As we overcome the COVID crisis, and look to rebuild our economy and overcome future challenges, we need to learn from this experience and refuse to go back to the bad old days of red tape and stale technology. Photo via Getty Images

If you've logged onto a government website recently, you know that dealing with creaking, outdated government technology is about as much fun as a trip to the DMV. Held back by byzantine procurement rules, management-by-committee, and an aggressive commitment to decades-old UX principles, government websites and other tech tools are routinely confusing, horrible to use, and deeply inefficient.

Now, though, that could finally be changing. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us all to rethink our relationships with the technologies we use, from Zoom calls to e-commerce services. Increasingly, government bodies are finding themselves forced to move faster, adopt more up-to-date technologies, and work with private-sector partners to meet new challenges and quickly bring their services into the 21st century.

Getting an education

One of the most dramatic examples comes in the realm of education. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 93 percent of school-age children have engaged in distance learning since the pandemic began, and four fifths of them relied on digital tech to take the place of classroom resources. But with access to digital tech at home strongly correlated to household income, governments and education departments have had to move quickly to ensure every child has access to laptops and web connections.

Not everyone is a fan of remote learning, and as a parent myself, I know how hard it can be to have kids at home. But one thing we should all be able to agree on is that if we're going to rely on digital learning, then we need to make sure it's available to everyone, including those families that don't have access to reliable computers and WiFi connections at home.

Achieving that rapidly and at scale has required remarkable flexibility and creativity from policymakers at all levels. Those that have succeeded have done so by brushing aside the red tape that has ensnared previous government tech initiatives, and instead working with private-sector partners to rapidly implement the solutions that are needed.

Lessons from Texas

Here in Texas, for instance, one in six public school students lacked access to high-speed internet connections at the start of the pandemic, and 30% lacked access to laptops or other learning devices. To speed the transition to remote learning, Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Education Agency (TEA) launched Operation Connectivity — a $400 million campaign to connect 5.5 million Texas public school students with a computer device and reliable internet connection. To date 4 million devices have been purchased and are being distributed to kids, opening doors to greater educational and economic opportunities. Further work is in progress to remove other connectivity barriers like slow connection speeds in rural areas to help students and all Texans.

Rolling out such an ambitious project to our state's 1,200 or so school districts could have been a disaster. After all, many government IT projects grind along for months or years without delivering the desired results — often at huge cost to taxpayers. But Operation Connectivity has been different because it's grounded in a true partnership between the government and private-sector players.

Facing urgent deadlines, government leaders turned to Gaby Rowe, former CEO of the Ion tech hub, to spearhead the project. As a tech innovator, Rowe brought entrepreneurial energy and a real understanding of the power of public-private partnerships, and drove Operation Connectivity from the blueprint to execution in a matter of weeks. Tech giants including Microsoft, SAP, and Hubspot also quickly joined the effort, helping to deliver cost-effective connectivity and hardware solutions to ensure that every kid in our state could get the education they deserve. Since then, Operation Connectivity has distributed over a million devices, including laptops and wireless hotspots, to families in need, with costs split between the state and individual districts.

Private sector edge

To get a sense of how private-sector knowhow can spur government tech transformation, consider my own company, Digital Glyde. As part of the Operation Connectivity effort, we were asked to help design and build the back-end software and planning infrastructure needed to coordinate effectively with hundreds of school district officials scattered all across our state.

Ordinarily, that kind of effort would require a drawn-out process of consultation, committee-work, and red tape. But facing an urgent need to help our state's children, we were given the freedom to move quickly, and were able to implement a viable system within just a few days.

By leveraging cutting-edge data-extraction and image-processing tools, we helped Operation Connectivity to automatically process invoices and match tech costs to available COVID relief funding in record time. We achieved 95% accuracy within three weeks of deployment to ensure school districts quickly received reimbursements for the hardware they were purchasing on behalf of their schoolchildren.

Building on success

Operation Connectivity is just one example of the ways in which government actors have embraced tech and leveraged private-sector assistance to chart their way through the COVID crisis. From contact-tracing programs to vaccine distribution programs, we're seeing governments taking a far more pragmatic and partnership-driven approach to technology.

