Machine Learning and Municipal Policy

I had the opportunity to compete in the first City of Calgary hack-a-thon. The event offered cash prizes for ideas that could solve a problem, or advance an idea that would contribute to the execution of the city’s mandate. The concept is increasingly common, and the scope of the projects are expanding with each passing year. While Calgary offers many fantastic benefits, I doubt the city will be able to match the potential prize pot of an organization like Microsoft.

For those of us that watched Watson compete against Jeopardy champs, the continual development of this technology has been an impressive process, as the foundations that enabled its defeat of top human players have allowed for impressive advances with practical applications. But, to quote Peter Thiel, what is the application that won’t simply nudge an industry or two ahead, but the application that will solve the major problems facing humanity? What is the 0-1 advance that can utilize deep learning systems to improve public policy, civic engagement, information flows within markets? IBM is offering a combined pot of $5m for the most effective use of its technology.

Imagine assessing in real time every post on social media from within the city’s boundaries, matched with 3-1-1 data, and linked in real time to calls to the city switch board. Imagine this data linked to regional partners, applied to city employees, and built out for 2-3 week time to predict the potential risk factors that may occupy city time before the events occur. Weather data determining the optimal allocation of employee time. These opportunities will exist as these technologies evolve, and won’t just solve challenges in Calgary, but in municipalities across the planet. The increasingly broad sources of data mean that challenges such as emergency management will have more time to mitigate the most pressing threats. The integration of disparate data-sets isn’t just a hypothetical computer science problem, but a real world opportunity to advance human understanding of our relationships, our markets, and our society as a whole. It will be fascinating to see.

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