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

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!


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Kurmudgeons and Kids

December 1, 2009 By Bill Schrier

Am I a Mac or a PC or just plain old Bill?  Click here. Oh gee, I think I've become a Kurmudgeon. Or maybe a naysayer. Or maybe just a Buttoned-Down Corporate IT Technocrat. Or maybe, and this is most frightening of all, PC - and I don't mean "politically correct" - but rather the character played by John Hodgman in the "Get a Mac" advertisements

Bill Schriers ancient draft card - click for blog But I know I'm anti-establishment, because I marched and protested the Vietnam War. I actually participated in a sit-in demonstration. I crossed a police barricade during an anti-war protest in Madison Wisconsin (ok, so it was St. Patrick's Day, I was drunk, twenty-three years old, on my way to work, and headed to get a cup of coffee to sober up - I still "crossed the line", ok?). Gee Whiz, I almost burned by draft card (oh my gosh, am I that old, that I still have a draft card?)  How could a militant activist plebeian, farm-kid like me become the ultimate embodiment of "The Man"?

What happened?

Elections.

Yup, we've had a few recently in Seattle.

We have a new Mayor, a new County Executive, a new City Attorney, and two new City Councilpeople.

And they are all younger than me.

Worse yet, their campaign staff - who are now working on their transition teams - are college kids or twenty-and-thirty-something young people who have all these odd and annoying habits.

They use I-Phones. Gee, I can't even spell I-Phone (correctly).  We corporate IT types use proper BlackBerrys or proper mobile phones that fold out when you want to talk.  (Although I did give my wife an I-Phone for Christmas - does that count?)

They use Macs. Yes, Apple Macintosh computers - (not the Ronald McDonald type of Mac).  We corporate IT types use proper Windows XP computers manufactured by prim and proper corporations like Hewlett Packard with proper advertising campaigns, thank you very much. (My always-suffering wife is a Mac person - does that count?)

They don't use anti-virus software.  Anathema! Heresy!   My Chief Information Security Officer is writhing on the floor. There ARE viruses which affect Macs, he says.  And how about all those I-Phone (I still can't spell it right) apps which are written by hackers and can be downloaded?  Oh wait, I-Phone hackers aren't trying to create bot armies, they're just trying to modify the software in the phone and bend it to their will.  Gee, does that make Apple Engineers and Programmers and Executives Buttoned-Down corporate IT types like me?

These kids - they tweet and twitter and blog and facebook (is that a verb?) and post video they take with their danged I-Phones to YouTube and create legends for their innovative use of cell phones to collect last minute ballots on election night. 

Where is my defense from all this anarchy?   Where is my official City of Seattle Information Security policy when I need it?   Where are my guidelines for the use of social media like Facebook and Twitter and Blogs (oh my)?  Where is that holy grail of all Chief Information Officers and Buttoned Down corporate IT types - "standards"? 

At least I can take comfort and wrap myself in my reduced budget (Macs and I-Phones cost more to buy and manage) and my economic development (gee, Microsoft DOES employ 40,000 people in the Seattle area and it DOES, after all, make software for Macs, too).

They are challenging my policies, these kids. They are challenging my assumptions. They don't care for my technology standards. They have taught me how to spell iPhone.

They are challenging my very identity as the Chief Technology Officer for the City Government of Seattle.

And I love it.


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A Cop Killer and Broadband

November 18, 2009 By Bill Schrier

Officer Tim Brenton - click photo to see more On Friday, November 6th at 1:00 PM, five thousand people gathered in Seattle to grieve for Seattle Police Officer Tim Brenton who was murdered in his police cruiser.  At 3:30 PM the killer was caught, after a week of diligent detective work, and through use of video technology.  This tragic incident illustrates why first responders need improved technology, including a modern 4th generation (4G) wireless network.

How do I make the leap from the heartbreaking death of a police officer to the need for more technology, and, in particular, a high-speed wireless network for first responders?

First, I'll describe Brenton's murder. Tim Brenton, a ten-year veteran of Seattle's Police Department, was training a new officer, Britt Sweeney, on the night of October 31st. They were stopped at the side of a street in Seattle's Leschi neighborhood, reviewing Britt's performance in a car stop.

