Innovation

How governments must get serious about tech to build the right future

State representative Martha Jane King started Kentucky's first special committee on technology. Here's how she did it, and why having tech experts in government is more critical than ever.

Across the country, technological advances are moving at warp-speed. Driverless cars are being tested—and in Pittsburgh, Uber is already using them to shuttle passengers. The proliferation of Internet of Things devices, wearables, fiber optic broadband, advances in machine learning and cloud computing have all resulted in a massive amount of data being created—to the point of becoming overwhelming for many businesses.

With big changes comes a need for rules, regulations, and guidelines. But the entity that is responsible for addressing these issues—the government—is unfortunately, often behind. This is partly due to the slower speed of our legislative process. But there's another factor as well: legislators often don't fully understand the technology.

Martha Jane King, Representative of District 16 in Kentucky, has known for years how critical it is that legislators have a grasp of tech. And last year, she created a committee in Kentucky that is the first to look solely at technology issues: the House Special Committee on Advanced Communications and Information Technology.

SEE: VIDEO: How the private and public sector can work together to benefit from technology (TechRepublic)

"Technology has its own language," King said. "And many terms that are thrown around in meetings are are foreign. I knew it could help us move forward more quickly in Kentucky if we had a committee where people understood the language, understood the technology behind the drones and the driverless cars, and the cell phones, and the towers, and broadband."

When you can understand that language, King said, you can begin to understand how necessary certain legislation is.

King got her own introduction to technology in the 1980s, when she worked for a company dealing in truck dispatch. The trucks would come in and out of loading, and King had to deal with lots of numbers—around things like truck drivers, fuel, and mileage. At the time, she worked on a computer with a command line, a floppy drive, and an 8-bit processor.

"And they're like, 'Here we need to modify this to fit our definition of our trucking company. Can you go figure out how to do this and put these parameters in?' So I stepped up and said, 'Sure it looks like that's not too hard,'" King said.

King had never had a computer class, but it came naturally to her, and she taught herself how to code. "I always thought that technology made our lives easier," King said. So she began helping others integrate into the world of computers.

"In the initial days, people were afraid," King said. "They thought, 'If I touch it, something strange is going to happen.' They were really freaked out. But, I loved it."

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Image: Hope Reese/TechRepublic

And when King became a state representative in Kentucky, her love of technology seeped into her new job.

King sees many ways that a grasp of technology is critical for lawmakers. It can help streamline government, make things more efficient, and save money.

In discussing House bill 585, that would charge service fees on cell phones to help pay for the cost of 911 calls, King quickly saw that legislators weren't correctly understanding the technology. In Kentucky, many PSAPS (public service answering points) did not have the technology that allowed them to get a 911 text—which is especially important for the deaf or hearing-impaired. It was hard to gain traction for the bill, she said, when people didn't know how the cell phone technology worked.

"It would do a legislator good to go to a Google campus or a SAS campus in North Carolina, or any of these areas to see the different work environment[s]," King said. "A creative space where people are working towards a mission."

The committee meetings, King said, are more like conversations. "We get together, we problem-solve," she said. "There was no pointing of fingers yesterday in our technology meeting. We didn't get defensive on Republican or Democratic issues. We stuck to the issue at hand."

At a recent meeting, she said, the issue at hand—getting services like licensing for boats, drivers' licenses, etc. online—was not sexy. But it can make things simpler for many people, and save time and money. The big problem, King said, is dealing with data to "ferret out waste and abuse, get rid of duplication, of paperwork that is unnecessary and breaking down information silos. That is the key comment in every meeting," said King. "We have all this information. How do we use it?"

And beyond saving money and becoming efficient, understanding and harnessing technology has more important implications: It can keep people safe.

"When I think of technology, I think about our safety," King said. "How can Domino's Pizza know where I am, but 911 doesn't know what floor of the building I'm on?"

King believes it is critical to turn this special committee into a standing committee. "A week from now, we're going to be dealing with something we didn't even know about," she said. "The outside factors that drive technology happen so quickly. How do we respond?"

"If we're only going to look at issues sporadically," she said, "I don't know how we're ever going to keep up."

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Image: stevanovicigor, Getty Images/iStockphoto

About Hope Reese

Hope Reese is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers the intersection of technology and society, examining the people and ideas that transform how we live today.

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