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

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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S.911: Profiles in Courage

June 18, 2011 By Bill Schrier

Vice President Joe Biden speaks about Public Safety Broadband Wireless Networks on June 16, 2011It is fascinating how words and phrases take on differeNT nuances of meaning depending upon their context. I guess that's why it is so hard for computers (IBM's Watson notwithstanding) to understand and properly interpret human speech or, in many cases, writing.

Take "911". In most contexts and for most people, that would be the police/fire emergency number . The number you'd call to get help with a heart attack or a burglary-in-progress or a lost child.

But 9/11 refers to that infamous day when terrorist Osama bin Laden's gang of terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center in New York City.

Now, today, 911 has a new meaning. S.911 is the United States Senate bill sponsored by Senators Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, which allocates additional spectrum and $11.75 billion in funding to build a nationwide interoperable public safety wireless broadband network. That bill passed out of the Senate Commerce Committee on a vote of 21 to 4 on June 8th.

On June 16th, Vice President Joe Biden and public safety officials from cities and states across the country celebrated this huge step forward on a long road toward building that network. Biden, Attorney General Eric Holder, NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly and many others called upon the full Senate and House to pass the bill, so the President could sign it this year.

You don't usually think of Senators as "courageous", but we have twenty-one really courageous Senators on that Commerce Committee (and a courageous former senator in Vice President Biden).

They faced (and continue to face) a wide variety of pressures:

  • The continuing pain of the Federal budget deficit, which threatens to suck away the almost $12 billion allocated in this bill for public safety.
  • The pressure from some wireless telecommunications companies, who would rather see that spectrum given to them to build more consumer networks;
  • The Federal debt ceiling - which needs to be raised for the economic health of the nation - but many in Congress are holding that rise hostage to force budget cuts;
  • A lack of trust by some in the ability of state and local governments, who some believe cannot be trusted to continue to build out the network. This is ironic, because when anyone telephones 911, it is local police, firefighters and emergency medical technicians who respond. Furthermore, eight local governments are already building these networks under waivers from the FCC;
  • A need by electric and water utilities, transportation agencies, and other critical infrastructure providers for spectrum to build their own interoperable networks so they can respond to hurricanes, tornadoes, windstorms and earthquakes too - luckily, if S.911 passes Congress, it would modify Federal law and allow these utilities to share the public safety network and spectrum;
  • Oh, did I mention the Federal budget deficit as an as an excuse to NOT giving cops and firefighters and local governments the network they need to keep us all safe?

These are all poor reasons used to justify voting "no" on S.911. Reasons to justify inaction. Reasons to put the safety of 300 million Americans aside.

The campaign to pass S.911 - to fund and build this vital network - is significantly helped by the leadership of President Obama and Vice-President Biden, who allocated the money in their 2012 budget. The Vice-President is especially active leading the charge to build this nationwide public safety wireless broadband network. The Administration just issued a report describing the urgent need.

Yes, there is a lot of courage on that Senate Commerce Committee, and hopefully the courage is infectious and spreads to at least the 51 Senators and 217 members of the House needed to pass the legislation.

Because 9/11 is looming again.

9/11/11.

The 10th Anniversary of the terrorism at New York City's World Trade Center. Where hundreds of firefighters and police officers lost their lives because their radio communications networks didn't get them the order to evacuate the buildings which were about to collapse.

Will the rest of Congress have the courage to act?


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How Osama bin Laden Changed Technology in Government

May 27, 2011 By Bill Schrier

Osama bin Laden - click to see moreOsama Bin Laden’s death is a welcome event for most people, especially in the United States. Yet his life profoundly changed the direction of information technology as it is used in City, County, State and the Federal government. Indeed, my own life is vastly different than it would have been if the World Trade Center towers had not been destroyed on September 11, 2001.

The most visible effect for most Americans, of course, is our two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Even there, the effect is distant from the majority of us: relatively few families have friends or relatives who serve in the military. (A notable exception – reservists and the National Guard – I have a friend in the Seattle Parks Department who has been activated three times, once each for Afghanistan, Iraq and Djibouti,and now has been notified of an upcoming fourth deployment).

