Brendan Babb has been the chief innovation officer for the city of Anchorage, Alaska, for the past seven years. At the time he came on board, Babb knew of about 20 chief innovation officers that worked for city governments. Now, he estimates there are between 150 and 200 of them.
The job also changes a lot as government funding ebbs and flow. In 2021, the US Congress approved a $1 trillion infrastructure bill, earmarking billions for road and transit upgrades administered at the state or local level. Billions more, with an emphasis on investments in the transition to clean energy, were approved the following year under the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). Babb recently spoke with Quartz about the implications of all that funding and other changing aspects of municipal innovation. The following transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
The affordable connectivity program established in the infrastructure bill has affected us especially. Alaska itself is considered to be on tribal land. Anchorage itself, which is very much an urban city, gets $75 (monthly per household) toward internet access.
The other program that I’m interested in is direct pay for nonprofits and governments for renewable energy incentives. If you’re residential and you get a heat pump or solar battery then you get tax credits, but that hasn’t been useful for governments or nonprofits because they don’t pay taxes.
Electricity costs are going up while solar costs are coming down, so a lot of stuff that might not have penciled out before might pencil out now. An example of this is how Salt Lake City has created microgrids to power their fire stations in case a fire cuts off their power supply.
We have a property tax exemption for seniors. So if you own your house and aren’t Airbnb-ing it, you can get a property tax exemption. These are common in lots of cities. We have one that takes $150,000 off your appraisal, so that can be $2,500 (in tax exemptions) for seniors. We worked with our behavioral insights team to create a letter that comes from the mayor and is sent to 1,500 seniors who aren’t already enrolled in the program. It’s simple—we pre-fill the parcel number on the form, and created an online option. It’s been running for three or four years now and has been doing really well.
We still provide some help to the Food Bank of Alaska, our partner at the time. We were trying to help them as they were calling people, and we noticed they were playing phone tag a lot. So the big insight we had was that we could use text messages, which are asynchronous. It worked well because someone could text this number at 11 o’clock at night and say what they needed.
During the pandemic there was pandemic electronic benefit transfer food benefits, and the food bank was able to create their own workflow for EBT without our help.
People had overdue fines, like from a speeding ticket or something. It would go from the police department to the treasury to the courts and then back to treasury. And we were trying to get people to pay it before it went to collections.
We got multiple agencies together one day—collections, the police, treasury, etc.—and we took multiple suggestions from them. One of them was making the letter pink so that residents would know it’s important. We also put the agency phone numbers in a more prominent place.
We tried to do a randomized controlled trial, sending out half with the new letter and half with the old. But treasury got really excited, started changing more things about the letter, and accidentally sent the new letter to the control group. So we didn’t get perfect data on it. The net gain, though, was that we got a million more dollars in revenue that year.
I’ve been experimenting with ChatGPT and code interpreter which is now “advanced data analysis.” I have a data science background so I feel comfortable diving in deep.
I think innovation requires a fast feedback loop. So if you request a report and get it back a month later, you’re less likely to be interested in it. But if you can quickly test an idea and you find something there, then you’re more likely to do a project.
Baltimore has done data academies and upskilling of their staff—it’s not hard data science, but just showing the importance of data or how to clean data.
If the bot showed that there might be something there, then I would write some code and validate it.
Now I want to play a game where I go through a list of tech trends, and you tell me if they’re under-hyped, overhyped, or appropriately hyped. First up: artificial intelligence powered with large language models?
I think it’s a little overrated right now, but it’s getting close to being right.
From the government perspective, or city perspective, I think it’s a little overrated. There’s been MaimiCoin and other things. I think there’s a couple more iterations that it might go through. I think it’s an interesting technology, but I’m not sure how it should work or how society interacts with it.
A little under rated. In Alaska, we are experimenting with delivery drones, but for large pallets and a lot of things off the road system.