Balaji

San Joaquin County, with an annual IT budget of more than $25 million, an award-winning new chief information officer and plenty of tech talent among its 750,000 residents, might be considered an IT sales executive’s dream.

For now, the sweet spot seems to be experimenting with tech in public works.

The county’s public works director, Kris Balaji, couldn’t be more welcoming.

“I tell the vendors: ‘Bother us. Bring us your idea.' Yes, we have a day job to do, and we understand that you’re trying to sell us something. … But we are open to trying out new pathways, while at the same time being responsible with the public’s money.” (Balaji may be contacted via email.)

Balaji, along with county Fleet Manager Kevin Myose and Engineering Services Manager Najee Zarif, gave Techwire an overview of the county’s tech initiatives and plans in a conference call last week. Some key points:

  • Automation through use of artificial intelligence and data analysis is happening and will expand, and Myose’s fleet is helping lead the way through passive data collection and examination.
  • Commercial products (RoadBotics, Waze and GeoTab, among others) either are being used or will be used to shift tedious data-gathering work from county staffers to sensors and other tech, freeing up the humans to work more efficiently and productively.
  • Drones, chatbots and solar arrays all play roles in giving the county the biggest bang for its buck.

One stark example: Every year, Public Works staffers drive and inspect 850 miles of roadways and rate them on roughness, cracks, ruts and overall condition. With about 1,700 miles of roadway in the county, this yields a full inspection every two years.

“It takes two people two to three months of driving,” Balaji said. “Imagine the potential (savings) of having a camera mounted on all 1,300 vehicles in the county fleet and just gathering data without doing any extra work – just drive the vehicle.” It’s a passive solution to an active problem, and one that uses technology — in this case, cameras, sensors and data gathering and analysis — to actively perform a task.  

Officials' use of tech is moving public works away from the simple days of people, shovels and asphalt and into another realm.

RoadBotics, for instance, “is a pure AI neuro-network. They are feeding out manual data into the neural network, then taking the results and retraining the neural network to reach convergence,” Balaji said.

Zarif and Myose praised Balaji as well as the county’s new CIO, Chris Cruz; and Assistant County Administrator Jerry Becker; and the Board of Supervisors.

Zarif said Balaji “has given us the latitude to go and break stuff” in pursuit of cost efficiencies and improved effectiveness. Innovation, Zarif said, “wouldn’t happen without Kris giving us the leeway to do that.”

Balaji was specific about the support he’s received from those above him on the county org chart. He noted that Becker (the county’s former CIO, who was promoted last fall to his current position) had previously worked for the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans); and Cruz, just a month after succeeding Becker as CIO, came from the California Department of Technology (CDT).

Both Becker and Cruz are award-winning IT government executives who know the value of innovation.

Zarif noted that San Joaquin was one of the first counties in California to use drones.

“Primarily, the greatest benefit is topographic surveys,” he said. “It’s allowed us to take survey crews out of harm’s way and to use drones with high-def cameras instead. It’s much faster and safer, and we get much more data in a short period of time. We’re also using them (drones) to do bridge surveys and inspections.

“And when we do environmental surveys — we can use the drone to see what’s out there” rather than putting human staffers in dangerous terrain or conditions. It’s been a great asset to us. It seems like every few months, we use the drones to help us.”

The county aims to make more use of chatbots, the aim being a 24/7 service that could help a community member find information, pay a bill or schedule an inspection without having to call a switchboard operator during business hours.

This month’s calendar is already filling up. The county officials say they’re:

  • Making progress on a solar charger that the county has built for about one-third the cost of a commercial one;
  • “Developing EV (electric vehicle) infrastructure like crazy,” said Zarif, with grant funding from PG&E.

Myose also mentioned that the county is “kind of building an AV [autonomous vehicle].”

“It’s not so complicated,” he said. “It’s a buffer vehicle that follows a dump truck, like a moving safety barrier.” Driving that buffer vehicle used to require a human staffer, but with an AV filling that role, “we can get a guy out of that vehicle.”

Balaji said of the buffer AV: “We actually had this idea back in the day when technology was in its nascent state. The tech wasn’t fully developed at that time. Now, we’re reinitiating this.”

Cruz, the new CIO, said all these threads of technology are being woven together into a master plan.

“All of this great work by Kris (Balaji), Jerry (Becker) and now my involvement will be rolled up in a Digital Services and Innovation Strategy that we will start to develop by July of this year,” Cruz told Techwire.  “We hope to expand this strategy to include other cites within the county so we have a common footprint for innovation.” 

San Joaquin County's budget for IT can be perused here; scroll to Page 202 for the IT section.