August 2, 2009 By Bill Schrier
A long time ago in a city far far away I was a street cop. A police officer working the beat. It wasn't a large city - Dubuque, Iowa - 65,000 people and probably 60 or 70 policemen. Yes "policeMEN". The first women were hired into the Dubuque PD while I was there, and I - at 5' 9" and 170 pounds - was one of the smallest cops on the force.
In those days, technology was not really part of an officer's life. Times have changed, they REALLY have changed. The Seattle Police Department has just implemented a new Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) system which is fundamentally altering policing at the City of Seattle - the "SPIDER" project. Technology is now - literally - at the right and left hand of virtually every cop - and firefighter and emergency medical tech.
When I was on the street, my primary technology was the radio in my police cruiser. The voice radio was (and still is) the lifeline for public safety officers on the street. But, in the 1970s, when I walked out of the car, I also walked away from that lifeline. We didn't have handheld or portable radios, nor did cell phones exist. If there was a problem when we were away from the car, we depended upon each other to "drive by" and check on us (and cops still do that), or on a citizen to use a land-line telephone to notify dispatch. That was scary.
Now police officers carry a handheld radio, and a lapel mike, and every Seattle radio has an emergency button which, when pressed, alerts dispatch center that the officer is in trouble. The emergency alert triggers a display of badge number on the dispatch console. The radios can communicate with officers throughout the region. And automatic vehicle location (AVL) shows the location of every police and fire apparatus in the City. All of this tech doesn't mean policing is easier or safer than it was in the 1970s - on the contrary, there are new issues and dangers, which I'll mention a little later.
We did reports by hand, on paper. We filled out index cards for car stops. And every call to police/fire emergency was logged on a card with a timestamp. When we wanted to get information about a license plate or driver's license, the dispatcher looked up the info in a set of file cards or - this was really high tech in the 1970s - typed the request into a teletype machine for someone in some far city (like Des Moines) to look up on their index cards.
Now, things are much more high tech. First, people call 911 for emergencies. 911 is virtually ubiquitous in the United States, but barely existed in the 1970s. The police call-taker immediately sees the ANI/ALI (automatic number identification / automatic location identification) associated with your number. The call taker immediately enters all the information about the call into the Seattle Police Department's new CAD (software written by Versaterm). [Fires or emergency medical calls are "hot transferred" from a police call-taker to a fire dispatcher, who enters the information into a Seattle Fire CAD, and you can actually view some real-time information about Fire 911 calls online here].
Dispatchers then dispatch the 911 call to an available police unit. An electronic map shows the location of every 911 call which is in-progress or waiting, the locations of police units and their status (free, working a call, etc.). A double click on a map icon brings up information about the call or the unit. Records management (also by Versaterm) is similarly automated, with reports now written electronically on laptop or in-vehicle computers directly by officers. A wide variety of information (e.g. address) is automatically verified, and the report is uploaded wirelessly.
The state-of-the-art in Seattle Police is even more high tech. Every patrol car has a digital video camera; every car stop is recorded, including the audio of the conversation from a wireless mic carried by the officer. Special license-plate-recognition vehicles (wirelessly connected to national databases) cruise the streets looking for parking scofflaws and stolen cars. Officers with BlackBerrys or their in-car vehicles can easily search for online information - a far cry from that teletype machine.
We are actively working on even higher speed wireless networking in the 700 MHz spectrum, which should allow two-way high-quality video transmissions to/from field units, including video from private security cameras in banks and stores. Fire units already carry electronic versions certain sorts of building plans, but in the future those building plans could be quickly updated to show the locations of hazardous materials or the detailed configuration of a school.
I'm certain high-tech has increased public safety through more rapid sharing of information, and has improved communications and therefore officer safety. This comes at a price, of course, and not just in dollars. I'm not quite sure how dispatchers and police officers and firefighters stay current with the skills required to dispatch, provide policing, fight fires and provide emergency medical, AND also learn all this technology. It is a challenge!
And officers today face dangers on the street which I never dreamed of in the 1970s - significant drug use, gangs, potential terrorists, and criminals who specialize themselves in using technology for identity theft, stalking, and crimes against children. I'm glad my experience as a police officer is behind me - I'm not smart enough or quick enough on my feet to face the challenges of the street today. But I hope - by continued wise application of technology - we can make cops, firefighters and the people they serve a bit safer.
July 18, 2009 By Bill Schrier
No, "Gray" technology doesn't refer to the color of my hair (what little remains of it) nor does it refer to the aging of the workforce. "Gray" technology refers to the decidedly mixed blessings of technology, and specifically the impacts of the ubiquitous and ever-expanding use of technology on the environment. I don't believe there's very much green (good for the earth) tech, nor ugly (bad for the earth) tech, but there is a lot of "gray" tech.