Of course, not every experiment goes to plan. In Florida, government agencies decided to use web tools to manage vaccination appointments — but implemented that idea using a commercial website built to handle birthday party e-vites. Unsurprisingly, the results were chaotic, with users having to scramble to grab appointments as they were posted to the site, and seniors struggling to wrap their head around a website designed for young parents.

Such stories are a reminder that governments can't solve big problems simply by grabbing at whatever tech tools are nearest to hand. It's vital to find the right solutions, and to work with partners who understand the complexity and constraints that come with delivering public-sector services at scale.

As we overcome the COVID crisis, and look to rebuild our economy and overcome future challenges, we need to learn from this experience and refuse to go back to the bad old days of red tape and stale technology. In recent months, we've shown what can be done when we pull together, and combine real governmental leadership with private-sector innovation and efficiency. We'll need much more of this kind of teamwork and tech-enabled creativity in the months and years to come.

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Varun Garg is the founder and CEO of Houston-based Digital Glyde

Women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are well represented in Houston, according to a recent report. Photo via Christina Morillo/Pexels

Houston named a top city for women in STEM fields

who runs the world?

If you're a woman in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics and you call Houston home, according to a new report, you're doing it right.

In honor of Women's History Month, CommercialCafe updated its 2020 ranking of the top U.S. cities for women working in STEM. According to the report, Houston ranks at No. 5 on the list of the best southern cities in the United States for women in STEM. The Bayou City also claims the No. 19 spot nationally.

Here are some other key findings about Houston on the report:

  • STEM jobs in Houston account for 7 percent of all jobs, and a little less than a third of these positions are held by women.
  • About 23,964 women work in STEM in Houston — which is the most out of any other city in the South.
  • Houston gained 4,318 new women STEM employees since 2015, the third-highest number in this regional ranking.
  • The median annual income for women in STEM here is $68,172.
Texas makes up about half of the top 10 Southern states — Austin places in second, while Frisco (No. 7), Dallas (No. 8) and Plano (No. 10) fall behind Houston. Nationally, New York City, San Francisco, and Seattle take the top three spots, respectively.

Women working in STEM - South 2021 - Infogram infogram.com

Houston has been recognized for its STEM fields before, and last fall, SmartAsset ranked Houston as No. 7 in STEM nationally based on workforce size. And, in 2019, Houston placed sixth for STEM workforce diversity. Last year Houston also ranked No. 6 for women in tech, also according to SmartAsset.

ClassPass is expanding into Houston with over 20 new jobs and a local office. Image courtesy of ClassPass

Fitness tech platform expands to Houston and plans to hire

new to hou

When a global technology company focused on fitness and wellness was looking for a city to open their fourth office in the United States, the team wanted a community that was active and full of young professionals. They landed on Houston.

Membership-based fitness and wellness company ClassPass is opening a local office in Houston and is planning on hiring over 20 professionals across departments — from analytics, customer experience, design, and engineering, to marketing, partnerships and product.

Rachel Moncton, vice president of global marketing for ClassPass, has already relocated to Houston to lead the new office.

"Houston is a friendly, community-focused city with a rich talent pool. We are thrilled to contribute to the Houston economy by creating new opportunities for professionals with varying skill sets, and hope to build a local team with a broad range of experiences and backgrounds," says Moncton says in a news release.

Headquartered in New York City, ClassPass's membership and mobile application connects members to fitness and wellness appointments at over 30,000 studios and 11,500 wellness venues. In Houston, ClassPass has over 900 partners.

Currently, the company has 400 employees worldwide with offices in Missoula, Montana, and San Francisco. ClassPass's new hires will work remotely at first, and the organization is hoping to open a physical office later this year.

"It's great to see another Bay Area company expanding to Houston like Nuro, Bill.com, and Homebase," says Harvin Moore, president of Houston Exponential. "ClassPass is already using the HTX Talent jobs board to build its Houston team and we hope to work more with them as they build their presence here."

