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

Nobody Elected Me

January 12, 2014 By Bill Schrier

One of my philosophies, working as a senior level public official in a local or state government, is that the boss - the elected official - is always right.     

Most State, City, County and other non-federal CIOs either work for a city/county manager or for a Governor or Mayor.   That official is the "boss".     We give the boss our best advice, but if they decide to do something different, then I invoke "nobody elected me".    In other words the elected official is responsible to the citizens and constituents of the city, county or state.    And that elected official will receive a report card every two or four years in the form of an election.   If the electorate doesn't like the way the government is running, they’ll make their wishes known at the ballot box  The Mayor or Governor was elected to make the decisions, not me.  

I’ve got two reasons for writing this blog post.   The first one is to try and reflect upon the stupidity of what happened in New Jersey in September.  The second reason is to demonstrate how "nobody elected me" plays out in information technology.  

Nobody Elected Me in New Jersey  

One potential issue with the "nobody elected me" philosophy is ethics.  

If I recommended a course of action, and my boss decided to do something different - and his decision was either unethical or illegal, what would I do?    There is really only one answer to this quandary:   it is my duty to resign.   Such instances are, thankfully, far and few between. 

One of my heroes is Bill Ruckelshaus, who resigned as deputy United States Attorney General.   He resigned rather than carry out an order from then-President Richard Nixon to fire the special prosecutor in the Watergate affair.  

As any reader probably knows, staff members of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie ordered the closure of all-but-one traffic lane on an approach to the George Washington Bridge in early September, 2013.  Governor Christie was conducting a campaign for re-election, and the closure was apparently ordered to "punish" the Mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey.  

If you were an employee of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and you were actually ordered to set up the traffic cones and shut down traffic for no apparent reason, what should you do?   Refuse to obey the order?    On what grounds?  

I can't judge the employees of the Port Authority because I don’t know what they (or their supervisors or their managers or their directors) were thinking as the traffic cones went into place and all hell broke loose for three days of traffic on that bridge.    Perhaps they invoked "Nobody Elected Me" or "the boss is always right".   Perhaps they feared to question the order in order to preserve their jobs.    Somebody in New Jersey government, however, should have been asking questions in September, not now in January, 2014.

Nobody Elected Me and Information Technology  

"Nobody elected me" is useful when explaining otherwise inexplicable decisions to technology department employees.  

For many IT employees, the "right" decision often appears to be obvious.   

Many such employees don’t see the nuances of political reality (especially when it comes to funding).  

A few years ago, when I was CTO of the City of Seattle, I reported to Mayor Greg Nickels.   Mayor Nickels and I and a third department head - responsible for the central customer service at the City - jointly decided a 311 system was needed in Seattle.  

311 seems enormously logical to me.   What phone number do you call if you see a fire or are having a bicycle accident (like I did) - 911, of course.   But what number do you call if you want to report a backed-up sewer or you want to complain about taxi service or your cable bill?    In some forward-thinking cities like Chicago and New York and Louisville that number is 311.    But in Seattle you search through six pages of 8 point font in the phone book (if you even have a phone book) or search a website (if you have Internet access) to find some incomprehensible number.   

That sort of stupidity made no sense to me as CTO and it made no sense to Mayor Nickels.  

Alas, the Seattle City Council didn't see it quite that way, and rejected Mayor Nickels' proposal because they didn't see a need equal to the $9 million cost to implement.  

I’m convinced the problem in Seattle was lack of Council member districts.   All nine Seattle City council members are full-time members and all are elected at large.   In that situation citizens don’t know which council member to call to complain about something, so they end up calling the Mayor.    The Mayor and his staff "feel the pain" of citizen complaints and see the need for a 311 number and system.  City council members don't.  

But the electorate has recently spoken.   Two months ago, in November, 2013, Seattle constitutents voted to start electing council members by district.    When that law takes effect in two years, council members will start feeling the pain of citizens in their district complaining and will, I think, be much more supportive of 311.  

Yup, nobody elected me, but there’s always an alternative path to the goal.


