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B.C.'s tech upgrades: Next-Gen 911 and artificial intelligence at city hall

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It may be happening too slow for some and too fast for others, but technological innovations are taking place in British Columbia's municipalities, with cybersecurity and funding key considerations as they move forward.

The annual Union of B.C. Municipalities convention has featured several seminars and presentations – as well as countless unofficial conversations and a special resolution – focussed on high-tech upgrades that are the responsibility of local governments. 

Kelowna is blazing the trail, taking advantage of UBCM funding to kick-start pilot projects in the community, with artificial intelligence handling everything from 90 per cent of calls for snow removal (where and when to expect it based on the caller's info) to fool-proofing online applications for home renovation and construction projects.

"If you’ve filled out something incorrectly, AI, in real time, is going to tell you when you’re not complying and it’ll reference the bylaw in real time," explained Jazz Pabla, the city's director of information services, at a seminar for delegates on Thursday.

The chief administrative officer for the city urged other municipal leaders to get on board, because the technology is simply too valuable and helpful for constituents to dismiss or avoid.

"There are many people in your organizations that are already using AI," said Doug Gilchrist. "Whether you know it or not, whether you like it or not, whether you have policies or not, they’re using AI and they’re going to continue to use it."

EMERGENCY TECHNOLOGY MAKING A BIG LEAP

The fourth day of the convention started with presentations and a discussion of Next-Gen 911, a delayed Canada-wide project seeking to modernize emergency call-taking by allowing texts, photos, and video submissions. 

"It is a new world we’re exploring and we have to do it carefully," said E-Comm 911 CEO and president Oliver Gruter-Andrew in an interview with CTV News.

The upgrade has been in discussion for years, but few jurisdictions have made the leap, and Gruter-Andrew emphasized it'll be a phased implementation since it's more complicated than texting a friend. Data storage and privacy concerns around who gets what kind of sensitive information are among the considerations. 

"This is not something that's been done 100 times in the world," said Gruter-Andrew.

Coquitlam city councillor Craig Hodge successfully lobbied his UBCM colleagues to endorse a small fee, likely a dollar a month, for each mobile phone account in the province, to pay for the growing demand on the system -- as well as consideration of a fourth option for "mental health", aside from the typical "police, fire, or ambulance" options. 

"We thought that this was a good opportunity to look at the system and do an overhaul and we need to put more money into the system," he said. "The ball's in the province's court now."

COMPLICATING FACTORS

There's often an assumption that newer technology means less work for people, but that's not the case for Next-Gen 911.

"Right now we are struggling to handle even voice calls," said Donald Grand, president of the Emergency Communications Professionals of B.C.

"Adding in photo and video to that just compounds the amount of information that we have to process, document and transmit to police and firefighters on the road."

He's encouraged that UBCM members voted in favour of more funding, but said dispatchers are still burning out in droves and better working conditions are needed now, before the job becomes even more intense by assessing and distributing what may be traumatizing visuals sent by people in an emergency situation. 

Cutting-edge technology is also at the forefront of privacy concerns, and police departments have already fallen afoul of the privacy commissioner for their use of facial recognition software, but cyber-security is also a complex and ever-evolving challenge.

"People are interacting with government online more than they ever have," said B.C.'s chief technology officer Alex MacLennan.

"I think we all expect that when we have those interactions online we all need to stay safe and have our personal information protected."

All these considerations don't come cheap, and with municipal budgets already tight under the pressure of avoiding property tax hikes, UBCM delegates are urging the provincial government to provide the cash to help them modernize their services to a level of technological convenience most of the population enjoys and expects.

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