The app has 900 fitness and wellness partners in Houston already. Image courtesy of ClassPass

Houston's tech workforce makes double the average salary — but when it comes to job growth, the city needs improvement, according to a new report. Photo via Pexels

Report: Here's how Houston ranks when it comes to tech salaries and job growth

by the numbers

It truly pays to work in the tech sector in the Houston metro area.

A report published January 11 by Austin-based tech company Spanning Cloud Apps LLC shows workers in the Houston area can more than double their pay when they hold down a tech job. In fact, Houston ranks fifth among the country's largest metro areas for the pay advantage in tech occupations versus all occupations.

According to the report, the median annual pay for a Houston-area tech job stood at $91,190 in 2019. By comparison, the median annual pay for all occupations sat at $40,570. That puts the area's median tech pay 124.8 percent higher than the median pay for all occupations, giving Houston a fifth-place ranking in that category.

At 124.8 percent, Houston is sandwiched between fourth-place Dallas-Fort Worth (127 percent) and sixth-place San Antonio (124.7 percent) in terms of the pay premium offered by tech jobs. At No. 27 is Austin, with a 106.1 percent pay premium for tech jobs.

As for median tech pay, DFW ($91,760) claims the No. 12 spot among large metro areas. Meanwhile, Houston is in 15th place ($91,190), Austin is in 24th place ($85,640), and San Antonio is in 30th place ($81,870).

The report identifies 84,040 tech workers in the Houston area. In that regard, Houston ranks 13th among large metro areas, with DFW at No. 5 (158,490), Austin at No. 18 (66,800), and San Antonio at No. 35 (28,200).

While Houston earns a high ranking in the Spanning report for the pay gap between tech jobs and all jobs, it's toward the bottom of the pile when it comes to the share of tech jobs, the report indicates. Among large metro areas, Houston ranks 41st for the share of computer and math occupations in the workforce, 2.8 percent.

San Jose, California, takes the No. 1 spot in that category, with 12.7 percent of employees working in computer and math occupations. Austin ranks sixth (6.2 percent), DFW holds down the No. 13 spot (4.3 percent), and San Antonio comes in at No. 42 (2.7 percent).

Spanning based its report on data collected by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In February 2020, the Greater Houston Partnership indicated the region was home to about 150,000 tech workers, far above the number tallied in the Spanning report. The partnership says the region boasts the 12th largest tech sector in the U.S., generating an annual economic impact of $28.1 billion. Among the country's 20 largest metro areas, Houston ranks first for the share of tech workers at non-tech employers.

From August to September, Houston saw an 11 percent rise in postings for tech jobs, according to a third-quarter report from tech career hub Dice. That was one of the highest growth rates among the country's largest metro areas.

"As the home of NASA's human space program and headquarters to the global energy industry, Houston has long been known for its engineering prowess," the Greater Houston Partnership says. "Although most of Houston's technology talent is embedded in some of the area's largest industries such as energy and health care, subsectors such as software development, programming, and database management are also growing."

In the tech sector, Houston is bound to benefit from Hewlett Packard Enterprise Co. (HPE) shifting its headquarters from Silicon Valley to its campus under construction in Spring. The company praises Houston as "an attractive market for us to recruit and retain talent, and a great place to do business."

HPE already employs about 2,600 people in the Houston area. The move of its headquarters to Spring could mean the addition of hundreds of local jobs in the coming years.

"HPE's headquarters relocation is a signature moment for Houston, accelerating the momentum that has been building for the last few years as we position Houston as a leading digital tech hub," Bob Harvey, president and CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership, said in December.

Josh Pherigo at GHP used data to look into what tech specialties are thriving in Houston — and what niches have shown promising growth. Photo via LinkedIn

Greater Houston Partnership researcher identifies the city's top tech specialties

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 48

When you look at Houston's venture capital investment patterns, what do they tell you? To Josh Pherigo, research director of data analytics at the Greater Houston Partnership, it paints a picture of what tech and startup niches are thriving.

