If you haven’t heard of TED yet, it’s a nonprofit organization devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading. The main conference is held in California and was started 25 years ago, and it’s influence has been growing exponentially since then. All other TED events are called TEDx and are independently organized TED-like events with the same mission. These events often discuss science, technology, education and communication and have been known to spark innovation and social change by  providing the opportunity to shed light on less known facts and causes that are happening at a  local level.

I had the pleasure of attending the TEDxHouston 2015 event this year, where there were several talks  highlighting themes of social change, innovation and technology.

Teresa O’Donnell, Founder of  Plant It Forward  , spoke of her professional life as an entrepreneur. In an effort to do more community work through her company, she studied and became more informed on the plight of refugees coming to America.  For those who seek refuge in this country, it takes a minimum of 5 years to achieve that status. A refugee must prove that conditions in their  home country are incredibly difficult (persecution and war)and that it  has become impossible for them to return home without fearing for their lives. Houston, Texas in particular has received a large number of these refugees. Once the refugees arrive in the United States, they face the confounding problem of not speaking the dominant language, as well as not having transferable work skills.

To solve this problem, Plant It Forward partners with social and church groups to provide land and tools to refugees who settle in Houston with few other skills besides farming. Houston now has a growing community of organic gardens that sell  fresh fruit farmed by refugees at local farmers markets. Through Plant It Forward farms, refugees have the opportunity to build a life for themselves and their family while enriching the city with their farming skills.

Enriching the city was a theme that arose continually throughout the day. Susan Rogers focused on  community development and city planning; she works as a designer, professor and director of the Community Design Resource Center (CDRC) in Houston. The CDRC’s  goal is to use design to enhance change in the community and are focused on serving the public interest by improving the development of all communities. She spoke specifically about the economic disparities existing between the eastern and western half of the city, and how this is reflected in the design and therefore service of the communities. By preserving the culture and uniqueness of all neighborhoods, it improves other public services that cater to their residents, thereby raising the standard of life for all.

Talks like these are not just  happening in the United States, they happen all over the world. In 2015 there are over 3000 Ted events scheduled with talks about everything from education, to medicine, to life and career.

TED around the world

If you don’t have time to attend a TED event, you can easily watch a recording which is  available for free at TED.com. Talks are even arranged by topic and influence in convenient playlists.

The true power of TED comes from the opportunity to see the world through someone else’s eyes, and become aware of possibilities that you may not have known existed. TED provides a platform to bring to light issues that are too often not discussed and gives insight into the wonder of the human spirit,  reminding us how truly amazing it is to reimagine the world the way that we believe it should be.

Photo via: Ted.com

The Houston Controller Debate on Technology took place early this October at the Houston Technology Center, which was hosted by The League of Women Voters.  The topic of discussion was how technology could be used to bring the city’s controller office out of the 90’s and make spending transparent for the citizens of Houston. The city controller is similar to a chief financial officer for city government. The current city controller, Ronald Green, is not seeking re-election due to term limitations. There are currently 6 candidates running to take his place.

The room is filled with an array of people and there is a clear mix of older professionals and younger technologists. The candidates are all seated along a long table, facing outwards to the audience. This group is all male and appear to be ranging in age and experience. From left to right they start to answer questions posed from the moderator.

The first to respond is Jew Don Boney. He has a history of working on the Houston City Council and seems clear on how to integrate new technology into the system. Boney also served as mayor pro-tem under Mayor Lee Brown and represented District D, a predominantly African-American district. Currently he is an administrator at Texas Southern University.

The next candidate is Chris Brown. He is currently Deputy City Controller for Houston. Brown, the son of former City Councilman and mayoral candidate Peter Brown, has stated that his experience in the private sector working for an investment bank and his 11 years of service at the City of Houston make him the right person for the job.

Next to speak is Bill Frazer. He is a past President of the Houston CPA Society and has served on the Board of Directors of the Texas Society of CPAs for the past 20 years. Frazer is concerned with making sure that the controller’s actions are transparent and easy for the public to understand. He is interested in cleaning up the budget and making sure that the controller’s office is orderly and functioning as any accountant would.

Seated next to Frazer is MJ Khan. As a councilman, Khan proposed “Zero-Based Budgeting” for All city departments. He focused on unfunded liabilities in Houston’s Pension Systems and Retirees’ Health Benefits. Khan is also focusing on fighting for more efficiency in city government.

The next candidate to speak is Dwight Jefferson. Mr. Jefferson left his position at METRO to run for city council. He is a former district court judge with a long history of working in city government and with Metro.

The last on the panel to speak is Carroll Robinson. Mr. Robinson is an associate professor at Texas Southern University. Mr. Robinson, like many others on the panel has a long history working on the Houston City Council.

Although many issues are brought up, it always comes back to the current financial problems the city is facing, and how this can be avoided in the future. The city has a big deficit, and this has caused problems with making pension payments and beneficial spending. Several of the candidates bring up ways that the city’s website can be improved to make spending more transparent. According to the panel of candidates, the public needs an easy way to see the current status of the budget. Should the website updates an online check to allow the public to keep track of spending? Maybe the site should use a dynamic spreadsheet? Several solutions are posed by the candidates, but none are detailed enough to truly envision implementing.