I recently spoke to the GFOA - Government Financial Officers Association conference in Seattle about "Technology - Savior or Curse for the Environment?". The bean counters (I say this with affection, you GOFAites, since you also control and manage my budget!), are surprisingly interested in not just technology, but green technology, as long as it has a decent return on investment (ROI). Increasingly, finance officers are willing to count environmental benefits, not just hard dollar savings, as part of that ROI.
Many people see technology as a savior of the environment. A couple examples: Paper. The "paperless office" has been a stalwart of technology magazines (there's an oxymoron) for years.
The thought is simple: with e-mail and electronic storage of documents we could eventually eliminate use of paper, saving trees and therefore forests. But forest acreage hasn't changed much in the last 100 years, and has actually increased by 14 million acres since 1977.
Furthermore, the process of recycling paper products is highly refined, albeit water and energy intensive. Nevertheless, reducing paper use is a noble goal, and the City of Seattle certainly has embraced it through a "Papercuts" campaign, and through a proposed 20 cent tax on plastic AND paper grocery bags.
Travel. People travel a lot, via planes, trains and automobiles. Travel uses a lot of energy and burns a lot of fossil fuel.
You'd think the advent of telephone conference calling, the Internet, electronic mail and now webinars and similar tech should lead to electronic meetings and telecommuting (which is not prevalent in government, but that's a blog for another time). Therefore we could hope for reduced trips via car or bus or airplane.
Reduced travel has many positive effects - smaller carbon tireprints, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, lowered traffic congestion on highways, less pollution of the upper atmosphere, reduced use of scarce oil, less dependence on foreign oil, a wiser foreign policy, eventually world peace (ok, maybe that's a stretch).
Nice vision, very hard to realize.
People like to work in groups. They like to see each other face-to-face. They like to watch each other squirm and sweat under pressure. They like to watch facial expressions and have sidebar conversations.
Perhaps a future generation of workers who grew up tech savvy can easily and productively have meetings via webinar and telephone conference call. More likely, we'll eventually (despite the recent atrocious criteria issued by NTIA for the Broadband stimulus projects) get really high speed fiber networks, two-way HDTV, and true telework and video telepresence.
In the meantime, we'll continue to jump in our cars (airplanes, buses) and travel to face-to-face meetings spewing fumes all the way.
So is technology really the "savior of the environment?
Technology is noxious. At every stage of its lifecycle, from birth to death, technology has awful side effects.
Technology contains scarce minerals mined from the earth. It uses a lot of plastic (plastic comes from oil, right?). It takes a lot of water and toxic chemicals to make electronic components. An integrated circuit or chip factory uses as much water and power as a small, not-very-green, city.
Using technology is injurious, both to the environment and to people. Data centers consume great amounts of electricity (using coal and oil and producing greenhouse gas again), as do all our little electronic gadgets like the laptop computer I'm writing this on or the BlackBerry I carry close to my heart (in my back pocket).
Human beings were not designed to type on keyboards, sit and stare at screens for long periods, or even to sit at all (think carpal tunnel syndrome, junk food, obesity, lack of exercise).
And then there is the disposal of technology. When is the last time you've had a cell phone fixed? Or, when Microsoft finally obsoletes that operating system (Windows 95, 2000, XP etc.), how many people actually do an upgrade? Most just buy a new computer, because the old one is too slow for the new operating system anyway.
Where does this old tech go? Generally, we ship it overseas where it is ripped apart (by low-paid workers in unsanitary conditions) for the small pieces that are valuable, and the rest goes into a landfill in a third world country. We're getting better about this recycling of course, but we've got a long ways to go.
Green technology. Yeah, right. Such a thing won't exist until we have organic computing and chips grown on trees (pun intended).
But I'm a "chief technology officer" and of course I'm a tireless advocate to apply technology to make government more efficient and effective, and to improve services to constituents.
But let's not blithely call it "green". And let's also recognize that not every business problem benefits from application of more "gray" technology.
June 28, 2009 By Bill Schrier
Everyone likes to tell success stories, particularly if the success occurred under your own leadership. But we all have failures and make mistakes. Few of us like to discuss them. I am writing about my biggest failure as CTO, hoping there is a lesson here for others.
I recently spoke to an IT consolidation retreat in Nashville hosted by the Center for Radical Improvement. In 2005-2006 we tried to partially consolidate information technology in the City of Seattle. It failed. Well, let's say it was "less than successful". And here is the "rest of the story".
