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

PITS Computing

June 1, 2010 By Bill Schrier

Fads and more fads - click to enlarge

There are fads and trends in information technology, just like in the world of clothing or hairstyles. One of the latest fads is pie-in-the-sky computing (PITS), otherwise as "cloud computing" or software-as-a-service - SAAS (pronounced as in "sassy").

But I'll call it pie-in-the-sky (PITS) computing, just to be different and even a bit contrary.

PITS computing is only the latest in a long line of sea-changes in IT. Electronic data processing (EDP - now there's an old term) was the very first of these trends, appearing on the scene in the 1950s and 1960s. EDP was a world of punch cards and paper tape. EDP was the era of "glass house" data centers and a computer "priesthood". Computers were far too expensive and esoteric for normal human beings to comprehend or touch. So there was a "priesthood" of specially anointed and trained computer specialists whose job was the programming, care and feeding of the electronic monsters.

But the development of computing technology continued relentlessly. Along came mainframe computing (green-screen). personal computing, local-area-network computing, client-server computing and Internet or web computing.

Each one of these phases was driven by some significant technological advance. The development of microchips and the Intel 8088 processor, for example, drove the personal computing trend. (Thank you Intel and IBM!) The development of Ethernet standards drove networking which allowed individual computers to talk to each other.

And then computing, of course, became part of the mainstream culture. Any human being in a developed country knows "windows" doesn't refer to that wonderful device for seeing through walls, the "glass window", but rather the portal into the world of computers, an operating system developed and marketed by Microsoft. And almost no one thinks of the "web" as a home for spiders or the "net" as a tool for catching fish or butterflies.

In this context, PITS is the latest fad in computing and technology. PITS is driven by the appearance of more-or-less ubiquitous and reliable high speed networking. Networks today, thanks to fiber optic cable, the router/switch revolution (thank you Cisco) and advances in wireless (wi-fi and 3G telecomm networks), are virtually everywhere. Or at least everywhere where human beings live and companies and governments do significant business.

And these networks are reliable. The wired networks almost never go down, although the signal can get weak or strange with wireless. In my house for example, our Wi-Fi network connected to a wired DSL Internet connection has 105 megabits per second of throughput. Yet my commercial telecomm provided cell phone only works at a certain specific spot in the kitchen in front of the microwave!

Most enterprises now operate with giant central servers which store data and applications. At the City of Seattle, for example, we have computer aided dispatch systems which reside on central servers at a "highly secret" police department location. The police data resides there, but cops on the street can access criminal records and license plate information which reside not only in Seattle but also on the other side of the nation or even on another continent.

Our water utility manages pumps and valves and dams and reservoirs across the entire county and up into the Cascade mountains. City Light, our electrical utility, manages an electrical grid which spans the entire state of Washington.

We all routinely use the web to find information and read the news. But we also increasingly use it to store spreadsheets or photos or documents on our own websites or using servers such as Google apps. Microsoft is embracing the trend, with its Office 2010 now available "for free" in a PITS cloud.

So if Microsoft Office can be in a "cloud" somewhere on the Internet, why can't our payroll system or e-mail system or financial management system be halfway across the State in a data center in Grant County, Washington (next to giant hydroelectric dams to supply the power) or even halfway across the United States, well outside the Seattle earthquake disaster zone?

Of course the applications and data can be almost anywhere. In the past, I've been skeptical of PITS / cloud computing because I didn't trust the networks to stay up in a disaster, and I was concerned about the security of information stored in a non-descript data center in a distant location outside my personal control.

But with today's reliable networks, the network is not the issue. And major companies like Microsoft or Amazon or Google handle the management and security better than most governments or small businesses. Furthermore, as demonstrated by the World Trade Center disaster, the data could actually reside in multiple different locations around the nation, increasing our ability to withstand a disaster like that 8.0 magnitude earthquake.

