Q&A: DC CTO Archana Vemulapalli on mobility and diverse populations
Earlier this month, leaders gathered in Washington, D.C. to attend the Inclusive Smart Cities Summit, an event focused on smart municipal innovation. Through a series of panel discussions, attendees shared how their cities are transforming ideas into reality to improve the quality of life for residents.
D.C. Chief Technology Officer Archana Vemulapalli attended the summit and noted the city's heightened focus on mobility. She later spoke with Smart Cities Dive about her office's participation in smart city initiatives and the challenges she works around, among other things.
In part one of this two-part Q&A series, Vemulapalli discussed incorporating technology into Washington's mobility plan and meeting the needs of diverse groups of residents.
The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
SMART CITIES DIVE: Tell me about D.C.'s initiatives to increase mobility and how you incorporate technology into them.
ARCHANA VEMULAPALLI: One of the early conversations we had was that you can implement technology for technology’s sake or because it gives you a cool new result, but at the end of the day if it really doesn't deliver some tangible impact to [residents], then it’s not a worthy enough investment or delivering what we need it to do. Then our costs are going to outweigh our benefits. Our goal is the benefits.
We talked about it and engaged a bunch of the different agencies and asked what are the things we care about? We wanted to make sure the city, from a government standpoint, is always resilient, the city has equitable opportunities — or equity — across the board, and we had to make sure that the city was sustainable. And we wanted to make sure that we’re transparent as a government.
But in order to do that, you have to look at the big problem areas that people care about and how to alleviate them. If we look at your top 10 issues across the board ... transportation is a big issue, public safety is a big issue, and economic development and jobs are big issues. These are not new things, they are existing things that people care about. If we take these known issues that people care about, how can we now use technology to help alleviate, give better visibility or potentially solve that problem for the residents?
If you look at really successful private sector companies, that’s what they do. They’re solving a problem or giving you a workaround that makes it easier. We need to think like that and coordinate with them better.
Our focus on mobility was also part of that. It’s not that we haven’t focused on mobility, the city historically has always looked at mobility as an issue. Transportation is a big deal because you want people to easily get from one point to the other. But the equity lens comes in because you’re thinking that in one neighborhood people may want to get from point A to point B really fast. In another neighborhood, maybe they want to figure out how to get from A to B in the most economical way possible, or maybe even just have an option to get from A to B. So you consider the gamut of options when you look at how to address it.
We have a lot of great initiatives but they’re all running parallel, and we thought let’s be strategic about how we think about this. The [District] Department of Transportation (DDOT) has been doing some good things ... and we started collaborating with them ... to talk about how can we really leverage technology to solve the city’s transportation challenges.
We have a lot of data existing on things that worked, didn't work and trends we see. How can we use that to get a better understanding of our environment? Then as we’re rolling out capabilities, what can we do with our existing investments? How can we be strategic in what we deploy so we know how to manage our footprint really well? And then what do we want to solve? If I want to solve the number of accidents in the city, what kind of information would DDOT need to be successful? How do I collect that information safely? How do I let the public know what we’re collecting so we’re transparent? And then, how do I then see the result and what is the outcome? Are we seeing an improved performance at an intersection? If yes, then can the product and the idea and the solution scale citywide? That’s sort of the approach we took.
D.C. has residents of all socioeconomic levels. Lower income residents often don’t have access to mobility options like cars or to advanced technology. How do you make sure all residents benefit from the city's technological advances?
VEMULAPALLI: That’s exactly why equity is a big driving force for our initiatives. If I have to worry about transportation options and the whole goal for one neighborhood is only getting from one place to another really fast, they’re not worried about the cost. But there’s a whole different group that has different challenges. They don’t have a car, they don’t have a bike, they don’t have a way to get to Metro, they don’t have a bus stop nearby. These are all realities that we have to solve.
As a city, we will not grow if we don’t cater to everybody. That means that any solutions we design have to be flexible enough that they meet diverse requirements, and they meet the needs of each neighborhood. Our approach for a smart city isn’t one ubiquitous solution citywide. It is really looking at neighborhoods and identifying neighborhood profiles and characteristics, and seeing what best suits that neighborhood profile and how we can potentially adapt our mobility solutions ... to meet those diverse needs.
The goal is to be thoughtful and deliberate about that. We’re a big city in a small amount of space. That means we have crazy congestion. But [thoughtfulness] also means that we can actually figure this out.
Speaking of catering to diverse populations, D.C. is currently reworking its approach for addressing homelessness and shelter placement. Do technological initiatives play into revamping the plan?
VEMULAPALLI: They should. Homelessness is a huge challenge and I think our mayor has been passionate about addressing it and really pushing the boundaries on what the city and government should do to address that.
One of the aspects we’re looking at — as she’s looking at the broader problems of how we create housing opportunities and how we make sure people have immediate access to ... a roof over their head — we’re looking at that next level in terms of access.
So for example, from a technology standpoint, we’re looking at training. We have the D.C. One cards that get you into rec centers. How do we get [homeless residents] access to these cards so they can get into rec centers if they need to?
We’re also looking at how we provide Wi-Fi that’s free and easily available that people can connect to and get information on. How do we make sure training is available for that? We have a mobile technology lab that drives around the city and parks in different areas to get people trained.
There’s a lot of stuff we’re doing, but as we’re looking at these challenges, we’re trying to be that strategic partner that uses technology to push [initiatives] a little bit more.
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