City government in Seattle has 11,000 employees, of whom about 550 work directly in technology and 215 of those work in the central Department of Information Technology (DoIT) which I lead. We have three service desks, three different radio systems, four large data centers, and at least six different groups providing server support and desktop support. We have at least five different work management systems, and some unknown number of document management systems.
On the other hand, we are standardized in many ways - a single e-mail system, Windows XP on all desktops, Oracle and SQL Server for databases, a single award-winning web presence at www.seattle.gov, an award-winning municipal TV station, one set of connections to the Internet, a single firewall, and a single financial management system and payroll system. (The award-winning functions are centralized, of course!)
In 2005 the Mayor and I proposed a consolidation of technology infrastructure employees - about 100 employees would have moved from a dozen departments into the central IT shop - DoIT.
It failed. Why?
1. We did not calculate a return-on-investment and a potential cost savings from the consolidation. Such a cost/benefit analysis is essential to proving the case to elected officials. Furthermore, I promised there would be "no loss of jobs" due to the reorganization. I did this primarily because I felt we could re-deploy employees more efficiently to tackle a whole host of new projects. But I was also hoping to lessen the fear of change which is embedded in any organization, especially government, and especially during an impending organizational change. This is a dilemna - in difficult budget times, consolidation/centralization has a strong return-on-investment (ROI) and good support from elected officials, but the ROI comes from cutting jobs, which has a disastrous effect on morale. Yet in "good" budget times, when jobs can be preserved, the support from elected and appointed officials is much less compelling.
2. I failed my Mayor. Mayor Nickels made the decision for this reorganization. But I didn't properly engage him - and his senior staff - in supporting and leading the change. Consequently many employees, department directors and others saw this consolidation as "empire building" on my part - an internal grab for power rather than an honest attempt to improve government. Indeed, a Seattle City Council member openly accused me of "empire building" in a City Council meeting (he later, but privately, apologized for the remark). That meeting is undoubtedly stored somewhere in the vast video archives of the Seattle Channel.
3. We did not get a consultant. Yes, there are many jokes about consultants. And good organizational consultants are expensive. But the blunt fact is simple: a comprehensive look at consolidation by someone outside the organization - a dispassionate outsider - would have greatly improved the credibility of the change. A good consultant would also complete a detailed cost/benefit analysis.
4. A labor union opposed the change. IT professional employees in the Department of Information Technology (DoIT) employees have decided not to be represented by a union. But many of the employees in other departments (who would be consolidated) are currently represented. Those employees probably would have lost that representation when moving. Although the numbers are small here - 35 to 40 employees in a labor union of 2,500 - there are larger principles at stake.
Generally, I believe in centralization of tech infrastructure functions - networks and data centers and computer operating system support. Certainly, we should have a single financial management system, budget system, and payroll system. Centralized functions are almost always more efficient, effective and secure.
In an organization our size, some applications support should be decentralized, for example, the software used to manage Seattle Parks Department resources and reservations is certainly different from the software used to manage resources for the Seattle Police Department or our electric utility Seattle City Light. Employees in those departments know best how to use technology to support their unique business needs.
But achieving technology consolidation is hard. Although I'm proud of most of the work done under my technology leadership at the City of Seattle, I've had a failure or two or three as well. I hope others can learn from this. I certainly have the "scars of the school of hard knocks" from this experience!
June 12, 2009 By Bill Schrier
Most people complain fervently about how electronic mail they get. My opinion: electronic mail is the best invention since sliced bread - or, at least the best since the Internet.
When you scratch the surface (or "open the envelope"), most of us are probably addicted to electronic mail and its newer cousins BlackBerrys, text messaging and twitter.
I know what large organizations did before e-mail. They wrote memos. They wrote stacks and stacks of paper memos. There were legions of clerks and secretaries who prepared memos for their bosses on typewriters.
I learned to touch-type on manual typewriters at North Tama High School in Traer, Iowa, a rural community school which wisely foisted typing class on every student, boy or girl. Why it was mandatory, I don't know, as secretarial jobs were seen as menial even then. Perhaps the principal Bob Clark clairvoyantly foresaw (even before Al Gore) the Internet and computers? I know he died without a lot of wealth, so he wasn't clairvoyant enough to buy Apple or Microsoft as startups, but clearly he was a prescient educator.
With paper memos (and carbon paper), bureaucracies took a loooong time to make decisions. And those decisions were hard to communicate other than via staff meetings or the ubiquitous company bulletin boards.
