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

Just Another Apps Contest? Evergreen Apps and the Future

October 2, 2012 By Bill Schrier

Winners of the Evergreen Apps ContestThe first-ever Evergreen Apps Competition came to a close last night in Seattle as we recognized the top applications developed over the last six months with government open data. Top honors went to Living Voters Guide with other prizes for WhichBus, Trash Backwards and Food Inspector.

I was one of the judges for the event, and, I have to admit, I had a lot of fun downloading and testing the apps on Android and iPhone platforms, as well using some apps on the web itself.   Full results are posted on the Evergreen Apps website and on Geekwire.

“Apps competitions” might seem a little passé these days. It sure seems as if there have been dozens of them, starting with the original Apps for Democracy in the District of Columbia in 2008.   New York City has had at least three renditions of their Big Apps contests and San Francisco continues to innovate with a whole catalog of apps.

What makes this one different?  And where should we be going with Government data and apps contests in the future?

Evergreen Apps ChallengeEvergreen Apps is different because it was a joint effort by the City of Seattle, King County and the State of Washington. Three governments at different levels, multiple different open data sites and $75,000 in prizes. Plus, of course, it was held in Seattle, center of the technology world, with over 100,000 people employed by companies ranging from Microsoft to Cozi to Amazon to Google to Socrata to Urbanspoon.

In return for the prize money, the rules stipulate the apps must be maintained an enhanced for a year. That, hopefully, will give some longevity to these apps. Alas, many of the results of apps contests elsewhere have resulted in dead ended apps which no longer work for a whole variety of reasons ranging from changes in the underlying data structure to developers who go on to other things.

A huge issue is sustainability.   One of my very favorite apps from the original Apps for Democracy contest – “Stumble Safely” which maps crime around your present geographic location - appears to be long dead.

Developers and their startup companies can’t live on coding alone – cash really REALLY helps, but apps built on government open data are hard to monetize.

Another huge problem is non-portability. An app built in Seattle with data.seattle.gov information works in Seattle, but not in LA or Chicago or Podunk Center. We need either much better standards for the underlying datasets, along the lines of Google’s GTFS for transit data. Many transit agencies have adopted this format because increasing their ridership is core to their business, and using the standard advances that goal.

As an alternative, we could use a schema and data interchange process to mask the differences in data between different cities, counties and states.

Cities Data GovI have great hopes for Socrata, a Seattle-based technology company which hosts the federal data.gov, data.seattle.gov, and hundreds of other government open data sites. They are one of the movers behind cities.data.gov, a first attempt at combining datasets from multiple cities.

If cities.data.gov or maybe a future states.data.gov or even restaurantinspections.data.gov can be made real, then an app writing against those open data sites would work anyplace in the world which contributes data.

City, County and State Open Data SitesAnother huge problem is simply the lack of governments who participate. Sure, there are 176 federal government agencies who make data open, thanks to the commitment of the Obama Administration, the United States CTO Todd Park, his Deputy Chris Vein, U. S. CIO Steve Van Roekel and data.gov evangelists like Jeanne Holm. But only 19 cities and counties in the United States, and only 34 states have open data sites. See the list here. And many of those have incomplete or only a few datasets.

When are local and state governments going to “get it” that transparency and open data are a way to enlist a wide site of private companies and developers into helping them better serve their constituents?

Finally, there is the abysmal situation with transparency in lawmaking. Most state legislatures and city/county councils and commissions put proposed laws and ordinances on their websites, but in PDF format or non-machine readable format, making them almost impossible to consume with apps. Is this stupid, shortsighted or maybe intentional? A positive development here is the recent launch of congress.gov, which the Sunlight Foundation hails as putting much more machine-readable bulk data online.

So where do we go from here? My suggestions:

  • Initiate a nationwide or at least statewide (for individual states) effort to standardize the format of the open data, or create data interchange software to mask the differences in the underlying data, as Socrata is trying to do.  Collaboration such as that shown by a City, County and State at Evergreen Apps is a great step forward on this path.
  • Establish statewide and GSA contracts with private companies to host the data. The State of Washington has done that and it ismuch easier for cities and counties in that state to build their own open data sites. Data.seattle.gov was live two months after we started the project, by using such a contract.
  • Pass laws which mandate all data produced by a city, state or county which can be on an open data site is put there. New York City leads the way on this.
  • Also mandate city, county and state legislative processes be open with machine-readable data, as congress.gov is starting to do.

In the end, of course, it all comes down to visionary leadership.

Open governmentPresident Barak Obama was really visionary in demanding open data and transparency from the Federal Government on his first day in office, on January 21, 2009. Then federal CIO Vivek Kundra and CTO Aneesh Chopra carried that ball forward. Mayor Mike McGinn in Seattle launched data.seattle.gov shortly after taking office in 2010 and I was proud to support him in that as Seattle CTO. Other visionary leaders range from Mayor Gavin Newsom in San Francisco to U.S. Deputy CTO Chris Vein in the White House to Mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York City.

But, alas, you can’t legislate leadership. You can only hope voters recognize it and cast their ballots for visionary candidates, and those elected officials, in turn, choose visionary CIOs.

We’ve got a great start on the brave old world of Government Transparency, and, with initiatives like Evergreen Apps, we’ll continue to push the “open data” ball forward.


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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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