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

Dang Guvmint Bure-crats

October 18, 2010 By Bill Schrier

Dang Guvmint Bure-Crat“Dang Guvmint. Takes too much of our hard-earned tax dollars and hires all those danged burecrats to waste taxpayer money feeding at the public trough pushing paper and regulations keepin’ us hard-workin’ Americans down. “

Certainly there is a movement in the United States today which believes government is too big, too wasteful and burdens the economy on the backs of the “average” American citizen. This attitude is certainly a central tenet of those who believe the “Tea Party” line of thinking.

The truth, of course, is almost exactly the opposite.

Who are those “dang guvmint bure-crats”?

Are they the 1.4 million members of the active duty armed forces who regularly spend 12 to 18 months fighting our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as being deployed throughout the world in places as diverse as Kazakhstan and Bosnia and South Korea? Or maybe they are the 848,000 National Guard and Reserve soldiers who are regularly uprooted from their families for two or three deployments overseas? People like Major Aaron Bert of the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department who has deployed three times, once each to Iraq, Afghanistan and now Djibouti. (I have a special affinity for Reservists, having served 22 years in the United States Army Reserve retiring as a Reserve Major).

Are those bureaucrats the two million police officers, firefighters and paramedics (many of them volunteers) who respond to our urgent calls to 911 for help when we are having heart attacks or are struck by drunk drivers or have our purses snatched or are trapped in burning buildings? Bureaucrats like the 394 firefighters who died running up the stairs of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001?

Perhaps the bureaucrats are the 3.5 million public school teachers who barely make a living wage and yet are expected to educate classrooms too full of often-disrespectful kids who sometimes are undisciplined at home? Or the tens of thousands of employees at our premier public universities such as the Unviersity of Washington who have made those schools the best on the planet – so much so that thousands of students are attracted from nations across the world.

I’m sure we could do without all those bureaucrats who maintain our highways and plow the snow from them in the winter (pushing snow rather than paper), or those pencil-necked geeks who maintain our water reservoirs, pipes and systems so we have safe drinking water or those desk-jockeys who staff our parks and recreation centers so we and our families can have fun after a day full of labor to pay our taxes.

Gee, why do we need those building officials and permit inspectors? Can’t we all be trusted to build our homes and businesses so they are earthquake-proof like the buildings in Haiti? And then there are those danged public health officials and nurses who run community health centers, and folks in the Department of Agriculture or the Food and Drug Administration who inspect our food and our restaurants – they are obviously just harrassing wonderful businesses like the Wright-County Farms in Iowa who never ship salmonella-laden eggs, serve tainted food or prepare it in dirty kitchens.

Perhaps we can live without those State govmint bure-crats like child protective services workers or nursing home inspectors who cannot make a single mistake because if they do a child may starve to death or an elderly person may perish. Then there are those Federal government bure-crats like the Environmental Protection Agency who have to clean up the superfund site toxic messes made by private capitalist companies who made their money, polluted the environment, and left the cleanup burden to taxpayers. Why do spend tax dollars on a National Park Service or State Parks Service or Seattle Parks and Recreation Department? Good, honest tax-paying citizens can take care of those parks themselves and leave them in pristine condition, right?

Certainly we can do without the infernal Revenue Service and similar agencies that collect taxes, beating them out of poor hardworking Americans so we can pay the soldiers and firefighters, and those other pencil-pushers who maintain our roads and public spaces. Dang bureaucrats like Vernon Hunter, a 68-year-old Vietnam War veteran who was doing his job collecting revenue so we could pay our soldiers when a domestic terrorist, Joseph Stack, killed him while at the same time endangering the lives of 200 other American citizens.

And that tax burden! Why did you know that almost 50% of Americans pay no income tax? That indivdual income taxes take a smaller portion of the economy (6.4%) than any time since 1950 and corporate tax rates are the lowest they've been since 1936? (The source for these facts can be found here.)

