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

A City Tech Thanksgiving

November 26, 2008 By Bill Schrier

A Technology Thanksgiving Feast As many of us sit down to the average American Thanksgiving 3000 calorie meal tomorrow, we'll be in uncertain and frightening times. But I'm also counting my technology blessings, and here are a few:

1.  I'm thankful for the generosity of the people of Seattle. We've asked a lot of them over the years, and they have consistently voted to tax themselves to give our city and region an improved quality of life, for examples:

o   A completely re-built and remodeled Seattle Public Library system, a beautiful central library and 26 branches, including wi-fi in every branch and 1000 computers for public use, all financed with a $196 million levy. This week we have a wonderful new City Librarian in Susan Hildreth, coming to us from the California State Library.

o   A new light-rail line from downtown to the airport, set to open in 2009,  and a just-passed bond $17.9 billion measure to extend that line by 34 miles over the next 20 years

o   A $167 million fire facility levy which, although strapped for cash in times of rising costs, has already seen us build a new state-of-the-high-tech-art emergency operations center and fire alarm center  , a new fireboat and a joint training facility. The technology systems supporting Seattle Fire help them achieve an average four minute response time to calls, and you can even see those calls in real-time on our website.

o   Note: although I've highlighted the investments above, Seattle voters also have approved housing levies, parks levies and funding for other projects to improve our quality of life.

2.  I'm thankful for wonderful, dedicated, employees in the City of Seattle and especially those 600 folks who run our information technology across multiple departments. Throw out your old ideas about clock-watching government bureaucrats pushing paper from the in-box to the out-box. These high-tech folks run the electronic mail systems and internal phone network and electronic payment systems and customer service systems which make our City government a truly 24 hour-a-day, 7 day-a-week business. And we have some unique twists such as an online directory of almost all employees to help customers cut through the organization - not many other companies or governments have that: . I've blogged before about how diligently and competently these folks respond to disasters large and small, e.g. the 108 degree data center, , Dial Tone comes from God , and Nervous System of a City Government .

3.  I'm thankful for an award-winning City of Seattle web portal www.seattle.gov , twice winning the top city web portal from the Center for Digital government . And also for the Seattle Channel, winner of both Emmys and back-to-back 2007 and 2008 excellence in government programming awards from NATOA

4.  Finally, I'm thankful for great and supportive leadership such as Mayor Greg Nickels who recognizes the efficiency and effectiveness which technology brings to City government by proposing significant technology improvements even in the upcoming lean budget years. And Seattle's City Council supported that vision by passing the technology portions of his 2009-10 budget with few changes - and those changes were improvements such as a Technology Matching Fund increase and a Citizen Engagement Portal.

Of course this sounds self-serving, because Greg's my boss and the Council holds the purse strings. But there are hard, solid, initiatives in this budget: a new customer relationship management system, an Outlook/Exchange replacement for an aging e-mail system, an electronic parking guidance system, outage and asset management systems for Seattle City Light, and much more.

5. And, in terms of leadership, we techies can also turn to the federal government and see a new President who knows the importance of broadband and technology to the economy and to making the Federal Government more effective and in touch with people. Everyone in the United States can rejoice and give thanks for that.

You may think I'm a bit Pollyannaish in this blog, and I am, because it is a time to give thanks. But I promise my next blog will be a bit different, as I give you my Recipe for making Technology Turkeys.


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When it's 108 degrees - in your Data Center

November 23, 2008 By Bill Schrier

Overheated Data Center

November in Seattle is always cool and rainy and sometimes stormy - windstorms, that is. Seattle's all time high temperature - for any day of the year - is 100 degrees. That all time high is, of course, outside. But it reached 108 degrees here on Sunday November 16th. Inside a data center. The City of Seattle's data center.

To make a short blog entry even shorter, I'll skip to the root cause: a failed power breaker on a pump for the domestic water supply to the building housing the data center. The water supply flows to CRAC ("crack" or computer room air conditioning) units which, in turn, cool the data center. For HomeCity Security reasons, I won't reveal the actual location of the data center, but let's just say it is in a downtown 60 story skyscraper which also houses about 3500 office workers during the week. The problem started about noon and was fixed at about 8:00 PM.

