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

What's Google Trying to Do?

February 16, 2010 By Bill Schrier

Seattle applies for Googles broadband - click to see more The nation's e-mail and blogging and twitter engines worked overtime on Wednesday February 10th when Google announced its intent to fund ultra-high-speed Internet access for 50,000 to 500,000 people nationwide.

This ain't your grandma's "broadband" connection. And it ain't the 100-squared broadband envisioned by FCC Chair Julius Genachowski in a speech on Tuesday February 15th - 100-squared is 100 megabits per second to 100 million people by 2020 - a pretty bold vision in and of itself. Google wants to provide one gigabit (one billion bits or about 120 million bytes) per second to homes via fiber optic cable.

At a gigabit per second, a very high quality movie would download in 8 seconds flat, compared to an hour or more with a fast cable modem or DSL connection. Google published an RFI and is seeking responses from cities who want Google to come and build. The City of Seattle announced very quickly its intention to apply and jump on the bandwagon. Of course we have a visionary Mayor, Mike McGinn, who is publicly seeking, as a priority for his administration, to build a fiber network to every home and business in Seattle.

So what is Google trying to do here?

Is it being a altruistic corporation, hoping to better the lives of average citizens while fulfilling its pledge to "make money without doing evil"?

Some of Google's motives are clear. They want to offer a competitive service and these networks are clearly "experimental". This is all about Internet, not about offering phone or cable TV service, although, at a gigabit a second, you can watch HDTV video from websites and use video conferencing and telephone service until you are blind and hoarse.

They explicitly want to "see what developers and users can do with ultra high-speeds, whether it's creating new bandwidth-intensive "killer apps" and services, or other uses we can't yet imagine". That implies to me that they want to connect high-tech businesses to other high-tech businesses and to their own employees in their homes as well as connecting other very tech-savvy users, students, and others who will push the envelope. This is probably NOT a network for serving low-income neighborhoods, bridging the digital divide, or connecting mom-and-pop businesses in neighborhoods.

Furthermore, Google would build networks to serve 50,000 to 500,000 "people" (not households or businesses). They want to serve multiple cities, so the chances any individual City would get service are pretty low (1 in 600 or maybe 1 in 6000). And in any given City, not many households would be served. If they do networks to serve 100,000 people, that's probably about 30,000 households, and if they do this in five cities, it is about 6,000 households in any given place.

What other strings will be attached?

Google makes money selling targeted ads. They also like consumers to use their products, e.g. if you want to use Buzz you need a Gmail account and it undoubtedly will gather information about how people use these networks as a part of the "experiment".

Finally, I am certain Google is sending a message to the cable companies and telecommunications carriers here. Those companies thrive on making broadband scarce. As a scarce commodity and a duopoly service (as it is in many communities), the telcomms and cable folks can charge more and keep hiking up rates. They put limits on how much broadband any given consumer can use. They undoubtedly would like to charge "content providers" - companies like Microsoft and Amazon and ... yes ... Google - money to make sure the content of those companies has priority and guaranteed delivery in an allegedly scarce and constrained bandwidth network. This is what the "net neutrality" debate is all about.

But Google (and lots of other people) know better. With fiber-to-the-home, speed is unlimited, the bandwidth is no longer scarce and the fat profits of the incumbents evaporate.

I'm certainly excited about the Google challenge. They are challenging the developers, the carriers, the cable companies and the FCC, to push the limits in its national broadband plan, due out March 17th.

Are there strings attached?  No doubt.  But this is a revolutionary proposal. Its about the economic future of our cities, region and nation. 

And it is cool.


Leave a comment

A Peek at the National Broadband Plan

January 27, 2010 By Bill Schrier

The National Broadband plan On January 26th Admiral Jamie Barnett of the FCC spoke about the National Broadband Plan, which is now due out on March 17th (and I understand New York City, Boston and other cities with large Irish-American populations plan to have parades in honor of the plan that day, too!)

As a CTO, I'm so immersed in technology that I'm not sure "broadband" means anything to the average American (if an "average" American exists).

Certainly most Americans are now at least aware of the Internet and use technology in their lives, even if that tech is nothing more than a cell phone or ATM. But all you have to do is watch the security lines at any airport and see all the laptops and luggables and cell phones and DVD players and other associated smart lumps of plastic dumped on the scanner lines to know that tech is ubiquitous in most people's lives.

