Digital lab offers catalyst to drive innovation, create jobs


A group of tech-savvy entrepreneurs and cost-conscious civil servants are hoping the creation of a so-called digital lab will be a catalyst to create ways to save money and better deliver government services.

The concept of a digital laboratory is still in its infancy.

The idea, which was announced last week by Premier Brian Gallant, is intended to bring together civil servants and companies inside this lab, with access to government data, so they can create programs or initiatives that allow governments to better deliver services.

Ed McGinley, the chief executive officer of TechImpact, a group of 22 technology companies, said the possibilities are endless with the goal of creating North America's first digital government.

"Government is strapped, they have only so much horse power. If you open up these pockets of data to people, let them figure out what the solutions are, let them figure out what they can do. It will happen," he said.

The whole strategy is based around the principle of opening up access to government data.

An open data initiative will be started, which will see the provincial government to release more of its public information in accessible formats so any citizen will be able to use it.

There will also be a "digital service accelerator," which has caught the imagination of entrepreneurs. Companies will be able to come inside the lab, get access to government data with the intention of solving problems.

"If we are creating an environment where companies can test in a lab, where government agencies can come in and test in a lab, and drive the cost of government service delivery down, create employment, create export potential," he said.

"I just look at that as a win-win-win."

Data will be opened up

Exactly how the lab will run is still being developed. But the intention is to have a physical space where private sector and government employees can work together.

'This is a milestone that we can all look back at and say, that is where the tide started to shift and New Brunswick put itself back on the map as a leader in North America.' - David Alston

The companies would make proposals to the provincial government and identify what data they would need.

The government would then review those applications and make accessible the data, either using actual data or dummy data, which would be stripped of any sensitive information.

The lab would be behind the government's firewall and companies would not remove the data from the lab to prevent any privacy breaches.

Privacy legislation would apply to data that would be disclosed.

But companies could tap into data that now is only used by the government to help create new programs or applications.

Following the Estonian example

McGinley said companies will begin tackling what he calls the "low-hanging fruit."

He lists a dozen ideas before stopping to catch his breath; apps to monitor hospital wait times, bus tracking programs, improving licence renewals, accessing school records.

Many of these ideas are based, at least in part, from a trip taken by a handful of technology advocates, such as David Alston, to Estonia.

Alston, the chief executive officer of IntroHive and the recent winner of two Startup Canada awards, travelled to Estonia and spoke to government officials and businesses about how they turned the former Soviet state into a digital government.

That trip prompted Alston to become an advocate for coding in the classroom, but also of a broader reform of how government operates.

'You are going to see value within 18 to 24 months, maybe a little bit less.' - Roddy Awad, TKS

New Brunswick isn't new to being a North American leader in technology, he said, pointing to successes of NB Tel in the 1990s around phone services.

New Brunswick has also witnessed some embarrassing technological issues in recent years.

There was a software glitch with vote tabulators during the last provincial election, an electronic health record system has faced questions and an equipment failure brought down the government network.

Now, Alston said, it's time for New Brunswick to embrace a new challenge when it comes to delivering services digitally.

"It's not a matter of if government will become more and more digital, it is a matter of when. I prefer to be the first," he said.

Alston said he expects there will be some resistance to change, so he said it's up to people, like him, to articulate an alternate vision.

"New Brunswickers, because they have gotten used to the way things are in terms of the delivery of services and how things work, you just say that's just the way it is," he said

"I and others are saying no, it's not the way it has to be. It can be way, way, way better in terms of delivery of services, how it works, efficiencies in terms of speed of delivery and quality, the happiness of people working in those types of systems."

Improving government services

Some New Brunswick companies are already anxious to get access to the digital lab.

Alston travelled to Estonia to see how a digital government operates. The country has been a leader in putting technology in the classroom. (Submitted by David Alston)
Roddy Awad, the president of Moncton's TKS and chair of TechImpact, said all governments are in the process of looking at how to move services into digital formats.

Awad said private sector companies are willing to work with governments to find ways to make accessing services easier.

Why should citizens wait in line for an hour at Service New Brunswick, if they can do everything online? Answers to these questions may not be far off.

"You are going to see value within 18 to 24 months, maybe a little bit less," he said.

"The conversation needs to start now so we are ready for it as a community, to take it and be aware."

Culture change needed

For open data and technology enthusiasts, the digital lab is just a start to a digital government. But Alston said cultures need to shift.

The government needs to be more agile. The private sector will need to learn to work with the public sector. And a culture of open data needs to take hold in the province.

"It is a big beast that you are trying to tame here. Estonia didn't do it overnight, it took them years," he said.

Alston said this initiative could spur on innovation, create jobs and improve how government services are delivered.

"This is one of those turning points," he said.

"This is a milestone that we can all look back at and say, that is where the tide started to shift and New Brunswick put itself back on the map as a leader in North America."