It will be a while before we in government embrace PITS, because the loss of control is a big cultural change for governments and many large companies to swallow. Just like people were concerned when their data moved off their desktop computers to a server, and servers moved out of the closet on the same floor to a centralized computer center in the government complex, so it will take us some time to embrace having those computers in an unnamed nondescript but super-secure location, possibly right next to the bunker where Vice-President Dick Cheney hung out after September 11th.

But embrace it we will.


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Net Neutrality? How about Net "Affordability"

May 9, 2010 By Bill Schrier

Network Neutrality?  Click to enlarge The FCC and a large portion of the nation are wringing our collective hands about net neutrality. But the real issue is not "neutrality" but "affordability" and even "accessibility". Clearly the future of the Nation depends upon the Internet, but a large portion of households and small businesses can't afford Internet access at true broadband speeds. And, as cool new applications such as high-definition video develop, the gaps will only widen, and even more Americans will be left in the dust of the Net. Net Neutrality doesn't mean much if you can't afford a connection in the first place.

First of all, let's recognize that providing Internet or broadband is not a competitive, market-driven business. It is a closely held, almost unregulated, monopoly (actually duopoly). Most areas of the United States have very little choice for Internet service providers. You can get DSL or dial-up from Ma Bell (the phone company), or you can get Internet from Ma Cable (the cable company). In a few places you can get Ma Wireless (Clear or Clearwire, also peddled by Sprint-Nextel).

Essentially this is a duopoly - Ma Bell and Ma Cable. And they make sure they don't "really" compete - they keep prices high to keep profits high from their existing ancient outmoded copper cable networks. And they do everything they can to make the profit larger. You want more channels? You want HDTV? You want an extra modem or cable box? You want faster speeds? In every case, you pony up more bucks. Besides the certainty of death and taxes, there is the certainty your cable bill will rise 5% to 7% or more, year in, year out.

And where do those profits go? To create faster networks or fiber cable networks to help the United States dig our way out of the being in 15th place worldwide for broadband penetration? Hardly, Comcast wants to buy NBC so they will control not only the network, but more of the content flowing across it as well. No wonder Consumerist magazine rates Comcast the most hated company in America. But most cable companies are equally disliked.

Net neutrality is important. When most of the nation has very little choice in Internet providers, and those few providers want to maximize profits, they will be tempted to charge content providers for access. In other words, they might decide to charge Google so its search engine has priority for most users, and other search engines (e.g. Microsoft's Bing) are slower. Or perhaps Fox's, ABC's, and CBS's web sites will work a bit slower compared to NBC, which pays (or is owned by) an network provider to get priority access to the network. Worse yet, individual users who are on the leading edge, developing web content or Internet applications, may be using a lot of bandwidth. Ma Bell or Ma Cable are already deciding to cap the usage of such users, or charge THEM for priority access. This will stifle innovation. This is happening today, e.g. Frontier in Minnesota and cable companies across the U. S.

The FCC is addressing network neutrality, and is likely to take some action. I spoke on an FCC net neutrality panel in Seattle on April 28th. Most of the panelists supported FCC action to keep the network neutral. My presentation is here.

The real problem, however, is network accessibility and affordability.

The City of Seattle - and other cities and counties - can regulate cable TV to a limited extent. Therefore we can demand cable companies provide a low cost basic service - $12.55 in Seattle for Comcast, for example, and there's even a discount to that low rate for low-income residents - more details here.

The State of Washington - and other States - can regulate telephone service, and require telephone companies to provide a low cost basic phone rate, e.g. $8 a month for 167,000 households.

But NO ONE regulates broadband/Internet access. Consequently ISPs can charge whatever the market will bear. So in our present monopoly or duopoly environment throughout the nation - that is little choice for most of us - prices are at $30, $40 or more for even moderate speed access. Higher speed access is $100 or more. And that means low-income, immigrant, seniors and other households cannot afford access to the Internet. So they and their children are denied what is probably the most important pathway to education, information, jobs and higher income - access to the Internet. Even middle income households or neighborhood businesses cannot get affordable truly fast (e.g. 5 megabits per second symmetric) broadband.

