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How the Internet of Things Could Transform Public Services

As technology evolves, governments are going to need to rethink how they do business.

Images of a police officer wearing a body camera, the inside of a self-driving car, and a "smart" parking meter.
(David Kidd/AP/Flickr)
Cars that can communicate with each other to avoid collisions. Thermostats that can be controlled from thousands of miles away with a smartphone. Industrial machinery that alerts its operators when maintenance is needed. Coffeepots that talk to alarm clocks. All of these make one thing clear: The definition of a computer is changing, again.

The continued evolution toward cheaper processors and faster networks has enabled a shift from desktop workstations to mobile phones and, now, to everyday objects, inspiring the term "Internet of Things" (IoT). Almost any device can be Internet-enabled, linking it to additional computing power and analytic capabilities that make it "smart."

This aggregation of outputs from sensors, beacons, machines and other IoT devices offers far more value, however, than just a better product. As more complex and mature systems take advantage of this connectivity to tap into new capabilities, it's critical for governments to think about how these technologies can combine to create value in new and different ways.

As we outline in a new Deloitte study, governments have a huge opportunity to improve outcomes using IoT technologies that provide immediate feedback and drive better decision-making. But while the private sector is mobilizing around this trend, many in government still question whether the IoT can help them achieve their missions.

"If the Internet of Things has to do with home automation or automation of the car [or] controlling devices like security systems through the Internet … what does [it] have to do with any of the service-providing departments of government?" asked one respondent in a 2014 GovLoop survey.

Admittedly, it may be difficult to see the immediate relevance of smart thermostats or connected appliances to government, but deriving value from information collection and analysis is central to many government missions. The IoT can facilitate this in two principal ways: by collecting better information about how effectively public servants, programs and policies are addressing mission challenges and by helping government deliver services based on real-time and situation-specific conditions.

Early government IoT activity has coalesced around a few main areas, including "smart cities" focused on improving citizen services and federal agencies focused on scaling up their measurement capabilities. Local experiments include "smart parking" that helps commuters find spots (and streamlines city enforcement) or "smart waste" such as solar, Internet-connected trash bins that communicate their status to help optimize collection routes.

At the federal level, agencies are more focused on scaling measurement capabilities: The Department of Defense uses RFID chips to monitor its supply chain more accurately, the U.S. Geological Survey employs sensors to remotely monitor the bacterial levels of rivers and lakes, and the General Services Administration has begun using sensors to measure and verify the energy efficiency of "green" buildings.

Many of these government applications focus on optimizing current operations. The next frontier lies with identifying how faster, more precise and more reliable information might generate new possibilities for service delivery. To fully reap the IoT's potential benefits, government agencies will need to rethink how they do business -- identifying new models for service and adopting the technology and corresponding organizational structures to support them.

Consider IoT's potential impact on policing. Environmental sensors could automatically detect early indicators of an emergency or crime. Already, devices can detect the sound of a gunshot and pinpoint its location to within 10 feet. By automatically alerting police dispatch, it obviates the need for a victim to report a crime and even detects crimes that might never have been reported.

Wearables could supplement body cameras by providing insight into police officers' behavior, enabling both real-time support and long-term coaching. Connected firearms offer the opportunity to track when a weapon is removed from its holster and when it is discharged. In the moment, pulling or firing the weapon can dispatch additional support, while over time the record can inform coaching and professional-development discussions.

Similarly, monitoring stress levels, heart rate or voice volume could make supervisors or fellow responders aware of elevated tension that might put an officer or the public at risk, allowing them to intervene immediately or debrief afterward on how to handle similar situations. This has particularly powerful implications in an era in which local police are increasingly tapped for crowd control or major-incident response.

How should public-sector leaders begin to tap into the potential of the IoT? Start by identifying specific, pressing mission challenges, and then analyze how more or better information, real-time analysis or automated actions may help address them. By solving for concrete problems, governments can more effectively identify technical, organizational, and talent changes necessary to realize new benefits -- and then scale up what works.

One thing is certain: Getting these systems right isn't going to be easy. But government agencies that adopt a wait-and-see attitude toward the Internet of Things are unlikely to develop the expertise needed to effectively and efficiently deliver services in this new reality.

Executive director of the Deloitte Center for Government Insights.
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