Full Body ScannerOf course anyone using airports notices the “new” fedgov bureaucracy, the Transportation Security Administration and its wide variety of high and low technologies from “spread ‘em” millimeter wave body scanners to “feel ‘em up” intrusive body pat-downs.

But Bin Laden’s war on the United States changed much more in the way we live and govern our cities and counties and states.

After September 11th, the threat of terrorist attacks took a prominent place alongside earthquakes and hurricanes as a potential disaster. Now we worry about “dirty” bombs, and nuclear weapons smuggled in aboard ships and bio-attacks (remember the anthrax delivered to Congress?).Coast Guard and a Ferry In Seattle, we’ve done vulnerability analyses on likely targets such as the Space Needle, Microsoft headquarters, Boeing plants and Washington State ferries. Indeed, you can often see Coast Guard fast attack craft zooming alongside ferries. And traffic barriers and bollards protect buildings which may be targets.

Most visibly from a technology point of view, interoperable communications for first respondershas taken center stage. In the World Trade Center attacks, New York City police officers in the buildings received the radioed notice to evacuate, but firefighters – operating on different radio channels – did not, and many of them died as a result. Many meetings have been held and much legislation proposed, but as of this writing – almost ten years later – we have few concrete improvements in interoperability. Notably, the Obama Administration has proposed a $12 billion grant program, financed by the sale of spectrum, to build a nationwide interoperable public safety wireless broadband network. http://www.cioupdate.com/news/article.php/3922331/Obama-Looks-to-Drive-RD-Wireless-Broadband.htm Whether Congress has the ability stop its internal bickering and actually enact legislation for this program is an open question. Nevertheless some cities and states, such as Charlotte, Harris County (Houston), Mississippi and the Los Angeles and San Francisco regions, are boldly building the first of these new, vital, networks.

Other changes include a new Fedgov Department, Homeland Security, to improve our readiness to combat terrorist threats. It’s initial steps to help us prepare for terrorist attacks include not only the TSA, but also the ill-conceived color-coded terrorism threat level (i.e. nuclear urine yellow) system. Recently, TSA and air marshal programs, fast FEMA responses, and Coast Guard interdiction of threats have allowed DHS to come into its own.

Whole grant funding programs have sprung into being as well, for example the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI). UASI is funding thousands of programs to help harden vulnerable targets, equip first responders with personal protective equipment, and conduct exercises and training to improve our ability to withstand both terrorist events and disasters.

In the Seattle area, we’ve built a secure fiber network to interlink the seats of Government and Emergency operations Centers in central Puget Sound. Seattle – and many other cities and counties – have invested local funds to construct new, state-of-the-art 911 centers and emergency operations centers. Concerned about cybersecurity threats, we’ve hardened our control networks which manage the electricity and water grids. Indeed, the whole field of cybersecurity and information technology security now has new life confronting not just terrorist threats, but the very real problems created by hackers, phishers and identity thieves. With the help of homeland security dollars, we here in Seattle are building a cyber event logging system which will help correlate cyber security events across the Puget Sound Region.

Is America safer now than in 2011, especially given Bin Laden’s death? I don’t know. But I do know we are somewhat better prepared to meet disaster and terrorist acts. We have disaster preparedness plans and we exercise them. We are a more connected society with wired and wireless networks, and we are keenly aware of potential cyber security threats. We are more vigilant.

But we have a lot – a LOT – more to do. President Obama, Vice-President Biden and their Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra have shown great leadership in boldly proposing to fund a new public safety broadband wireless network. The FCC has granted waivers to 20 cities, regions and states to build these networks. Courageous leaders in Congress such as Senators Rockefeller, Hutchison, McCain and Lieberman, and Representatives Peter King and Benny Thompson, are proposing legislation to finally build the nationwide networks first responders need to meet the challenge not just of terrorist events but also the daily incidents and disasters. Even the New York Timeshas endorsed these efforts.

Will their leadership overcome the naysayers in Congress and elsewhere?

For the sake of the nation, for the health and safety of every one of our citizens, I hope it does.


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An Inception Event - Code for America

March 25, 2011 By Bill Schrier

click to see moreI guess you can teach an older CTO (me!) new tricks.

I was pleasantly surprised by a Code for America “inception event” on March 17th. The event was the kickoff - really the kickoff of the second half of our “game” (project) - to create open source software which will help Seattle and Philadelphia and other cities' neighborhood leaders … well … "lead".