A significant fraction of people know about broadband and what it means. In Seattle, some 84% of homes have an Internet connection, 75% have something faster than dial-up and 88% have a computer at home. Of course Seattle's got a reputation as a city of high tech folks (an image Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer and I work hard to polish). But even nationwide 79% of homes have an Internet connection and 63% are faster than dial-up. The source for these stats is here.

These are numbers are hard to fathom when one considers the web didn't exist 20 years ago, and most people probably thought "Internet" had something to do with basketball, volleyball, tennis or another "net-centric" sport.

Admiral Barnett heads the Homeland Security and Public Safety Bureau at the FCC. He's charged with making wireless spectrum available to government in general and specifically to the law enforcement, firefighting and emergency medical agencies who keep the public safe. He spoke at the Winter Summit of Association of Public Safety Communications Officials on January 26th, and gave us a glimpse of what the National Broadband Plan will contain.

Admiral Barnett's remarks centered on wireless spectrum for use by first responders. About 10 Megahertz is available nationwide for public safety, but the license for that is held by a single nationwide organization. Yet most police, fire and emergency medical agencies are operated by cities and counties. Given this paradoxical situation, 17 states and cities have requested waivers from the FCC to use that spectrum in their local areas to immediately create networks for their use.

And why is the spectrum required? These new wireless networks hold promise that cops in police vehicles can see videos of crimes in progress as they race to crime scenes, or rapidly access building plans, images and video. Have a peek at a report prepared by PTI and APCO here for more uses.

According to Admiral Barnett, those waivers may be granted later this year so we can get started building the network.

The FCC is very interested in public-private partnerships to build the networks because many jurisdictions don't have funds to construct such networks for themselves. Luckily, commercial cell phone carriers like Verizon and AT&T, and companies like Motorola and Alcatel-Lucent have signed on in support of this plan, and are developing new networks including LTE (long term evolution) for not only their own networks but also for public safety use. This means public safety agencies could use a network built and funded by taxpayers (more resilient, better priority, less costly) for most of their work, but could roam only the commercial carriers' networks when necessary. This is in stark contrast to today's networks, where police/fire radios are incompatible with the cell phone networks. The best of both worlds!

It looks like the FCC will encourage these partnerships in its plan.

The FCC also knows that funding will be required to construct these networks. Admiral Barnett understands funding is required not just to build the networks, but to operate them. Besides public-private partnerships, the FCC is floating the idea of an Emergency Response Interoperability Center (ERIC) to pushing forward on a national public safety wireless network. We'll hear more about this on February 10th .

Finally, Barnett said "next generation 911" will also be recognized in the national broadband plan. Right now, the only way to get information to a 911 center is to ... well ... telephone 911!

But many citizens' cell phones have the capability to do text messages, take photos and video. Yet 911 centers have little or no capability to accept such media, which can be critical to rapidly apprehending perpetrators and rendering aid to victims. We higher-speed land line fiber optic networking between 911 centers and other public safety and government facilities too, and I hope that will be in the Plan.

Twenty years ago, very few people knew of the Internet or Web. Now it is an indispensible part of most people's lives and a vital component of our HomeCity security and public safety. But we need more network SPEED, both wired and wireless. The National Broadband Plan could be, with a bit of vision by the FCC (and I've given them my vision here), a roadmap to the future of the nation.


Leave a comment

CES: The Time Machine

January 12, 2010 By Bill Schrier

We have a Time Machine.

It is one way, moving 60 seconds an hour, 24 hours a day, into The Future. The Consumer Electronics Show is a window into The Future. Technology demonstrated there this week will be available to early-adopter consumers and businesses in the next year or two, and will be available at Costco soon thereafter. And it has at least one common theme - networks will have to be fast. Not just fast, but FAST. Here are some examples:

But what does all this speed really get you in the real world?

For one thing, much faster two-way or multi-way video telephone or video conferencing, which means fewer commute trips in cars and less demand on other transportation such as plane trips across the country.

That translates into less air pollution, less dependence on foreign oil (and need for foreign military expeditions) and less global warming. Then there is improved entertainment, interactive gaming, energy management, and much much more.

But it all depends on rapid deployment of LTE for wireless and fiber-to-the-premise for wired networks. The Time Machine is taking us inexorably into this glitzy new future. But are our wireless and wired networks ready for this? Not in Seattle, certainly.

We need a network vision to match our CES vision and here it is.

The Flux Capacitor is fluxing.  The Time Machine is ready.  Are we ready to build the network we need?

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn is ready, and we're going to do it.


Leave a comment

1999 - An Odd Odyssey

December 30, 2009 By Bill Schrier

The Y2K Bug - and confusion in years - click for more It was just ten short years ago that many of us were preparing to celebrate New Year's Eve - by working all night!