Another vehicle pulled beside them on the left side of the police cruiser, and opened fire on the officers at point blank range. Sweeney, on the cruiser's driver's side, ducked down and the bullets grazed her back, but the shots hit Brenton immediately killing him. The murderer backed up his vehicle, and turned down a side street, being careful not to drive in front of the police cruiser.

The murderer knew every police patrol vehicle had a digital video camera, but that it faced forward. He was careful not to come into the camera's line of sight.

There were very few clues in the case. The wounded Officer Sweeney fired at the fleeing vehicle, but was unable to get a good look or description of it. There were no other witnesses. Despite tips flowing in, there was little information and, frankly, no good leads.

Detectives started to look for video clues. Seattle has very few video cameras observing streets or intersections, and the murder took place in a residential neighborhood. Every police vehicle has a digital video camera, but the cameras only record when the vehicle has its overhead warning lights flashing or when activated by the police officer. The video is saved to a computer hard drive in the vehicle and offloaded wirelessly when the vehicle returns to the precinct station. The video cannot be directly transmitted from the vehicle because no existing City or commercial wireless network has the bandwidth to do so.

The Seattle Police Department went to work, and examined video footage recorded by all vehicles patrolling that area of that City. Miraculously, even though the video cameras face only to the front to capture car stops and officer conversations with the stopped driver, detectives found a Datsun 210 in the background driving by several of the stops made by various police cars that night.

The detectives, unsure if the Datsun was even involved in the murder, but hoping for a break, broadcast the Datsun's distinct profile and asked for citizen help to find such a vehicle. And, on Friday the 6th, police received a call of a Datsun 210 covered with a tarp in the parking lot of a suburban Seattle apartment building. They responded and when Charles Monfort walked out toward the vehicle, he pulled a gun on the detectives. He was shot and arrested. In his apartment detectives found the murder weapon as well as improvised explosive devices. Montfort has also been linked to a firebombing of Seattle police vehicles on October 22. 

Monfort had a vendetta against police officers, and undoubtedly would have shot more officers if he had not been caught. Finding him was the result of dogged police work, those videos, and a lot of luck.

What does this say about the state of first responder technology?  First, we need more video. Seattle does have two police vehicles which drive the streets with video constantly running, and using license plate recognition looking for stolen vehicles. But every one of more than 300 patrol vehicles has video. Digital video in police vehicles is a great boon to public safety - the video and audio of every car stop is recorded. This helps quickly resolve complaints from the public about police behavior, as well as providing evidence for crimes such as drunk driving.

But perhaps we should be recording more than just car stops, e.g. continuously recording as police vehicles patrol neighborhoods. And certainly we could use more video in high crime streets and other public spaces. The ability of such video cameras to deter and solve crimes is well documented, notably in the London subway bombings.

But Seattle and other cities have been skeptical and slow to adopt it, largely due to concerns about privacy.  In terms of privacy concerns, video cameras should only observe public spaces such as streets or parks. I'm an advocate not just for deploying more video cameras, but for making almost all such video available online for anyone to view, just like traffic cameras are available online.  The video is, after all, of public spaces, and having more eyes watching for crime not only helps solve or prevent that crime, but also provides some oversight of police use of the video.

Next, we badly need high speed, fourth generation (4G) wireless broadband networking for first responders. Congress has set aside spectrum,  and a number of public safety organizations such as APCO and the PSST have been working to build such a network.   Public safety organizations have even developed standards for such a network.  But funding obstacles remain in the way.

With high speed wireless networking, video from field units - not just police but fire, utilities, transportation vehicles - can be transmitted real-time to dispatch centers, to other vehicles and to emergency management centers. Such real-time video gives police and fire commanders, 911 dispatchers and elected officials a view into what is happening in the field, and will result in more rapid resolution of crimes such as Office Tim Brenton's murder, as well as better deployment of field officers for any violent crime, problems around schools, hazardous materials, disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes and terrorist incidents.

We got lucky solving Officer Tim Brenton's murder. This incident is a call for action to put better video and wireless technology to work improving public safety.


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Open Cities

October 28, 2009 By Bill Schrier

Open Cities conference - click for more In 1940 the French declared Paris an "open" city so the invading Nazi Army would not destroy it while capturing it. Today modern cities are starting to declare themselves "open" in slightly more trusting ways, by exposing their data and information to all citizens and, indeed, to anyone on the Internet. By declaring ourselves "open" we hope to marshal an army of citizens, developers and analysts to give us new insights into governing and better engagement with the people we serve.