Every City and County has neighborhood activists - people who care about their blocks and their communities - and want to improve them. Most often, such activists are "made", not born. There are many "inception events" which create activists for examples:

  • A child or a senior citizen is struck by a speeding car in a crosswalk.
  • A sex predator moves into the neighborhood.
  • A rash of burglaries occurs in homes on the block.
  • A vacant lot becomes overgrown with weeds and becomes a breeding ground for rats and insects.

Quite often, many people in the neighborhood recognize the problem. Sometimes, someone in the neighborhood recognizes the problem and decides to take action to fix it.

 Code for AmericaAn activist is born.

But what do they do next? What action can they really take to change the situation?

Nine times out of ten, they call their local government - their City or sometimes their County. Sometimes it is a call to 911, sometimes to their Mayor or City Council member, sometimes to 311, sometimes they spend time flipping through the blue pages in the phone book (or the modern-day equivalent - an often-hard-to-navigate municipal website) trying to find who to call.

Quite often the answer they receive - if they get one, especially in these days of government budget deficits and cutbacks in services – sends them from one phone call to another, or maybe directs them to "go to a meeting" of their local blockwatch or community council.

Then our newly minted activist will search online for the meeting of a local community group. Or maybe they'll search, usually in vain, for the name of the local blockwatch captain. Blockwatch captains - community members - are often skittish about publicly releasing their contact information, and understandably so, since blockwatches represent a threat to the local gangs or criminals in the neighborhood. But finding a blockwatch/community meeting or event can be a dizzying trip through a maze of websites and online calendars or bulletin boards in grocery stores.

Our neighborhood activist, by this time, can be thoroughly frustrated not just with the problem on their block, but with government, community councils, blockwatches and life in general.

How can we in government fix this situation, and help neighborhood activists turn into civic leaders and also help those leaders to be successful?

First, we need to recognize the many people in our cities who have figured this out - have become neighborhood activists, blockwatch captains and civic leaders. They've figured out the "secret sauce" to getting things done.

Next we need to recognize the many government employees - city and county - who really take their jobs seriously. They want to fix problems and help improve quality of life for residents, but are often stymied by siloed department bureaucracies and simple lack of information - a transportation worker filling a pothole in the street often doesn't know who to contact about a rat-infested vacant lot, any more than any other citizen.

Finally, government doesn't have to be involved in the solution to EVERY civic problem. Quite often citizens working with each other can take action and make their neighborhoods better.

Code for America - click to see moreEnter Code for America.

Code for America is a non-profit established by Tim O'Reilly, a prominent - perhaps THE prominent proponent of the interactive, social web (sometimes called Web 2.0 or Gov 2.0).

Code for America's premise is simple - citizens and governments face the fundamentally the same issues whether they live in South Beach on Staten Island or San Antonio or Seattle. Sometimes we can create online applications to help solve those problems. And if we create them - and we make those applications open source - cities across the United States - perhaps even the world - can take those open source solutions and use them.

Code for America hires "fellows" - usually recent college grads or others with real world experience and a lot of tech savvy – to analyze these problems and write these apps.

This does require money, of course. The City of Seattle (the department I lead – DoIT) pitched in some dollars. But I’m very grateful to Microsoft via Joanne Harrell for contributing $50,000, and to Jack Dangermond of ESRI for chipping in an additional $50,000. Joanne and Microsoft, Jack and ESRI see the potential of this new model.

Seattle, Philadelphia and Boston are the launch cities for this ambitious concept. I’ve previously blogged about what I hoped to get from our Code for America project – see my blog about Citywatch.

In February, the CfA fellows came to our three cities and spent a lot of time with those people I mentioned above - the civic leaders who have "figured out the secret sauce" to getting things done in their neighborhoods - but also the City staff often stymied as well. They heard about the problems with trying to take action - that civic leaders can't find each other and have difficulty getting their message out to like-minded activists. And they heard about the difficulty in finding those meetings of neighborhood blockwatches and community councils and precinct advisory boards - the "meet ups" for neighborhood leaders.

Cue the Code for America "inception event" on March 17th.

This was an amazing eight hours.

