May 27, 2011 By Bill Schrier
Osama 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).
Of 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?). 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.
March 25, 2011 By Bill Schrier
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:
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.
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.
Enter 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.
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.
February 21, 2011 By Bill Schrier
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:
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.
January 12, 2011 By Bill Schrier
"A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage" - election slogan for Herbert Hoover, claiming that the everyone will be prosperous under a Hoover presidency.
The 2010 election is over, the winning politicians are now being magically converted into "elected officials", and technology in government is marching on, sometimes with different elected and CIO leadership. I’ve blogged before about the difficult intersection of politics and technology.
Being a Chief Information Officer in government is, in many ways, similar to being a CIO in any other organization - public, private, non-profit. We worry about budgets, business applications, operating a data center, beating the competition (yes, even in government), and worrying about how to adapt the latest consumer fad technology (Kindle, Android phone, iPad) for use by our workforce.
But there's also a significant difference - CIOs in governments work for elected officials, and those elected officials get a report card at least every four years. A report card from the voters. If they've been doing a decent job delivering service, responding to constituent needs, and clearing the snow (alas poor Mayor Bloomberg), they'll probably be re-elected. If not, a new politician wins the election and becomes Mayor (or Governor or County Executive).
Just as in the Federal government, a change in the Chief Executive will often result in a change in the Cabinet - the department directors - including the CIO. And much of that is happening this month, with the departure of good technology leaders such as Bryan Sivak in the District of Columbia and Gopal Khanna in Minnesota as well as a large group of others.
But to some extent, we government CIOs also help choose our elected Chief Executive. Clearly we've applied for the CIO job and gone through an interview process so we know to some extent the potential that the voters will toss out the boss. But also, in some cases, we've actively campaigned (on our own time, of course) and contributed financially to see a good politician win the election.
Government CIOs also have a legislative body of elected officials - a City Council, County Council or State Legislature - to help give us direction, set policy and review our budget. Sometimes balancing the wishes of the chief executive versus the legislature - just as in the President versus the Congress - can be a daunting task!
From a CIO's perspective, what makes a good elected official?
I'll sum it up succinctly: good elected officials see technology as an integral part of everything government does - as a way to enhance productivity of government workers and improve the delivery of service to constituents. Less enlightened elected officials see technology as a cost to be contained: "Why do we have so danged many cell phones?" or "We spend way too much money on these computers."
Wise elected officials - from a technologist's point of view - ask questions such as "do government employees have the tools they need to do their jobs (cell phones, computers, applications)", "are we duplicating costs between departments or functions" or "what technology investments today give us the greatest return on investment and service to constituents tomorrow"?
And sometimes even more specific questions such as "why don't we allow employees to use their own smartphones, rather than having taxpayers buy them?" or "gee, why does every department have a different budgeting system" or "how come our police records management system doesn't connect with our court case management system"?
Of course rarely are such questions asked in the heat of an election. Voters are much more concerned about filling potholes and crime on the streets.
Amazingly, Seattle presently has a Mayor - Mike McGinn - who ran on a platform which included a significant technology: getting better broadband networks to homes and businesses.
And increasingly the "voter on the street" has become tech savvy. Gee, it seems like everyone - even the homeless - has a cell phone. And over 45.5 million of us have "smartphones". And almost everyone uses the Internet - in Seattle, 88% of have a computer and 84% have an Internet connection. If you don't have a computer at home, you can use one at the library or a community technology center.
The way we live is changing as well, as witnessed by the increasing amount of online commerce (thank you Amazon.com and Jeff Bezos) and social networking. The time may be coming - soon - when voters are just as concerned about the usability of a government website from a mobile device, the ability to send video and photos to 311/911 centers, and being able to electronically find a parking space as they are with keeping the potholes filled.
Maybe the day will come when a politician promises a "computer on every desk, fiber broadband in every house and a smartphone in every pocket".
November 25, 2010 By Bill Schrier
My most significant thanks go to the phenomenal people who work in information technology in local government, especially here at the City of Seattle. Most City and County CIOs, such as those who are the 60 members of MIX (the Metropolitan Information Exchange) will agree with me and give thanks for their employees as well. While some members of the public think government employees are 8 to 5 clock-watching bureaucrats, that's decidedly NOT true of most employees, especially our technology workers.