Usually very few people were involved in such decisions because of the amount of paper, the interoffice mail deliveries, and the slowness of the whole process. Beyond typing memos, pre-e-mail bureaucracies (to include corporations and private businesses as well as government) made a lot of decisions via small face-to-face meetings and the telephone - usually one-on-one phone calls.
E-mail changed all this. Now information can be rapidly disseminated to an entire company, or indeed, the entire world (skirting those ubiquitous spam filters). Through prudent and frugal use of e-mail, information can collected and decisions made, often without the need for face-to-face meetings. We're more productive. We get more done in a shorter period of time. And we can get input from throughout our organization, not just the people we see face-to-face or in meetings every day.
Certainly millions of secretaries have been put out of work, but millions of much-higher-paid and more respected geeks (aka information technology workers) have been put INTO work, not just for managing e-mail, but also for all the related technologies (servers, storage, spam filters and so forth).
The City of Seattle is deep in the throes of converting from Novell GroupWise to Microsoft Exchange/Outlook for electronic mail. This $10 million project (including standardization on Office 2007) represents the 4th generation of electronic mail for us, starting with IBM's CICS Office, thru a Diaspora of LAN-based e-mail systems to standardizing on GroupWise and now to Outlook. A team of 20 technology employees is hard at work at this conversion. I'm looking forward to June 24th, when I (as CTO, Chief Geek, and Chief Dog-food-eater) become one of the first log-in to my newly-minted Outlook.
E-mail: the bane of our existence? A vast improvement in productivity and decision making? A way to flatten and democratize our existence? Yeah, it is all that and more.
E-mail: I like it.
May 24, 2009 By Bill Schrier
I just finished one of the most difficult tasks a manager can perform - making preliminary decisions on budget cuts for next year. This is a job which is difficult in any line of work, and more so in government for several reasons.
For one thing, there's an expectation that government is stable and long-term in its operations and its employment. It has to be. Despite the situation with the economy at large, water and electricity have to keep flowing, streets and parks need to be repaired and cleaned, 911 calls answered, cops and firefighters dispatched. Most of this work is at the very base of Maslow's hierarchy of needs - safety and security. The people who perform these jobs for the public expect to have security in their jobs and the tools they use.
Yet I've found most government workers are motivated not by job security or money, but by pride. They - we - are proud of the work they do, and proud to be meeting the most basic needs of the people of our communities. I've given employees raises and promotions, but, again and again, I've watched their motivations inspired not by more money, but with a kind word or e-mail of appreciation, or being recognized in front of their peers for doing a good job.
Certainly the legal machinery surrounding government - or, really, nowadays, work in any large corporation or bureaucracy - reinforces job security. Civil service regulations, unions, personnel rules, and other legal protections all reinforce the expectation that many jobs in government are "permanent".
Making budget decisions is hard - we talk in terms of "cutting positions" or "abrogation" or other fancy words. But I know the first name of (almost) every employee in my 200+ person department, and hundreds of others in City government as well. It is hard to separate the name or reality of "services cuts" from the people who do the work and are directly affected.
Almost as difficult is making the decisions about cutting tools and equipment versus positions. It's one thing to have people to maintain a public safety radio network or operate a computer center. But we also need to provide switches and radios and large-scale computers and space to keep those functions operating.
There are the other jobs of government - the public information officers and municipal TV channel, and support for arts organizations and the library, not to mention feeding the homeless and housing the hungry (and vice versa). All these are important functions, all requiring people, as well as tools and materials and other resources. Finally - and most important, perhaps - are the visible jobs of government - the people who run community centers and libraries, the cops and firefighters, the workers who fill potholes and maintain the electric grid.
Although my job is tough, and my decisions are hard, I don't envy the elected officials who have to make choices for the government as a whole. Then those elected officials need to explain those choices to voters - many of whom have lost a job or a home themselves. And those explanations often occur during the heat of an election campaign, when emotions and misinformation abound.
Tough times, tough decisions.
Note: A few more details about the budget issues with the City of Seattle's technology are in a recent Puget Sound Business Journal interview here. The Seattle Department of Information Technology's budget for 2010 was authorized at $59 million and 216 positions - see DoIT's and the full City budget here.
This Digital Communities white paper highlights discussions with IT officials in four counties that have adopted shared services models. Our aim was to learn about the obstacles these governments have faced when it comes to shared services and what it takes to overcome those roadblocks. We also spoke with several members of the IT industry who have thought long and hard about these issues. The paper offers some best practices for shared government-to-government services, but also points out challenges that government and industry still must overcome before this model gains widespread adoption.