January 12, 2010 By Bill Schrier
We have a Time Machine.
It is one way, moving 60 seconds an hour, 24 hours a day, into The Future. The Consumer Electronics Show is a window into The Future. Technology demonstrated there this week will be available to early-adopter consumers and businesses in the next year or two, and will be available at Costco soon thereafter. And it has at least one common theme - networks will have to be fast. Not just fast, but FAST. Here are some examples:
But what does all this speed really get you in the real world?
For one thing, much faster two-way or multi-way video telephone or video conferencing, which means fewer commute trips in cars and less demand on other transportation such as plane trips across the country.
That translates into less air pollution, less dependence on foreign oil (and need for foreign military expeditions) and less global warming. Then there is improved entertainment, interactive gaming, energy management, and much much more.
But it all depends on rapid deployment of LTE for wireless and fiber-to-the-premise for wired networks. The Time Machine is taking us inexorably into this glitzy new future. But are our wireless and wired networks ready for this? Not in Seattle, certainly.
We need a network vision to match our CES vision and here it is.
The Flux Capacitor is fluxing. The Time Machine is ready. Are we ready to build the network we need?
Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn is ready, and we're going to do it.
December 30, 2009 By Bill Schrier
It was just ten short years ago that many of us were preparing to celebrate New Year's Eve - by working all night!
Anyone over 30 probably still remembers all the information technology work that went into preparing for Year 2000.
I'm going to dredge (!?) up some of my memories in the next few paragraphs, but if you have memories or stories of that December 31, 1999, evening, I invite you to leave them as a comment to this blog entry.
For many of us in Seattle, 1999 was not a good year.
First of all, we had madly been reviewing and fixing our information technology applications and programs and systems for Y2K bugs.
But no one really knew what would happen. Would buses and trains stop dead due to bugs in their microchips? Would the electrical grid fail? Would 911 stop working?
The City of Seattle, like any organization using IT, had very real problems - we knew the accounting/financial database - called SFMS for Seattle Financial Management System - was not ready for Y2K, so we replaced it with an entirely new system. We also patched up the water utility's and electrical utility's billling systems, since another project to replace them was in progress. (That system, now called CCSS for the Consolidated Customer Service System, was implemented in 2001, a year late and $14 million over budget, which is a different story).
The City's Chief Technology Officer was Lynn Jacobs, and in 1998 she had spread the alarm about Y2K, galvanizing the Mayor, City Council and most departments into action looking for their Y2K bugs. But by October, 1999, Jacobs had largely checked out due to personal issues, rarely coming to work and exerting virtually no leadership. So Mayor Schell replaced her with Marty Chakoian, who was, not coincidently, leading the City's Y2K efforts. There was plenty of consternation among the IT leadership in the City government.
But the outside world was in chaos in 1999 too.
The Seattle Times ran a whole series of articles about the electrical grid and 911 systems and other critical functions, and how we were preparing them for Y2K. Gee, they even talked about potential water systems' issues with Y2K, even though Seattle's water reservoirs are high up in the mountains and the basic rule of water and wastewater is "s___ flows downhill" (The s___ stands for "stuff", of course).
And we had the WTO riots in Seattle in November; Seattle sure appeared to be the anarchy capital of North America, if not the world.
Then on Dec. 14, 1999, a 32-year-old Algerian named Ahmed Ressam was arrested in Port Angeles, Washington, coming across the border from Canada with 100 pounds of powerful explosives in the trunk of his car. Was he headed to Seattle to detonate the explosives at the base of the Space Needle on New Year's Eve? We couldn't take a chance, so Mayor Paul Schell cancelled the grand New Year's celebration planned there.
For most of us tech types, and a lot of other folks, it didn't make any difference, anyway. We had already planned to be at work instead of celebrating on December 31st.
The City's Emergency Operations Center was open. At that time, the EOC was in a crowded basement of Fire Station #2 in the Denny Regrade (it has since been replaced with a $30 million modern facility). Nevertheless, senior officials from every department hunkered down to see in the millennium in that basement.