Yup, those dang guvmint burecrats need to keep their hands off my Social Security and my Medicare and my god-given right to drive a car whether I have a license or not and no matter how intoxicated or high I am. We need to fire all those danged accountants who make sure the budgets are balanced and the money is honestly spent. And get rid of all those information technology bureaucrats who maintain the websites for government information or maintain the public safety radio networks for dispatching cops and firefighters, or who maintain the servers and software which prints all those useless Medicare and Social Security checks.

That Timothy McVeigh, he knew the right way to handle big government. He drove right up to that government building in Oklahoma City 15 years ago and blew it up taking out not just 159 of the bure-crats but nineteen of their innocent kids in the childcare on the first floor too.

But you know, the FBI agents and information technology professionals and electric utility lineworkers and solid waste collectors have families too. They live in neighborhoods right next to people who don’t work in government. They mow their lawns and worry about paying their bills (and they pay their taxes, too). They worry about losing their jobs (if they haven’t already) in the Great Recession. They worry about the huge (and growing) federal deficit, and wonder if they will be able to survive in retirement. They attend church and buy groceries at the local store and have their kids in local schools. They want a good life for their children, and are proud of the quality of life they provide for all of America. They are dedicated to operating great libraries and museums, schools and colleges, transit and highway systems. You would not want to live in a nation without these "bureaucrats".

We are proud citizens of cities like Seattle, states like Washington and the United States of America.

And none of us are “dang government bure-crats”.


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CIO Loners and Joiners

September 29, 2010 By Bill Schrier

Chief Information Officers need "help". Some might say we need psychiatric "help". I’d say we especially need the psychiatrist's couch. Or, perhaps, we need to play the psychiatrist, listening to the people on the couch – our customers.

CIOs need to be "joiners". We need to be good at establishing relationships, empathizing (putting ourselves into the shoes of others), and we need to be generalists in our businesses.

I was reminded of this again last week as the Metropolitan Information Exchange (MIX) held our annual conference in Raleigh. MIX is composed of about 60 CIOs from larger (over 100,000 population) cities and counties who collaborate together to harness information technology to make their individual governments efficient and effective.

But I'm constantly amazed that we only have 60 members when there are 276 large cities and 578 large counties. So MIX has only 60 members although there are over 850 large cities and counties. So why don’t other government CIOs join up? I'll get to that.

Yes, CIOs need to be "joiners". Yet, IT is not a field which easily produces leaders who are collaborators, listeners and joiners. IT engineers and technicians and programmers are naturally heads down “hey guys let’s write this code" or "get this server installed”. We tech types prefer to use e-mail or text message or even face-to-face contact rather than the telephone. In many ways we are "geeks" or "nerds". I'm often proud to introduce myself as the "Chief Seattle Geek".

Yet, when we become senior IT managers or CIOs, exactly the opposite skills are required. Here are some specific examples:

  • Empathy with customers. Often this is called "knowing the business" or "customer service". As a City CIO, my job is not to build and implement IT networks or applications. It is, rather, understanding the business of City government - what the Parks department or the water worker or the cop on the street or the elected officials need to do their job in service to constituents. Sometimes I need to help them adapt new and emerging technology to their businesses. Or push them a bit to do so. One of the things which most surprises me is when a department director says "I'm not technical", as if they expected me to speak in ones and zeroes or bits and bytes. Dang! I don't expect YOU to be technical, Ms. Department Director - I expect you to be the chief of all the firefighters or the director of planning and zoning and building permits. And it is MY responsibility to understand YOUR business and help you adapt technology to support it. The City (or County or State or Federal) government is not about" technology" but about serving citizens and people.
  • Empathy with employees. Most employees work for a government because they are proud of their public service. Yet, especially in these times of shrinking budgets and frozen salaries and layoffs, they are under enormous strain. Helping them to stay focused and making sure they have the tools to do their jobs requires a lot of empathy. And a bit of time on the psychiatrist's couch. And maybe a few shared tears and a crying towel.
  • Re-Inventing the Wheel (collaboration). More than any other job in a government or corporation (except, perhaps, CFO), the CIO has to understand almost all aspects of the business of government, and understand how the pieces fit together. Governments (like all businesses, I suppose), are a set of department silos - an electric utility and a water utility and a transportation department and a police department and a fire department and a parks department and more. While these departments often collaborate on certain functions (such as permit reviews or handling a public emergency), their natural tendency is to operate independently. They prefer to invent their own (or buy their own) tools such as work management, document management and financial management. Unless corralled, the will design their own logos and build their own websites and get their own phone and network systems. It is the job of the CIO (along with CFO, and in support of the government's elected CEO and other elected officials) to help departments collaborate. To help them work together rather than re-invent the buggy and horsewhip. To help them understand that we are really one government, not a collection of individual departments.