Anyone over 30 probably still remembers all the information technology work that went into preparing for Year 2000.

I'm going to dredge (!?) up some of my memories in the next few paragraphs, but if you have memories or stories of that December 31, 1999, evening, I invite you to leave them as a comment to this blog entry.

For many of us in Seattle, 1999 was not a good year.

First of all, we had madly been reviewing and fixing our information technology applications and programs and systems for Y2K bugs.

But no one really knew what would happen.  Would buses and trains stop dead due to bugs in their microchips?  Would the electrical grid fail?  Would 911 stop working?

The City of Seattle, like any organization using IT, had very real problems - we knew the accounting/financial database - called SFMS for Seattle Financial Management System - was not ready for Y2K, so we replaced it with an entirely new system.  We also patched up the water utility's and electrical utility's billling systems, since another project to replace them was in progress. (That system, now called CCSS for the Consolidated Customer Service System, was implemented in 2001, a year late and $14 million over budget, which is a different story).

The City's Chief Technology Officer was Lynn Jacobs, and in 1998 she had spread the alarm about Y2K, galvanizing the Mayor, City Council and most departments into action looking for their Y2K bugs.  But by October, 1999, Jacobs had largely checked out due to personal issues, rarely coming to work and exerting virtually no leadership.  So Mayor Schell replaced her with Marty Chakoian, who was, not coincidently, leading the City's Y2K efforts. There was plenty of consternation among the IT leadership in the City government.

But the outside world was in chaos in 1999 too. 

The Seattle Times ran a whole series of articles about the electrical grid and 911 systems and other critical functions, and how we were preparing them for Y2K. Gee, they even talked about potential water systems' issues with Y2K, even though Seattle's water reservoirs are high up in the mountains and the basic rule of water and wastewater is "s___ flows downhill" (The s___ stands for "stuff", of course).

And we had the WTO riots in Seattle in November; Seattle sure appeared to be the anarchy capital of North America, if not the world.

Then on Dec. 14, 1999, a 32-year-old Algerian named Ahmed Ressam was arrested in Port Angeles, Washington, coming across the border from Canada with 100 pounds of powerful explosives in the trunk of his car.  Was he headed to Seattle to detonate the explosives at the base of the Space Needle on New Year's Eve?  We couldn't take a chance, so Mayor Paul Schell cancelled the grand New Year's celebration planned there.

For most of us tech types, and a lot of other folks, it didn't make any difference, anyway.  We had already planned to be at work instead of celebrating on December 31st.

The City's Emergency Operations Center was open.  At that time, the EOC was in a crowded basement of Fire Station #2 in the Denny Regrade (it has since been replaced with a $30 million modern facility).  Nevertheless, senior officials from every department hunkered down to see in the millennium in that basement.

My own Department of Information Technology was all of 5 months old - we were created as a separate department on August 1, 1999. Our operations center was in an old stock brokerage (Foster and Marshall) building at 2nd and Columbia, which is now home to the United Way of Seattle. That building was home to the telecommunications division, including the service desk - the rest of the department was in the Dexter Horton building next door. [The Dexter Horton building turned out to be much worse off in the earthquake of 2001, when virtually everyone working there was forced to leave it for a couple weeks due to building damage, but again that's another story.]

Y2K at the City of Seattles IT Operations Center - click to see a larger version On December 31, 1999, we had a whole team of folks who celebrated the beginning of the third millennium* together, watching a quiet, uneventful Seattle 20th Century night turn into a quiet, uneventful and sleepy 21st century* morning.

Was it uneventful due to all our diligency and preparations, or was there never really any problem in the first place?  I don't know, but I do know I'll celebrate the end of the decade of the naughts tonight with a bit more enjoyment and a lot less trepidation.

*Note: Yes, yes, I do understand the real beginning of the 3rd millennium and the 21st century is January 1,2001. See article here. But, gee, popular culture doesn't count the years that way, so I took a little tech-journalism-geek liberties with dates in writing this article.


Leave a comment

Translucent to the User

December 13, 2009 By Bill Schrier

  E-mail conversion, City of Seattle On Monday night, December 8th, the Seattle Police Department started to use Microsoft Exchange/Outlook for electronic mail. This culminated moving more than 11,000 City of Seattle employees, over 12,400 e-mailboxes, and 900 BlackBerrys from an older e-mail technology to the Exchange 2007 product. All of it "translucent to the user".