My own Department of Information Technology was all of 5 months old - we were created as a separate department on August 1, 1999. Our operations center was in an old stock brokerage (Foster and Marshall) building at 2nd and Columbia, which is now home to the United Way of Seattle. That building was home to the telecommunications division, including the service desk - the rest of the department was in the Dexter Horton building next door. [The Dexter Horton building turned out to be much worse off in the earthquake of 2001, when virtually everyone working there was forced to leave it for a couple weeks due to building damage, but again that's another story.]
On December 31, 1999, we had a whole team of folks who celebrated the beginning of the third millennium* together, watching a quiet, uneventful Seattle 20th Century night turn into a quiet, uneventful and sleepy 21st century* morning.
Was it uneventful due to all our diligency and preparations, or was there never really any problem in the first place? I don't know, but I do know I'll celebrate the end of the decade of the naughts tonight with a bit more enjoyment and a lot less trepidation.
*Note: Yes, yes, I do understand the real beginning of the 3rd millennium and the 21st century is January 1,2001. See article here. But, gee, popular culture doesn't count the years that way, so I took a little tech-journalism-geek liberties with dates in writing this article.
December 13, 2009 By Bill Schrier
On Monday night, December 8th, the Seattle Police Department started to use Microsoft Exchange/Outlook for electronic mail. This culminated moving more than 11,000 City of Seattle employees, over 12,400 e-mailboxes, and 900 BlackBerrys from an older e-mail technology to the Exchange 2007 product. All of it "translucent to the user".
I've previously blogged about project management, and specifically identifying and reducing risks in large technology projects ("the P-I test"). With this entry I'm highlighting somewhat different project management practices. We used certain techniques to reduce the impact of the technology changes on front-line City workers such as firefighters, accountants, and street maintenance staff.
(In case you think I'm just tooting our own horn, I am, but I've also blogged about my biggest project failure and you can read about that here, too!).
We called this e-mail migration project GEM, for GroupWise to Exchange Migration.
Not only was the project on-time, under-budget and delivering all of its objectives, but there were very few whimpers from most City employees at this major change in their work lives. How was such a change so seamless?
Electronic mail is, arguably, the most important technology used by workers in almost any company today, whether government or private. It has supplanted the telephone and even the desktop computer as the key tool for many workers to be productive and efficient. Decisions which might take days or weeks without e-mail can be debated and handled rapidly with e-mail communication. Management of front-line projects (streets, water, electricity), debates and decisions on policies, notification of events, press releases, scheduling, all occur with this tool. Most importantly, it is a primary way for constituents and customers to communicate with City workers and elected officials and the way for those officials to coordinate the City's response.
Of course, when anything is this valuable in your life, you are extraordinarily skittish when it is NOT available or about to be significantly changed. Managing this "culture change" - in the working habits of thousands of City workers - is the elusive key to success in a technology project.
I won't get into the current debate (war?) about use of internal e-mail versus a hosted service, or whether Google's g-mail is better or more cost effective than the Microsoft product set. Because e-mail is so important in our work lives, and because many people use Outlook at home (or in a previous job) anyway, it was the right choice for the City of Seattle. Because many e-mail messages are sensitive, and since I have a skilled and dedicated set of employees to manage and operate it, we would not have it hosted or managed elsewhere. Microsoft Exchange/Outlook is an established product, well-supported, used by 65% or so of the organizations in America today. And many many other applications (purchasing or human resource systems, billing and customer service systems) are written to use Outlook/Exchange for communication.
Here are the elements of success for GEM:
Leadership, communication, user representation, strong private partner, skilled and motivated technical staff - a GEM of a project, translucent to the users!
December 1, 2009 By Bill Schrier
Oh gee, I think I've become a Kurmudgeon. Or maybe a naysayer. Or maybe just a Buttoned-Down Corporate IT Technocrat. Or maybe, and this is most frightening of all, PC - and I don't mean "politically correct" - but rather the character played by John Hodgman in the "Get a Mac" advertisements.