Leave a comment

Lee Harvey Oswald and 9/11

November 21, 2013 By Bill Schrier

lho_lee_harvey_oswald_as_boyLee Harvey Oswald robbed my parents of their youth.

In a similar way, 9/11 and the destruction of the World Trade Centers may have robbed the rest of us (even those of us in now in our 60s) of our youth.

When Oswald killed John F. Kennedy, he also killed – or at least damaged – the "youthful outlook" of the "Greatest Generation" – those who had survived the Great Depression and put their young lives on hold to fight World War II.   That generation – which included my parents – came back to peacetime, after WWII, and immediately married, had kids (lots of kids – the Baby Boomers) and became engaged in work and business.  

This generation saw Kennedy as a hero.   He was, indeed, a bonafide war hero from PT-109.  But he also had an eloquence and a youthful outlook on the world symbolized by his goal to put a man on the moon and his speeches including "ask not what you can do for your country …".

Oswald killed all that.

And afterward, of course, my own generation would not "trust anyone over 30";  the nation became bogged down in the Vietnam War;  and my parents suddenly became "old fogies".  Bill Flanagan on CBS Sunday Morning eloquently described the disillusionment which followed November 22, 1963.

Something similar occurred, I fear, after September 11, 2013.   

For over 230 years, the United States survived on isolationism.  We were separated from Europe and Asia by vast oceans as well as centuries in time.  The United States was the "young democracy" on the globe.  Sure, we lived in fear of nuclear Armageddon during the Cold War.   But "bombs dropping invisibly from the sky" is an abstract concept.  And, of course, that nuclear war never happened.

September 11, 2001, changed all that.

The war came to our shores. Americans died – by the thousands – in Manhattan.

And, I think, to a great extent, the "youthful outlook" of the generations who lived through and remember 9/11 died also.

Now we have a National Security Agency which tracks our phone calls and our social media and probably tracks our email and web browsing.   We’ve built a giant security apparatus worthy of George Orwell’s 1984.  Our drones strike at people around the world.   We fear the Chinese have completely cyber-infiltrated our government systems and private businesses.  Every time we go through a TSA line at an airport we are personally reminded that terrorists live among us.   We’ve wasted trillions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives (including the lives of the dismembered) on foreign wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.   Every month another mass-shooting born of mental illness and despair seems to occur. And we are constantly reminded that our passwords are not secure, our financial information is not secure, and our very identities may be stolen.

I have great cause for hope, as well.  There’s a whole generation growing up now who do NOT remember 9/11.  The wars are winding down (although the debt they left us has not).  We've got a vigorous non-profit sector of hackers (in the good sense of the term) who are building applications from open source and demanding open government data.   A whole set of technologies is sprouting which will enrich our lives:   network-connected glasses, autonomous vehicles, tablet and smartphone computers, and other wonders yet to be unveiled.

Lee Harvey Oswald robbed a generation of its youth. 

9/11 robbed more generations of our youth. 

Can our next generation perhaps live out its dreams?


Leave a comment

My Love-Hate Thing with Ballmer's Microsoft

October 16, 2013 By Bill Schrier

Microsoft Kin One and Kin TwoToday (October 17) is the debut of the "real" Windows 8, thank goodness. And a perfect time for reflections on my love/hate affair with Microsoft.

I love Microsoft. I envy Steve Ballmer's hairline. Microsoft Office is the greatest thing since the invention of the personal computer. I love Office so much I refuse to buy a tablet computer (iPad, Galaxy, Note, Surface RT) because almost none of those plastic/glass doo-dads will run my favorite programs - Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Publisher and OneNote. Microsoft employs 40,000 people in my hometown area of Seattle, which vastly improves the quality of life here. Microsofties leave the company to found their own startup companies which makes for a really exciting technology scene - just ask Todd Bishop or John Cook at Geekwire. I love the X-Box 360 and I love Microsoft Research with products like web-based translation. And the Kinect is leading us into the future of gesture-based computing.

I love Microsoft so much I say "bing it" when others say "google it".