I've had the opportunity to participate in a couple of fascinating conferences lately. One was the Open Cities conference sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation in Washington DC. The other was "Future in Review", Mark Anderson's FiReGlobal conference held in mid-October, for the first time here in Seattle.

The theme is consistent: city governments, by opening their information, their data, their engagement processes, can generate a wealth of new ideas and understandings which make them more efficient and effective, and more robust, exciting places, with improved quality of life.

The old model, used for 250 years or more, is for a City is to collect as much data as possible about problems, its responses, services it provides and the general city environment. Then the typical city hires analysts or consultants - experts, if you will - to pore over the data and discern patterns. These experts then make recommendations for policy, action or changes.

Oh yes, we try not to forget regular citizens in this. We'll present the experts' ideas to citizens in public meetings for their "input". And citizens can give feedback, one at a time, for two or three minutes each, in a public forum. A terrifying (or wonderful) example of this is a recent Seattle City Council budget hearing, 205 minutes of 2 and 3 minute mini-speeches, most focused on just one or two topics (cutback of Library hours) out of a $4 billion budget. If you have a spare three+ hours, watch it here.

Most such public hearings are very one-way - experts or city officials talking at people, citizens talking back individually to elected officials and experts. This is extraordinarily inefficient as dozens or hundreds of people "watch" the mini-speeches, while waiting their turn to speak. Far too much air time is taken up by one-issue, professional gadflies ("citizens in comfortable pants"), often with off-the-wall opinions not representative of most people. Almost as bad, often the only people with time or interest to show up are often homeowners and others who NIMBY ("not in my backyard") the ideas, a negative dynamic. And this whole process is virtually the same as the process we used at the birth of the nation, in 1776, when our largest city was Philadelphia with 50,000 people.

Enter the Internet, and, more specifically, enter Web 2.0. All of a sudden, now in 21st Century America, there is tremendous computing power in the hands of ordinary people - smartphones, desktop and laptop computers. And those devices are connected, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Now you hear ordinary people talk about formerly obtuse technology concepts like databases and spreadsheets and pivot tables and Wi-Fi. And suddenly (at least in historic terms) there are millions of people and trillions of dollars involved in computing and software and development of applications.

In Seattle, for example, 84% of homes have access to the Internet. Nationally, there are 255 million cell phones , 21 million iPhones , and 101,000 iPhone applications . Cities are getting on the bandwagon. Many are publishing detailed crime statistics and even the details of 911 calls on their websites. You can find restaurant inspections and building permits and census statistics.

Public engagement, however, is still broken. We still hold public meetings with death-by-PowerPoint presentations and long lines of people trooping up to the microphone to give their 2 minute NIMBY mini-speeches.

Isn't there a better way?

There are beginnings of better ways. Fedgov websites like Citizens Briefing Book and local sites like ideasforseattle allow some limited input online input from people - allowing people to post their ideas, view each others ideas, and rank them. More robust applications for engagement are emerging, from Seattle's own Ideascale and companies like Athena Bridge. These applications allow people to shape ideas and develop them, commenting and ranking along the way.

But we need even more robustness - we need to bring such software to public meetings, so that, as officials or citizens are presenting ideas and talking, everyone in the room, or gee, anyone on the Internet watching the meeting, can be commenting, tweeting, and ranking, and the results are immediately displayed. The gadflies will quickly see their ideas have little public support.

In many other cases, obscure and even anonymous ideas and unique solutions to problems will emerge and be developed. Then, with open data feeds and citizen-developed applications, those solutions can be quickly tested against the real data published by a city which defines the problem. Almost as fast, options will emerge and consensus may develop on the right approach.

This new, emerging world of public engagement via the Internet and technology is not a panacea. It will take a lot of tweaking and mistakes before usable software emerges and public officials understand how to use it. And it won't work in every case or to address every problem.

Yes, the hordes and armies of citizens are about to invade. So let's declare our cities "open" and embrace them.

P.S. Those readers who are astute will make comments that Seattle is one of the major cities with no data.seattle.gov. Believe me, THAT will soon change!


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Great Recession? Not for this Tech!

