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

Tech Lessons from the Seattle Snowstorm

January 21, 2012 By Bill Schrier

Seattle EOC ActivatedThe Seattle area and I just went through a four day snow/ice storm event. The City of Seattle’s emergency operations center (EOC) was activated and coordinated the City government’s response. That response received high marks from the public and media for a variety of reasons (see Seattle Times editorial here), including the leadership of Mayor Michael McGinn.

I was able to personally observe that response and lead the technology support of it. Information technology materially contributed to the improved response, nevertheless I see a number of further potential enhancements using technology . And that’s the purpose of this blog entry.

GIS GIS GIS (Maps) Every city, county and state is all about geography and maps. Maps are the way we deploy resources (think “snowplows”). Maps are the way we understand what’s happening in our jurisdiction.

Everyone who has lived and traveled inside a city can look on a map and instantly visualize locations - what the “West Seattle bridge” or any other street, infrastructure or geographical feature (think “hill”) looks like.

Winter Response (Snowplow) MapFor this storm, we have some great mapping tools in place, especially a map which showed which streets had been recently plowed and de-iced. This map used GPS technology attached to the snowplow trucks. That same map had links to over 162 real-time traffic cameras so people could see the street conditions and traffic. (Other cities, like Chicago, have similar maps.)

SCL Outage MapAnother useful map is the electrical utility’s system status map, which shows the exact locations of electrical system outages, the number of outages, the number of customers affected and the estimated restoration times. This is really useful if you are a customer who is affected – at least you know we’ve received your problem and a crew will be on the way.

What could we do better? We could put GPS on every City government vehicle and with every City crew and display all that information on a map. That way we’d immediately know the location of all our resources. If there was a significant problem – let’s say a downed tree blocking a road or trapping people – we could immediately dispatch the closest resources. In that case we’d typically dispatch a transportation department tree-clearing crew. But that crew might have to travel across the City when a parks department crew with the proper equipment might be a block away.

This same sort of map could show a variety of other information – the location of police and fire units, which streets are closed due to steep hills and ice, where flooding is occurring, blocked storm drains, as well as water system and electrical outages.

This “common operating picture”, across departments, would be enormously useful – as just one example, the fire department needs water to fight fires, and it needs good routes to get its apparatus to the fire and perhaps it would need a snowplow to clear a street as well.

Obviously we wouldn’t want to show all of this information to the public – criminals would have a field day if they knew the location of police units! But a filtered view certainly could be presented to show the City government in action.

Perceptions and Citizen Contact

A lot of media descended on Seattle this week. Partly that was due to the uniqueness of the storm – it doesn’t snow much in this City. And perhaps it was a slow news week in the world. A lot of news crews filmed inside the EOC. The Mayor and other key department spokespeople were readily available with information. This is quite important – the television, radio and print/blog media are really important in advising the public on actions they should take (“public transit to commute today, don’t drive”) and actions they should avoid (“don’t use a charcoal grill to cook when you are without power”). Our joint information center (JIC) was a great success.

Mayor McGinn’s family even contributed to this – his 11 year old son filmed him in a public service announcement about how to clear a storm drain of snow and ice which is now posted on the Seattle Channel.

What could we do better? We need better video conferencing technology, so the Mayor and senior leaders can be reached quickly by news media without sending a crew to the EOC. This video conferencing would also be quite useful in coordinating action plans between departments with leaders in different locations. In a larger, regional, disaster, such capability would allow the governor, mayors and county executives to rapidly and easily talk to each other to coordinate their work. It is much easier for anyone to communicate if they can see the visual cues of others on the call.

Also, Seattle, like many cities, is a place of many languages and nationalities. We need to have translators available to get communications out in the languages our residents speak. This might include a volunteer-staffed translation team but at least could include recording and rapidly distributing written, video and audio/radio public service announcements in multiple languages.

