Digital Citizenship in Alberta: 3 public CIOs discuss innovation projects


By Robert Brennan Hart and Edward Wilson-Smyth

Economic development, especially in resource economies, has historically been a balancing act between forced false choices – growth vs. equity; opportunity vs. outcomes; profit vs. people; economics vs. environment.

Traditional approaches to economic policy have devolved into existential battles between two ideological solitudes, further entrenched in social and political divides that prevent meaningful discussion, policy and execution.

Alberta, for long the engine of Canada’s growth, faces not only these policy debates, but also a new uncertainty related to what has historically been its primary resource – non-renewable traditional energy sources. Optimism in the face of uncertainty is no policy, and Alberta needs to balance a continued focus on the oil sands with a diversified and renewed focus on the other two critical natural resources every sovereign has at its disposal – land and people.

The planned and purposeful application of emerging technology to economic development, through a true partnership between entrepreneurs, governments and societies, can create new employment opportunities, new pathways to success, and new communities linked through technology into common social and economic pursuits.

Financial institutions, particularly through credit, become critical to this new model for economic development, by supporting the various drivers of innovation, making opportunities available to a broad ecosystem of citizens and residents, and reflecting emerging patterns of value and consumption that are different from what existed even 10 years ago. Innovation in finance, when partnered with technology-driven economic development, can truly revolutionize how societies are defined, formed and function, and how value is defined, created, and shared.

ROBERT BRENNAN HART

What progressive digital initiatives are being leveraged in your organization to improve not only the survivability of your business or government, but also the survivability of the province at large?

MARK DINER, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF DIGITIZATION AT GOVERNMENT OF ALBERTA

The Government of Alberta is active on many fronts, and with many projects to better enable Alberta business, the entrepreneur and the innovator to have more tools for success, and to ensure that government doesn’t get in the way of being successful. This would include enabling technologies, data and services. Here are just a few examples:

Open Government. Alberta has the largest and most diverse open government provincial presence in Canada. The service also provides access to critical reports such as Environmental Impact Assessments, the laws and regulations of Alberta and large volume of geospatial datasets. Removing barriers to accessing government information gives Alberta a business an advantage and indirectly lowers the costs of doing business in Alberta, especially where there is reliance on government information. The service also provides access to datasets for entrepreneurs building digital solutions that requires government data.

My Alberta eServices including MyAlberta Digital ID, and soon, MyAlberta Business ID. MyAlberta eServices provides access to government services at any time, from anywhere and on any device. This will make it more simple, intuitive and provide easy-to-complete transactions for Albertans and business that requires interaction with the GoA. This means more efficient and lower costs of doing business in Alberta for Alberta companies and citizens. It means lowering barriers for Alberta business so that they can focus on being competitive and innovative.

Enterprise Data Analytics Strategy. For decades IMT solutions in government were siloed solutions with data locked up within the application; acting as a repository of records of transactions. Rarely was there consideration of the enterprise perspective. This strategy seeks to creates a data-ecosystem across government, and its partners, so that those involved in client support, policy development or day-to-day operations can leverage data, both historical and in real-time to make better, more informed and more timely decisions.

The team behind Alberta.ca has been re-writing tens of thousands of web pages to put them in plain language, embrace the science of CX (citizen experience) with the purpose of providing meaningful communication for citizens, business and stakeholders. The goal, as above is to reduce barriers and therefore lower the costs of doing business in Alberta.

BRIAN STEWART, CIO AT UNIVERSITY OF ALBERTA

Universities are very traditional and highly complex institutions with long institutional memories. The adoption of digital technologies has been slow to take root and they are behind similarly sized organizations in other sectors. This challenge can be related to their complexity, to the nature of digital technology development and to traditional approaches that remain effective. Technologies are now becoming available to address these institutional needs. In addition, successful adoption across many sectors requires students to be educated to understand and use sophisticated digital technology driving change in teaching and research.

We are in the process of architecting a digital infrastructure to support all aspects of the University’s mission teaching, research and administration. These new architectures include the incorporation of cloud technologies to simplify and improve infrastructure and increase service flexibility and functionality; exploring the use of AI and analytics in student and client service and in business process optimization, understanding the potential of blockchain in enabling credential sharing and exploring the abilities of virtual and augmented reality.

ROBERT BRENNAN HART

How is your business or government leveraging public-private sector partnerships to accelerate the rate of innovation and economic diversification across the province?

BARRY HENSCHE, SVP AND HEAD OF IT AT ATB FINANCIAL

ATB is embracing partnerships in academia and business in order to cross-pollinate insights and rapidly execute. Some of our partnerships are in-province, like our AI partnership with UAlberta, our partnership with Calgary Economic Development’s EvolveU to skill up out of work talent for tech-based positions and our burgeoning relationship with the many like-minded meetups in Alberta around exponential technology. Some are outside of Alberta like Singularity University, Sovrin Foundation, IBM and MIT. All of them, at the core of it, are meant to benefit Albertans and Alberta.

MARK DINER

Let me give an example of an interesting project that involves the Government of Alberta, Alberta Data Partnership (a not-for-profit organization) and the private sector. The Open Data Areas Project. Open Data Areas Alberta is a new undertaking being spearheaded by Alberta Data Partnerships to put extensive data in the hands of those who can use it.