BallmerI hate Microsoft. Steve Ballmer laughed at the first iPhone because it didn't have a keyboard. His answer: the "Kin" twins which lasted one month. Microsoft completely missed the tablet revolution, until it finally, three years after the iPad, came out with the Surface RT with zero apps and almost complete incompatibility with everything else in tech.

Windows 8 and its Metro interface is a travesty.  What were Ballmer and his brain trust thinking when they rolled out Windows 8? They urinated off on every Enterprise and Enterprise desktop user of Windows, a billion or more users in all.

There is zero zip nada which is nice about Windows 8 and the #@%! "metro" interface for folks using a keyboard and mouse. I resisted buying a Windows 8 computer because I don't have a touch screen and I knew it would be tough learning to use Win8, but I had no idea how bad until now, when I actually have to use it. Finding simple stuff like the control panel is a monstrous chore, as are other simple tasks such as closing a Metro window for Adobe reader. How the hell do you "swipe up" with a mouse? Half the time the "charms" never appear when using a mouse.

I could go on-and-on but I'm totally baffled why Microsoft would spend all this time and effort on a new, touch-screen optimized OS when their bread-and-butter is enterprise customers using desktop computers with no touchscreen.

Does Steve Ballmer have a death-wish for his company?

Even folks who use touchscreens spend little time in Metroland and most of their time on the "traditional" desktop interface, if they can find it. There are plenty of rants about this on the web of course, too, including ones on microsoft.com

I could go back and forth all day with my love/hate of Microsoft and its products:

  • Love Windows Phone 8 smartphones.
  • Woulda bought one when I ditched my Blackberry in May, 2012, but only Windows Phone 7 was available and that hardware was NOT upgradeable to version 8. Had to get an iPhone instead, unfortunately.
  • Love all the apps available for Windows desktop computers.
  • Hate all the apps not available for the Surface and Windows Phone.
  • Love tablet computing - I used a Gateway tablet running Windows for years starting in about 2003, and my 3.75 year old kid uses a gen 1 iPad all the time.
  • Hate Ballmer and Microsoft's failure of vision to miss the whole smartphone and tablet computer revolution. Especially since Microsoft partners HAD tablet computers using Windows XP and developed the Surface tabletop computer.
  • Love all the power of the Internet with websites, web apps, open data and all the rest.
  • Hate that Microsoft basically missed the whole Internet revolution, brought us stuff like Front Page and Silverlight and MSN, and is playing catch-up ever since.
  • Love that the entire world uses Windows desktop computers and Office as THE standard for productive computing. So much so that some of those cities and places which have converted to gmail and Google apps are regretting that decision (i.e. Los Angeles).
  • Hate Microsoft running after consumers with the ill-fated Zune and poor Windows 8 implementation, dissing their cash-cow livelihood: Enterprise customers.

Redmond sign - how about software?So after all the harping and carping on my favorite hometown company (although Boeing and Amazon are actively competing for that "favorite" spot), do I have some advice for my friends and their new CEO in Redmond? You bet.

  • Keep your Enterprise friends happy. You do a good job serving corporate America, governments and businesses. Don't screw them with crap like Windows 8. (Fingers crossed for a decent Windows 8.1).
  • Microsoft Research is great at innovating. Use them. For just one example, capitalize on Kinect gesture-based computing. Actively encourage people to link Kinect to all sorts of other tech from computers to TVs to cars.
  • Continue to develop the Xbox into the all-purpose home device for entertainment and personal business. · Concentrate on voice. Voice control of computers will leapfrog the touchscreen interface. I spend a lot of time in my car - I'd love it if my smartphone could read me my email and text messages allow me to compose tweets and Word documents, all by talking to it. Voice would allow my 3.75 year to say "I want to watch Caillou" and her tablet would start Netflix and ask her "Do you want Caillou the Chef" which it knows is her favorite.
  • Embrace the "internet of things". Over the next 20 years, sensors will be deployed everywhere - electrical grid, roadways, autonomous vehicles, medical patients, appliances, even toilets and toasters. Myriad opportunities exist in this space, starting with just crunching and making sense of all that data.