Elsewhere in the world, homes and businesses and get much higher Internet speeds at much lower costs. France and Japan, for example, have much lower prices than the US for really high speed broadband.

This is an economic development issue, it is making the United States competitive with the rest of the world for innovation in technology, it is a race and social justice issue.

The FCC, in the national broadband plan, has set a bold goal to bring 100 million households a broadband speed of 100 million bits per second by 2020. That's a remarkable vision, and with active intervention by the FCC, network neutrality on that high speed network will be in place. But, in our nation with the Internet controlled by just a few providers, can such high speed networks really be constructed, and will the Internet access be affordable?

I think not.

Schrier Open Internet FCC Panel 04 28 10 View more presentations from Bill Schrier.

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Improving Government Health with a Fiber Diet

April 22, 2010 By Bill Schrier

LITE - click for more

I was honored to be in Lafayette, Louisiana, this past week for Fiber-Fete. Lafayette is just finishing a City-owned fiber optic network which reaches every home and business. Fiber-Fete was an international gathering to celebrate the innovative work led by Parish President (Mayor) Joey Durel and his team of people from business, non-profits, education, healthcare and government.

Lafayette's fiber network boasts speeds of 10 megabits per second, both ways, to every home and business in the City, for $29 a month, and 50 megabits both ways for $58. Speeds of 100 megabits or even a gigabit per second are possible very soon. The FCC's recently released national broadband plan set a goal for much of the United States to achieve such speeds by 2020. But Lafayette virtually has it now, in 2010.

During the conference, one of our breakout groups brainstormed a set of ideas for using this network to improve government and governing. Here are a few of our ideas.

A Mini-Connect Communication Device. The telephone is almost ubiquitous in American homes, with 95% or more of homes having a phone. Land-line penetration is dropping now, of course, as many people use only their cell phones or use voice-over-Internet connections via their computers. An essential device for future premises certainly seems to be a mini-comm, possibly modeled after the mini-tel which was widely deployed in France a few years ago. The mini-comm would be a voice telephone, videophone with a small screen, and potentially have connections for a TV and keyboard to allow it to be used as a web browser to connect to the fiber network. Such a device needs to be cheap and probably subsidized so every home, regardless of income, has one.

The mini-comm has many potential applications beyond phone, videophone and web browser. It would have batteries so it would function even during extended power outages due to natural disasters. It could be activated by government preceding or during such disasters to alert residents to an oncoming hurricane, or the need to evacuate, with further instructions on what to do. It might even have a wi-fi connection so that students who bring laptops home from school (school-issued laptops for all students are another great idea) have connectivity at home.

Video and Web via TV.  Ideally, every television set in a home will eventually be internet-enabled with a built-in video camera and web browser. Certainly the latest generation of set-top boxes for cable TV have such functions built in.

Video 311 and 911. With the devices above, anyone who calls 911 with an emergency or 311 for non-emergency access to government services could also activate a two-way video function. For 911, this means the 911 center could view a burglary in progress or domestic violence situation, and help the responding police officers understand what is happening. For medical emergencies the 911 center might be able to activate monitoring devices and understand the known health issues of the caller, thereby better directing care over the mini-comm or to responding emergency medical personnel. Residents might be able to transact a variety of business over the phone/data link, including consultation about potential building plans and permits, more accurate understanding of utility billing issues (especially if smartgrid or automated water/gas/electric metering infrastructure is in place). And even for routine calls or complaints, we could put a "face" on government via a live video chat with a customer service agent.

Public health nurse or Probation Officer virtual visits. Public health officers, human services and probation officers often have an obligation to check upon or visit clients. With the mini-comm or other two way video devices, such visits might be conducted over the network. This would be especially useful if people are quarantined for pandemic flu or other diseases. But it could includes home health monitoring for seniors, and monitoring of people on probation or any reason, but especially for alcohol or drug abuse and sex offenses.