Datasets from six key rural areas across Alberta is available for no cost to inspired entrepreneurs, SMEs and creative problem solvers. These will include earth observation, remote sensing, geospatial data, environmental data, and social and economic datasets from private industry and government. Funding is also available to support entrepreneurs. Through an agreement with Alberta Economic Development and Trade, grants will be offered for pre-commercial development of technology-based tools utilizing the data provided through the Open Data Areas and focused on the needs of industry and/or government. A number of firms have already received funding through this program including GeoAnalysis Inc., SensorUp Inc. and Waterline Resources Inc.

ROBERT BRENNAN HART

Is it realistic to think Alberta can transform itself from a resource-based economy to a knowledge-based economy in time to effectively compete in the digital age? What challenges do you feel the province will have to overcome to effectively facilitate such a monumental transition? Are you optimistic about this transformation?

BARRY HENSCHE

It is not a matter of going from resource-based economy TO something else. We have seen huge technology shifts in resource-based companies to either become less focused on traditional energy sources or have actually pushed the boundaries here to make reserves economic that perhaps weren’t in the past and to leverage technology (like Blockchain) themselves.

To that end, the transformation of Alberta’s economy doesn’t necessarily need to be on the back of moving completely away from oil & gas investment.

It’s a matter of becoming more efficient and realistic with how we extract value from the natural resources sector AND adding in intentional development of the tech sector. This is quite realistic, but probably over a moderate to long-term time frame. The key to helping the province overcome this is developing homegrown talent and reskilling the talent we have that has been displaced during shifts in the energy industry…some of those petroleum engineers are 6-9 months away from becoming full stack developers from a skill set perspective. There’s a strong demand for skilled tech talent and many companies in prime tech environments (TO, Silicon Valley) are having a tough time hiring, so you can imagine as an Alberta-based organization of any size, there is a need.

Alberta has always been resilient and entrepreneurial so we’re optimistic we can make the shift and find ways to develop home grown talent to support that shift.

BRIAN STEWART

The province has a very robust educational system k-20, including world-class research universities. These provide a foundation for tech innovation enabling entrepreneurs access to intellectual, capital and organizational resources to assist with early-stage development. Our educational structure is well supported within Alberta and across Canada with an Internet backbone providing high bandwidth connectivity essential to digital age development. It appears, that the need to replace the resource income has not yet hit a pitch where the diversified economy has shifted out of a low gear. The delay may cost us dearly as lost ground may not be easy to make up. Nonetheless, the potential is growing; the infrastructure is being built and the human capital is being developed. We are putting ourselves in a very strong position to pivot into the fourth industrial revolution.

ROBERT BRENNAN HART

What competitive advantages or differentiators does Alberta have that could be leveraged in attracting global investment in our technology industry?

MARK DINER

I’d like to mention three programs that differentiate Alberta.

Cybera. Cybera protects Alberta’s economic future as the publicly funded agency in the province responsible for ensuring the development of advanced and efficient cyberinfrastructure, or e-infrastructure, a now essential foundation for innovation. Cybera’s team of experts works behind the scenes to manage Alberta’s ultra-high-speed advanced research network — CyberaNet — which connects local researchers to some 100 research networks around the world. Working with partners in the public and private sectors, Cybera is also leading ‘above the network’ projects in Alberta to pilot emerging technologies that help to build e-infrastructure to support the province’s economic growth.

Alberta’s consolidated data sets. From secondary health data to environmental monitoring data, Alberta has been a leader with providing rich data available for research. The Secondary Use Data Project is a provincially led, multi-partner project to facilitate the enhanced and advanced use of secondary use health and social data for the health and socioeconomic benefit of Albertans. This collection of data sets Alberta apart and bring health research companies to Alberta to support their research objectives.

The Environmental Monitoring and Science Division, as part of the Government of Alberta is responsible for monitoring, evaluating and reporting on key air, water, land and biodiversity indicators. The division’s mandate is to provide open and transparent access to scientific data and information on the condition of Alberta’s environment, including specific indicators as well as cumulative effects, both provincially and in specific locations. The mandate of this division makes it a world leader in supporting research in environmental science.

Machine intelligence. AMII is the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute, a research lab at the University of Alberta previously known as the Alberta Innovates Centre for Machine Learning (AICML). They work to enhance understanding and innovation in a number of subfields of machine intelligence. The teams conduct leading-edge research to push the bounds of academic knowledge, and forge business collaborations both locally and internationally to create innovative, adaptive solutions to the toughest problems facing Alberta and the world.

BARRY HENSCHE

Factors that would be conducive for investment in growing tech businesses and talent here.

● A solid amount of move-in ready corporate space
● The highest concentration of head offices per capita in the country (source: Calgary Economic Development),
● A rapidly growing ecosystem of entrepreneurs (as evidenced by the continual growth of accelerators, entrepreneur-focused programs, and expansion of ATB’s own entrepreneur centres).
● Young population. The average age in Alberta is 36.5 years with median ages in Edmonton and Calgary being around the same.
● A very reasonable cost of living and work-life balance with a significant amount of park space and geographical features (mountains) nearby.

BRIAN STEWART

Alberta has always been an innovative province with a long and rich history of technical innovation in the resource industry. The potential of the oil sands was converted into an economic resource base through innovative engineering technology. Both the physical and human capital gained from the expansion of the resource base provides Alberta a significant head start in adopting digital technologies to transform its economic base.

Our understanding of the global investment market and our established relationships and credibility with the investment community does and will continue to provide significant value to Albertan entrepreneurs.

Co-author Edward Wilson-Smythe is a Digital Principal at Avasant


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