Microsoft, I love you. I desperately want you to succeed. Please stop shooting yourself (and your customers) in the foot.


Leave a comment

Is FirstNet Open and Transparent?

September 25, 2013 By Bill Schrier

Is FirstNet Transparent?The answer is "no" … and "yes".

FirstNet is the First Responder Network Authority. FirstNet was created by Congress in February, 2012, and authorized to spend up to $7 billion to build a nationwide public safety wireless network. A Board of 15 members was appointed in August, 2012, to begin the work.

In April, 2013, one board member, Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald raised concerns about lack of transparency in the work of the Board. The FirstNet Board convened a special review committee to look at Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald's concerns that FirstNet was not being open in the way it conducted its meetings, hired its staff and operated in general.

I have no special expertise or thoughts regarding Sheriff Fitzgerald's concerns as expressed in his April, 2013, resolution, or the report of the special review committee announced on September 23rd.

But I do have specific concerns of my own and suggestions for the FirstNet Board and staff.

Suggestion: Be more open about your meetings.

Some board meetings are open and announced, although the agendas are not published very far in advance. But other meetings of the full board clearly happen and are NOT announced in advance, and I’ve never seen announcement of committee meetings or weekly board teleconference calls.

One example: FirstNet had an open meeting on Tuesday, June 4th in Colorado. Many people were there for a PSCR meeting at the same time. But, unbeknownst to most of us, the Board actually had an all-day meeting the day before, June 3rd, when they reviewed and essentially approved a fiscal year 2014 budget! During the open meeting they constantly referred back to the Monday meeting which was both closed and unannounced. It was hard to follow the open meeting due to phrases like “as we discussed yesterday”. Oh yeah? What did you discuss yesterday?

I suggest FirstNet should announce EVERY board meeting and EVERY board committee meeting, and, at least in general, what the subject matter is.

We all understand some meetings will have to be closed for budgetary and personnel matters. But EVERY meeting, even the closed ones, should be announced and the subject, at least, should be public.

And when the open meetings actually happen, make them like city council or state legislative meetings - in a large open room where there is plenty of space for an audience. Allow some "public comment" before or after. And not just for press, but for many of the rest of us who are interested in FirstNet work.

Oh, and, by the way, does FirstNet know that a meeting held at 10AM Eastern Time is 7AM Pacific Time, 6AM Alaska time and 5AM Hawaii time?

Finally, it is commendable that FirstNet webcasts video of its meetings and accepts questions via the phone, then quickly publishes a verbatim transcript. But I suggest getting a professional service with good microphones and cameras to improve the quality of those broadcasts.

Suggestion: Publish a directory of staff names, responsibilities and contact information.

FirstNet has been decently good about announcing its hires. When FirstNet staff come to meetings in person, they are quite open and approachable. T. J. Kennedy

For example, I chaired a meeting of city, county and State CIOs at the APCO annual conference in Anaheim in August, 2013. Deputy General Manager T. J. Kennedy came into the meeting and gave his business card to each of us, spoke at length, answered questions and interacted quite well with the group.

I applaud this openness.

But there's no website which shows the FirstNet organization and the names and contact information. (The org chart itself is buried in a PowerPoint someplace online.)

Much worse is transparency on contractors.

Again, I’ve interacted with a few of FirstNet’s contracted staff. They are knowledgeable and professional on the phone and at meetings. They listen, interact and are genuinely committed to FirstNet’s mission. In person and on the phone they are quite willing to give out their contact information.

But many of us involved at the state and private level have been approached by people who say they are FirstNet contractors - and they are, I guess, but how would we know? Where's the "index" or website listing all the contractor names and their responsibilities?

Perhaps there’s some fear that if all that contact information is on a public website, the staff will be inundated with phone calls and email messages, but I think most of us on the outside will be more respectful about that.

And a small suggestion: anyone involved with FirstNet should have a signature block which includes their name, title and contact info attached to the email messages they send.

