full and you give us the bucket of. Scraps and we give you a bucket of compost. So it’s just an exchange program, but it’s done really well and it’s a really simple non-tech solution of just people have a need and we can help solve that problem and it’s just a bucket, it’s not a smartphone app or anything like that.
And sometimes I like those solutions where the Innovation Team were working on getting people to sign up for WIC and we’re sending out postcards and we’ve tried different postcards and we’re sending the people who are likely eligible for WIC. And we’re seeing a lot of success and just doing quick experiments and and seeing how they do and just iterating on that. So a lot of people go first to smartphone app, but really that’s just another tool and you need to figure out what is the problem you’re trying to solve and sometimes it’s just a simple change of process or you don’t need tech all the time. Although I love tech
Andrew K Kirk: [00:17:36] Well that ends our episode for today. Thank you so much Brandon for joining. Please let our listeners know where they can find out more information about you and connect with you online.
Brendan Babb: [00:17:45] Yeah, my Twitter handle is brendanbabb. And the encourage Innovation Team, if you just Google that and medium, you can see some of our blog posts and learn about the work we’re doing.
And then Muni, m u n i dot o r g is our municipality of Anchorage website somehow someone was smart enough to snag that right when they were giving out website addresses. So it’s just muni dot org and you can learn more about all the great stuff the people I get to work with are doing for the Municipality of Anchorage. And thank you so much this was a blast
Andrew K Kirk: [00:18:22] Wonderful will make sure that we can find those links within the notes and if you want to learn more about our Mobile City Hall the listeners, you can reach us at citysourced.com.
And of course if you have any feedback, I’d love to hear it. Shoot me an email. It’s andrew at citysourced.com or on Twitter at andrewkkirk.
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