Enhancing public meetings. Public meetings of city/county councils and other public boards or commissions are almost unchanged from 250 years ago. To attend such a meeting, people travel to the meeting room, wait in line, and speak for a closely-timed two or three minutes. Essentially the public meeting becomes a series of usually un-related mini-speeches. With a fiber network, there are some opportunities to enhance such meetings. At a minimum, people who are unable to travel due to work or childcare or disabilities could participate remotely. But using tools such as Google moderator or Ideascale or Microsoft's Town Hall, participants could also submit questions remotely, and then rank them. The top ranked ("crowdsourced") questions could then be asked. Indeed, with high-quality video, the people who submitted the highest ranking questions could ask the question her/himself. Meetings could also be enhanced as viewers are able to see PowerPoint or video presentations, or link to web-based documents, at the same time they are watching the meeting.

Virtual Neighborhoods to visualize redesigning a town or do community or neighborhood planning. Lafayette has Louisiana Immersive Technologies Enterprise (LITE), where innovative uses for 3D imaging are on development and display. Using these technologies along with some existing data such as Google Maps "bird's eye view", Microsoft's Photosynth and digital orthophotograhy, we could create virtual representations of neighborhoods. Neighborhood planning groups could use these technologies to visualize how their neighborhood would appear with certain changes such as a new apartment building, or a boulevard, or different proposed configurations for a park.

These are just a few of the ideas we brainstormed for government use of such high speed networks. Other Fiber-Fete workgroups addressed uses for education, libraries, utilities, energy, business and much more.

Several facts are certain. Lafayette is the center of innovative Cajun culture plus great Cajun food and music. And this mid-sized city in Louisiana, is leading the nation with this innovative network. In ten years, the applications developed and tested there will be used throughout the nation.


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FUD

April 7, 2010 By Bill Schrier

fud.jpg For people who work hard to make government work, we live in frightening, uncertain times.   Even small messages and signals to the people who do the day-to-day work are important.

Recently we had an employee in my department (Department of Information Technology - DoIT, City of Seattle) whose card key was shut off to get to a certain floor after hours. It was inadvertent and an oversight - we were just trying to remove after hours access for anyone who really didn't need it.  "Enhancing physical security". 

But this employee immediately became frightened for his job - "are they planning to lay me off?" was the first thought he had.

Even small signals are important. 

I try to smile and greet each employee as I see them walking through the hallways or in work spaces.  I am very intentional about this.

First, I have a genuine respect and admiration for the people in DoIT - and around the City of Seattle - who make government run.  But also I just enjoy talking to people and hearing their stories. I know the first name of every employee in DoIT, and many other IT employees throughout City government, and I'm genuinely concerned about them, their families and their work.

Sometimes I forget, however, and I'm lost in thought, and I walk down the hallway scowling and forgetting to say hello. Employees can interpret that as "the boss is mad at me", when, really, I'm just thinking about an especially difficult meeting I recent had, or a thorny problem I have to solve.

These are frightening times.

City government revenues are down, positions are being cut, and employees are being laid off. We have more difficulties coming down the road, and there is a significant amount of FUD - fear, uncertainty and doubt in the air. All you have to do is read Publicola, the local scandal sheet (now known as a "blog") to see the facts and hear the rumors about this.

Yes, I know that I and other department directors will be faced with more cuts and more difficult decisions in the coming months. I am really hoping that the next budget process will be the last time we are cutting and we can stabilize the government after that. I'm a "glass half full" guy.

Nevertheless I lose a lot of sleep and spend a lot of time worrying about these issues and the effects of cuts on employees and their families.  And, even more importantly, on the health and well-being of the 600,000 people who live in Seattle and depend upon their government for safety, utilities and quality of life.

My lost sleep is irrelevant, of course - if I'm not here, the facts of the budget situation are still the same, and the cuts will still come, but it will just be someone else making the decision.