First, all the fellows assigned to Seattle, Philly and Boston got together with Code for America staff and our Cities technology folks, including me. The fellows had already brainstormed several potential applications to solve our community activism problems.

Dan Melton, CfA's Chief Technology Officer, took the whole group through an exercise to develop the concepts for four potential apps, and determine our overall level of interest in them. People stood on their feet throughout this exercise. If we were wildly enthusiastic about an idea, we stood to the far right of the room. If we were "meh" (ambivalent) about it, we stood at the left side.

Then Dan asked us why we were enthusiastic - or not. In the process, we also further developed the ideas - added functions or features or discarded them. Next, we voted on the ideas and came up with the top two.

In the afternoon, we went through a deeper dive to develop each application further. This reminded me a lot of doing a work breakdown structure for a project. We looked at potential users of the application (our civic leaders) and what they would find useful. We considered which features would be essential for the first version, and which ones could wait until later versions.

We talked a little about what apps presently perform the function, because we don't want to re-invent an app which already exists.

I worked on the "engagement toolkit" project. As we developed it, it turned into a simple web-based application which a neighborhood activist could use to describe their particular issue or passion. It would include a “splash page” which simply describes the issue or idea. But it could also include flyers or doorhangers to solicit others to the “cause”. It might include e-mail list capability or an online map describing the issue. And it could include simple project management tools – checklists or timelines – to help move the issue forward. Most importantly, the engagement toolkit would allow neighborhood activists to mobilize their friends and neighbors to the cause.

Working together, they might solve certain problems without any help from their city or county government. They might also be able to find similar groups across a city – or even across the nation – who have already solved their particular problem, and adapt the same solution.

Over the next few months the Code for America staff and fellows will develop this concept into an online application. They’ll test it out with the civic leaders they’ve already identified in Seattle and Philly. And in August or September we’ll roll it out and starting using it.

With a little luck, we can marry the “inception event” at Code for America, combined with “inception events” which create budding civic leaders, to create new, online, tools to improve our blocks, our neighborhoods, our communities, and our America as a nation.

From the ground … up.


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Bright Shiny (Shifting) Objects

February 21, 2011 By Bill Schrier

Bright Shiny (Shifting?) ObjectWhy are human beings and governments so attracted to bright shiny objects such as smart phone apps?

I'm sure there is a psychological malady in here somewhere - perhaps a "Bright Shiny Object Syndrome" (BSOS), which also might explain why some people passionately love geocaching and others are inveterate collectors of stuff and still others become compulsive hoarders. And BSOS may be related to that urban legend(?) about capturing monkeys by putting bright shiny objects (BSOs) into a monkey trap.

Certainly Apple seems to be making a handsome living off BSOS, with over 10 billion downloads from its iPhone Apps store at a 30% cut of the price of each. Apple also receives a percentage from iTunes music downloads, and has capitalized on what I would call "hardware BSO" by being first to market with products like the iPod, iPhone and iPad. Of course plenty of other companies also cash in on BSO. A perfect example is all the companies hoping to make money in the forthcoming boom in tablet computers this year.

How does this all relate to government?

Government employees, including senior executives and elected officials, range the gamut from early adopters to tech troglodytes. And more than a few of them are afflicted with BSO syndrome.

Sometimes that's harmless, like the employee who has an iPod plus video camera plus digital camera plus iPad and maybe two kinds of Smart Phones. As long as "he" (they are usually men) uses his desktop computer with Windows XP for work, and operates all those gadgets on his own time, I see no harm in this.

A worse situation is a senior official who directs the government or department he/she leads to adopt the latest gee-whiz gadgets or web applications without connection to either the department's business strategic plan or a coherent technology plan. Then that department tries to simultaneously reach constituents - and perhaps obtain input from them – via too many methods, such as:

  • a website (and maybe a variety of website domains such as countyparks.gov and parksforall.com and a domain for each major park)
  • a variety of online services such as payment engines, permit applications, maps etc.
  • blogs (and comments on blogs)
  • tweets (and @replies)
  • many different facebook pages
  • webforms
  • multiple YouTube postings and channels, in addition to the municipal cable TV channel
  • open data
  • smartphone apps
  • e-mail
  • mass-e-mailed newsletters
  • crowdsourcing via a tool such as Google Moderator or Ideascale
  • and probably via other bright-shiny-methods.