Suggestion: Be more open when contractors are hired.

Just like when full-time staff are hired, couldn’t FirstNet make some announcements or tweet or something to tell the community that a new contractor is on board? Tell us a little about their background and qualifications. Tell us how they fit into FirstNet's overall planning and work.

We all understand that contractors are hired for various reasons and from various sources. Often a board member or another contractor or a full-time FirstNet staff person knows someone they've worked with in the past who has certain skills, and they are hired on that basis. That's fine.

When I've hired people I always looked for people who were known to be competent or referred by my existing staff and employees. A secondary benefit is the existing staff became invested in the success of the new hire.

Especially at the beginning, but even now, FirstNet contractor hires appeared to be all people almost exclusively with private company cellular technology expertise. Some of the first hires had little or no experience with LTE. It was (and still is) a mystery as to how they were hired, by what mechanism, and what their connection or expertise/background is. The lack of transparency here certainly contributes to the feeling that the effort is being managed or railroaded in a certain direction.

Be open about all this. It will only add credibility to these key individuals and the role they are each playing.

I’ll give a specific example. Brian Kassa was a senior LTE engineer with Nokia Siemens. He joined FirstNet’s technical team as a contractor a few months ago. One of his duties is interacting with State government teams. I’ve known Brian for a few years and he actually is a responder working on a search-and-rescue team near Seattle. He’s an outstanding engineer, very committed to the effort. But you’d never know he’s working on this effort from looking at websites or other public documents/announcements from FirstNet.

If FirstNet trumpets hires like Brian, they will build their own credibility as an organization which hires good people and is moving quickly to design the network.

Suggestion: Appoint some more advisory committees

The Spectrum Act requires just one advisory committee – a public safety advisory committee or PSAC. That committee has been appointed. But it is somewhat of a mystery as to what charge that committee has, when it meets and what’s on the agenda for the meetings. Notes and minutes of the meetings are not publicly available.

Now, most of that information is available if you know someone on the PSAC. And the PSAC Chair, Harlin McEwen, is one of the very best at quick responses to email and being open to talking on the phone.

But I’d suggest FirstNet allow the PSAC to be much more open and public with what it is doing, including staffing it to allow it to do more work and have meetings which are more open. Create a special section on http://www.firsnet.gov for the PSAC.

I’d suggest FirstNet consider appointing some additional advisory committees – which are allowed under the law – to increase the amount of input it gets and its openness. Specifically there could be a commercial advisory committee of potential vendors and manufacturers.

There also could be a committee which directly includes the state governments upon which FirstNet will depend upon to build its network and its user base. Another committee might include secondary responders such as public and private utilities, transportation and transit departments.

Again, the idea here is to improve FirstNet’s outreach to this potential user base. A secondary effect of the additional committees is getting more people involved - and therefore committed - to the overall effort. Yes, all of this will take staffing and money. But small investments today will pay big dividends (I think) when FirstNet is marketing its new network and services. 

Suggestion: Get a decent website with calendar of events

I think that’s self-explanatory, if you look at the present website. I understand this new website is in the works, promised “within a month” as of this writing. But gee folks, the Board was announced in August, 2012, and there are hundreds of great web design firms out there. Does it take 13 months to get a decent website?

Having a comprehensive, easy-to-use website demonstrates FirstNet’s commitment to transparency.

The website also needs to include a decent calendar of events. Presently there is a calendar of speaking events on the existing website, but NOT a calendar of FirstNet meetings or events.

Here’s a specific example. Kevin McGinnis is the Board member responsible for tribal outreach and has done a good job trying to contact as many tribal officials as possible. FirstNet originally set a meeting of tribal officials for August 26th for Washington DC, which then was pushed back to October and is now November 4th. Nowhere on any website or other document (as far as I know) has this meeting been announced. It is all word of mouth or, presumably, email messages to a group of tribal officials (I’ve never seen such emails, however).

Suggestion: Get your own lawyers.