But I know I'm anti-establishment, because I marched and protested the Vietnam War. I actually participated in a sit-in demonstration. I crossed a police barricade during an anti-war protest in Madison Wisconsin (ok, so it was St. Patrick's Day, I was drunk, twenty-three years old, on my way to work, and headed to get a cup of coffee to sober up - I still "crossed the line", ok?). Gee Whiz, I almost burned by draft card (oh my gosh, am I that old, that I still have a draft card?) How could a militant activist plebeian, farm-kid like me become the ultimate embodiment of "The Man"?
Yup, we've had a few recently in Seattle.
And they are all younger than me.
Worse yet, their campaign staff - who are now working on their transition teams - are college kids or twenty-and-thirty-something young people who have all these odd and annoying habits.
They use I-Phones. Gee, I can't even spell I-Phone (correctly). We corporate IT types use proper BlackBerrys or proper mobile phones that fold out when you want to talk. (Although I did give my wife an I-Phone for Christmas - does that count?)
They use Macs. Yes, Apple Macintosh computers - (not the Ronald McDonald type of Mac). We corporate IT types use proper Windows XP computers manufactured by prim and proper corporations like Hewlett Packard with proper advertising campaigns, thank you very much. (My always-suffering wife is a Mac person - does that count?)
They don't use anti-virus software. Anathema! Heresy! My Chief Information Security Officer is writhing on the floor. There ARE viruses which affect Macs, he says. And how about all those I-Phone (I still can't spell it right) apps which are written by hackers and can be downloaded? Oh wait, I-Phone hackers aren't trying to create bot armies, they're just trying to modify the software in the phone and bend it to their will. Gee, does that make Apple Engineers and Programmers and Executives Buttoned-Down corporate IT types like me?
These kids - they tweet and twitter and blog and facebook (is that a verb?) and post video they take with their danged I-Phones to YouTube and create legends for their innovative use of cell phones to collect last minute ballots on election night.
Where is my defense from all this anarchy? Where is my official City of Seattle Information Security policy when I need it? Where are my guidelines for the use of social media like Facebook and Twitter and Blogs (oh my)? Where is that holy grail of all Chief Information Officers and Buttoned Down corporate IT types - "standards"?
At least I can take comfort and wrap myself in my reduced budget (Macs and I-Phones cost more to buy and manage) and my economic development (gee, Microsoft DOES employ 40,000 people in the Seattle area and it DOES, after all, make software for Macs, too).
They are challenging my policies, these kids. They are challenging my assumptions. They don't care for my technology standards. They have taught me how to spell iPhone.
They are challenging my very identity as the Chief Technology Officer for the City Government of Seattle.
And I love it.
November 18, 2009 By Bill Schrier
On Friday, November 6th at 1:00 PM, five thousand people gathered in Seattle to grieve for Seattle Police Officer Tim Brenton who was murdered in his police cruiser. At 3:30 PM the killer was caught, after a week of diligent detective work, and through use of video technology. This tragic incident illustrates why first responders need improved technology, including a modern 4th generation (4G) wireless network.
How do I make the leap from the heartbreaking death of a police officer to the need for more technology, and, in particular, a high-speed wireless network for first responders?
First, I'll describe Brenton's murder. Tim Brenton, a ten-year veteran of Seattle's Police Department, was training a new officer, Britt Sweeney, on the night of October 31st. They were stopped at the side of a street in Seattle's Leschi neighborhood, reviewing Britt's performance in a car stop.
Another vehicle pulled beside them on the left side of the police cruiser, and opened fire on the officers at point blank range. Sweeney, on the cruiser's driver's side, ducked down and the bullets grazed her back, but the shots hit Brenton immediately killing him. The murderer backed up his vehicle, and turned down a side street, being careful not to drive in front of the police cruiser.
The murderer knew every police patrol vehicle had a digital video camera, but that it faced forward. He was careful not to come into the camera's line of sight.