Sometimes I almost feel I "resemble these remarks" (i.e. have BSO syndrome myself):  The City of Seattle has a number of web applications and “bright shiny objects” such as Citylink - interconnected blogs at citylink.seattle.gov, multiple tweeting departments, a whole set of interactive services for making payments and obtaining information, a variety of Facebook pages and social media sites, open data at data.seattle.gov, a customizable website at my.seattle.gov, an award-winning municipal TV channel and much more.

So I'll offer some tips - and this is advice the City of Seattle itself doesn't always follow - on avoiding BSO syndrome in a world of Web 2.0 and Gov 2.0:

1. Establish the brand of your website and don't dilute it. We have established www.seattle.gov as the definitive site for Seattle's City government. We actively resist setting up a whole series of competing domains with City information, e.g. seattlewater.gov or twistandsave.com (for a compact florescent bulb promotion). We host our own implementation of Wordpress, so that even the blogs (citylink.seattle.gov) are really part of the website.

I'll be honest - this tenet is often hard to follow. Many departments think they have some unique message which has to be communicated in a unique way with their own domain and website. Sometimes this is just a new departmental web administrator trying to make a name for him/herself as a cool web designer. Sometimes the separate domain request is legitimate. And sometimes it is something else entirely. As CIO I need the wisdom of Solomon to distinguish the difference!

2. Drive traffic and inquiries back to the website from the other media. When you tweet, include a link back to information on the website or in a blog. When posting to the department's Facebook wall, make the post short and succinct (include a photo or two, if appropriate) and link back to more information or an app on the website.

3. Try to make the website as consistent as possible in look, feel and operation. Use consistent headers, footers and navigation, as well as the same look-and-feel throughout the site. Any government is not a collection of independent departments, but one entity headed by a single elected official with a single elected legislative body. The website should resemble that "unity of government".   And try to be consistent in using a single payment engine for online payments, as well as "single sign-on" - one userid and password which provides access to all of the government's online services.

4. Be judicious in the proper use of tools. In other words, use the right tool for the job. Too often we have a hammer, so everything we see looks like a nail, even if in reality it is a screw or window or thumb.

The best example of this is probably Citizens' Briefing Book. In January, 2009, President Obama's transition team used Google moderator to try and crowdsource the major issues facing the nation. Ideas such as "legalize marijuana", "legalize online poker" and "revoke the tax status of the Church of Scientology" bubbled to the top. Citizens' Briefing Book is a noble effort, but I hardly think the tax status of Scientology is a major problem facing the nation!  Such crowdsourcing tools are more properly applied to single, specific, issues such as "what do we do with this vacant piece of land" rather than broad ones like "what are our budget priorities". Such broad-based questions can be easily "gamed".

5. Dilution of effort. Some governments or departments are huge, and can devote a lot of people and resources to maintaining a vast variety of social media and web channels for information. A San Francisco or Seattle can have numerous Facebook pages and twitter accounts.

But in every case - large or small, governments should start with just a few social media channels tailored to their communities. Some neighborhoods will rarely use twitter, or will rely on traditional sources (TV stations or newspapers) for information. Others will actively get information from blogs or Facebook postings. Trying to do too much - too many social media channels - will be difficult to keep operating and only confuse the public or weaken their confidence in government.

6. Fail fast. If you try a new social media channel and it doesn't resonate with constituents, close it down and post a "nothing to see here - go look at our website" notice on the door.

7. Assign responsibility. Most departments will assign their public information staff the duty of updating social media and insuring accuracy. In Seattle, the Police and Fire and Transportation PIOs will tweet as they speed to an event or incident, and then tweet again as well as blog about what happened at the incident. The tweets link to the blogs. With the demise of the traditional media (television, newspapers), the rise of neighborhood blogs and ubiquity of computing devices (computers, tablets, smartphones) in the hands of the public, this approach also is the fastest way to get information to everyone.

Ten years ago, in 2001, the year of "A Space Odyssey" and HAL, who could have imagined today's environment of Facebook and Twitter and blogs and smart phones? What will the social media and constituent relationship landscape be like in 2021 or even 2016?

Perhaps, instead of titling this post "Bright Shiny Objects", the title should be "Bright Shifting Objects" as we continuously roll with the changes in technology.


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