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

Ghosts of Government Tech

November 13, 2011 By Bill Schrier

A Ghost of Government TechIt is the season for Ghosts. We've just finished celebrating the spirits and Ghosts of All Saints Day, All Hallows Eve and All Souls Day. Soon we will be visited by the Ghosts of Christmas.

Information technology has its own Ghosts, and we government technologists have our special subspecies of technology Ghosts.

We all know about technology Ghosts. The story of the ill-fated Microsoft Courier tablet, doomed to be stillborn, has been haunting the news feeds again lately. HP's Touchpad and (maybe) WebOS were given up to an existence someplace between the living and the dead (tech Zombiedom?) earlier this year. Whole technology companies and technologies have become Ghosts or are destined for slow, lingering deaths and a future ghoulish existence. WiMax, once the darling of 4G wireless networks, is all-but-dead in favor of its big brother long-term-evolution or LTE. Steve Jobs is widely hailed for bringing Apple computer back from a Ghostlike doom; his role creating the Ghost of NeXt is less celebrated. And companies like Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), once the #2 computer company worldwide, fell into the dustbin of tech history, being purchased by Compaq which in turn was gobbled up by HP. It sure seems like RIM and its successful BlackBerrys may be headed down a similar path.

As I mentioned earlier, Government has both Ghosts-in-common with commercial companies and our own unique set of Ghosts.

Most government computers are haunted by the Ghost called Windows XP. Ten years old, declared "dead" by Microsoft, Windows XP is still a workhorse in many agencies, as we struggle to make sure our myriad of applications will work with Windows 7, and we try to find the dollars to upgrade. At least the Windows XP Ghost will be fondly remembered, unlike Windows Vista, which hopefully has a home someplace in a tech Hades. Mainframe computers, and especially the IBM mainframes, are alive and well, working hard in some places. In governments, however, too often they house almost-Ghostlike tax systemsor scheduling and management systems for Courts, applications which are old and creaky but mainstays for some cities, counties and states.

Some applications are wraiths, staying long beyond their normal useful lives, because they are both functional and beloved by users. Northrup-Grumman’s PRC is a public safety computer-aided dispatch system, "green screen" and command-line driven. Dispatchers and field offers became familiar to its arcane but quick-to-type commands, and memorized them. Newer dispatch systems were Windows and gooey (Graphical User Interface, a term I never liked) based. But to do the same one-line-of-text PRC function on a newer GUI system often would involve opening multiple windows, drop down boxes, address verification functions and other tasks which vastly lengthened the time to dispatch a police unit or fire call. It took dispatchers some time and training to exorcise these Ghosts.

Analog public safety radio networks are another Ghost which many cities, counties and regions use today. The counties of the central Puget Sound, including Seattle, presently have older Motorola analog public safety radio systems - in our case with over 20,000 vehicle-mounted and handheld radios. These systems are functional and critical to dispatching fire, police and emergency medical officers to every 911 call and incident. Yet they are based upon 6809 chip architecture. The 6809 chip was used in the Tandy Color Computer, which was in its heyday around 1978-1980. Talk about Ghosts - what other technology from 1978 is still functional today? Such systems won't be supported for much longer (just like Windows XP) but upgrading or replacing them will not be easy or cheap. Yet, unlike cell phone networks, these 6809-architected systems have been extraordinarily reliable, often with 99.999% uptime.

I'm sure readers of this blog (if there are any!) probably have your own favorite technology Ghosts, many of which may still haunt your support staff and data centers - don't hesitate to leave a comment and describe them.

And, alas, many of these Ghosts are hard to exorcise for many reasons - lack of budget for the replacement, many interfaces and dependencies, and just plain old fear of change "if it ain't broke, don't fix it".   In many cases that means the data used in these ancient ghostly systems is locked up, and hard to interoperate with or interface to other, more modern systems.

In a sense, I'm also a technology "Ghost" of sorts, I guess, spanning the time from the first Apple II computer to the iPad of today, from the Apollo moon landings to today when the little netbook computer I'm using for blogging and tweeting has more computing power than the entire Apollo system had in 1969.

But this last "Ghost" – Bill Schrier - is not going away anytime soon!


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The Miracle of Government Regulation

October 14, 2011 By Bill Schrier

The Chicken CannonAre there any "good guys" in government (or elsewhere) these days?

To listen to the crop of presidential candidates this year, you'd think government on all levels is a total drag on the economy and if you'd just eviscerate it and starve it via budget cutbacks, the private sector would explode creating millions of jobs and an economic nirvana.

An editorial in today's (October 14th) Wall Street Journal talked about 81,405 pages of government regulations being added to the Federal Register last year, at a "total cost to the economy of $1.7 trillion a year" (although no source is cited for this figure).

Coincidentally today, I had the chance to listen to Steven Berlin Johnson, author of "Where Good Ideas Come From".  Steven was speaking at the Code for America Summit in San Francisco [a wonderful gathering of innovators inside and outside government - I've blogged about Code for America before and I'll do so again shortly].

Johnson related the story of U.S. Airways Flight 1549, which made an emergency landing in the Hudson River after striking a flock of geese upon takeoff from New York's JFK Airport. The incident was dubbed the "miracle on the Hudson" because no one died - or was even seriously hurt - in this near tragedy. Great credit for that result goes to a true hero of aviation, Captain “Sully” Sullenberger.

But Johnson made another point - the incident really could be called the "Miracle of Government Regulation" and another hero is the Chicken Gun. The Chicken Gun fires chicken carcasses into jet engines to test their abilities to withstand bird strikes. Such testing is required by the Federal Aviation Administration before it will certify jet engines and airplanes. Flight 1549's engines were certified in 1996 and, after the goose strike, simply shut down, rather than flying apart or exploding when they ingested geese.

Thank you FAA and your regulations and engine certification processes!

(Note and confession: I shamelessly stole the title of this blog from Johnson’s presentation at Code for America.)

As we know, there are a whole host of federal regulations relating to aircraft and flying. And those regulations contribute to an air safety record which has been phenomenally successful.

Would any of us want to get in an aircraft or fly without these FAA regulations in force?   Of course not!

No doubt the FAA are "good guys".

Today's same Wall Street Journal edition carried a front page photo and headline regarding the conviction of Raj Rajaratnam for insider trading. Raj gets 11 years in prison for using insider information to manipulate stock prices and make himself (and friends) rich. Also in the Journal are pictures of Bernie Madoff, sent to prison for 150 years for his Ponzi scheme, and Jeffrey Skilling of Enron sent to prison for 24 years for all the accounting and other shenanigans at Enron in the early 2000's.

Here we have three individuals who hurt every one of us Americans.

We all own stocks in one way or another, and insider stock trading takes money from our pockets and puts it in Raj Rajaratnam's.

Enron's EvilSkilling was especially evil.  Skilling and Ken Lay of Enron tried to corner the market for electricity, driving up prices nationwide. Many investor and publicly-owned utilities, including Seattle City Light and Snohomish Public Utility District, went heavily into debt as a result, to pay for the artificially inflated prices created by this criminal.

Thanks to various Federal laws and regulations, these monsters and many others who have sapped our economy of money and jobs are in prisons. Is insuring the fairness of the "playing field" of business and the financial markets a "drag" on the economy? I think not! Bring on the regulators!

In just one more example, think about automobile gas mileage. Would any car maker willingly invest tons of money into improving gas mileage without government regulation?  Undoubtedly NOT. They’d continue to produce gas-guzzlers, which would use a lot more petroleum, further enriching the oil companies, who willingly would pull it out of the ground at whatever price, increasing our dependence on imported oil, while at the same time increasing air pollution. That’s the cheap way to do business and make tons of money, despite all the deleterious effects.

I could go on-and-on about the miracles of government regulation which keep our water clean, make sure that sewage is purified rather than being dumped raw into rivers, keep working conditions in farms and factories safe, provide for safe automobiles and highways, reduce the risk of disease and contamination in our food supply, and much much more.

How does this relate to being a City government CIO?

Amazingly, I'm a regulator too! I and my department regulate cable television franchises for the people of Seattle, making sure that cable TV and telecomm companies build out all areas of the City, not such affluent ones where the companies can make a lot of money. We also require low-income and senior discounts, and a basic cable rate of $12 a month or less. We require, through a cable customer bill of rights, that customers be treated fairly and with dignity.  These are regulations which make cable television available to almost everyone.

I'm sure there are useless or burdensome government regulations, but I think most regulators are really the "good guys".

Hey, Editors at the Journal, if business people and the financiers and corporate executives on Wall Street would police and regulate themselves (and many of them - especially small business people - do), if they would not pollute the air and water creating superfund sites, would not use inside information to manipulate stock prices and enrich themselves, and would build safe homes and cars which are frugal with gas and low polluting, maybe we wouldn't need so much regulation by governments.

Until that day arrives, I will proudly talk about the "Miracle of Government Regulation" and I would not want my family living in these United States without it.


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Best of the Web - Seattle's Secret Sauce

September 24, 2011 By Bill Schrier

Seattle's Web Team celebrates "Best of the Web"Seattle's City government website www.seattle.gov is been named the #1 City government web portal for 2011 by eRepublic's Center for Digital Government. I was honored to be with the City's web team in Hollywood for the awards ceremony on September 16th. Our open data feed, data.seattle.govreceived a Digital Government Achievement Award at the same ceremony.

Not only that, but www.seattle.gov has been named the #1 City web portal three times in the past eleven years - years 2000, 2006 and now again in 2011.

What's the "secret sauce" to winning the "Best of the Web" competition?

To answer that, I'll share the electronic mail note I sent to all 200 employees of the Department of Information Technology (which I lead) on September 1st:

For all City of Seattle Department of Information Technology staff:

Today, Thursday morning, September 1st, the Center for Digital Government announced its "Best of the Web" awards for 2011. The City of Seattle's web portal, www.seattle.gov , is named the top City government web portal for 2011. The press release from the Center is online. In addition, our open data website data.seattle.govreceived a Digital Achievement Award in the government to citizen category. We've won the "best web portal" award three times - in 2000, 2006 and now in 2011. When you consider there are 275 cities over 100,000 in population, and many thousands of smaller ones, winning three times in 11 years is a phenomenal achievement.

This honor is a direct reflection of the hard work of the City's web teams, especially the central web team led by Bruce Blood and Jeff Beckstrom, and the data.seattle.gov team led by Neil Berry and Ben Andrews.

But everything we do in the Department of Information Technology is a team effort. We don't have a great web portal without a great server and unix computing team to do the hosting. Our community technology folks help those without access to the Internet to get that access and use www.seattle.gov. We absolutely need a great data communications team to maintain our data network and Internet access. Solid 24x7 operations is essential, and our data center staff provide that. Information security is of paramount importance not just to the web site but also in our web applications and throughout our infrastructure. And our technology planning and oversight unit helps facilitate a visionary strategic technology plan for the City and our department.

Content for the web site comes from departments, and that requires great partners in our department web teams and content providers like the Seattle Channel. That, in turn, requires a strong desktop support team and good service desk to keep our desktop and other technology systems functional. We need money and good people to support all this effort, and we have a great finance, accounting and human resources team to support that.

They don't give awards for "best telephone network" or messaging team or communications shop or telecommunications integration team, but "best web portal" is a direct reflection of the excellence and commitment by work groups across the department.

But it is also a reflection of Mayor McGinn's leadership, especially the thoughtful leadership and decisions of Chief of Staff Julie McCoy, with input and support from many others in the Mayor's Office, on the Council, and in departments.

In addition to the top honor for web portal, our open data site, http://data.seattle.gov received a Digital Government Achievement Award in the Government to Citizen category. I especially want to thank Mayor McGinn, Chief John Diaz, Chief Gregory Dean, and Diane Sugimura for leadership in making departmental data available on that site, and Council member Harrell for his support of funding for data.seattle.gov despite the difficult budgets we've recently faced. They lead a true ommitment to an open, transparent, government for Seattle!

We live in difficult times. The economy is rocky. Budgets are constrained, and we've lost a number of people and positions. I had a meeting with the Mayor earlier today, talking about budget. I directly told him that despite losing 27 positions and $11 million in funding over the past four years, our workload has only increased as the use of technology expands in City government. He acknowledged that and told me how proud he was of the continued dedication and skilled work of DoIT's staff, despite the hard economic times and the reduced revenues available to City government.

For one moment today, as you encounter and overcome the everyday problems and challenges of your job, sit back and bask in the glory of this achievement.


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Why don't Cops Use Smart Phones?

August 11, 2011 By Bill Schrier

click to see moreEvery teenager - including some of us 50 and 60 year old teenagers - seems to have a smart phone these days. I'm writing this on an airplane, and I just finished an intense, 20 minute "Angry Birds" session on my HTC Android smart phone (yes, it was in "airplane" mode!). I'm almost a Luddite when it comes to apps and smart phones, barely even able to play games on them.

However many people young and old commonly use their smart phones or tablet computers to do interesting, productive activities such as:

  • listen to public safety two-way radio;
  • take meeting notes using Evernote or One Note;
  • watch episodes of TV series using Hulu;
  • read books and newspapers;
  • take photos or videos and text message them around the world.

Gee, some people even use their smart phones to actually make voice telephone calls!?

So why don't cops and firefighters, emergency medical technicians and electrical lineworkers, public works and transportation department employees, and a whole other host of critical and important government workers use smart phones in their daily jobs?

Of course these public safety workers DO use smart phones. Often they use their PERSONAL smart phones to do some part of their job. But rarely do governments give their workers smart phones - other than BlackBerrys for email, that is - to officially do their jobs and become much more productive. In fairness, that's not because Mayors and County Executives and Governors are unsupportive, or government CFOs are penny-pinching.

We don't give government workers these important tools for two basic reasons:

  • The apps don't exist;
  • There is no guarantee of priority access to commercial cell phone networks.

In terms of the "apps", most governments use a relatively small set of applications from a few vendors - there are records management systems, computer-aided dispatch systems, utility billing systems, work management systems, etc. And many of the vendors of those systems only recently have built them to accept even web-browser access. The terms and conditions for our (government's) use of such software explicitly says we'll only use the software with vendor approved configurations, or the vendor won't give us support. And most vendors for these government-specific systems don’t make a version of their application which runs on a smart phone, whether it is a Windows Phone 7, Apple iPad or Iphone, or Google Android.

Software companies: Get on the stick and write smart phone apps for your software. 'nuf said.

More importantly, government workers presently have to use commercial mobile networks for their smart phones. And on those networks, public safety and critical infrastructure workers have no priority. That means your teenager (even if she's 50 years old) has the same priority as a cop or firefighter or electrical lineworker responding to a major incident or emergency.

Do you want that emergency medical technician responding to YOUR heart attack to have priority access - wirelessly and in real time - to your medical history, and to the emergency room doctors at the level 1 trauma center, and to a video conference with your cardiologist? Of course you do!

During a robbery, when you or your employees are being held up with a weapon, don't you want the responding cops to be able to see the video of your store - including the images of the perpetrators, in real time as they respond? And have passers-by snapping photos and video of the perps to send to 911 centers using next generation 911 technologies? Of course you do!

When your electrical power is out, or your water is interrupted, don't you want that utility worker to have access to all the diagrams and network configurations so they can accurately pinpoint where the outage is and rapidly fix it? Well, of course you do.

If, all of a sudden, a kid in your child's high school goes crazy and brings a gun to that school, taking teachers and students hostage, don't you want responding cops and firefighters to have access to the video cameras with interior views of the school, and to the school's building plan showing all the exits, and maybe even to the GPS on the cell phone used by the kid with the gun so they can see his (they are all boys, alas) exact position in the school? Obviously we do.

But the blunt fact of the matter is this: At the same time you are having a heart attack, or your business is being robbed, or your electricity fails, or a school lockdown occurs - everyone who has a cell phone within a mile of the incident may be texting and calling and tweeting and sending photographs to their loved ones, and the commercial cellular networks will be overloaded.

That's why we don't give cops and firefighters smart phones. Because - besides the fact that safe, secure, apps don't exist - when responders most need their smart phones, the cell phone networks will be overloaded and will fail them.

Is there a way out of this dilemma? "Of course there is!"

Several bills are pending in Congress today which would allocate wireless spectrum for priority use by police, firefighters, emergency medical techs - and also by electrical lineworkers, public works employees and transportation workers . Those same bills would auction other spectrum for use by carriers, producing almost $26 billion in revenue to both reduce the federal government deficit and to build a nationwide public safety network which responders could use - with priority over all other users and uses.

Then those first and second responders could use smart phone applications every day, confident that the network will be available, no matter what nearby teenagers are doing.

But, like so much else in this year of 2011, Congress is in deadlock. Some brave Senators and Representatives such as Jay Rockefeller and Kay Bailey Hutchison (with Senate Bill S.911) and Peter King and Maria Cantwell and Dave Reichert do step up to the plate, led by Vice President Biden. They all support creation of a nationwide public safety wireless broadband network. At the same time, many others in Congress stall and block the work, while people needlessly are hurt or die.

Why don't cops and firefighters use smart phones? Because some in Congress would rather play politics, argue endlessly, and pinch funding than give our responders the tools they need to save lives and protect property every day, as well as during future disasters.

With the 10th anniversary of the September 11th World Trade Center disaster just a month away, does this dithering make sense? Of course it doesn't.


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The Selectric Desktop Computer

July 4, 2011 By Bill Schrier

Desktop computers are dead.

Desktops are soooo 20th century.

"The desktop computer is going the way of the fax machine" Or, to be really nasty about it … "going the way of the IBM Selectric typewriter." (Congratulations, IBM, incidentally, on your 100th birthday!)

A (very) short history of computing

Tolling the death knell for the desktop computer certainly seems to be "in vogue" during this year of 2011 although its death has been predicted for many years.

This news fad gains additional momentum from the recent rise of the tablet computer. And - please note this -the tablet really has, "risen from the dead" itself, as tablet computers were developed a number of years ago.

News fads run in cycles, and in this case I prefer to paraphrase Mark Twain: "Reports of my desktop computer's death have been greatly exaggerated."

Desktop and laptop computers are far from dead and will be around for a long time to come. Certainly tablets have some advantages. They:

  • are thin;
  • are light;
  • have long battery life
  • are versatile, i. e. they do a lot of stuff, such as play videos and music, surf the web, function as e-readers and Scrabble boards

They also have some disadvantages:

  • The on-screen keyboard functions rather like one original purpose of the QWERTY keyboard - it slows down touch typists. The screen keyboard also is tough on fat fingered folks like me, who inadvertently tap a Z instead of an A. Yes, you can get an external touch-typable (sort of) keyboard, but if you're going to start lugging all that extra stuff around ...
  • Tablets have very few applications. This undoubtedly will provoke some of my readers to anger or laughter or both. "Gee, Bill, there are tens of thousands of apps in the (fill-in-the-blank with your favorite name) apps store". Yeah, sure, that's true, but how many apps are for building inspectors or utility billing systems or police records management systems? Apps have a long way to go before they are "enterprise class" – usable for real workers at real jobs. Few enterprise applications support the strange browsers found on most tablets.
  • Tablets don't do Microsoft Office. In particular, Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Oh sure, there are ways to work around this limitation, to some extent - but no tablet has full functionality of even the basic Office functions.
  • Tablets are heavily dependent upon a network (3G, 4G or Wi-Fi). That’s especially true if you want to do cloud apps such as Office 365 or Google Apps. I’m sorry, but there are a ton of places – like many airplanes or inside my house in West Seattle – where the network connectivity is not very good. Certainly not good enough to run bandwidth-intensive apps or do large up/downloads.

For me, the preferred road computer-weapon of choice is the trusty netbook running Windows 7 and the Office Suite. Touch-typable keyboard built in, Wi-Fi, long battery life (8 to 10 hours), replaceable battery for longer life (eat horse dung, non-replaceable iPhone and iPad), instant-on capability anywhere (I'm writing this on a Metro bus commuting home from work), USB ports (and lots of them), DVD drive, and so forth. And the thing is light and rugged. For those of you with a religious bent, Apple makes some pretty good netbook-equivalent devices too.

Even the netbook has limitations - and specifically if doing graphics and photography work, or other heavy duty apps, which require the power and larger screens of a desktop computer. But neither desktop or netbook make a good e-reader or electronic scrabble board.

Will tablet computers eventually and completely replace the desktop? Maybe, although I'm skeptical.

Will tablet computers themselves eventually go the way of the slide rule and abacus?

Perhaps. But for the time being I think the tablet will become one more tool - one more device in a pantheon of devices from mainframes to mobile smart phones - which people use to make their lives happier and more productive.

But I’m not dancing on the grave of the desktop computer just yet.

[Credits for photographs: IBM 7074 computer courtesy IBM Corporation, IBM PC-XT, Apple I-Pad with Scrabble (trademarked and copyrighted) application photo by Bill Schrier]


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