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January 14, 2015

Spilka seeks to link tech startups to cities and towns

Hoping to connect the newest technologies with cities and towns, which could serve as proving grounds and early adopters, Sen. Karen Spilka plans to file legislation creating a program for "innovative communities."

The Ashland Democrat said the aim would be a similar dynamic to the Green Communities Act, which sets criteria for municipalities to qualify for government grants.

Planning to hone the bill before a Friday filing deadline, Spilka solicited input from state officials, the tech industry and city officials on Monday.

"The community would now have access possibly to some of the new technology to solve some of their known problems whether it be for potholes or permitting," Spilka told the room.

To qualify, municipalities would need to pass a resolution, make municipal data publicly available, promise to attend technology expositions, and commit to conduct beta testing annually of new technology, according to a draft version of a bill summary.

According to Spilka, a program would be created somewhere within state government to link towns to tech, organize pilot programs, provide technical assistance and vet technologies that might be used by cities and towns.

Paypal Chief Operating Officer David Chang said the criteria for qualifying tech companies should be "fairly wide" to encourage participation.

Nigel Jacob, co-chairman of Boston's Office of New Urban Mechanics, said Boston is frequently approached by what he called "pre-startup organizations," said non-profits should be able to qualify to participate, and said the results of beta runs should be publicly available.

"I think there should be a commitment to sharing the results of the trial," said Jacob.

Joseph Zukowski, a lobbyist for Verizon, encouraged lawmakers not to limit the program to startup companies.

The Green Communities Act is funded through a regional cap-and-trade program that taxes fossil-fuel-burning power plants. Spilka said she does not yet know how much the program she is proposing would cost.

The legislation would also create an advisory board and a special commission to study the purchase of "innovative technologies."

Last year, a law authorizing information technology spending enacted reforms, including new standards to be set by the state's chief information officer, to avoid more high-tech blunders such as 2013's Health Connector website or the new online portal for unemployment benefits.

Steve Strassmann, the state's chief technology officer, said the website will eventually be live and available to host data from municipalities.

Timothy Sullivan, the local government liaison for the Information Technology Division, singled out Amherst and Woburn as examples of municipalities that have embraced open-government data sharing.

Gabor Garai, an attorney with the firm Foley & Lardner, suggested insurance should be available to protect cities and towns from information technology purchases that do not turn out as hoped.

Spilka told the News Service the idea for the legislation was the result of a recent "idea-a-thon" she held for the startup community, where Stanley Rosenberg, who is now the Senate president, was a judge.

At his acceptance speech after being elected president last Wednesday, Rosenberg said technology could be used to make state government deliver better services.

Spilka, who co-chaired the Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies in 2011-2012, said the bill could put Massachusetts on the leading edge of technology for municipalities, a client set that she said presents challenges to tech companies.

"Most of them don't even know how to start entering the municipal or state purchasing process," said Spilka, who suggested branding as "fast-track" contracts below the $10,000 threshold that triggers more stringent procurement rules. She said, "We can do something to help create an environment that's conducive to startups."

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