Author Archives: Schrier

About Schrier

Former Chief Technology Officer ("Chief Geek") of the City of Seattle. This blog is personal, not official.

The Oso Disaster:  Should there be an “App for That”?

Snohomish County Mudslide

Snohomish County Mudslide

The horrific mudslide and loss of life in Snohomish County on March 22nd is an ongoing tragedy in Washington State.   Six days after the disaster, 16 people are known dead and 90 are still missing.     A debate rages about Steelhead Drive near Oso, Washington.  This was a known slide area, geologically unstable.  Search and rescue workers will be hard at work for some weeks digging through the mud and debris scattered across one square mile up to 30 feet deep.

Why were building permits issued for this area?   Should the County government have purchased these homes to get the residents out of harm’s way, as King County apparently did in Maple Valley?  Was the Washington National Guard activated quickly enough?   These questions are unanswerable at this time.

One fact is certain:  future disasters such as the Oso Slide will occur.   They might be slides, or bridge collapses or floods.   They could be much larger in scope:  an earthquake, lahar, tornado or terrorist event.

We live in an age of the Internet and smartphones and ubiquitous technology.   There are apps and technologies which can help responders to disasters such as the Oso Slide.   What are they, and how can we apply them.

Mapping

Oso-slide-sh

Oso Slide Map

Most people understand maps.  Maps help us intuitively understand our place in the world and even our location on our block.   Maps on our smartphones guide us easily to unknown addresses and give us warning of traffic problems on the route.

The Oso Slide and similar disaster scenes present a new problem:  the third dimension: height (or now, depth).   We know the two dimensional map of the Oso:  outlines of properties and the Stillaguamish river and Highway 530.   And we know a vast volume of mud now covers that area.  But in pursuing rescue efforts, how deep is the mud in any particular area?   Where should searchers concentrate their efforts?

LIDAR of Oso Slide

LIDAR of Oso Slide

Ideally, we’d have 3-dimensional maps of all such geographic areas prior to a slide, and we’d be able to quickly produce 3-dimensional maps after a slide or lahar.  Such maps would show the depth and extent of the mud throughout the disaster area.   Such maps can be produced by technologies such as LIDAR and pictometry.

Common Operating Picture

Common Operating Picture or COP is an extension of mapping.  COP maps show everyone involved in responding to the disaster – but especially the incident commanders – an up-to-the-minute view of the scene.  COP software will show the location of each individual responder, the location of all equipment on the scene, markers for human remains discovered and all other significant debris.  The COP software allows the incident commander to properly direct new resources – vehicles, equipment and people – to exactly where they are needed on-scene.    And COP software protects the responders by accounting for them every minute they are in the disaster area.

Just as importantly, COP will produce a history of the disaster as rescue unfolds.  It will show areas which have been physically surveyed, where remains were uncovered and how the rescue proceeded.   This is vital so that responders can learn about the incident and train to better handle the next one.

Seahawks Victory Parade

Seahawks Victory Parade (Reuters)

COP is vital not just in mudslides, but in just about any incident, whether it be for deploying police and emergency medical teams during the Seahawks victory parade, protecting fans at a Mariners’ baseball game, managing a major fire or responding to a terrorist event.    COP is the incident commanders’ best friend when it comes to managing all the responders and equipment on-scene.

As one example, the Seattle Police Department leads an effort to deploy COP software from a company called 4QTRS for emergency and incident management.   COP software should be deployed and used by every emergency response agency in the nation.

GPS and cell phones

Most of us know our smart phones contain global positioning software (GPS).   GPS allows us to tweet and use Foursquare and to post photographs to Facebook which automagically contain the location of the photograph.  Many of us use apps like “Find my iPhone” which depend upon GPS.

From an emergency response viewpoint, when you call 911 from a mobile phone the GPS in the phone or (if it has no GPS), the location of the phone as triangulated between nearby cell phone towers allows responders to find you, even if you can’t tell them exactly where you are.

