November 8, 2013 By Colin Wood
Good software is the most influential driver of computer technology. This fact gave birth to clichés like “the killer app” and “there’s an app for that.” As crucial as infrastructure is, it’s not the thing that gets people excited about technology. For example, Google Fiber is exciting only because it gives people more access to the things they want to do, like spend more time on YouTube, Instagram and Netflix.
Like most of government, public safety has lagged behind commercial markets in developing software and associated technology, but the public sector is poised for big changes, according to organizers of an upcoming technology forum led by the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO). Speakers at the forum, which will be held Dec. 3 and 4 in Boston, will address an expected crowd of about 200 APCO members to outline where public safety technology is today and where it’s headed.
Two of the forum’s sessions will focus on apps, said Jeff Cohen, chief counsel for law and policy for APCO. Most people don’t care how their technology works or what’s behind it – they just want tools that improve their lives, Cohen said, and the event will, among other things, look at emerging and existing public safety tools.
One of the upcoming tools to be showcased at the event will be FireStop, a mobile app being developed by three Princeton University students who say they hope to shave 90 seconds off firefighting operations. FireStop represents a great story and product because it’s developed by students with ties to the fire service and the idea looks viable, Cohen said.
Boston Fire Commissioner Roderick Fraser will be the keynote speaker, opening the event to a series of presentations and interactive sessions. Though still unverified as a guest, another tool the forum plans to showcase is Boston’s 311 app, Citizens Connect, Cohen said. Other topics to be discussed include next-generation 911, FirstNet and cybersecurity.
In one session, organizers will present to developers in the audience ideas for apps that public safety workers want to use. Organizers will then curate a discussion around what it would take to implement those ideas.
The purpose of these biannual events, which began 18 months ago, is to bring public safety workers up to speed on the latest technology. Each event gets more sophisticated, and APCO's message is that big changes are coming to public safety technology.
The upcoming rollout of a nationwide first responder network means the infrastructure will soon be in place to support the demand for new apps and services, Cohen said. “That’s a major kick-starter – it's attracting and driving major innovation in the field.”
FirstNet plans to host its own app store once the nationwide network is online, Cohen said, but until then, there’s APCO’s public safety app store, AppComm. Featuring about 160 vetted apps, AppComm was created to provide a central source for public safety apps, Cohen said. APCO doesn't promote or endorse any of the apps on its portal, but cataloging them is an important first step in the transformation of public safety technology, Cohen said.
In fact, he said, APCO has a legal agreement that says FirstNet will be allowed access to the data and lessons APCO learned through running its app site, so FirstNet won’t have to completely start over when building its app portal. They are complementary projects, Cohen said, and APCO’s goal is to see the industry thrive.
APCO also released the first universal guidelines for public safety app development, which will be highlighted during the forum. “To date, it’s kind of the Wild West, because there are no standards outside of the attributes we released,” he said, but as agencies migrate out of decades-old infrastructure, many new ideas and opportunities will arise.