So if I scowl at you as I walk down the hallway, please don't take it personally. I'm just puzzling over that next difficult decision.


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FCC's Broadband Plan and Cities, Counties

March 16, 2010 By Bill Schrier

FCC-broadband-plan.jpg So the FCC has published its national broadband plan.   This plan has many implications for cities and counties and local government.   It has implications for public safety and general government, for consumers, for business, for wired and wireless networks. 

Here's my take on it:

Q: Is this plan really radical or different?

A: The FCC has charted a brave new vision for the United States with this plan. For example, in this plan the FCC has set a goal of "one hundred squared", that is, connecting 100 million households with 100 megabits per second. This is radical because it cannot be accomplished with existing copper wire networks such as the telephone networks or cable TV networks. Such speeds require fiber optic cable to every home and business, a radical change. The speeds copper can carry are quite limited. But fiber cable lightwave signals theoretically, have no upper limit on speed. Incidentally, there are about 114 million households in the U.S.

Q: A 100 megabits per second - a 100 million bits per second - is "geekspeak" . What does it really mean for consumers at home or small business?

A: Let me give you one specific example. Many homes and businesses are buying and installing flat screen TVs, and most of those are HDTV - high definition. That's cool, and the quality of the image is very detailed. But the signal is one way - you "watch the TV" - you don't really "interact" with it or use it for communications like you use a phone. At the same time, you can buy a video camcorder - even a cheap one like a Flip phone - that takes HDTV video. Now, let's suppose you could put the video camcorder next to the HDTV and connect them - all of a sudden you would have a video telephone or a video conferencing setup. You could make video phone calls. You could attend meetings with video. You could attend class at a high school or community college or a university, and actually interact with the teacher or professor - ask questions and participate. You could visit your doctor to talk about a health problem, or work from home. You could visit your local appliance store or clothing store and talk to the owner and have the owner demonstrate what you want to buy. You could play really cool interactive video games. And think of the implications for quality of life - with this sort of video, grandparents could have dinner with their kids and grandchildren every night via a video phone. They could see their grandchildren from hundreds or thousands of miles away, or from an assisted living or nursing home. But all of this requires super fast networks for both high quality and almost zero latency - no delay, just like the voice phone network. And this requires fiber with 100 million bits per second or more. To each home or business.

Q: What are the implications for large cities like Seattle?

A: Seattle has been a leader in thinking about these networks. We've already installed fiber cable connecting every public school, all our college campuses, every fire station, police precinct and every major government building. We have done extensive planning for a fiber optic cable network to every one of the 300,000 homes and businesses in Seattle. We are a high tech community and we value education. We need such a fiber network for jobs, education and quality of life. Mayor Michael McGinn is very committed to the idea, and a number of departments are working together on a business plan to make it happen. The visionary goals set by the FCC's broadband plan - 100 million bits per second to 100 million homes - validate that we're following the right path, and we need to move rapidly to stay ahead of other cities in the United States and around the world.

Q: How can we learn more about this Seattle plan?

A: To stay abreast of it or support it, go to http://www.seattle.gov/broadband .

Q: What are the implications of the FCC plan for suburban and rural communities?

A: Suburban communities can be wired with fiber, just like the FCC's plan envisions and Seattle intends to do. Some Seattle area communities such as Kirkland and Woodinville already have fiber networks installed by Verizon. In rural communities installing fiber to farms and small towns may not always make economic sense, although in some visionary places like Chelan County, the local PUD is doing it anyway. But the FCC has envisioned an alternative for rural communities - high speed wireless broadband. Today's wireless networks are usually called "3G" or 3rd Generation. Fourth Generation - 4G - wireless networks will be available in a few places by the end of 2010. These faster networks require a lot of spectrum. You may recall that, in June, 2009, all TV broadcast signals became digital - every TV in the nation had to have a wired cable connection or a digital antenna. The FCC mandated this digital transition to take spectrum away from UHF TV use and give it to telecommunications companies to build 3G and 4G networks. The FCC's broadband plan calls for adding another 500 megahertz of spectrum to be dedicated to new, faster, wireless networks. The FCC will try to convince TV broadcasters to give up even more of the 300 MHz of spectrum now used for TV. And the government itself controls another 600 MHz of spectrum, some of which could be used for wireless broadband. 