Beyond mobile phones, a number of companies are starting to develop and produce small devices which can be attached to keys or pets or even to kids (in their clothes or backpacks, not in their bodies!) to quickly locate lost keys or wallets.  PebbleBee is one such device under development by two Boeing engineers in their spare time.

There are many applications of GPS in search-and-rescue.

In the case of the Oso slide, emergency services and wireless companies could find every signal which was active in the area based on records from nearby towers.  Those signals link back to a wireless phone number and account.  This gives responders some idea of which people (or at least which people’s mobile phones) were in the area prior to the slide.    It is doubtful the cell phone signal would travel through many feet of mud, but it is still possible that, even after the slide ended, telecommunications company records might show which cell phones were active and give some idea of where the phones were located.

In many other kinds of disasters, such information might be crucial.  During floods, major snowstorms, tornadoes and hurricanes, having an accurate fix on all the mobile phones in the disaster area, both before and after the event, would be critical to finding and rescuing the injured.

Yes, tracking the locations of individual people is very much like living in a surveillance state.  But if you are buried in a collapsed house it could mean the difference between life and death.  Your family’s life.

License Plate Recognition and Traffic Video Cameras

Video cameras are ubiquitous on streets and highways nationwide.   Seattle Police collected over 7 million plate numbers and locations using license plate recognition (LPR) software in 2012.

Perhaps every traffic camera in the state should be equipped with digital recording software to record the vehicles and license plates passing down state highways.   In the case of the Oso Slide, emergency managers could quickly determine which vehicles entered the Steelhead Drive area but did not leave, giving good evidence of who might be trapped in the slide.

Again, such video tracking and license plate recognition raises grave concerns about privacy.   Polices and laws may need to be crafted to keep the data restricted, perhaps just in the hands of transportation departments unless allowed for police or responder use in an emergency.  The digital records should be destroyed after some short period of time, e.g. 30 days.

School Emergencies and Building Diagrams

A Potential Campus Diagram App

A Potential Campus Diagram App

School shootings and other incidents of domestic terrorism involving schools, shopping malls and elected officials are all too common.  Anyone can name a dozen or such incidents such as the Tacoma Mall shooting from a few years ago, Gabby Giffords’ shooting, Columbine, LAX airport, the Washington Navy Yard and the terrible massacre at Sandy Hook.

Can apps and technology help with the response to such events?

Prepared Response is a firm in Kirkland which specializes in digitizing school building and campus diagrams, shopping mall diagrams and similar small-scale maps.   They’ve developed software called Rapid Responder.   Using this app officials can note the locations of exits, hazardous materials, utility shut-offs, evacuation plans, shelter-in-place locations and much more.    The app and diagram can be used by agencies responding to a school or mall emergency to properly deploy officers and quickly enter the building.   There is the potential for such an app to be connected to the video cameras inside the schools or malls, so the responders could actually see, real-time, what’s happening in the building.

Other Applications

Alex Petit is the former Chief Information Officer for the State of Oklahoma.  John Letchford is the former CIO for Massachusetts.  Both these CIOs deployed technology to support disasters such as the Moore, Oklahoma, tornado and the Boston Marathon bombing.    Here is a smattering of the apps they quickly deployed, “on the fly”, after the disaster:

  • A Pinterest-based app to take photos of prized possessions found in the debris field in the wake of the Moore tornado.   In many cases such possessions were intact but had been carried hundreds of feet or miles from the original home.   The Pinterest app “Owner Connect” allowed people to post photos of the items found on their property so their neighbors could identify and reclaim them.
  •  The Oklahoma Agriculture Department produced an app called “Pet Connect” to do a similar function for lost pets – allow the finders to post photos of the pets so the owners could reclaim them.
  • Donations.  After any disaster, people across the nation are extraordinarily generous with donating food, water, blood, clothing and other material.   The “donor connect” app operated like a bridal registry after the Moore tornado, allowing the Red Cross and others to quickly link the needs for certain items to those which had been donated.
  • Storm shelters.   Some homes in Moore had storm shelters and families went into those shelters before the tornado struck.   But there was so much debris that some of the shelters were jammed shut with debris.   Creating a map of known storm shelters is a potential future app for tornado-and-hurricane-prone areas of the country.
FirstNet

