Government Technology
By Bill Schrier: Making technology work for a city government.

Tech Lessons from the Seattle Snowstorm

January 21, 2012 By Bill Schrier

Seattle EOC ActivatedThe Seattle area and I just went through a four day snow/ice storm event. The City of Seattle’s emergency operations center (EOC) was activated and coordinated the City government’s response. That response received high marks from the public and media for a variety of reasons (see Seattle Times editorial here), including the leadership of Mayor Michael McGinn.

I was able to personally observe that response and lead the technology support of it. Information technology materially contributed to the improved response, nevertheless I see a number of further potential enhancements using technology . And that’s the purpose of this blog entry.

GIS GIS GIS (Maps) Every city, county and state is all about geography and maps. Maps are the way we deploy resources (think “snowplows”). Maps are the way we understand what’s happening in our jurisdiction.

Everyone who has lived and traveled inside a city can look on a map and instantly visualize locations - what the “West Seattle bridge” or any other street, infrastructure or geographical feature (think “hill”) looks like.

Winter Response (Snowplow) MapFor this storm, we have some great mapping tools in place, especially a map which showed which streets had been recently plowed and de-iced. This map used GPS technology attached to the snowplow trucks. That same map had links to over 162 real-time traffic cameras so people could see the street conditions and traffic. (Other cities, like Chicago, have similar maps.)

SCL Outage MapAnother useful map is the electrical utility’s system status map, which shows the exact locations of electrical system outages, the number of outages, the number of customers affected and the estimated restoration times. This is really useful if you are a customer who is affected – at least you know we’ve received your problem and a crew will be on the way.

What could we do better? We could put GPS on every City government vehicle and with every City crew and display all that information on a map. That way we’d immediately know the location of all our resources. If there was a significant problem – let’s say a downed tree blocking a road or trapping people – we could immediately dispatch the closest resources. In that case we’d typically dispatch a transportation department tree-clearing crew. But that crew might have to travel across the City when a parks department crew with the proper equipment might be a block away.

This same sort of map could show a variety of other information – the location of police and fire units, which streets are closed due to steep hills and ice, where flooding is occurring, blocked storm drains, as well as water system and electrical outages.

This “common operating picture”, across departments, would be enormously useful – as just one example, the fire department needs water to fight fires, and it needs good routes to get its apparatus to the fire and perhaps it would need a snowplow to clear a street as well.

Obviously we wouldn’t want to show all of this information to the public – criminals would have a field day if they knew the location of police units! But a filtered view certainly could be presented to show the City government in action.

Perceptions and Citizen Contact

A lot of media descended on Seattle this week. Partly that was due to the uniqueness of the storm – it doesn’t snow much in this City. And perhaps it was a slow news week in the world. A lot of news crews filmed inside the EOC. The Mayor and other key department spokespeople were readily available with information. This is quite important – the television, radio and print/blog media are really important in advising the public on actions they should take (“public transit to commute today, don’t drive”) and actions they should avoid (“don’t use a charcoal grill to cook when you are without power”). Our joint information center (JIC) was a great success.

Mayor McGinn’s family even contributed to this – his 11 year old son filmed him in a public service announcement about how to clear a storm drain of snow and ice which is now posted on the Seattle Channel.

What could we do better? We need better video conferencing technology, so the Mayor and senior leaders can be reached quickly by news media without sending a crew to the EOC. This video conferencing would also be quite useful in coordinating action plans between departments with leaders in different locations. In a larger, regional, disaster, such capability would allow the governor, mayors and county executives to rapidly and easily talk to each other to coordinate their work. It is much easier for anyone to communicate if they can see the visual cues of others on the call.

Also, Seattle, like many cities, is a place of many languages and nationalities. We need to have translators available to get communications out in the languages our residents speak. This might include a volunteer-staffed translation team but at least could include recording and rapidly distributing written, video and audio/radio public service announcements in multiple languages.