Commuting and Telecommutnig 

In these emergencies, many people elect to use public transit – buses and trains for commuting. (I actually took my “boat” – the water taxi - to work twice this week.) Yet snowstorms are also the times when buses jackknife or get stuck in snowdrifts and going up hills. In this emergency, the coordination between the transit agency (“Metro”) and the City was quite improved, because we had people – liaisons – from each agency embedded with the other. This allowed snowplows to help keep bus routes clear and help clear streets near trapped buses.

And, with recent technology advances and sorta-broadband networks, many workers can now telecommute. Seattle had few outages of Internet service this week, although in suburban areas trees and snow brought down not just power lines, but telephone and cable lines as well causing more widespread Internet issues.

What could we do better? The easiest and most useful advance, I think, would be GPS on every bus and train and water taxi boat. That, combined with real-time mapping, would allow people to see the location of their rides right on their smartphones. If we deployed it right, such technology might also show how full the bus is and the locations of stuck buses. This sort of technology would be useful every day for public transit users – but is especially important during snow emergencies.

Another huge necessity – which I’ve advocated often and loudly – is very high speed fiber broadband networks. With fiber broadband – and Gigabit (a billion bits per second), two way, telecommuting and tele-education becomes really possible. Kids could continue their school day with video classes even when schools are closed, you could visit your doctor, and of course citizens would have access to all that emergency information and maps described above, real time and two-way. I could go on and on about this – and I have – read it here.

Crowdsourcing and Two-Way Communications, Cell Phones

This area is the most ripe for improved technology to “weather the storm”. In any emergency – even a minor disaster like a major fire or a pile-up collision – just obtaining and distributing information early and often will have a significant result in managing the problem.

On-duty at any time, the City of Seattle may have 200 firefighters, 350 police officers and several hundred to several thousand other employees. Yet we also have 600,000 people in the City, each one of which is a possible source of information. How could we get many of them, for example, to tell us the snow and ice conditions in their neighborhoods? Or perhaps to tell us of problems such as clogged storm drains or stuck vehicles? The Seattle Times actually did this a bit, crowdsourcing snow depths from Facebook.

How can we “crowd source” such information? I’m not exactly sure. Perhaps we could use Facebook apps or Twitter (although not a lot of people use Twitter). Two-way text messages are possible. Any one of these solutions would present a whole mass of data which needs to be processed, tagged for reliability, and then presented as useful analytics.

Eventually, of course, there will be whole armies of remote sensors (“the Internet of things”) to collect and report the information. Perhaps everyone’s cell phone might eventually be a data collector (yes, yes, I’m well aware of privacy concerns).

In the meantime, we should have some way citizens can sign up for alerts about weather or other problems. Many such systems exist, such as the GovDelivery-powered one used by King County Transportation. I’m not aware of such a system being used two-way, to crowd-source information from citizens. There are also plenty of community-notification or “Reverse 911” systems on the market. The Federal government is developing CMAS, which would automatically alert every cell phone / mobile device in a certain geographical area about an impending problem or disaster.

Furthermore, during this Seattle snowstorm, many City of Seattle employees – including police and fire chiefs and department heads, used text messages on commercial cellular networks to communicate with their staff and field units. This continues a tradition of use of text messaging during emergency operations which first came to prominence during Hurricane Katrina.

All of these solutions depend, of course, on reliable cellular networks. We know during disasters commercial cellular networks can easily be overloaded (example: 2011 Hurricane Irene), calls dropped and cell sites can drop out of service as power outages occur and backup batteries at the sites run out of juice. Yet, for people without power or land-line Internet, a smartphone with internet is a potential lifesaver and at least a link to the outside world.

I’d like a way to easily collect this information – privately – from the carriers so emergency managers would know the geographies where mobile networks are impacted.

This leads me, of course, to my final point – that we need a nationwide public safety wireless broadband network. Such a network would be built using spectrum the Congress and the FCC have set aside for this purpose. It would only be used by public safety, although – as our Seattle snowstorm underscored, “public safety” must be used broadly to include utilities, transportation and public works – even building departments. And it would be high speed and resilient, with 4G wireless technology and backup generators, hardened cell sites.