After the Spectrum Act passed, a lot of attorneys made a lot of money interpreting it.

The FCC, NTIA and DHS all had their staff attorneys go over it with a fine tooth comb, and I suspect there was a little bit of infighting as roles and responsibilities were sorted out.

It seems that, in some cases, the FirstNet Board and staff let the lawyers tell them what they can and cannot do. I suspect that’s what going on in the spectrum leases with the 8 jurisdictions who have money and had FCC waivers to build their own networks. Here it is, 18 months after those jurisdictions were told by NTIA they couldn’t spend grant funds on LTE equipment, and only two of them have a spectrum lease allowing them to proceed on their networks. Elected officials, Mayors, Governors, Legislators, City Councils, police and fire chiefs supported these 8 efforts to build locally, and this long delay (both NTIA's delay and the slowness in spectrum lease negotiations) has made some of them wary of FirstNet.   I believe some of that delay has to do with the lawyers who are advising FirstNet that it cannot spend money on these pilots or otherwise has to restrict them. Such lawyers are (in my opinion) taking the most conservative possible interpretation of the law and what it allows or doesn’t allow with these early builders.

What I’ve written in the previous couple of paragraphs is speculative, of course, because FirstNet has NOT been transparent about what the real issues are in the spectrum lease negotiations.

The 8 early builders represent a tremendous opportunity for FirstNet to be entrepreneurial and test out a number of different models in the real world of public safety. The user stories from these 8 sites can help cement and improve public safety’s (and general government’s) support for FirstNet.

When I ran the information technology department of Seattle’s City government, I had city attorney’s ADVISE me on contracts, risks and other matters. But in the end it was the attorney's ADVICE and it was up to me to make the decisions and take some risks to move government forward with technology.

It seems like the commercial members of the FirstNet Board should be quite familiar with this entrepreneurial model. Perhaps they should say to the lawyers “thank you for the advice” but take some risks to get these 8 early builders going and make them successful.

Suggestions: Outreach

Jeff Johnson and Craig Farrill have been outstanding “on the road” speaking and obtaining input about the project. They’ve been open. They’ve demonstrated the ability to listen. They know there are huge challenges ahead and they’ve been transparent about them. See, for example, page 22 of Jeff's report to the board here.

But FirstNet also understands (or needs to understand) that only a tiny fraction of their potential stakeholders know anything at all about the project, and most of the public – especially the technology-knowledgeable public – knows even less. If you don’t think so, just read the comments in this Ars Technica article about FirstNet.

I just hope the outreach teams hired full time have the same sort of ability to listen and honesty which Jeff and Craig have displayed.

Closing: FirstNet has a great natural wellspring of support. More openness will capitalize on it.

Over the last four or five years, there was a huge campaign which generated public safety support for assigning the D block to public safety and to pass the Spectrum Act which created FirstNet. Indeed, I’ll often go to 911 centers or first responder departments here in Washington State to talk about the upcoming nationwide public safety wireless broadband network, and people will say – “that’s the D block, right”?

This support is a major untapped resource for FirstNet.

First responders, especially, want to see this work succeed. But, in addition, most of the associations and organizations comprising the old PSST (Public Safety Spectrum Trust) plus many telecommunications carriers, manufacturers, consultants and others have a long-term vested interest in the success of FirstNet’s mission.

FirstNet, be open about what you’re doing. Embrace all these stakeholders, especially courageous, concerned folks like Sheriff Fitzgerald. Ask them for advice and support. Reach out to the larger potential user base - transportation, public works, utilities, railroads, small telephone companies and others.

Being open, transparent and welcoming today will not only help you build the network tomorrow, but will also stand you in good stead as the inevitable bumps occur on your road to success.


Caution: This statement represents the personal views of Bill Schrier, and does not reflect the views or opinions of any governmental or non-governmental association with which I’m affiliated. There may be inadvertent inaccuracies in the material presented above, and, if there are, contact me and I’ll fix them.


Leave a comment

Lessons from NG-311 for NG-911

August 22, 2013 By Bill Schrier

Next Generation 911When you are in a life-threatening emergency – a serious car accident or having a heart attack or your house is on fire – what do you do? You call 9-1-1, of course. With the emphasis on CALL, because, with just a few exceptions, there’s no other way to get police or firefighter or emergency medical help except calling on the phone. You can’t text 9-1-1 or send an email to a PSAP or tweet to 9-1-1.

9-1-1 Centers, often called PSAPs or Public Safety Answering Points, have a lot of sophisticated technology beyond 1920s-era voice phone calls, but very little of it is used to communicate with the public.

The National Emergency Number Association (NENA) and the government – specifically the Federal Department of Transportation – have a plan to fix that. The plan is called "Next Generation 9-1-1" or NG-9-1-1. At some point you may be able to text 9-1-1 or send an e-mail message or upload photos and video to help first responders protect life and property.

Some cities, however, have already implemented 3-1-1 systems for non-emergency customer service. In these cities – Portland and Denver for examples– you call 9-1-1 for emergencies and 3-1-1 to get help with any other municipal government service such as building permits, streetlight repair or animal control.

I recently did a podcast with Mark Fletcher on the Avaya Podcast Network (APN) discussing 9-1-1, 3-1-1 and these next-generation contact methods for the public. Fletch(@Fletch911) and I came up with the term "Next Generation 3-1-1" to describe using a set of new technologies and social media for citizens to reach their governments for service.

What can NG-9-1-1 and PSAPS learn from "next generation 3-1-1"?

Next Generation 311 - term coined in this blogWell, for one thing, "next generation 3-1-1" has already arrived. If you are in one of the places with 3-1-1, you can obviously just call that number to initiate almost any government service or report a problem. But virtually all those 3-1-1 cities also offer a 3-1-1 web input form and give you a tracking number. Some of them now tweet and allow tweeting as an input. Others are experimenting with Facebook pages, online chat, and email. Many of these contact methods allow you to send a photo or video of the issue.

Another common contact method is texting – there’s even "an app for that" in Textizen, developed by Code for America. In truth, Textizenis as much about citizen engagement and interaction as it is 3-1-1 and requesting service. But the important point is that Philadelphia, Austin, Salt Lake City and other places have implemented it as an alternate contact method.

Seattle's Find-It Fix-ItA final, powerful, "NG3-1-1" technology is the downloadable mobile app. Some cities have developed their own app such as Boston’s Citizen Connect or Seattle’s Find It Fix It. These are sometimes built on technology developed by private companies such as Connected Bits or See-Click-Fix (Ben Berkowitz, the CEO, is a worldwide leader in this space).

A frequent criticism of NG-3-1-1 services and apps is that they only work in one city. You can download the "Chicago Works" NG-3-1-1 app, but cross into the suburbs and it is useless. But Boston and Massachusetts fixing this by extending Boston’s Citizens Connect into Massachusetts Commonwealth Connect. This allows 40 cities in Massachusetts to have their own individually branded app, but, using the GPS feature on smartphones, to report problems no matter where they are. A resident of Chelsea who is in Boston for a Red Sox game could see a problem – a smashed stop sign for example – and use the Chelsea app to report it to the Boston

Admittedly, we have a long way to go with 3-1-1 – most places in the nation don’t have it (indeed, even in Boston and Seattle you don’t call 3-1-1, but rather a 10 digit phone number). But we can still think about some future "next generation" features for 3-1-1 which would be relatively easy to implement with today’s technology even if they are still difficult to implement in the culture of government operations:

  • Fedex-style tracking of service requests. With tracking you could snap a photo of graffiti, get a tracking number and then be notified as the service request is reviewed, triaged, sent to the police department for review by the gang unit, sent to "graffiti control central" to determine if it is on government property and which department (transportation, parks, etc.) is responsible to clean it up, see when the crew is dispatched, be notified when the work is done, and then be asked your opinion of how well the whole process worked. (Some 3-1-1 apps purport to do this now, e.g. Chicago, and the Open 3-1-1.org organization actually is evangelizing it).
  • 3-1-1 Open Data and analysis. The details and results of 3-1-1 calls for service should be on an open dataset for anyone to review and, indeed, are in some cities such as Boston, New York City, and San Francisco. Certainly departments and Mayor’s Offices should be analyzing the tracking data to improve service management processes. But how about mashing the 3-1-1 data up against datasets such as building code violations, utility shutoff due to non-payment or crime incident reports to find "hot spots" of difficulties in the City which need to be broadly addressed by cross-functional teams from law enforcement, code enforcement, social workers and more. Boston is, indeed, doing this, but I’ve not been able to find detailed data about it. (Note: Socrata, headquartered in Seattle, is the software driving all the "open data" sites mentioned above as well as hundreds of others such as the Federal Governments own data.gov.
  • Facetime and Skype to 3-1-1, conveying video to the 3-1-1 operator so they can see your situation or you can show them graffiti, a problem in the street, and so forth.
  • Chat and video chat. Chat functions are fairly common on private customer service sites but extraordinarily rare in government. Indeed, I can’t cite a single example. I think government customer service departments are concerned about being overwhelmed by work if chat is opened to the public.
  • Twitter and Facebook comments/apps. Elected officials certainly realize the power of Twitter and Facebook. And I think they (or their staff) actually review and respond to comments or tweets, and even turn them into service requests for follow up. But most of the line departments in most cities (water, transportation, public works, certainly police and fire) don’t accept calls for service via these social media channels. I’d also like to see developers write Facebook apps or games which could be used inside that social media community to engage the public or manage 3-1-1/service requests.

Lessons for NG-9-1-1. I’ve laid out a long list of examples and suggestions above which, together, could be called the "landscape and roadmap" for Next Generation 3-1-1. Some of them clearly could be adopted for use in PSAPs and 9-1-1 centers. The "low hanging fruit" here, I think, for NG 9-1-1 is:

  • A smartphone app for texting 9-1-1. Although you can directly text 9-1-1 from your phone, an app would be better because it could prompt you for critical information such as your location. Textizen could be an NG-3-1-1 model for this.
  • A smartphone app for calling 9-1-1. This sort of app might not just telephone 9-1-1, but also allow you to include photos or other data from your phone, including GPS coordinates, direction and speed of travel etc.
  • Facetime or Skype to 9-1-1. Such an app (when PSAPs are able to receive the information) would allow the telecommunicator in the PSAP to see what’s happening to you or in your area.

A number of obstacles remain, however:

  • Technology is an obstacle, as most 9-1-1 centers don’t have even text messaging available, much less email, twitter or chat. A notable exception: York County, Virginia, where past APCO president Terry Hall directs the 9-1-1 center – you can text 9-1-1 in York County.
  • Culture and training are an obstacles. Telecommunicators (call takers and dispatchers) in 9-1-1 centers know their jobs extraordinarily well and execute them almost flawlessly, as you hear from tapes after any major incident. Every new technology or method of communication we add to the PSAP makes those jobs harder in terms of training and obtaining the right information to get first responders to the incident.
  • Chain of evidence. When a video or video call or image is sent from a citizen to a 9-1-1 center about a crime, can it be used as evidence? Has it been altered (even by Instagram) thereby perhaps rendering it useless in a court of law?
  • Security and cybersecurity. We’ve seen cases of "spoofing" telephone numbers and "swatting", where 9-1-1 centers are tricked into sending officers or SWATs to unsuspecting citizens. Every new method of communicating adds new difficulties in verifying caller identities and preventing such antics.

And, most importantly, with 9-1-1 lives are often at stake, so thorough research and preparation must precede adoption of these new technologies in PSAPs.

My podcast with Mark Fletcher on the Avaya Podcast Network was a fortuitous meeting. We've probably coined the phrase "Next Generation 3-1-1". But while the tools and technologies of NG-3-1-1 certainly chart a path for PSAPs and NG-9-1-1, following that path will require innovative solutions to a number of obstacles.


Leave a comment

Featured Papers