The data center holds about 500 servers, storage systems and other equipment. We shut down a lot of servers and many services starting almost immediately. Nevertheless the temperature in the data center rose to that toasty 108 degrees, setting a new record high (sort of) for Seattle.

So why is this notable? For two reasons: the problem and the response.

In terms of the "problem", let me assure you (especially if you live in Seattle) that cooling problems like this will be rare to non-existent in the future. Years ago we installed a one megawatt generator for backup power. This year we've been working a project to install "dry coolers". These aren't really "dry", but the water cooling the data center will flow in a "closed loop" between the new coolers and the center, so we'll no longer be dependent on external water or power supplies. Unfortunately, the dry coolers don't come online until January, which is why we went to 108 degrees last Sunday.

But there's a more general issue here - every city and county government has data centers and servers and vital information. Every area of the country is subject to some sort of a disaster and every government needs to have a backup and recovery plan.

But for what disaster should we prepare?

Here in Seattle, everyone is concerned about the "big one" - a magnitude 8.0 earthquake. While we need to be ready for an major earthquake, we have about one of those "big ones" every 300 years. Much more likely are disasters like last Sunday - a failure of water and cooling, a "meltdown" if you will (non-radioactive, however!). Or perhaps the disaster will be the opposite - too much water from a broken pipe, and a flood drowning those servers. Or - and this also happens in computer centers - a fire followed by (drum roll), a flood as the fire suppression system kicks in. Should we have a plan for "the big one", that earthquake? Sure. But most of our disaster preparation effort should plan for the much more probable disaster of fire and water.

Finally, any disaster response plan has one element which is vastly more important than any other: people. And, on November 14th, the "people" (employees) of the City of Seattle and its Department of Information Technology performed splendidly. A dozen IT professionals showed up on site within two hours (despite interference from the traffic around a nearby Seahawks football game). The computer center manager - a 44 year employee and true hero Ken Skraban - was on site and immediately in charge. Two employees set up an IT operations center with an incident commander and support staff. Several responded to the data center and shut down servers in an orderly, pre-planned, color coded (red-green-orange-yellow) fashion, with the most critical servers (for example "Blackberry" support) staying up continuously. Server administrators from every major department in City government responded on site.

And when the crisis was past and cool water was again flowing to the "crack" units, those same folks brought all services up in an orderly fashion. And there was not a single call to the help desk on Monday morning as a result of our unanticipated "summer" high.

Disasters happen. Careful planning and skilled, trained staff will always mitigate their effects.


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Dial Tone comes from God

November 18, 2008 By Bill Schrier

Dial-Tone comes from the City of Seattle - click for more

Or so says the manager of telephone services for the city of Seattle, Stephanie Venrick. What she's referring to, of course, is that when you pick up a telephone, the dial tone is ... well ... there. You don't think about it, you just dial. On the other hand, mobile phone users can't take connectivity for granted. Cell signals come and go, even with companies who promise "more bars in more places" (and they are not talking about building prisons!) Yet we expect the old-fashioned "wired" telephone to deliver dial tone and connect phone calls day-in, day-out, without fail.

But providing that dial tone is not easy. Stephanie manages a group of about 30 skilled technology people who build, install and maintain the internal city of Seattle phone system of 23 large switches, more than 100 smaller switches, 11,000 phones, 7,000 voicemail boxes and other services such as interactive voice response (Press "1" for this, press "2" for that).

At first thought, you might ask "why does a city government have its own phone system?" But, as a matter of fact, most large organizations, corporations and public agencies have their own internal telephone systems because it is cheaper and more reliable to operate such systems than to procure services from a public telecommunications company.

For a city government, it's also a case of disaster preparedness. The public phone system gets overloaded during earthquakes and on Mothers' Day and, even, gee, when the Seattle Mariners' tickets for the World Series go on sale (as if that will ever happen!) Especially during disasters such as terrorist incidents or earthquakes, the public cell and land-line networks are vastly overloaded. With the city operating its own telephone network, city functions and facilities can still operate and coordinate our internal response to the disaster.