FirstNet

FirstNet

Many of the applications described above require a robust wireless network in order to properly work.   But, after some disasters, many cell sites may be destroyed or run out of power and go off the air.   Hurricane Katrina was possibly the worst example of such lack of wireless networking, but similar problems occurred after Superstorm Sandy and other disasters.

Recognizing this problem, Congress, in 2012, created the First Responder Network Authority and funded it to build a nationwide 4G wireless network for use by responders to both daily incidents and major disasters.    FirstNet is now in the planning stage, but promises to give responders the network they need to support this wide variety of apps which can speed rescue after incidents.

 Will we be ready for the Next One?

Nothing will ease the pain of the survivors and relatives of the Oso Slide.   No technology can produce a time machine to go back and evacuate 100 people from Steelhead Drive in the early morning hours of Saturday, March 22nd.    But we can learn from this disaster.   We can apply existing technology and develop new apps to speed and improve our response to such disasters in the future.    Because these disasters will occur again.   And we need to be better prepared.

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Filed under emergency operations, FirstNet, Seattle Police

FirstNet Moves into First Gear

Firstnet-first-gear-2

FirstNet’s First Gear

The First Responder Network Authority, charged with building a $7 billion nationwide network for responders and now two years old, moved into first gear this week.

In fairness, FirstNet was never stalled or stopped, although it appeared that way when I wrote “Is FirstNet Stalled?” on its two-year birthday, February 22.     Work was going on behind the scenes, and it burst out onto the stage this week:

  • A new website appeared, www.firstnet.gov, freed of the clunky National Telecommunications and Information Administration logo and design;
  • General manager Bill D’Agostino unveiled the most detailed org chart to date, which showed 40 full-time employees and another 50 or so on the way;
  • Leases and office space in Boulder, Colorado, and Reston, Virginia, are virtually complete;
  • Ed Parkinson (Director of Government Affairs), David Buchanan (State Plans) and Amanda Hilliard (Outreach) unveiled a “high level” 45 step plan for working with individual states to develop a plan and design for the construction of FirstNet in each state;
  • FirstNet-strategic-planningThe Strategic Planning process has a bit more detail;
  • At least two FirstNet officials established twitter accounts and followed my twitter feed in the last week – and I’ve followed them back.   This indicates a new openness and freedom in how FirstNet staff is operating.  (But I’m not revealing their names in order to prevent the NTIA enforcement apparatus crashing down onto them for violating some obscure policy.)
  • It appears, from the slide at right, Firstnet-first-gear-2
    that FirstNet will support non-mission critical voice, perhaps at the time of launch.

Overall, I’m encouraged.

As the State Point of Contact for Washington (the state, not the place inside the beltway), I especially appreciate the additional information we received this week.  About 70 officials attended a conference in Phoenix for those of us in the western states who are working to prepare our states for FirstNet.    Each state already has a state-and-local-planning grant (SLIGP) for this work.   But many of us were waiting for a “starting gun” to launch our outreach and education efforts.  These efforts will find every potential Firstnet-using agency in our states:  law enforcement, firefighters, emergency medical, transportation, transit, public works, electric and water utilities, schools and everyone else with a public safety mission.

That starting gun is now fired.

We can proceed with that outreach.

FirstNet-state-consultation

State Consultation Process

We also know – and this is new information – that FirstNet will need to collect some additional detail about potential users:  the name of each agency, a point of contact, the number of potential users, the kinds of devices, any existing use of a commercial service and, perhaps, a bit more.  We don’t know the exact nature of the information to collect.  We’ll find out the details when FirstNet comes to our states for an initial meeting, probably sometime this summer.   And we expect there will be a data portal or template to standardize the way the information is collected.

