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

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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Government at the Speed of Life

July 31, 2012 By Bill Schrier

The Digital States Performance Institute hosted a webinar on government mobility on July 30th. Over 120 listeners heard about several innovative mobile applications states are deploying today, plus some interesting ideas for the future. And those listeners had a wide variety of questions, which I’ve listed further down in this post.

Indiana State PoliceSergeant Steve Whitaker of the Indiana State Police described an interesting school bus inspection application.

Now, in this age of iPhones and Android devices and tablets and cool apps, a "school bus inspection" application isn’t very sexy. That is, until you think about the amount of time many children spend on a school bus, and the facts that school buses are often operated by budget-constrained school districts and private companies who must eke out a profit in addition to transporting the kids. Sergeant Whitaker described how a mobile application to do the inspections and document them replaced an older, cumbersome, slow, paper-based reporting system. He talked about how the system is used not just by the inspectors, but by maintenance workers and schools themselves to help insure their buses are safe for transporting kids. Steve also talked about how the app was built.

NICAs a first step, he reached out to students at the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) campus. They did a lot of the difficult work of business analysis and discovery creating a blueprint for the application. To actually build and code the application from that blueprint, he reached out to Sloane Wright and Indiana Interactive, which is part of NIC and operates the state’s award-winning web portal, www.in.gov. Sloane embraced it, took the idea, and developed the application which is now deployed. Steve calls this his "A" team of the original UIPUI students and Indiana Interactive.

NIC is actively considering how to make the app available for other states with a similar need. NIC hosts the portals for over 30 state and federal agencies, and has developed a number of innovative web-based applications to allow constituents to do business 24x7 on those sites.

Ohio DOTSpencer Wood, Chief Information Officer for the Ohio Department of Transportation, ODOT, described the many initiatives they are working on to improve mobility along state roads and highways. ODOT has a large number of intelligent transportation system (ITS) projects in progress including variable message signs, radio broadcasts, texting alerts and more. As an example, here is one amazing fact: ODOT collects average traffic speeds every mile or two miles along many state highways. This represents huge data set which shows how traffic ebbs and flows in the state. How slowdowns start, build, and then dissipate. Such information is not only a valuable feed for research but also would be available to travelers and motorists as a mobile app. Spencer and ODOT are actively working on a lot of machine-to-machine systems to collect data, a lot of which will be made available to the public on mobile devices.

VerizonTroy Cromwell is Verizon’s Group Vice President for Government and Education. Verizon has the most extensive 4G wireless network in the nation. Troy talked about a number of the issues governments face in developing mobile apps. Chief among those is security – keeping personal data entered by constituents safe, but also keeping data collected about health and criminal justice secure in accordance with applicable laws and regulations. Besides secure platforms and data encryption, Troy mentioned the need for mobile device management for all the tablets and smartphones used by government employees, including, increasingly personal ones an employee may use. In his experience, there’s no “one size fits all approach” – addressing the security, financial, policy and governance issues are solutions which need to be tailored to the needs of individual states and jurisdictions.

In one of our polling questions during the webinar, the listeners indicated a major obstacle was lack of development resources – information technology professionals with mobile applications experience, for example. That’s one area where NIC/Indiana Interactive, which Sloane manages, and Verizon, Troy’s company, can bring a lot of additional resources and expertise to bear, often at low cost, as indicated by the school bus application. The audience was quite engaged, and had a lot of questions, not all of which we were able to answer in the webinar.

First, in a final polling question, it was clear most of the audience really wanted to deploy constituent-facing applications like service request/311 apps and travelers’ information to “get their toe” in the water of mobile apps.

  • Some other concerns and issues listeners’ mentioned are listed below. If you have answers to these questions or other questions to pose, please add a comment to this post or email me:
    Section 508 compliance – making sure applications were accessible to users with visual or other disabilities – we didn’t address this.
  • Social media, e.g. twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn. There are several aspects of this – one is crowdsourcing. Spencer mentioned he’d like to crowdsource information about transportation problems from motorists, as a future app. Another question is how to use social media to understand the market or need for such apps.
  • Security was a major concern, especially security of the “cloud” where data or the applications may reside. Another listener wondered how iTunes accounts are managed – is there one iTune account per employee or do they somehow share a single agency account? Another issue is case management for social workers and how to secure the data they would enter to a case management system from a mobile device. A final issue mentioned is personal use of the Internet from mobile devices (e.g. tablets) which might introduce security issues.
  • Measuring success was a question – how do we measure the success of applications or perhaps use website hits or other statistics to determine which apps should be moved to a mobile platform.
    The whole process of deciding which apps might be of interest to citizens or constituents garnered a lot of attention in the questions. Listeners are interested to determine which measures or statistics or media might be useful in this process.
  • While we discussed the school bus inspection and transportation apps, listeners had a lot of interest in other apps as well. In the questions they mentioned employer taxes, unemployment and disability insurance, job seekers and employment, vehicle registration renewal, driver license renewal, professional license renewal, fine and fee payments, potholes and dead animal control.
  • For the transportation applications, listeners expressed concern about motorists using their mobile devices while driving and addressing the “distraction” level involved. Troy talked about how Verizon is trying to address this issue in its research, because it knows wireless devices and applications will be built into many cars as a feature in the future.

Finally I asked the panel what applications they’d like to see. Sloane mentioned an amber alert application which might activate mobile devices throughout a region or state. Steve is concerned about expanding the child safety work he’s doing with the school bus inspections. Spencer has a whole list of applications he’s building to speed transportation in Ohio. Troy talked about revitalizing education with mobile device applications students, teachers and parents could use to enhance and extend the classroom environment.

Again, the level of interest from the panel and the audience was quite high. Please add your thoughts and comments to this post, or drop me an email for follow-up.  You can view an archived version of the webinar here.


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