Doing all of this should be easy, right? After all, it is basically two telephone sets with copper wire in between -- just one step up from the two-tin-cans and string phones we played with as kids?

Alas, just as the two-tin-cans toy for kiddos has been replaced with the high-tech Xbox 360 and Wii, so has delivering basic dial tone been replaced with the marvels of technologies such as fiber-optic cable, voice-over-Internet protocol (VoIP), and complex automatic call distribution systems.

Today large portions of the city's phone system rides on the city government's internal Internet, traveling on the same pathways as public safety radio transmissions and computer-to-computer traffic.

While more complicated, this set of networks gives us quite a bit more flexibility because the city government owns and manages its own services. With the IVR (interactive voice response), for example, city customers can get the balance on their electric bills, or pay their water bills or even pay a parking ticket with a credit card. We can highly customize distribution of phone calls, so that customers rapidly reach a city employee/specialist to answer specific questions or render service.

Putting telephone, data, radio all on the same fiber network saves taxpayers a lot of money when you are connecting 11,000 employees to 600,000 Seattle residents scattered across 142 square miles (40 percent of that being water) with many lakes, rivers, hills and a ship canal to provide additional challenges to making this one of the most "wired" cities.

Yes, Dial Tone does come from God, or at least the city of Seattle, but only with the help of a lot of angels in the guise of the city employees named "Telephone Services."


P.S.  The city of Seattle is one of the very few governments or corporations to put a phone directory of almost all its employees on the Web.   Click here to see it.


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Two Way Presidential Debates

November 14, 2008 By Bill Schrier

The Five OClock Shadow loses - click for more A highlight of the recent Presidential campaign were the three Presidential debates. In my neighborhood, our good friends Teresa and Joe (the marketeer, not the plumber) sponsored debate parties, which were a great neighborhood-building event. We crowded into their living room around the big-screen HDTV, and alternately cheered and cried as each debate proceeded. We made dozens of pithy and funny comments (all our comments were both pithy and funny, although some were in questionable taste). We suggested pointed comebacks for the candidates. We had fun. We were that most basic unit of democracy - neighbors and friends. The 2008 debates pioneered new uses of technology. In at least one primary debate, questions came from YouTube. MySpace and MTV hosted one-candidate town halls with questions submitted via instant messaging and e-mail. Twitter was used extensively, I'm sure, for debate comments. And with the 140 character limit, I'm sure the comments were concise, if not pithy! CNN even tried to gauge voter sentiment, second-by-second during the debate, via a set of graphs powered by three groups of captive voters, a tactic which was interesting but disparaged by most observers. Televised debates have been a staple of presidential campaigns since the infamous 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates, the first of which was lost by Tricky Dick's five o'clock shadow. In these "hi-tech" debates of 2008, I see the seeds of an interesting technology future for our still-young democracy. My initial idea is a relatively simple one, but hard to realize. My friends Joe and Teresa have a widescreen HDTV. My household has an HDTV. With the digital transition in February, 2009, even more households will have digital or HD televisions. A few months ago I purchased an HD-camcorder at Radio Shack for $200. I just use it to take video of my three-year old, but suppose I hooked it up to the HDTV, and suddenly we had a two-way HD video stream? And we did that in every household. And suddenly, instead of having a Democracy where we observe a debate, we could participate in it. Instead of having hundreds of people drive (polluting the air) to a town hall meeting to interact with candidates, we'd have a virtual town hall with HD video feeds from households all over the City (Think "second life", but with real faces instead of avatars.) Now, clearly that won't work with a Presidential debate with 70 million households watching. But there are a LOT of elected officials in this country. There are debates for Governor, Mayor, City Council and even Sewer Commissioner. Constituents are interested and sometimes quite passionate about these races, and may be quite interested in participating from their living rooms. Of course two-way HDTV requires bandwidth. A LOT of bandwidth. And present DSL or coaxial cable networks won't support that sort of two-way bandwidth from dozens or hundreds of houses in a neighborhood at once. Fiber-to-the-premise will be needed, and I suspect that will still be somewhat rare for some time to come, unless you are lucky enough to live in a place served by Verizon FIOS or a municipal utility such as Lafayette, Louisiana, or Clarksville, Tennessee. Those cities will have a bit more democracy than the rest of us, I guess. 1960 was the year of debate cosmetics (five o'clock shadow), 2000 was the year of the candidate websites, 2004 was Howard Dean's year of Internet organizing, and 2008 was the year of IM and twittering. I'm not sure what new technology will take 2012 by storm, but I'm certain that eventually two-way HDTV will make us all active participants in elections.