Commuting and Telecommutnig 

In these emergencies, many people elect to use public transit – buses and trains for commuting. (I actually took my “boat” – the water taxi - to work twice this week.) Yet snowstorms are also the times when buses jackknife or get stuck in snowdrifts and going up hills. In this emergency, the coordination between the transit agency (“Metro”) and the City was quite improved, because we had people – liaisons – from each agency embedded with the other. This allowed snowplows to help keep bus routes clear and help clear streets near trapped buses.

And, with recent technology advances and sorta-broadband networks, many workers can now telecommute. Seattle had few outages of Internet service this week, although in suburban areas trees and snow brought down not just power lines, but telephone and cable lines as well causing more widespread Internet issues.

What could we do better? The easiest and most useful advance, I think, would be GPS on every bus and train and water taxi boat. That, combined with real-time mapping, would allow people to see the location of their rides right on their smartphones. If we deployed it right, such technology might also show how full the bus is and the locations of stuck buses. This sort of technology would be useful every day for public transit users – but is especially important during snow emergencies.

Another huge necessity – which I’ve advocated often and loudly – is very high speed fiber broadband networks. With fiber broadband – and Gigabit (a billion bits per second), two way, telecommuting and tele-education becomes really possible. Kids could continue their school day with video classes even when schools are closed, you could visit your doctor, and of course citizens would have access to all that emergency information and maps described above, real time and two-way. I could go on and on about this – and I have – read it here.

Crowdsourcing and Two-Way Communications, Cell Phones

This area is the most ripe for improved technology to “weather the storm”. In any emergency – even a minor disaster like a major fire or a pile-up collision – just obtaining and distributing information early and often will have a significant result in managing the problem.

On-duty at any time, the City of Seattle may have 200 firefighters, 350 police officers and several hundred to several thousand other employees. Yet we also have 600,000 people in the City, each one of which is a possible source of information. How could we get many of them, for example, to tell us the snow and ice conditions in their neighborhoods? Or perhaps to tell us of problems such as clogged storm drains or stuck vehicles? The Seattle Times actually did this a bit, crowdsourcing snow depths from Facebook.

How can we “crowd source” such information? I’m not exactly sure. Perhaps we could use Facebook apps or Twitter (although not a lot of people use Twitter). Two-way text messages are possible. Any one of these solutions would present a whole mass of data which needs to be processed, tagged for reliability, and then presented as useful analytics.

Eventually, of course, there will be whole armies of remote sensors (“the Internet of things”) to collect and report the information. Perhaps everyone’s cell phone might eventually be a data collector (yes, yes, I’m well aware of privacy concerns).

In the meantime, we should have some way citizens can sign up for alerts about weather or other problems. Many such systems exist, such as the GovDelivery-powered one used by King County Transportation. I’m not aware of such a system being used two-way, to crowd-source information from citizens. There are also plenty of community-notification or “Reverse 911” systems on the market. The Federal government is developing CMAS, which would automatically alert every cell phone / mobile device in a certain geographical area about an impending problem or disaster.

Furthermore, during this Seattle snowstorm, many City of Seattle employees – including police and fire chiefs and department heads, used text messages on commercial cellular networks to communicate with their staff and field units. This continues a tradition of use of text messaging during emergency operations which first came to prominence during Hurricane Katrina.

All of these solutions depend, of course, on reliable cellular networks. We know during disasters commercial cellular networks can easily be overloaded (example: 2011 Hurricane Irene), calls dropped and cell sites can drop out of service as power outages occur and backup batteries at the sites run out of juice. Yet, for people without power or land-line Internet, a smartphone with internet is a potential lifesaver and at least a link to the outside world.

I’d like a way to easily collect this information – privately – from the carriers so emergency managers would know the geographies where mobile networks are impacted.