These are a few of my thoughts on better management, through technology, of future snowstorms and other disasters, large and small, both daily and once-in-a-lifetime ones. What have I missed?


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A Private-Public Radio Network?

January 3, 2012 By Bill Schrier

Do they Really?Police and Fire radio networks.

They have to work.

All the time.

During power outages, hurricanes, earthquakes.

When every other wireless network is dead.

So they have to be built, maintained and operated by government, right?

Or else they cannot be trusted, right?

That's the way cities, counties, regions, states and local governments have ALWAYS built our radio networks for police, firefighters, emergency medical response, utilities, transportation, public works. And with good reason.

Historically (by that, I mean "before cell phones"), most radio networks were really unreliable. They were used to dispatch taxicabs and for citizens' band radio ("CB") by amateurs. But no government would trust such a radio network to dispatch cops or firefighters. Such networks had dead spots, lots of static, and dropped off the air entirely when the electricity failed.

With the rise of commercial cell phone and, later, smart phone networks, such networks became … well … "really unreliable". Even today many people are angered and upset by dropped calls, "all circuits busy" and slow-loading (or "never loading") pages. And during any large event - a packed stadium for a baseball game, or a major traffic jam, a windstorm or an earthquake, you might as well use your phone as a camera, because you probably won't get through to make a call.

When you're being robbed at gunpoint or having a heart attack, do you really want the first responders coming to help YOU to depend on such networks? That's why, as I’ve blogged before, "cops don't use cell phones".

But building government-owned radio networks is REALLY expensive. A public safety voice network requires just a handful of sites - say 8 radio sites for Seattle or maybe 30 for all of King County here in Washington State. However, to rebuild those networks today, and to build the new high-speed data networks for responders’ smart phones, tablets and computers will take dozens - perhaps hundreds of sites to cover the same geography. And THAT takes hundreds of millions of dollars.

Hello - we're still in the midst of the Great Recession, right? Government budgets are pinched left and right - sales tax, income tax, property tax revenues are all falling. While the private sector is still hiring, many governments are laying off employees. There are few dollars available for hundred million dollar networks.

Is there a middle way? Is there some way governments could take advantage of the hundreds of existing cell phone sites developed for commercial networks? Perhaps a way the commercial networks could take advantage of fiber optic networks and buildings or radio sites owned by government? And some way we could make the cell phone networks more secure, more resistant to terrorism and natural disasters, and therefore more reliable for public safety use?

Here in Seattle, we think so.

We think we might be able to start with all the assets which taxpayers have already bought and paid for - the fiber and microwave networks, radio sites, backup generators, skilled technology employees, and our existing investments in radios and computers. Then we would add equipment and cell sites and other assets, along with expertise and innovative ideas from private sector companies - telecommunications carriers, equipment manufacturers and apps developers. Mashing these together, we might get a private-public partnership which gives consumers and businesses more reliable, faster mobile networks, while giving responders new, state-of-the-art networks at a fraction of the cost of building them from scratch, like we've always done before.

That's the idea behind a request for information (RFI) issued by the City of Seattle several weeks ago seeking ideas about private-public partnerships for next generation networks. We need some great pioneering “outside the box” ideas in response to the RFI.

And then, perhaps, we can build a modern, smart, network in the Central Puget Sound which saves everyone money, and works reliably during disasters small (“heart attack”) and large (“earthquake”).

P. S. All these ideas are not mine. In fact, to some extent I’ve been hauled kicking and screaming (or maybe shuffling and whimpering) to look for a middle way. Let’s give credit to Deputy King County Executive Fred Jarrett, United States Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra, elected officials like State Representative Reuven Carlyle and Mr. Stan Wu of the City of Seattle for “coloring outside the lines without falling off the page”.


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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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