Q: The nation faces a number of threats - terrorism, disasters (like earthquakes and hurricanes like Katrina) and even local disasters like the shooting of four Lakewood, Washington, police officers in 2009. Will the FCC's national broadband plan help with this problem?

A: Public safety communications were problematical on September 11th in New York City, in the Katrina Hurricane and in other disasters. The public cell phone networks won't reliably operate in such disasters or, sometimes, even in daily emergencies like power outages. The FCC has allocated 10 Mhz of spectrum in the 700 Mhz band for a nationwide public safety broadband network. In the national broadband plan, the FCC proposes putting money where its mouth has been - the FCC is proposing $6.5 billion in grants to create the public safety network. The City of Seattle is one of only 17 communities nationwide who have asked the FCC for permission to use this spectrum and build such a network. In their plan, the FCC includes a method for setting standards and operating procedures which will allow cities like Seattle, San Francisco, New York and Boston to build. And these municipal or regional public safety wireless broadband networks will interoperate with others nationwide. In fact, under the FCC's plan, the public safety networks will also interoperate with networks being constructed by AT&T and Verizon and T-Mobile. So if a police officer or firefighter can't get a strong signal from the public safety network the officer could get signals from a commercial network instead. 

Furthermore, Seattle has proposed that other government agencies - our electric utility, Seattle City Light, our water utility, Seattle Public Utilities, our transportation department, and others, also be allowed to use this network. In both daily emergencies and major disasters such "second responders" are vital to public safety and must interoperate with police and fire to keep the public safe. The national broadband plan recognizes this need as well.

Q: Practically, why do we need a public safety wireless broadband network?

A: I'll give one specific example - video. On October 31, 2009, a Seattle police officer was brutally murdered by an unknown assailant - Christopher Montfort was ultimately charged with the crime. How did the police find Montfort? I've discussed this in more detail in this blog entry, but essentially, every Seattle police patrol vehicle has a video camera which records video of traffic stops. The recording goes to a computer in the police vehicle. It took several days for the police to review all the video footage of traffic stops from Seattle police cars. They noticed, in the background of several such stops, a uniquely shaped vehicle cruising by, which was traced back to Montfort. With a wireless broadband network, such video could immediately, in real time, be transmitted to dispatch centers and other police officers. Furthermore, police and firefighters could receive mugshots, building plans, hazardous material data, and video from a variety of sources to improve their response to both daily incidents and larger disasters.

Q: Are there other implications of the plan?

A: Several are worth mentioning and there is a bit more detail in an analysis here.

  • The FCC has recognized that cities and counties need to be able to control their own streets, utility poles and rights-of-way, and receive fair compensation for their use by companies who build broadband networks, while allowing private companies better access to rights of way to build networks.
  • The FCC has recommended to Congress that it pre-empt laws in 18 states which prohibit cities and counties from building broadband networks. In most places, there is no competition for broadband - there are only one or two providers, usually the cable TV company and the phone company, with older, slower, networks. In places where the city or county has built a network - like Tacoma - consumer costs are significantly lower for phone, cable TV and Internet access.
  • The plan calls for strengthened cybersecurity measures to protect broadband networks, consumers and businesses from hackers and other cybersecurity threats.
  • The FCC plans to revamp the Universal Service Fund (USF) to help subsidize broadband adoption.

In summary, the FCC's plan is visionary. Certainly it was carefully crafted with many competing interests interests in mind.  And it doesn't really provide any good mechanism to encourage competition between private providers.  Such competition would reduce costs to users.  Nevertheless, if it is followed, will materially improve the economy, safety, and quality of life for the people of the United States.


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