October 19, 2009 By Bill Schrier

MIX Members on the Upswing In my previous blog entry, I discussed some of the "downswing" trends in IT in local government. This column will be about trends on the upswing - gaining prominence and resources - in cities and counties. Most of this information came from discussions with CIOs of other large cities and counties around the country, held at the Metropolitan Information Exchange (MIX) conference in Albuquerque in September.

On the rise in local government are cloud computing or hosted services, public safety support, geo-location, award-winning websites, social media use (blogging, twitter, Facebook, YouTube), consolidation, hiring chills or freezes, the "greening" of IT and responding to climate change.

MIX members certainly are leaders in online services, as recognized in the Center for Digital Government's annual best of the web awards. We are all driving more services online, but also struggling to make more data available for transparency and accountability. Those governments receiving awards are doing an exceptional job.

 "Cloud computing" or hosted applications or software-as-a-service (SAAS) are finding fertile ground in government, although only the seeds have been planted - just a few applications are sprouting. Bill Greeves, CIO of Roanoke County, Virginia, has been a leader in this field in government, especially with his Muni Gov 2.0 initiative. Bill is also a fellow blogger here on Digital Communities.

As the budgets of IT departments are cut, they no longer have the staff or resources to support applications, sometimes even mission critical ones. Many of us are therefore hosting new applications such as job application or payroll systems in the cloud. The City of Seattle will probably implement both applicant tracking systems (although with budget constraints, jobs are few and far between!) and customer relationship management systems "in the cloud". Besides ease of support, placing applications "in the cloud" also results in regular software upgrades and predictable costs.

Most MIX cities and counties are not cutting public safety or fire/emergency medical services departments. The City of Seattle, while cutting over 300 city employees in 2010, is preserving the number of firefighters and increasing the police department by 21 officers.

And support for public safety systems such as computer-aided dispatch (CAD) and records management is growing. A side effect of this growth is geo-location or automated-vehicle-location (AVL). Many local governments have implemented it for fire departments and it is seeing increasing use in police, transportation and utilities. AVL allows dispatch of the closest unit to a request for service, shortening response times. During disasters or major incidents, the incident commander and emergency operations center can quickly see and coordinate the deployment of units from many different disciplines to the scene. As one example, the City of Seattle just implemented a new CAD for Police which includes a mapping component showing not just unit locations, but active calls, waiting calls and completed requests.

Social media are seeing an explosion of use (duh!). Social media include blogging, online video (e.g. YouTube), twitter, mashups (data display on a map), and "friend" sites such as Facebook. Every MIX member is trying to figure out how to use these new technologies but at the same time comply with the web (pun intended) of laws for local government, including records retention and public disclosure while somehow preventing degeneration of public comment into the gutter often found in comments on newspaper articles. The City of Seattle just implementedd a series of social media policies, and is robustly using blogs and Twitter, as well as video and Facebook.

Again, Bill Greeves and the Muni Gov 2.0 crew are actively holding meetings and discussions in Second Life, another use of social media.

Next, I'll mention climate change. Some amount of debate continues to swirl around this topic - is global warming real or not? Is it caused by humans, or flatulating cows? This whole discussion is actually irrelevant. The fact is the public - and their elected officials - are demanding climate-friendly reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, which, by the way, also reduce our use of and dependence upon foreign oil. Mayor Greg Nickels of Seattle just had the 1000th city (Mesa, Arizona) sign the Mayors' climate protection agreement, an initiative he started in 2005. Bottom line: climate change is something IT departments need to address, too.

Then there is "green technology". I'm a notable skeptic that technology can ever been "green" (see my blog entry on "gray technology") although e-recycling programs like Total Reclaim in Seattle are recycling 99% of TVs and computer monitors. Every MIX member jurisdiction is working on green tech. Some of this is almost inadvertent, e.g. lengthening replacement cycles of desktop and server computers due to budget cuts. But other initiatives are quite proactive such as installing power-management software on desktop computers (e.g. from Verdiem), virtualization, and reducing the use of paper. In the future we will probably demand to know which manufacturers and vendors are kindest to the environment and use the lowest carbon emissions in production of their products.

As Rahm Emanuel has stated "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste". Those of us who are CIOs in local government are trying to balance reduced budgets, make staffing cuts and yet meet the increasing demands for technology by line departments in our governments. And we'll continue to share our good ideas through organizations such as MIX, publications like Government Technology and Public CIO magazine, and blogs such as these on Digital Communities.

We won't waste this crisis!


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