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

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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Web 2.0, Gov 2.0, Society 2.0

June 26, 2010 By Bill Schrier

What is Government 2.0 - click for more The whole two-dot-oh thing seems so "contrived". Like a marketing gimmick. Or selling the "new improved" laundry soap, that is, the "new, stickier, more connected, web".

Yet there is a kernel of truth here, not so much in the technology but in the fabric of our society. It is Society 2.0.

First of all, I'm not coining the term Society 2.0. I'm not sure who coined it, but I first heard of it on Monday, June 21st, from Julius O. Akinyemi, Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the Media Lab at MIT. I was privileged to be one of 25 or so folks who came together under the leadership of Zach Tumin of the Ash Institute at Harvard's JFK School of Government. Zach sponsored an executive session at Harvard on the topic "Making the Move to Gov 2.0: Citizen Engagement and Empowerment".

The phrase "Web 2.0" seems to have significant validity. Tim O'Reilly created and defined the term Web 2.0, I think. There IS a vast difference between the World Wide Web as it existed before about 2003, and the kinds of web "stuff" available in the last six years. Perhaps the watershed moment was in 2003 when MySpace was founded by Tom Anderson and Chris DeWolfe. MySpace is a signal achievement, marking the true "social web" where normal people could post information and easily interact with each other. Web 1.0 was about viewing information and doing transactions. Web 2.0 is about social interaction.

And the term "Society 2.0" certainly makes sense to me as well.

Those of us old enough to remember life in 1980 may still remember what life was like in those days of ancient history. Typewriters, secretaries, phones with cords. Film cameras. Giant paper phone directories plopped on your doorstep. Anyone who used a computer or talked about bits or bytes (much less gigabits or terabytes) was an uber-geek who must have a pocket protector and be one full bubble off the level of normal.

Today, most human beings in the United States feel naked without at least a cell phone, but preferably a smartphone. Anyone using terms like "typewriter" or "secretary" will make listeners smile like they are humoring a very elderly relative who is suffering from dementia. Many of us have to check our e-mail constantly. Most of us use text messaging or multi-media messaging as a matter of course. And who uses a film camera or even knows a retailer which develops the stuff?

Welcome to Society 2.0. The technology-enabled society.

Government 2.0. Now that term is foreign to me.

I certainly understand "government", as I am one (sorta). Or at least work for one.

This morning I attended Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn's regular cabinet meeting. Did we talk technology? Hardly. Indeed, except for the specific details of the subject matter, this could have been a Mayor's cabinet meeting from 1980 or even 1950. We talked about jobs - the overriding need for people in Seattle to have living wage jobs and how we, as a government, can help businesses large and small make that happen. We talked about the South Park Bridge, which will close in five days because it is rickety and dangerous, and that closure will isolate a whole neighborhood for over two years until we can find the money to replace it. We discussed the need for people to feel safe and secure on the streets, and how our departments - not just police, but transportation and neighborhoods and the electric utility - can work to help people downtown and in neighborhoods feel safe.

Sure, technology was there and it permeated the meeting - in the background. Three people, including the department director sitting my right, took notes on their iPads. I took notes using Microsoft One-Note on my HP Mini which uses Windows XP and which sat on top of the table - I've not yet become a fanboy for Apple technology. But I used my BlackBerry to set an appointment with the FCC and text message my deputy. Everyone else at the meeting surreptitiously checked their BlackBerrys for e-mail.

But Government 2.0? Whatever that is, it wasn't present there, and it certainly should not have been.

Seattle Crime Maps - click to see more Now don't get me wrong - Government is doing a lot of innovative work with technology, and Seattle is a leader. You can follow the tweets of the Seattle police department and fire department and transportation. We've got a set of 15 interlinked blogs for up-to-the-minute information. You see any account balance and pay almost any bill or tax of the Seattle government online. And we do really cool stuff like a Traveler's information map and posting Fire Department 911 calls on a map within a couple minutes of dispatch. Anyone can download a ton of information from data.seattle.gov. On Monday, June 28th, you be able to view a map showing crimes in your neighborhood and download redacted but pretty complete reports on any of them, a service probably unique in the nation.

But if websites are Web 1.0 and Facebook is Web 2.0, and typewriters/corded phones are Society 1.0 yet smartphones and ipods and email or text messaging are Society 2.0, then all that innovative stuff in Seattle is probably Government 1.5, not Government 2.0.

Government still has not quite figured out how to harness mobile phones and Facebook and LinkedIn. We still conduct public meetings with presentations by officials followed by citizens trooping one by one to the microphone to deliver a two or three minute diatribe to elected officials. We are not gutsy enough to allow even moderated comments on our blogs, or to establish a free-wheeling social network of citizens, much less a smartphone app for interacting with elected or senior government officials.

But there are glimmers of hope for Government 2.0. Mayor McGinn's public meetings often include a display of tweets projected on a screen. The Seattle Channel has figured out ways to live-stream video from almost every major public meeting in the City. The Channel's Ask-the-Mayor show includes interaction from constituents via e-mail, telephoned and even videotaped questions from citizens. IdeasforSeattle gives people an opportunity to suggest and rank ideas, and we'll have a new, improved Idea generating tool later in the summer.

Government 2.0 - Ideas for Seattle - click to see more

A true Government 2.0 needs to be more interactive. Government 2.0 will be about inclusion: elected officials having the ability to listen to a large number of constituents, not just the NIMBYs (not-in-my-backyard) folks who can show up at a meeting, or the lobbyists with the clout to get a face-to-face meeting with an official. Government 2.0 needs to be about drafting new solutions from a wide variety of people ("crowdsourcing"), not just those who have the time or media attention to relentlessly push forward their own agenda. Gov 2.0 will be empowering people on their own blocks and in their own neighborhoods to have more control over and take charge of their safety and quality of life. Fundamentally this requires a change in culture in government from "we'll collect the data and make the decisions, and let you review them" to "let's collaborate and work on this together".

Technology has a role in this. For example, by using tools to harvest @replies from Twitter. Or to engender comments and discussions on Facebook or blogs without having the conversation degenerate by a few anonymous people using four letter words to viciously attack government and elected officials, a problem old and new media outlets face every day. We need ways that a "public meeting" can span two days allowing everyone to attend and discuss the topic and voice and debate ideas with online and video tools, without the need to travel downtown to City Hall for a meeting at fixed time.

And we - government - need to harness the tools which the "normal" people of Society 2.0 use every day. Their mobile phones, and smartphones and Facebook. We need to harness those tools, so that our constituents don't have to come "downtown" or come to government to use services or give input on policy. So they can use tools they already use - the Internet and Facebook and mobile phones - to interact with officials at meetings or to give feedback to elected official.

Interacting with your government should be as easy as posting to your Facebook wall or texting on your smartphone or adding a comment to a blog. But it will also be hard because it will require every constituent - as well as our officials - to listen to the ideas of others and interact, discuss and collaborate in new ways beyond giving a two-minute speech at a public meeting or writing an e-mail message. When our culture changes that way, then perhaps we'll have "Government Two dot Oh".

(And we'll be talking about Gov 3.0!)


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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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