This begs the question, how can the public get more involved? Houston is the not first major city that has needed to find innovative ways to bring in more technology to their processes. New York City created a new position of CTO (chief technology officer) who runs the Mayor’s Office of Technology and Innovation. The sole purpose of this office is citywide collaboration on technology issues. The city of Chicago has a Department of Innovation and Technology who looks for ways to bring in innovation to their government system. Even the White House is embracing innovation through technology. They made headlines when the nation’s first Chief Data Scientist was announced.

Jayson White from Harvard’s Kennedy School says that the focus of innovation positions in government started with education reform and sustainability. But, once the recession hit, that focus shifted to budgets, economic development, and job creation. The true benefit of having Chief Technology Officers and Chief Innovation Officers is the data driven management that they employ. One example is Louisville-Jefferson County, Kentucky. By incorporating innovation and information officers into the city government, problem solving starts with rounding up data. In turn, they have come up with interesting solutions, such as cutting down on 911 emergency trips by having nurses in the dispatch room to help determine if there is really a medical emergency or if the caller may need to go to the drug store. Now the city is accessing the data on non-emergency calls to determine if there is a market for private-sector transportation service to drive people who call 911 for non emergency transportation.

Starting with the Houston Hackathon, technology innovation is beginning to become a reality. The opportunity to bring innovation to city government structures gives the public a chance to get involved directly with the local government. The City of Houston has created an open hackathon to get citizens involved in creating solutions to government problems. Groups like Open Houston have been putting on hackathons to bring out developers, designers, marketers and others to get unique solutions to some of our city’s problems. Houston’s Mayor, Annise Parker, has made data more open to the public to encourage citizen innovation.

During the Q&A, the audience seemed interested in bridging the gap between citizens and government. Although all the candidates have amazing depth of experience and knowledge of local government, none are experienced technologists. This election is an opportunity for Houston voters to make technology an important issue. So far, a clear plan has not been established for the city to incorporate new technologies that will solve finance and transparency problems. This leaves a huge opportunity for citizens to come up with their own solution. Make sure that you vote for Houston Controller on Tuesday, November 3rd.

Photo via Justin Conception

The elections for Mayor and City Controller are underway. Candidates have been working hard campaigning and talking to voters. At a technology forum held on October 8 located at the Houston Technology Center, candidates for City Controller voiced their opinions on the growing use of technology in the city and how they would utilize it. All 6 of the candidates came from reputable backgrounds. Using that to each of their advantage, candidates spoke about how technology can transform the City of Houston.

Jew Don Boney, Jr is a former city council member and worked as a Texas Staff Legislature for many years. He was appointed as Associate Director for the Mickey Leland Center of Peace at Texas Southern University. When asked about integrating the city’s IT infrastructure with the current staff and IT infrastructure, Boney disagreed with combining the two. “When I served on city council, I was so unimpressed with the city’s infrastructure and IT but I brought in own people so we built and maintained our own for the entire 6 years that I served as a member of city council.” As a result, he claimed to have had the most advanced IT infrastructure in the city.

Chris Brown is currently Deputy City Controller and has managed money in the private sector as well as city hall. When asked what plans he has to put the checkbook online, he answered “I feel like that was our first trick question because I feel like all of our candidates know and agree that our checkbook is online and I know for certain because I put it online. In 2011, I led the project team to put all of our payments and checks online.” Continuing on with making the checkbook viewing by date, vendor, and amount he said “I think in my 12 years of experience I can say this whole-heartedly. We don’t have money to do these projects right now. We’re facing huge financial challenges in the city… technology is going to be the vehicle that we create efficiencies to go forward but we have to take the cost of that into effect.”

Bill Frazer has been a CPA since 1975 and worked as an auditor for Ernst and Young for 5 years. He served as controller for several companies. When questioned about how he would educate the public on the collection and analysis of data, he answered “I’m a CPA and I was the past president of the Houston CPA Society and during my tenure I also chaired the technology committee which was responsible for continuing education to over 15,000 CPAs in the area, 1,000s of hours of continuing education including technology at the user level. Not Excel, not Word, just simple applications that can be used by all to serve the clients.”  

Dwight Jefferson became a judge in 1995. From 2010 until 2015 he was appointed to the METRO board by Mayor Parker. When asked about transparency, he brought up a solution he came up with at METRO. “One thing that we did at Metro that was very helpful, both from the standpoint of transparency and getting input from the public in our processes was placing all of our board meetings online [in a] live stream.” He plans to implement this because the public would be able to go back to it later and see if they find things that are not properly addressed.

MJ Khan has an MBA from Rice University and served on the city council in the past. When asked about making the finances more transparent, he spoke from experience about how one aspect was not being reported. “When I was in the council, one of the things I noticed was that we have this huge unfunded liability that retirees have in 3.5 million dollars. And we were not even reporting that. So I asked why is that not part of the report? Luckily, I was able to convince my colleagues and it became part of it. So I think information sharing on a real time basis is crucial for citizens can see what is going on in our financial area.”

Carroll Robinson is an Associate Professor at the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University. He has served as the Houston Community College trustee and served on city council. He also voiced his opinion on increasing transparency. “Well one of the things I did with the available data is I ran a 10 year revenue forecast out on my Facebook, but I think the controller should do it not on an annual basis but on a monthly basis so we would avoid these situations …when you approve spending in one year and the compounding effect generates deficit problems. The careful controller ought to be for a different purpose than just releasing it at the end of the year.”

All the candidates used each of their previous experiences to their advantage. Early voting started on October 19, 2015 and will continue until the Mayoral election on November 3, 2015.

Photo: Houston Sunrise via telwink [Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs]