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

CIO Champions and "Change"

September 30, 2012 By Bill Schrier

The White HouseCan Chief Information Officers – folks who are deeply into computers and data and technology – be “champions”?

We usually think of champions in the context of the Olympics or boxing (“heavyweight champion of the world”) or others who are victorious after a hard-fought competition. CIOs are not usually considered to be competing or fighting, although, really, they do a lot of both).

Adel EbeidThis past week the White House honored 13 people for being “Local Innovators” of Change in their communities. I’m proud that eight of those folks are CIOs or Information Technology leaders in their communities: Phil Bertolini, Adel Ebeid, Carolyn Hogg, Michele Hovet, Nigel Jacob, Jay Nath, Chris Osgood and John Tolva. Every one of these eight has been acknowledged here in the pages of Government Technology or Public CIO magazine for the great work they’ve been doing in places ranging from Boston to Fresno, and San Francisco to Chicago to Philadelphia, with a stopover in Oakland County, Michigan.

Coincidentally this week, the Ash Institute at Harvard named 111 “Bright Ideas” for innovation in government. These range from tracking government departments’ performance online (TrackDC) to Allegheny County’s Music Festival fund to “Blightstat” in New Orleans.

Carolyn HoggWe talk a lot about “change”. We hear a lot about “change” from every manner of political candidate from far right to far left to far bizarre.

But, frankly, “some” change is good, but most of us want and need a stable, unchanging, base of government and life. In other words, we need to be “grounded” and have a safety net. With that, we can make selective, and sometimes radical changes using information technology in our governments thereby improving our quality of life and the quality of life for the citizens we serve.

Phil BeroliniTake cloud computing as an example - we could ignore it, or actively oppose running software and services in externally hosted data centers.  Phil Bertolini of Oakland County took a different approach - the County is building its own cloud, partnering with its city governments and the state of Michigan, thereby saving money and embracing this new trend.

Michele HovetThink of web content management systems (CMS) - which allow dozens or hundreds of non-technical government employees to share responsibility for a website.  Such software can be expensive and hard to manage.  Michele Hovet of Arvada County, Colorado (the second best County website in the Center for Digital Government's annual "Best of the Web" contest) took a different approach.  She adopted open source software, supported by a community of developers around the world, and adapted it for Arvada.  Then she went further and enlisted other governments in the project, starting with Boulder.  She also caused it to be adapted for Digital Education in Colorado Schools.  See the story of XPRESS CMS here.

Jay NathThat’s why I’m so proud of this crop of eight local government leaders (as well as the other five, who I don’t know personally). They make wise but bold changes happen.  They help bring broadband to California's rural farming area breadbasket (Carolyn Hogg), give citizens tools to tackle crime and other quality of life issues in their own neighborhoods ("Philly Rising" and Adel Ebeid), establish civic innovation incubators, partnerships with technology startups, and much more.

They know the capacity of their employees and elected officials and constituents to tolerate change, and they push that bubble a bit. Sometimes quite a bit.

Nigel JacobAnd I’m really really proud and happy that the Obama Administration – and specifically its Office of Science and Technology Policy – recognize these champions, these heros, and hold them up as examples for the rest of us to follow (thank you Todd Park and Chris Vein).

Read more about these “Champions of Change” and their specific accomplishments on the White House blog here.


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A Datapalooza at the White House?

September 9, 2012 By Bill Schrier

The OSTP Needs YouWhat’s a "Datapalooza" and Why is the White House having One?

The last four years have seen an explosion in government “open data” with thousands of datasets posted online for public use. The city of Washington D.C., under the leadership of then-CTO Vivek Kundra, was the first to post such data online in a “data catalog.” The effort vastly expanded when President Obama took office and, as one of his very first acts, directed the federal government to be open and transparent. Data.gov now has 172 participating agencies and tens of thousands of datasets.

Cities, counties and states have gotten into this “open data” act too – as of this writing 34 states and at least 15 cities and counties have open data sites. And the effort has gone international, with at least 30 nations and other entities posting data.

A whole new industry has spawned, with companies like Seattle’s Socrata (host of data.gov and data.seattle.gov among many others) and Microsoft now powering the open data sites.

Data which has been hard to get in the past is now freely available – government employee salaries, crimes, restaurant inspections and even White House visitor logs are now on these websites. Some datasets are updated in real time – in Seattle if you hear a fire engine screaming past your house, chances are the call is already posted to Fire 911 Calls at data.seattle.gov.

So what?

Have you ever looked at these datasets? Kinda like big spreadsheets. Sometimes with indecipherable pieces of data like “latitude” and “longitude” instead of street addresses. Useful in research, I guess, and also if you are a data or tech geek and majoring in geography is helpful too.

How do most people really consume their information these days?

Apps, of course! And not just smartphone apps, but also table apps, laptop apps, Web apps and even TV apps.

The missing link between open data and usable apps is developers. They create the apps which take the open datasets, make them into apps usable for the typical citizen, and perhaps even mash the data up with other information which might be useful, such as a map (plotting those pesky latitudes and longitudes) or traffic information.

Now that data.gov and related sites are online, the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the White House is actively trying to encourage developing such apps by businesses, government employees and, really, anyone with a bit of skill in coding.

Enter the “datapalooza.”

The White House sponsors events they call "datapaloozas" to highlight cool apps which use open data to create information and value for citizens. The next datapalooza is scheduled for Friday September 14th at the White House. It will highlight “public safety” in the broad sense – not just law enforcement, firefighting and emergency medical – but also public health, product safety, transportation and disaster readiness. It will include not just an “expo” of apps which have already been developed, but also an announcement of new safety data resources about natural disasters and to improve preparedness and emergency response.

A lot of these apps exist already, of course, as a result of apps contests in Washington, D.C. (Apps for Democracy), New York City (Big Apps 3.0) and elsewhere. In fact, I’m presently judging the Evergreen Apps Challenge here in Washington state, with $75,000 in prizes offered by Seattle, King County and the state of Washington – results of that contest will be announced on October 1st.

It will be fascinating to watch results from the “datapalooza” on Friday (alas, I don’t know if it will be live-streamed or not, yet).

And I’ll be blogging more about these results, hoping to see apps not just with a major coolness factor, but also ones useful to keeping you safe every day (think restaurant inspections) as well as during disasters.

If you know of such an app, or have an idea for one looking for development, make a comment to this blog or drop me a line.

Who knows, maybe a “killer government app” is “somewhere, out there.”

Note: Deputy United States Chief Technology Officer Chris Vein spearheads the White House effort. He’s uniquely positioned for this work, as he brought the open data site for the City/County of San Franciso online in his previous position as CIO of the City by the Bay.


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FirstNet: For Every Network there is a Season

August 27, 2012 By Bill Schrier

Logo of the 21 Waiver JurisdictionsAnother Chapter in the almost hundred-year saga of public safety wireless networks closed last week.

And on Monday, August 20th a new Chapter began.

For the last two years, twenty-one cities, regions and states have been laboring to build 4th generation wireless broadband public safety networks. With a handful of exceptions, that work is now ended.

The vision of many police and fire chiefs, as well as Congress and the FCC, has been to build a nationwide Public Safety wireless network. Congress set aside spectrum in the 700 MHz band for this purpose in 1998. The FCC tried various methods to finance and build the network. In frustration, these 21 jurisdictions asked for a waiver of the FCC rules to build the networks themselves.

Boston was the first City to ask for such a waiver. But the other jurisdictions included Seattle (I led the effort there), the Los Angeles region, New Mexico, New York City, Iowa, San Antonio and others.

Amazing, the FCC agreed to let us do it – to build those networks within our boundaries.  Even more amazing, the Department of Commerce and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) allocated over $382 million in stimulus funds (Broadband Opportunity Grants) to make it happen. Charlotte, Adams County (Colorado), Los Angeles, New Mexico, Mississippi, New Jersey and even Motorola (in the San Francisco Bay area) received such grants. Harris County (Houston) and Texas, Mesa (Arizona) and others planned to use their own funds.

We banded together as a group, called by the unwieldly name of the Public Safety Spectrum Trust Operator Advisory Committee (PSST-OAC – gee, it is also unpronounceable!). Every week we held conference calls, and several times a year we met face-to-face. I was privileged to chair this group for two years, from 2010 to the summer of 2012.

For those two years, until now, we’ve struggled to make the vision a reality. The FCC imposed many restrictions and requirements on us. The Commission was concerned, rightly so, that we build local networks which could eventually become part of a nationwide network. In other words, networks which are standardized and use a common protocol (long-term evolution or LTE).

Then, in February of 2012, Congress passed the Spectrum Act.

This law realizes a long-sought dream for public safety and other responders, and a major recommendation of the Commission which investigated the September 11, 2001, World Trade Center terrorist act. It allocated real money – 7 billion dollars worth. And it created a structure – the First Responders Network Authority – to actually construct the nationwide network.

But for those of us in the 21 local jurisdictions, struggling to build our own small pieces of the network in our communities, the Spectrum Act also created problems. NTIA was rightly concerned that if our projects continued, they might not fit in well with the new Congressionally-mandated network. NTIA placed a hold on spending Federal funds on LTE-related equipment until all this could be sorted out.

Finally, on August 8th, 2012, the FCC issued an order which will allow a few of our projects to continue. I expect Charlotte, Mississippi and Adams County, at least, will be able to make their networks operational. But for most of the rest of the 21 original waiver jurisdictions, the journey has ended – that order also ends our authority to use the spectrum. Another 35 jurisdictions around the country had also requested authority to use the spectrum, but their requests are denied now as well.

Harris County, Texas, has already made history – on about August 14th, they actually made their network operational. They have built the very first piece of the Nationwide Public Safety Wireless Broadband Network (NPSWBN). They have six sites and a few hundred units operational. And that closes this chapter of public safety wireless networking.

The Operator Advisory Committee (PSST-OAC) will morph and change into a different organization. But its accomplishments will remain. It created the numbering scheme which will be used to manage the entire nationwide network. It obtained the network identifier number (313-100) which will identify all the sites, equipment, devices and everything else used on the network. And it help create the standards which allow Harris County and Charlotte and Mississippi and Adams County to become operational.

On Monday, August 20th, at the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials’ Annual Conference in Minneapolis, Acting Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank announced the members of the Board of Directors for the FirstNet Authority. That announcement opens the next chapter in this Saga.

Under Firstnet, over the next seven years, the small network now operational in Harris County will grow to 30,000 sites or more, and upwards of four million computers, tablets, smart phones and radios. It will grow from one part of one county to encompass all 3,068 counties in the nation.

I’m sad and a bit melancholy about the end of this era. I’ll miss the camaraderie of the leaders and staff of these 21 waiver jurisdictions and our federal partners.

But I’ll also be excited to watch, and, in some small way, support, FirstNet as it writes the next Chapter of public safety networking.


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Kids can be 911 Heroes, Too

August 22, 2012 By Bill Schrier

Local Heroes Award in MinneapolisMost of us have probably called 911 at some point in our lives to report a crime or a car accident. We take it for granted that the call will be answered efficiently and help will arrive quickly.

We forget, however, that calling 911 is something we learn to do. Even adults will overwhelm 911 after a minor earthquake with "did you feel that" calls. Calling 911 is a skill to be taught, knowing when to call and when not to call, staying calm, relaying the proper information. 911 For Kids is a non-profit organization dedicated to helping kids know about 911 and also prepare for other disasters and emergency response.

I attended an inspiring event at the APCO 2012 Conference in Minneapolis this week, where 9 year old Rodrigo Sanchez Sosa was recognized as a "local 911 hero". He called 911 when his 2 year old sister fell unconscious after a seizure. Dispatcher Lori Patrick and emergency medical dispatcher Tom Polzin took the call and guided him through helping his sister until an emergency medical team arrived.

Rodrigo, Lori and Tom were all recognized as "Local 911 Heroes" on Tuesday, August 21st, in a ceremony opened by Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar and sponsored by AT&T. "Local 911 Heroes" is a program established in 1999 to recognize people, especially kids, who perform in an extraordinary manner using 911 when faced with an everyday crisis.  AT&T sponsors these "Local 911 Heroes" Awards all across the country.

This award also personally resonates with me. I had a young niece who insisted on calling 911 when my brother was writing on the floor in pain. A local volunteer ambulance crew in rural Iowa left their homes and workplaces to come, gather him up on his farm, and take him to a hospital where his heart attack was handled.

These "small" acts of heroism go on every day, in every one of our communities, large and small. Sometimes those of us who work in government take our 911 services and operations a bit for granted, just assuming they’ll always be there and will always work.

That's why these awards programs are so important, because they remind us that heroes dwell among us. And, perhaps, one of these days when one of us is in need, a "local hero" will be there to help.


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My Mother-in-Law's Maiden Name is Btfsplk

August 14, 2012 By Bill Schrier

Hacked!This past week Gizmodo/Wired Writer Mat Honan’s iPhone, iPad, iCloud (and probably iRaq) where all hacked and wiped clean after a hacker stole his password, aided and abetted by the help desks of none other than Amazon and Apple.

This little episode provided plenty of grist for the blogosphere this week, as tech writers far and wide trotted out their best advice for us common folk to avoid getting our finances and data drawn, quartered, toasted, fried and bobbed like an Apple on Halloween. Mr. Honan himself probably got the highest blog hit rate of his career, and Slate’s Farhad Manjoo wrote a serious column on the subject. My friend Glenn Fleischman of Seattle exposed his answers to all the common security questions, thereby saving hackers the trouble of a brute force attack on his own Internet presence. 

Of course I have to partake of this Dear Abby Advicefest as well, giving government CIOs and employees some expert security advice on how to avoid being Mat-ed (not mated) or Honanized.

1. Always reboot without saving your files and never take time to make those pesky backups. Apparently Mr. Honan was following this advice to the letter, as he didn’t have backups of his data.

2. Make sure you choose a password extraordinarily hard to guess. Preferably one which uses a lowercase letter, an uppercase Cyrillic character, and middle-kingdom-sized Chinese hanzi character, a Roman numeral, and a special character with an IQ less than 80. Or, if you have a unique first name (like “Mat” as opposed to Tom, Dick, Harry or Bill) you can just use your first name as a password.

3. Completely trust the company making your devices, especially if they have a monopoly, and they have the most popular products in the market, and their name can be confused with a common fruit. If they say you can "find your fruit-phone" and remotely vaporize, slice and dice it like the promises of a Popeil Veg-O-Matic, and they further promise all your data is safe in their cloud with the gold lining (their gold, not yours), what more do you need?

4. Have all your password resets pointing to the same email address, and make that email address something easy for anyone to guess. Something like bill@schrier.org using both your firstname and lastname. That way once you or the hacker have your email password, access to all the other jewels in your kingdom falls easily into place. (Yes, yes, bill@schrier.org is indeed my personal email address. But I’m not worried about getting a lot more spam and malware to that email account, as I have spam-blocker software from a company which only has to issue security patches twice a month whether they’re needed or not.)

5. Turn on six factor authentication immediately. This means you’ll have to prove your identity using six different methods whenever you log into a website. Ideally, those methods would include:
  a. A strong password like, well, ”Mat” – see above.
  b. A retinal scan, preferably one conducted with a military-grade laser.
  c. A sample of your DNA. Drawn from a fresh blood sample. After two days your thumb will look like a pin cushion.
  d. A hard-to-guess personal attribute like your mother-in-law’s maiden name.  Like Btfsplk.  If you’re unmarried or your mother-in-law is unmarried or she kept her birth name, or your mother-in-law is a guy, you’re really in trouble on this one.
  e. The key fob which opens your garage and perhaps fires missiles from a nearby nuclear submarine.
  f. A toeprint from your company’s Chief Information Security Officer.

There are many advantages to six factor authentication. For one, it is so complicated you’ll never be tempted to use online services, and therefore cannot be hacked. For another, your authentication will always be within one degree of separation from Kevin Bacon.

Ok, ok, enough levity already. I don’t really mean to offend my favorite fruit company (gee, I have five fruit-iPhones on my personal plan), or Mat Honan, who I’m sure is as gifted a writer as he is poor at backing up his data, or my favorite hometown retailer, Amazon. We all make mistakes, especially in this rapidly evolving technology age. And we learn from them.

Oh yeah. Read Manjoo’s column and follow his advice.

And don’t answer your security questions like Glenn does!


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