This fact slammed home to me again this week - Seattle had a snowstorm. Two inches. Those of you in Chicago, Boston or Washington DC are probably laughing. Two measly inches? What's the big deal? But here in Seattle, because of the uniquenesses of our weather systems/geography and the rarity of snow in the lowlands, it was a real show-stopper. Monday night many of my employees spent four, five or nine hours commuting home on jammed icy freeways. I and several of my staff walked home five miles in the snowstorm (video of commuters walking across the West Bridge here).
In Seattle’s Department of Information Technology, we had staff who worked all night Monday, or slept at their workstations Monday night, or stayed in hotels downtown, or turned right around and came back to work Tuesday morning after the long commute home. They did this because they know the work of a City government and the safety of the people of Seattle depend now, more than ever, on reliable technology: websites, data networks, e-mail systems and much much more. For these two hundred dedicated people working in the City of Seattle's technology department, I give thanks.
(My colleagues elsewhere have similar stories, whether in Houston and Mobile, Alabama, who have suffered through hurricanes, or Los Angeles and Riverside who have suffered through earthquakes, or Chicago and Washington DC, with their snowstorms.)
As I attend conferences and talk to my counterparts across the country, I find similar dedication to keeping the public safe and our governments operational. As just one example, we have twenty cities and states around the nation who have authority from the FCC to build fourth generation wireless networks. Over the past 11 months I've been working with officials from these twenty jurisdictions, as well as the FCC's Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, the Public Safety Communications Research Program of the Department of Commerce, and Homeland Security's Office of Emergency Communications. Every one of these agencies and the people involved have been working tirelessly to build a nationwide public safety network, a vision which sprung out of the September 11th World Trade Center disaster. This year we've made real progress, despite a number of hurdles. Now the first networks are under construction. For all these dedicated government officials and technical staff, I give thanks.
I also give thanks to the many private companies who are doing extraordinary work with technology – Microsoft and Windows and Office, Google with Android and search, Apple with iPhones and iPads, IBM’s Smart Cities Challenge, and a few more who not only want to make money, but also want to use a significant part of that money make the planet a better place in which to live and work.
Finally, I give thanks for my elected officials - Mayor and City Council - and the department directors running City departments here in Seattle. This year of the Great Recession they have faced terrible choices with budget shortfalls of $67 million in Seattle. And precipitously falling tax revenues. And urgent needs from the public for safety nets for our jobless citizens and the poor and homeless. My own department's budget was cut by over 17% and I've laid off over 10% of my workforce over the past two years. These are all tough choices, and they are done in the glare of publicity with many competing demands by constituents for the ever-shrinking pot of money. But we have a sustainable budget and services going into 2011. Thank you to the officials who stepped up and made these tough choices.
Now on to the turkeys - at least the ones I'd like to carve and serve.
First are some of our technology vendors, a few of whom have ever increasing appetites for money. Some of them are resorting to "compliance audits" to make sure we are paying for every last danged software license we are using. One vendor even demanded to have access to every one of the 11,000 computers at the City of Seattle to see if their software was installed. Others absolutely refuse to negotiate reduced pricing or flexible maintenance plans. These few money-grubbing vendors get my "tech turkey" award.
Next there are a few of our public employee unions. Many public employee unions here in the Seattle area realize we are in an unprecedented recession. Those unions have willingly forgone raises which were in their contracts, understanding that few workers in the private sector get raises, and many private sector workers have lost their jobs and retirement money. But a few public sector unions have held out for their contracted raises, which are far larger than inflation. This, frankly, can make all city and county governments and our workers look greedy and foolish. The public backlash was evident in our recent elections where few tax increases were passed and many revenue sources were cut. These few unions get my turkey award as well.
My final turkey award goes to those politicians who want to whip the public into a frenzy about supposed fraud and waste in government, or think we can continue tax cuts, increase defense spending, and balance the budget all at the same time. How do they think public schools, parks, police and fire departments, child protective services, streets or public health are funded, or how do we pay the dedicated people who provide all those services? I’ve blogged about this at length before, and will just leave these politicians with my tea-party-turkey award.
All in all, however, at this Thanksgiving of 2010, I’ve got a lot more reasons to give thanks than to carve!