In terms of collaboration, CIOs not only need to prevent re-invention of the wheel within their city or county, but they also need to watch for collaboration and innovation opportunities across the nation.

Is the District of Columbia making itself transparent with an open data catalog and "Apps for Democracy"? Gee, wouldn't that work in Seattle? Has Harris County, Texas, built an 800 megahertz public safety radio network which allows cops and firefighters from many counties to interoperate and support each other during small disasters and large? Would that work elsewhere? Baltimore and Chicago and Miami-Dade have created innovative new 311 centers and constituent relationship management systems. Wouldn't something like that make governments more accessible everywhere else?

And that's where organizations like MIX (for City/County CIOs) or the Digital Communities information sharing group , with 644 members, or NASCIO for State CIOs or even (here in the Seattle area) the Technology Executive Peer Group (about 40 mostly private and some pubic CIOs) come into play. These groups help CIOs to exchange information about applications and best practices and solutions which work.

Yet, out of the hundreds of government CIOs in the nation, only a few join these groups. Are the rest "loners" out on their own? Or are they working so hard within their individual governments - managing their technology workers, building relationships with their own elected officials and business departments and draining their own swamps - that they don't have time to collaborate with the rest of us who are “joiners”?

Maybe, with comments to this blog, we'll find out … !


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Why Don't Cops Just Use Cell Phones?

September 10, 2010 By Bill Schrier

radio-towers.jpg
Police officers and firefighters carry $5000 radios.  Local and state governments spend hundreds of millions of dollars to build public safety radio networks.  Yet, today, cell phone networks seem to be everywhere, most people carry a mobile phone and many of us think paying $199 for an iPhone is expensive.  

Why can't cops and firefighters and emergency medical technicians (EMT) use cell phones like everyone else?  A Washington State legislator from Seattle recently public argued for this approach in his blog.  And, at first, this appears to be a simple way for governments to save a lot of taxpayer dollars.

Here are a few reasons public safety officers need their own dedicated networks:

  1. Priority.  Cellular networks do not prioritize their users or traffic.   A teenager's cell phone has the same priority as a cell phone used by a police officer or, for that matter, the BlackBerry used by President Obama.  We've all experienced "no circuits available" or "network busy" when using a cell phone.  When I'm being assaulted or have been injured in an automobile accident or even have had my house burglarized, the last thing I want is to have the network be "busy" so a police officer or EMT couldn't be dispatched.   Public safety needs dedicated frequencies where police officer sand firefighters have priority and even, perhaps, exclusive rights to for use, without calls being clogged by the public.
  2. Reliability.  Seattle's public safety radio network, part of the larger King County-wide 800 megahertz public safety radio network, handles more than 60,000 police, fire  and emergency medical calls every day.  It operated last year with 99.9994% reliability - that's about 189 seconds of downtime out of more the than 31 million seconds which composed the year 2009. On the average, only about five out of the 60,000 calls were delayed for any reason, and even then the average delay was about two seconds.  What cell phone network has that kind of reliability?   How many times have you experienced "no service" or "call dropped" with your cell phone?   Do we want firefighters who are reviving a heart attack victim and talking to the emergency room on the radio to all-of-a-sudden have their call dropped?  Or should police officers lose service when drunk drivers clog the roads and bars are closing at 2:00 AM because a cell phone company decides to do maintenance because "no one uses the network then"?
  3. Disasters.  Even small disasters cause cell phone networks to collapse.   In Seattle, we've had swat team actions or car accidents which have shut down a freeway.   Suddenly cell phone service abruptly ceases in that area because EVERYONE is on their phone.  A few years ago a rifleman was loose and shooting people in Tacoma Mall.  Responding police and EMTs had communications because they had dedicated networks and frequencies, but again cell phone networks were overloaded and down.   In a larger disaster such as an earthquake or hurricane (with associated evacuation of large cities), commercial networks will be overloaded or jammed for days by people trying to escape the affected areas. Do we want police and fire departments - or even transportation, electric utilities and public works departments - to be trying to use those same networks while they are are responding to the disaster? I don't think so.
  4. Talk-around. A key feature of most government-operated networks is something called talk-around or simplex or "walkie-talkie" mode. In this mode, individual radios talk directly to each other, without using a radio or cell tower. This is very important at incident scenes - firefighters commonly use it at the scene of a fire, because the radios will operate at the scene even if there isn't a tower nearby. But this NEVER a feature of cellular phone networks. If the cell tower is down or out of range, that cell phone in your hands is a useless lump of plastic. But the radios of publicsafety officers still work and will talk to each other even without the tower.
  5. Ruggedness. No firefighter in his/her right mind would fight a fire using a cell phone for communications. The heat, water and ruggedness of the environment would quickly destroy the device. Yet most public safety radios will survive being dropped repeatedly on the ground or being immersed in water for 30 minutes or more. No standard cell phone can survive the rigorous work of firefighting or policing.