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The Digital Fireside Chat

November 9, 2008 By Bill Schrier

The VP Text Message President-elect Barack Obama made groundbreaking use of technology to win the 2008 election. Can he now use technology to lead the nation and communicate with the nation's people in new, life-changing ways?   I think so, and I think this foreshadows new ways for Governors, Mayors and other elected officials to lead and communicate.

On November 9th's ABC program "This Week" (George Stephanopoulos), the discussion turned to our previous major national economic crisis - the Depression. Our current situation has some parallels to that in 1932 - new leadership in a nation facing an economic crisis of frightening dimensions. As we know, the New Deal never really "fixed" the Great Depression - it took World War II to do that. But 1932 is still remarkable for the terrific leadership of Franklin Roosevelt: fresh ideas, a new outlook, and a new way of communicating with people, including Roosevelt's famous radio "fireside chats". "This Week's" commentators mentioned the possibility of "digital fireside chats" from our new President.

Barack Obama, with a tech saavy and skilled team, used the web and Internet to identify and mobilize up to ten million supporters, of whom at least three million financially contributed to the campaign. According to Time Magazine, the campaign raised $150 million in September, 75% of it online (not me, incidentally, I contributed by paper check!).

According to wired-dot-com, volunteers used Obama's website to organize a thousand phone-banking events in the last week of the race -- and 150,000 other campaign-related events over the course of the campaign. The campaign also created myBarackObama.com, essentially a social-networking site with 35,000 affinity groups - the site has some 1.5 million accounts. These social networks were also used to fight many of the false rumors and McCain robo-calls. The campaign even announced Senator Joseph Biden as Obama's running mate via text message.

Bill Greener, a Republican consultant from Alexandria, quoted in the Seattle Times, said: "We are getting crushed in early voting and the efficient use of technology. It's a huge deal when the other side is text-messaging to cell phones while our side is hoping we've got a good e-mail list."

One surprising part of that statement is this: a "good e-mail list" is now taken for granted in campaigning - and it falls short!  Just three presidential elections ago, e-mailing was an esoteric technology only used by a small fraction of the population. 

Researchers at Princeton and the University of Michigan conducted a 2006 study and concluded that a text message delivered by cell phone could boost voter turnout among young people by 4 percent. While that might not sound like much, Obama's margin of victory was just 6%.

Will the Obama campaign now shut down MyBarackObama.com and take its database of mobile phone numbers, e-mail addresses and supporter names and just put them on a backup tape and send them to Iron Mountain for storage until the next campaign?   I doubt it! More likely they will be used to communicate the new President's message on programs and change, and turn out those supporters to lobby on behalf of legislation.

The "new" web, web 2.0, abounds with tools for communication and collaboration: not just text messaging, but blogging and social networking, YouTube channels and wiki's. A vast variety of ways for a new, tech saavy, President to engage the people of the United States, and allow us to engage him with our ideas and energy.

Invariably eyes will turn to the 20% to 40% of the population who do not actively use technology or have Internet connections - the "digital divide". Those without access to technology are, disproportionately, lower income and non-white. Bridging that divide has been a major effort at the City of Seattle and in many other governments.

Now, with a national leader who embraces high tech, it will become "cool" for everyone to use tech and have access. (We call this "Leadership by Example"). Cultural barriers to using technology will fall, and programs to bring it to everyone (such as Seattle's Community Technology and Broadband work) will gain even more momentum.

Then perhaps we - the People - can become active participants in government, not just observers between elections.

All these are great ideas for a digital fireside chat - and a two-way one - via the electronic fireplace of the computer monitor.


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