Based on PitchBook data, Pherigo put together an analysis of what industries within Houston are attracting the most investments. The study came out of the fact that Houston's hold on oil and gas is going to shift as the industry goes through the energy transition. Since O&G is such a crucial part of Houston's economy, the city will have to see a rise in new industries to remain competitive with its economy.

"The idea was to look at the innovation ecosystem and see what the technologies are that are doing well here at at attracting VC funding," Pherigo says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "And by seeing how well certain technologies are doing, we'll be able to see if these are some areas that have some natural competitive advantages in Houston's economy that we can then use to spur growth in the next few decades — and even just out of the recession we're in right now."

The report found that life science and oil and gas currently attract the most VC investments in Houston, but Pherigo found potential in a few other industries like B2B payments technology — Houston-based fintech startup, HighRadius recently raised $125 million.

The study, which also compared Houston to Austin and Dallas, found that there was a cleantech war emerging between Austin and Houston. While Houston's ecosystem has a greater presence of cleantech startups, Austin cleantech is still bringing in more VC investments. However, in Houston, between new corporate incubators and Greentown Labs entering Houston, the city is creating a lot of infrastructure for this industry.

"It's going to be interesting over the next few years to see how Houston can position itself as the leader in Texas for this, because they are going to have a lot of competition from Austin," Pherigo says.

Pherigo goes into more detail about what he found interesting in the report, and even dives into what the data shows for the future of Houston's tech specialties in the episode of the podcast. You can listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

Eric Ingram and Sergio Gallucci of SCOUT are focused on creating data-driven solutions to space technology management to save companies billions and prevent space debris. Photos courtesy of SCOUT

Tech startup lands in Houston to help space support services take off

space tech

A Virginia-based space company startup focusing on developing small and inexpensive satellites is making an out-of-this-world entrance in the Houston commercial innovation space.

SCOUT has been selected as part of the 2020 MassChallange's Texas in Houston cohort, a zero-equity startup accelerator, in the commercial space track and is planning a demonstration mission with the Johnson Space Center in 2021.

The startup, founded in 2019 by Eric Ingram and joined shortly after by Sergio Gallucci. Both have years of experience in innovative research and development, leading teams across academia, government, and industry. Their data will help manufacturers and operators extend satellite lifetimes, avoid failing satellites, reducing up to a billion dollars in losses.

"If we want further operate in space and grow our space presence overall," Eric Ingram, CEO-and-founder tells InnovationMap. "We need to have a safe environment to expand that presence so any time you have unchecked failures and space debris is a problem. We want to help take some of the riskiness out of space operations by providing data that doesn't already exist."

SCOUT provides a wide array of new products based on data to produce small and inexpensive satellites to perform in-space inspections of large and expensive satellites. Their data and spaceflight autonomy software helps spacecraft detect, identify, and refine models for observed objects to gather information and enable autonomous operations.

The space startup's observation and comprehension capabilities creates data products for customers, such as Spacecraft Sensor Suites and Satellite Inspections. The former is a sensor suite under current development to enable a new way to monitor satellites in space while the latter consists of their small satellites that can enable on-demand and on-site inspections for space assets.

This, according to Ingram, is changing the paradigm of operational risk in space.

"If we are able to better understand how these satellites age over time and diagnose problems before they become catastrophic failures," says Ingram "We can prevent space debris from even happening. The more safety and responsibility in space, the better it is for everyone to increase their technology and investment in what is a very rapidly growing industry."

Lost satellites tend to happen often, resulting in about $300 million lost in hardware and around $40 million annual revenue gone. Spacecrafts in outer space can be part of many unpredictable interactions that can be difficult to trace including solar activity, thermal, mechanical wear, and outgassing.

SCOUT will focus the rest of the year in growing their company, despite the setbacks caused by the coronavirus. Their priority is to meet their fundraising and technical milestones while engaging in strategic partnerships with satellite industry players.

"The space industry is growing and is becoming a more realistic and viable avenue for business growth and investment," says Ingram. "Houston is a diverse city with innovation at every front and the effort that NASA is going through to aid the commercial space industry, combined with the startup accelerators that there is a lot of adjacent opportunities and overlap in capabilities."

