Governments can bridge costs and services gaps with sensor networks

Government sensor networks can streamline processes, cut labor costs, and improve services.

Contributing authors: Andre Bierzynski and Kevin Chrapaty.

Screenshot from the Waze app.

What if government agencies followed in the footsteps of Waze, a community-driven mobile phone app that collects location data through GPS and allows its users to report accidents and traffic jams, providing real-time, location-specific traffic alerts?

It’s not news to anyone who works in government that we live in a time of ever-tighter budgets and ever-increasing needs. The 2013 federal shutdown only highlighted this precarious situation: government finds it increasingly difficult to summon the resources and manpower needed to meet its current responsibilities, yet faces new ones after each Congressional session.

Sensor networks are an important emerging technology that some areas of government already are implementing to bridge the widening gap between the demand to reduce costs and the demand to improve services. The Department of Defense, for instance, uses RFID chips to monitor its supply chain more accurately, while the U.S. Geological Survey employs sensors to remotely monitor the bacterial levels of rivers and lakes in real time. Additionally, the General Services Administration has begun using sensors to measure and verify the energy efficiency of “green” buildings (PDF), and the Department of Transportation relies on sensors to monitor traffic and control traffic signals and roadways. All of which is productive, but more needs to be done.

The network effect of sensors

Cisco chief executive John Chambers recently predicted that sensor networks offer governments a potential $4.6 trillion in revenue and savings over the next 10 years. This growing utility of sensor networks can be attributed to their collective power: by deploying networks of multi-function sensors, decision makers can connect disparate pieces of data to improve their situational awareness of large areas with fewer resources. For example, law enforcement departments across 70 US cities are using networks of sound detecting sensors installed across their jurisdictions to quickly locate and respond to gunfire.

Using sensor networks to improve safety

Sensor networks also have the potential to bridge the gaps between services that many agencies provide. Due to budget limitations, in fiscal 2011, the federal government checked just 20,000 of 35,000 facilities slated for monitoring under the Food Safety Modernization Act — and less than 2% of all food imports. In response, researchers across the US are exploring the use of sensor networks to improve food safety monitoring. For example, Dr. Bryan Chin, director of Auburn University’s Detection and Food Safety Center, explained in a phone interview that researchers at the Center are considering how sensor networks can supplement human inspectors by monitoring food temperature, pH levels and concentrations of additives. This application could transform sensors into real-time detectives that identify contaminated food supplies and alert authorities immediately to reduce health and safety risks.

During the 2013 government shutdown, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was unable to conduct site visits, inspections and testing for 16 days. Such disruptions, as well as the rising number of complex environmental challenges our nation faces, have spurred the EPA to investigate opportunities to expand its electronic monitoring capabilities. For example, in collaboration with the commercial sensor industry and university researchers, the agency’s Village Green Project (PDF) is evaluating how sensor networks can be used to improve air quality monitoring. The project’s scientists are investigating ways to increase local air pollution monitoring by outfitting park benches with solar-powered sensors that provide low-cost, real-time air pollution measurements.

Using citizens as human sensors to improve public services

No matter the future advancements of sensor technologies, we will never enable the 3.8 million square miles of the US with sensors. The solution, however, might be in the palm of your hand. What if government agencies followed in the footsteps of Waze, a community-driven mobile phone app that collects location data through GPS and allows its users to report accidents and traffic jams, providing real-time, location-specific traffic alerts? Agencies could apply a similar crowdsourcing model to allow anyone with a smartphone to pass along a variety real-time, localized information that could be used to improve services and guide their decision-making processes.

Considerations for government

Although sensors hold tremendous potential, there are still several hurdles that must be overcome before their full promise can be realized in the public sector:

  • Infrastructure — Individual sensors are relatively cheap and simple to install, but most effective when deployed in networks. The upfront costs associated with assembling such networks may prove to be a significant barrier to adoption. Additionally, networks relying on citizen data will need an easy-to-use platform for those who contribute. Many experts believe that long-term efficiency gains and savings will quickly offset such initial investments.
  • Regulation — Federal laws and regulations may require adjustment to accommodate 24-7 streams of data. For example, the influx of data collected by sensor networks may change how an agency such as the EPA implements regulations: sensor networks that continuously collect emissions data would permit the agency to more closely monitor self-reported information, which could significantly change compliance and enforcement procedures.
  • Talent — While sensor networks greatly reduce the need for boots-on-the-ground inspections, they do require appropriately trained staff to mine and analyze their data. After all, the networks are only as valuable as the analysis and outcomes they support. Agencies may have to hire more data scientists to make sense of the massive datasets.

Despite such obstacles, the benefits of government sensor networks are clear: they have significant potential to improve decision-making processes and the quality of government services. They can streamline organizational processes, cut labor costs, and improve productivity. Sensors deserve a prominent place in any discussion on how to lower the cost of government while still improving on the delivery of government services.

This post is part of a collaboration between O’Reilly and Deloitte Consulting exploring the convergence of hardware and software. See our statement of editorial independence.

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