Are there problems with the current dedicated public safety networks? Absolutely. The use proprietary technologies, for example "Project 25". Theoretically all "Project 25" radios work on any "Project 25" radio system. But only a few of those are deployed around the nation. These proprietary technologies are one reason the radios cost up to $5,000 each.

Representative Carlyle, in his blog, proposes that we deploy "Tetra" radios for public safety. While Tetra is common in some parts of the world, it is not used at all in the United States. This is a dangerous proposal, because it means Tetra networks we buy would not work with the equipment used by any other government or telecommunciations carrier anywhere in the United States. If called to respond to a diaster overseas, we could talk to firefighters in Hong Kong or the police in Ireland, however.

Another problem we face is the small market - the total market for public safety is perhaps 10,000,000 radios which are replaced, say, once every 10 years. On the other hand, the cell phone market is huge - 260 million cell phones replaced every two years in the United States alone. The economies of scale means consumers will have a lot more choice, and their cell phones will be relatively cheap.

So is there some way to reduce the sky-high cost of these dedicated public safety networks while at the same time not endangering cops, firefighters, EMTs and the public in general?

Absolutely. The FCC, in its national broadband plan, and the federal Department of Commerce, with its forward-thinking grant program for broadband, are lighting the way for a new public safety network which will be more robust, national in scope, and interoperable. By "interoperable" I mean the new public safety equipment will probably operate almost anywhere in the nation, wether on a dedicated government network or on a commercial cell phone network. Here are some features of the new networks:

  • The FCC and major public safety organizations have called for the new public safety networks to be built using a fourth generation (4G) technology called LTE - long-term evolution. Not coincidently, this is the same technology which will be used by the major cell phone companies Verizon and AT&T when they construct their 4G networks. The commercial networks will operate on different frequencies than the public safety networks, but they will all be built in same general area of the wireless spectrum - the 700 megahertz (MHz) band.
  • Because they are all using the same technology (LTE) and are in a similar slice of radio spectrum (700 MHz) potentially they will all interoperate. That means that public safety officers will use the government networks and frequencies when they are within range, but could "roam" to a commercial network if necessary. So cops and firefighters will have the best of both worlds - coverage from dedicated government networks and coverage from multiple private carriers. The FCC is even considering rules which would require the commercial companies to give public safety priority on the commercial LTE networks.
  • Because everyone - consumers, cops, firefighters and even general government workers such as transporation and utilities - are all using LTE, constructing the networks can be much cheaper. Commercial telecommunications carriers could put government antennas and equipment at their cell sites, and vice-versa. Perhaps the network equipment at the cell site, or even the central switches could be shared as well. Public safety will still be using its own frequencies and have priority, but could share many other network elements.
  • And the radios used by individual public safety officers or placed in police vehicles and fire trucks can be much cheaper as well. Because manufacturers are all making equipment for the same technology - LTE - it could cost just a few hundred dollars. Again, there will be specialized and ruggedized devices for firefighters and others working in punishing environments, but the "innards" - the electronics - will be much less expensive.
  • Next, we have to get all first and second resopnders to use the same or common networks. Here in Washington State, for example, we have multiple overlapping and duplicate networks. City and County police and fire in the region have one network, each electric utility (e.g. Seattle City Light) have another network. Transportation departments have their own networks (e.g. Seattle Transportation and Washington State Transportation each have their own separate network). The Washington State Patrol has its own separate network. The State Department of Natural Resources has its own network. Fish and Wildlife has its own network. And federal government agencies (FBI, cutoms and immigration) have their own networks. This is patently stupid and expensive. As we build these new fourth generation LTE networks, we need to build a single network with lots of sites and a lot of redundancy and hardening to withstand disasters. And everyone - first and second responders from all agencies - should use it.
  • Finally, and perhaps most importantly, all the networks will be nationally interoperable. The lack of communciations interoperability was a major finding of the Commission which investigated the September 11th World Trade Center attack. But with these new networks, a Seattle police officer's 4th generation LTE device will also work on New York City's LTE network or New Mexico's :LTE network or on any Verizon or AT&T network anywhere in the nation. As disasters happen anywhere in the United States, and first and second responders are rushed to the scene of the disaster, they can take their communications gear with them and it will work.

The City of Seattle is one of a handful (about 20) forward-thinking governments leading the way to deploy these new networks. Seattle's public safety LTE network, hopefully launched with a federal stimulus grant, will eventually expand throughout the Puget Sound region and across the State of Washington. The State of Oregon also has authority and a grant request to build an LTE network, and we are working with Oregon to make sure our networks work with each other seamlessly.

Is all of this a pipe dream? I don't think so. A number of public and private companies, governments and telecommunciations carriers and equipment manufacturers are working together to realize it. Many of them are in the Public Safety Alliance. In the Federal government, the FCC is working with the National Institute of Standards and the Departments of Commerce and Homeland security are providing grant funding. It will take a lot of work and many years to realize this network.

But when it is finished, we'll have public safety networks which work to keep us safe, and consumer networks which work to keep us productive and linked to our friends and families. These networks will be separate yet connected. They will be built from common technologies. And they will be less expensive for taxpayers than the networks we have today.


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Hackathoning Government

August 19, 2010 By Bill Schrier

"Hacking" has a bad connotation. We're going to change that in Seattle this weekend with the Open Government Hackathon. The Hackathon is the culmination of of Geek Week here in Seattle.

Yeah, yeah most of you non-Puget-Sounders think every week is Geek Week in Seattle, complete with nerdish denizens such as Microsofties, Googlers, Socratians, IBMers, Tropons, Amazonians, Pirilloians and now even Facebookers.

Geek Week is the creation of local Geek King Chris Pirillo. I envy Chris, with his 85,326 Twitter followers compared to my mere 2,232 followers. We both come from humble backgrounds in Iowa, and made it to Seattle to seek our futures in the Pacific Northwest.

Chris found his future and part of it is Geek Week and Gnomedex. The 10th Annual Gnomedex "Conference of Inspiration and Influence" is happening on Friday and Saturday, August 20th and 21st.

Socrata - click to see more As Gnomedex winds down on Saturday at 5:00 PM, the Open Government Hackathon winds up. The Hackathon is sponsored by two phenomenal local tech companies, Socrata and Tropo. Socrata has made its name making data open and transparent, most notably with data.gov and data.seattle.gov (well, and a few other sites).

Developers will converge on the Edgewater Hotel on Seattle's waterfront. They'll have 24 hours to use government datasets to create interesting applications. At 5:00 PM on Sunday, we'll be judging applications for those which are most useful, interesting, unique or maybe just cool. There will be a number of prizes - hackers will get codes for some Amazon Web Services usable to deploy and test apps there and other prizes include a Flip HD camera, year membership in Amazon Pro and even an iPad - gee, if Microsoft or Google or Facebook made a nice slate computer, maybe that could be the prize. Perhaps next year!!