I've previously blogged about project management, and specifically identifying and reducing risks in large technology projects ("the P-I test"). With this entry I'm highlighting somewhat different project management practices.  We used certain techniques to reduce the impact of the technology changes on front-line City workers such as firefighters, accountants, and street maintenance staff.

(In case you think I'm just tooting our own horn, I am, but I've also blogged about my biggest project failure and you can read about that here, too!). 

We called this e-mail migration project GEM, for GroupWise to Exchange Migration.

Not only was the project on-time, under-budget and delivering all of its objectives, but there were very few whimpers from most City employees at this major change in their work lives. How was such a change so seamless?  

Electronic mail is, arguably, the most important technology used by workers in almost any company today, whether government or private.  It has supplanted the telephone and even the desktop computer as the key tool for many workers to be productive and efficient. Decisions which might take days or weeks without e-mail can be debated and handled rapidly with e-mail communication. Management of front-line projects (streets, water, electricity), debates and decisions on policies, notification of events, press releases, scheduling, all occur with this tool. Most importantly, it is a primary way for constituents and customers to communicate with City workers and elected officials and the way for those officials to coordinate the City's response. 

Of course, when anything is this valuable in your life, you are extraordinarily skittish when it is NOT available or about to be significantly changed.  Managing this "culture change" - in the working habits of thousands of City workers - is the elusive key to success in a technology project.

I won't get into the current debate (war?) about use of internal e-mail versus a hosted service, or whether Google's g-mail is better or more cost effective than the Microsoft product set. Because e-mail is so important in our work lives, and because many people use Outlook at home (or in a previous job) anyway, it was the right choice for the City of Seattle. Because many e-mail messages are sensitive, and since I have a skilled and dedicated set of employees to manage and operate it, we would not have it hosted or managed elsewhere. Microsoft Exchange/Outlook is an established product, well-supported, used by 65% or so of the organizations in America today.  And many many other applications (purchasing or human resource systems, billing and customer service systems) are written to use Outlook/Exchange for communication.

Here are the elements of success for GEM:

  • Strong executive leadership. Mayor Greg Nickels fully supported this change, and every department director knew it. The nine-member Seattle City Council voted to fund the project ($4.9 million) after considerable, reasoned debate. These elected officials were able to articulate the rationale for making this change. This support helped immensely in cooperation for training, scheduling and acceptance throughout the Government.
  • Strong project leadership. My deputy department director sponsored the project - she has formal and informal ties to many line departments, and she's managed many brick-and-mortar projects (e.g. building Parks community centers). She chose a strong project director who is a hard-nosed negotiator, and a skilled project manager who pays attention to both people and details.
  • Support. We chose, via competitive bid, a knowledgeable private partner - Avanade - to give us advice, skilled support and knowledge transfer. Avanade had helped many companies with similar conversions in the past, and performed in an outstanding manner for us.
  • Training. We gave employees a chance to purchase Microsoft Office 2007 via the home use program, and 2,000 of them took that chance, thereby learning the product suite at home. A month prior to each department's conversion, we told them how to prepare, for example, by deleting old e-mail and taking training. We offered training in classes, video and reading material for anyone from heavy e-mail users to people who just needed a refresher on Outlook.
  • Communicate communicate communicate. We told all 12,000 employees at the beginning of 2009 what we planned to do ("to" them!)  One month out from their department's conversion, we told them how to get trained and ready.  Two weeks out we communicated details via their management chain and via e-mail message. The day before conversion, each employee had a sheet of instructions placed on their chair. The day after conversion, technology staff chosen for their great "deskside manner" walked the halls and cubicles to answer questions and solve problems.  We had a skilled service desk / help desk and a special e-mail contact point. And all along we had a detailed, fact-and-fun-filled internal website with information, training, FAQ's, and links to more resources.
  • Skilled City employees. We already had a highly competent help desk, capable desktop support staff and experienced engineers supporting servers and storage and messaging system.  We trained and leveraged this skilled and motivated set of employees, coupled with Avanade, to do the technical work on the project.
  • Finally - and perhaps this is most important, we drafted departments into the effort. Each department had at least one and usually a team of people who worked with the GEM project team to customize the training and conversion plan for that department's unique needs. Police patrol officers use e-mail differently than Parks groundskeepers who are different than budget analysts who are different than electrical utility engineers. These "extended teams" in departments not only participated in the planning, but became natural advocates for overcoming problems and socializing the change in each department.

Leadership, communication, user representation, strong private partner, skilled and motivated technical staff - a GEM of a project, translucent to the users!


Leave a comment

Featured Papers