There were very few clues in the case. The wounded Officer Sweeney fired at the fleeing vehicle, but was unable to get a good look or description of it. There were no other witnesses. Despite tips flowing in, there was little information and, frankly, no good leads.
Detectives started to look for video clues. Seattle has very few video cameras observing streets or intersections, and the murder took place in a residential neighborhood. Every police vehicle has a digital video camera, but the cameras only record when the vehicle has its overhead warning lights flashing or when activated by the police officer. The video is saved to a computer hard drive in the vehicle and offloaded wirelessly when the vehicle returns to the precinct station. The video cannot be directly transmitted from the vehicle because no existing City or commercial wireless network has the bandwidth to do so.
The Seattle Police Department went to work, and examined video footage recorded by all vehicles patrolling that area of that City. Miraculously, even though the video cameras face only to the front to capture car stops and officer conversations with the stopped driver, detectives found a Datsun 210 in the background driving by several of the stops made by various police cars that night.
The detectives, unsure if the Datsun was even involved in the murder, but hoping for a break, broadcast the Datsun's distinct profile and asked for citizen help to find such a vehicle. And, on Friday the 6th, police received a call of a Datsun 210 covered with a tarp in the parking lot of a suburban Seattle apartment building. They responded and when Charles Monfort walked out toward the vehicle, he pulled a gun on the detectives. He was shot and arrested. In his apartment detectives found the murder weapon as well as improvised explosive devices. Montfort has also been linked to a firebombing of Seattle police vehicles on October 22.
Monfort had a vendetta against police officers, and undoubtedly would have shot more officers if he had not been caught. Finding him was the result of dogged police work, those videos, and a lot of luck.
What does this say about the state of first responder technology? First, we need more video. Seattle does have two police vehicles which drive the streets with video constantly running, and using license plate recognition looking for stolen vehicles. But every one of more than 300 patrol vehicles has video. Digital video in police vehicles is a great boon to public safety - the video and audio of every car stop is recorded. This helps quickly resolve complaints from the public about police behavior, as well as providing evidence for crimes such as drunk driving.
But perhaps we should be recording more than just car stops, e.g. continuously recording as police vehicles patrol neighborhoods. And certainly we could use more video in high crime streets and other public spaces. The ability of such video cameras to deter and solve crimes is well documented, notably in the London subway bombings.
But Seattle and other cities have been skeptical and slow to adopt it, largely due to concerns about privacy. In terms of privacy concerns, video cameras should only observe public spaces such as streets or parks. I'm an advocate not just for deploying more video cameras, but for making almost all such video available online for anyone to view, just like traffic cameras are available online. The video is, after all, of public spaces, and having more eyes watching for crime not only helps solve or prevent that crime, but also provides some oversight of police use of the video.
Next, we badly need high speed, fourth generation (4G) wireless broadband networking for first responders. Congress has set aside spectrum, and a number of public safety organizations such as APCO and the PSST have been working to build such a network. Public safety organizations have even developed standards for such a network. But funding obstacles remain in the way.
With high speed wireless networking, video from field units - not just police but fire, utilities, transportation vehicles - can be transmitted real-time to dispatch centers, to other vehicles and to emergency management centers. Such real-time video gives police and fire commanders, 911 dispatchers and elected officials a view into what is happening in the field, and will result in more rapid resolution of crimes such as Office Tim Brenton's murder, as well as better deployment of field officers for any violent crime, problems around schools, hazardous materials, disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes and terrorist incidents.
We got lucky solving Officer Tim Brenton's murder. This incident is a call for action to put better video and wireless technology to work improving public safety.
This Digital Communities white paper highlights discussions with IT officials in four counties that have adopted shared services models. Our aim was to learn about the obstacles these governments have faced when it comes to shared services and what it takes to overcome those roadblocks. We also spoke with several members of the IT industry who have thought long and hard about these issues. The paper offers some best practices for shared government-to-government services, but also points out challenges that government and industry still must overcome before this model gains widespread adoption.