Tropo - click to see more Read more about the Hackathon on Chris Pirillo's blog here, or the Socrata blog here, or the Tropo blog here.

In any case, it will be wonderful to see what sorts of applications the hackers develop, all with the intent not of hacking into government, but rather of making data held by government more accessible to citizens, residents and the people government serves.

Note: I'm especially proud of data.seattle.gov, with over a hundred cool datasets of information like fire department 911 calls, active building permits, and public toilets. That's an initaitive of Mayor Mike McGinn and the City of Seattle's Department of Information Technology, and we'll be adding a lot more data to the site over the next couple of months, including police crime statistics, police 911 calls, and business licenses. You can already view crimes and 911 calls plotted by neighborhood on My Neighborhood Map here, powered by Microsoft's Bing Maps and the employees of City government. The data feed of this information to data.seattle.gov will be active soon.


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Citywatch

August 5, 2010 By Bill Schrier

BlockWatch in Seattle - click to see more

This past Tuesday night, there were 1,219 parties in the street all around Seattle. Kids, hot dogs, drinks, cops and firefighters and neighbors everywhere. It was part of the National Night Out. And it was, perhaps, one of the last in Seattle, as the City may cut the jobs of six or seven crime coordinators responsible for the Blockwatch program.

Blockwatch programs are a widespread form of civic engagement. And they've morphed over the years adopting technology to become more effective. Now the combination of the Great Recession, the Great Budget Crisis and the explosion of social media such as Facebook, they are likely to morph again into a new and cool form of civic engagement, if we can maintain the thin blue line of civilians who run the programs.

Blockwatches, often called neighborhood watches, are a staple of many communities across the United States. I talked to Terrie Johnston, a crime prevention coordinator and 30 year employee in the Seattle Police Department, and she gave me some history of Blockwatches in the Seattle PD. This history is typical of Blockwatches across the nation and Canada.

Often a Blockwatch starts around a particular incident in a neighborhood. Sometimes it is a series of burglaries, or perhaps a drive-by shooting, or an incident near a school. One or more people in a neighborhood get concerned enough to call the local police precinct or Seattle Crime Prevention. The crime prevention coordinator sets up a meeting with the neighbors, discusses the incident and related crimes, and gives the neighbors hints, tips and advice on how to be watchful and protect each other.

Amazingly, Terrie says, it is young families with children who often initiate the Blockwatch or get involved to protect their families. I say "amazingly" because it is this demographic - young people who have kids and very busy lives, often with two jobs - who are hard to get involved in public meetings with City officials. Not so with the Blockwatch!

From this beginning, Blockwatches progress in a variety of ways. Many become social groups as well as crime prevention tools. In my neighborhood we have an e-mail list, we get together for a Christmas party, we even watched the Presidential debates of 2008.

In most Seattle neighborhoods, the Blockwatches also organize themselves into a SNAP (Seattle Neighborhoods Actively Prepare) team. Seattle will have a major earthquake in the future. Such a quake - perhaps at 8 or even 9 on the Richter scale - will mean many neighborhoods may be isolated and have to survive on their own for many days. Neighbors need caches of food and water, need to know first aid and light search and rescue. Neighbors need to help each other.

There are probably a thousand active blockwatches in Seattle, but the Seattle Police crime coordinators have a list of 4000 blockwatch contacts. The crime coordinators actively stay in touch with their Blockwatch contacts. Originally this contact was by conducting meetings and handing out fliers or maps of recent crimes. While they still attend meetings, make phone calls and hand out paper, the coordinators have also adapted technology. By far the most common method of contact now is e-mail, and they'll email hints and tips or alerts to their Blockwatch Captains and contacts.

The most active Captains themselves will suggest alerts and updates - for example alerting neighbors to a Memorial Day observance at a military cemetery which included gunshots - a 21 gun salute. Every precinct has a blog and web page for crime prevention.