This leads me, of course, to my final point – that we need a nationwide public safety wireless broadband network. Such a network would be built using spectrum the Congress and the FCC have set aside for this purpose. It would only be used by public safety, although – as our Seattle snowstorm underscored, “public safety” must be used broadly to include utilities, transportation and public works – even building departments. And it would be high speed and resilient, with 4G wireless technology and backup generators, hardened cell sites.

These are a few of my thoughts on better management, through technology, of future snowstorms and other disasters, large and small, both daily and once-in-a-lifetime ones. What have I missed?


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A Private-Public Radio Network?

January 3, 2012 By Bill Schrier

Do they Really?Police and Fire radio networks.

They have to work.

All the time.

During power outages, hurricanes, earthquakes.

When every other wireless network is dead.

So they have to be built, maintained and operated by government, right?

Or else they cannot be trusted, right?

That's the way cities, counties, regions, states and local governments have ALWAYS built our radio networks for police, firefighters, emergency medical response, utilities, transportation, public works. And with good reason.

Historically (by that, I mean "before cell phones"), most radio networks were really unreliable. They were used to dispatch taxicabs and for citizens' band radio ("CB") by amateurs. But no government would trust such a radio network to dispatch cops or firefighters. Such networks had dead spots, lots of static, and dropped off the air entirely when the electricity failed.

With the rise of commercial cell phone and, later, smart phone networks, such networks became … well … "really unreliable". Even today many people are angered and upset by dropped calls, "all circuits busy" and slow-loading (or "never loading") pages. And during any large event - a packed stadium for a baseball game, or a major traffic jam, a windstorm or an earthquake, you might as well use your phone as a camera, because you probably won't get through to make a call.

When you're being robbed at gunpoint or having a heart attack, do you really want the first responders coming to help YOU to depend on such networks? That's why, as I’ve blogged before, "cops don't use cell phones".

But building government-owned radio networks is REALLY expensive. A public safety voice network requires just a handful of sites - say 8 radio sites for Seattle or maybe 30 for all of King County here in Washington State. However, to rebuild those networks today, and to build the new high-speed data networks for responders’ smart phones, tablets and computers will take dozens - perhaps hundreds of sites to cover the same geography. And THAT takes hundreds of millions of dollars.

Hello - we're still in the midst of the Great Recession, right? Government budgets are pinched left and right - sales tax, income tax, property tax revenues are all falling. While the private sector is still hiring, many governments are laying off employees. There are few dollars available for hundred million dollar networks.

Is there a middle way? Is there some way governments could take advantage of the hundreds of existing cell phone sites developed for commercial networks? Perhaps a way the commercial networks could take advantage of fiber optic networks and buildings or radio sites owned by government? And some way we could make the cell phone networks more secure, more resistant to terrorism and natural disasters, and therefore more reliable for public safety use?

Here in Seattle, we think so.

We think we might be able to start with all the assets which taxpayers have already bought and paid for - the fiber and microwave networks, radio sites, backup generators, skilled technology employees, and our existing investments in radios and computers. Then we would add equipment and cell sites and other assets, along with expertise and innovative ideas from private sector companies - telecommunications carriers, equipment manufacturers and apps developers. Mashing these together, we might get a private-public partnership which gives consumers and businesses more reliable, faster mobile networks, while giving responders new, state-of-the-art networks at a fraction of the cost of building them from scratch, like we've always done before.

That's the idea behind a request for information (RFI) issued by the City of Seattle several weeks ago seeking ideas about private-public partnerships for next generation networks. We need some great pioneering “outside the box” ideas in response to the RFI.

And then, perhaps, we can build a modern, smart, network in the Central Puget Sound which saves everyone money, and works reliably during disasters small (“heart attack”) and large (“earthquake”).

P. S. All these ideas are not mine. In fact, to some extent I’ve been hauled kicking and screaming (or maybe shuffling and whimpering) to look for a middle way. Let’s give credit to Deputy King County Executive Fred Jarrett, United States Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra, elected officials like State Representative Reuven Carlyle and Mr. Stan Wu of the City of Seattle for “coloring outside the lines without falling off the page”.


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