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City launches public dashboard for tracking COVID-19 in Houston's wastewater

data points

In 2020, a group of researchers began testing Houston's wastewater to collect data to help identify trends at the community level. Now, the team's work has been rounded up to use as an online resource.

The Houston Health Department and Rice University launched the dashboard on September 22. The information comes from samples collected from the city's 39 wastewater treatment plants and many HISD schools.

"This new dashboard is another tool Houstonians can use to gauge the situation and make informed decisions to protect their families," says Dr. Loren Hopkins, chief environmental science officer for the health department and professor in the practice of statistics at Rice University, in a news release. "A high level of virus in your neighborhood's wastewater means virus is spreading locally and you should be even more stringent about masking up when visiting public places."

The health department, Houston Water, Rice University, and Baylor College of Medicine originally collaborated on the wastewater testing. Baylor microbiologist Dr. Anthony Maresso, director of BCM TAILOR Labs, led a part of the research.

"This is not Houston's first infectious disease crisis," Maresso says in an earlier news release. "Wastewater sampling was pioneered by Joseph Melnick, the first chair of Baylor's Department of Molecular Virology and Microbiology, to get ahead of polio outbreaks in Houston in the 1960s. This work essentially ushered in the field of environmental virology, and it began here at Baylor. TAILOR Labs is just continuing that tradition by providing advanced science measures to support local public health intervention."

It's an affordable way to track the virus, says experts. People with COVID-19 shed viral particles in their feces, according to the release, and by testing the wastewater, the health department can measure important infection rate changes.

The dashboard, which is accessible online now, is color-coded by the level of viral load in wastewater samples, as well as labeled with any recent trend changes. Houstonians can find the interactive COVID-19 wastewater monitoring dashboard, vaccination sites, testing sites, and more information at houstonemergency.org/covid19.

Rice University rises with massive $100M gift for innovative new student center

student centered

Rice University's Owls are soaring of late, with the school just being named the top in Texas and No. 7 in the U.S. Now, the institution known as the "Ivy League of the South" is the recipient of a mammoth gift aimed at a game-changing student center.

The Moody Foundation has granted Rice University a massive $100 million for its planned Moody Center for Student Life and Opportunity, which will replace Rice's current Memorial Center (RMC), and will become a new focal point for the university's 300-acre wooded campus, the school announced.

Notably, this new student center is designed by Sir David Adjaye of Adjaye Associates; the acclaimed architect's other works include the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Scheduled to break ground in early 2022 and construction completed in 2023, the brand-new Moody Center for Student Life and Opportunity will maintain some elements of the old RMC, namely the chapel and cloisters. Students and staff can expect demolition of the rest of the existing RMC, per a press release.

Moody's $100 million grant matches the record for the largest gift in the university's history. (Last year, the Robert A. Welch Foundation donated $100 million to the school to establish the innovation-driven Welch Institute.) The Moody Foundation has contributed over $125 million to Rice since 1964, a press release notes.

As part of the Moody $100 million gift, a new Moody Fund for Student Opportunity will support an endowment dedicated to student programs "physically anchored in the new student center and elsewhere in the university," according to the school.

All this supports Rice's recently announced plans for a 20-percent expansion of the undergraduate student body by fall 2025, as CultureMap previously reported.

"We are extremely grateful for this extraordinary philanthropy in support of Rice students," said Rice president David Leebron in a statement. "This gift will enable our students to broaden their engagements and experiences while at Rice in ways that will empower their success throughout their lives. It will also enable us to both connect more deeply with Houston and with the world. This will be the epitome of what an inclusive and outward-looking student center should be."

Elle Moody, a trustee of both the Moody Foundation and Rice, added: "As a Rice University alumna, I know this gift will have a profound and lasting effect on the campus and its students. This investment is supporting much more than just a building. We're investing in every student, so they have access to pursue any endeavor whether it's leadership, artistic, athletic, global or more."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.