Crime Mapping - click to see more

Just within the last year the City of Seattle and Seattle Police have developed a whole series of new online tools to improve the effectiveness of crime prevention. There's now an online tool which allows residents to map almost all the crimes in their neighborhood (domestic violence and a few others are excluded). The map also allows people to actually download and view the actual redacted police report for many of these crimes. Just last week mapping of Police 911 calls debuted on the website, added to the mapping of Seattle Fire 911 calls which has been available for 6 years or more. Also last week a new crime reporting function was added to the Seattle.gov web, so residents can file reports online for minor crimes such as thefts under $500 or car prowls or similar incidents where they don't need to talk to a police officer.

Seattle departments - including Police, Fire and others, have adapted twitter to rapidly inform residents of incidents as they occur. The Seattle website also includes a series of fifteen interlinked blogs called CityLink. On the Police blog, called spdblotter.seattle.gov, more detail is given on crimes and other incidents which the Police also tweet .

There are many organizations which operate in every neighborhood. Besides Blockwatches, there are district councils, and arts organizations and community development groups, not to mention an active set of privately operated neighborhood blogs which have, in many ways, taken over the functions formerly performed by community newspapers. The City has an index of all these resources on its website, Neighborhoods on the Net.

I think Blockwatches may morph in two ways in the future - first expanding their function and also changing their method of communication to use social media.

In terms of function, traditionally some Blockwatches have morphed from crime prevention to community engagement. They actively advocate for cleaning up derelict properties, eliminating graffiti, calming traffic (adding speed bumps or traffic circles) and of course caring for each other, e.g. checking in on the elderly or disabled.

But the City hasn't always adopted the power of the Blockwatch movement for other forms of civic engagement. Many City departments go to neighborhoods and hold public meetings to gain input on zoning changes or neighborhood plan updates or changing the configuration of an arterial street to add turning lanes or bike lanes. But those meetings tend to be "one shot" deals or tend to use or create new e-mailing lists. Rarely do the other departments take advantage of the existing power of the organized Blockwatches. And often the City doesn't actually give feedback to neighborhoods about how their input was used.

In these days of constrained resources, Blockwatches can and should morph from just crime prevention, to community involvement groups - "Citywatches".

To do this, municipal governments need to find ways to adapt social media to Blockwatches and community engagement.

Facebook has taken the Internet by storm, with over half-a-billion users. It seems to be a natural new way for Blockwatches to post news, communicate and interact both internally, with other Blockwatches and with police departments and other City functions.

But Facebook as a company doesn't "play nice" with government or other companies, in that it is hard for governments to save Facebook entries and comments, thereby complying with State records retention laws and FOIA laws. Furthermore, it is hard - if not impossible - to create a set of "blockwatch neighbors" separate and distinct from other groups and friends, and keep that group private, only sharing selected updates with other groups or the municipal government.

Facebook's great advantage for this purpose is that so many people use it - they don't have to learn or adopt some new tool. Other social media tools also hold promise for the future of Blockwatches and Citywatches. These include, perhaps, Wiki's for sharing information about neighborhoods, Ideascale or Uservoice tools such as Ideas For Seattle to generate and rank ideas on certain topics, and Twitter.

A common problem - especially with Twitter and Blogs and Facebook - is easily capturing and harvesting comments or tweets so the Blockwatch captain or appropriate City department can adequately respond. Smartphone applications are already used by governments for JAPA (just another pothole application) feedback, but haven't been widely used in public meetings, e.g. making comments and what is being said or voting during public meetings, which can improve the level of involvement among the audience. Certainly many governments are afraid of being overwhelmed by input which underscores the need for tools or software to harvest and consolidate responses.

Seattle has asked Code for America, the new non-profit founded by Tim O'Reilly, for help in developing a solution to improving Blockwatches via such social media tools, and thereby helping them to evolve into new platforms for civic action and engagement. With some luck, such a solution can be developed and used by many local governments across the nation.

Finally, I will admit and lament that personal interaction among neighbors has declined. The many time pressures on families mean we have less time to simply talk to our neighbors. But all these new smartphone, social media, technology tools can help improve that interaction.

Fundamentally, however they only supplement the face-to-face Blockwatch meeting which builds community and trust, so neighbors truly care about and watch out for each other.


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