Everything is not, however, sweetness and light.     Potholes and bumps are still sitting on FirstNet’s roadmap  to attain our vision of a nationwide public safety wireless broadband network.

The business plan is still a mystery.

FirstNet officials say there are multiple paths to a viable business plan.   However FirstNet needs to build a network which covers a lot more geography than any commercial network – “every square meter” according to Board Chair Sam Ginn.    It needs to do that with about 5.4 million users, compared to more than 100 million each for Verizon and AT&T, and over 40 million each for T-Mobile and Sprint.   And its per-user subscriber costs need to be comparable to commercial providers, or many public safety agencies cannot afford to switch.   I’ve blogged elsewhere about elements which might constitute a viable business plan, including putting FirstNet in every consumer and business mobile phone, or building sensor networks such as electric utility smartgrid using FirstNet spectrum.

FirstNet has a long way to go to become more engaging and transparent.

  • It’s good to see the more detailed org chart, but who are all the full-time employees, with titles and contact information?  Most government organizations have a detailed staff directory (here’s the City of Seattle’s directory of about 10,000 employees and departments and services).
  • firstnet-gov-websiteThe new website is a worthy effort and an MVP (no, not “most valuable player” but “minimum viable product”).   Over time, hopefully, it will become timely and engaging, with one or more blogs, twitter feeds and even discussion boards as well as FAQs and a “mythbusters” section similar to what the Texas Department of Public Safety has built.
  • If I was in FirstNet senior management, I’d blog or publicize every person FirstNet hired – full-timer or contractor.   I’d publicize the unvarnished (or only slightly varnished) input received at every public meeting.  Every such piece of news – including things which are not flattering – contributes to the desirable image of continuing progress:  a juggernaut moving to fundamentally change and improve public safety in the United States.

There’s still a question of how “independent” FirstNet can become from NTIA.  Andy Seybold feels NTIA called the shots on a recent hiring process.  If FirstNet can achieve some of the transparency objectives I’ve outlined above, you’ll know it is becoming an entrepreneurial startup, not just another federal bureaucracy subject to restrictive, risk-adverse publication and social media policies.

And the staffing challenges remain significant.   FirstNet has hired just a few contractors who are vitally needed to evaluate RFIs, write RFPs and build a design for each state.    But it needs many more, and the task orders have not yet been issued.  The names of the existing hires – as well as the roadmap or even job descriptions to hire additional staff – are shrouded in secrecy.

Overall, however, FirstNet appears to be in first gear.   Just first gear:   we’re not barreling down the public safety broadband highway yet by any means.   You crawl before you walk and run.   And it will take more staff and better plans to get into overdrive.

But at least we appear to be back on the highway.

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Filed under FirstNet, PSST, wireless

Why Google Fiber will never come to Seattle

google-fiberGoogle is bringing high speed fiber broadband networks to homes and businesses in three cities – Kansas City, Austin and Provo. In February, it announced 34 more cities it will approach for building fiber – Portland, Phoenix, Atlanta and more.
But not Seattle.
And Seattle won’t be making Google’s list anytime soon.
The “Seattle Process” and a balky bureaucracy at City Hall stand squarely in the way.
It wasn’t always this way. We were on the short list in 2010, when …
Read the rest of this article on Crosscut or Geekwire.

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Filed under broadband, cable, fiber, government

Is FirstNet Stalled?

Firstnet-stalledThe short answer is no.   The longer answer:  maybe.

Today, February 22nd, is the second anniversary of the Spectrum Act.  Congress passed that law on February 22, 2012.    It created the First Responders’ Network Authority.   The law was the culmination of over a decade of advocacy by many public safety officials who saw the inadequacy of responder communications in the wake of disasters like 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and many smaller incidents.  In these incidents cops and firefighters and paramedics and other responders found themselves unable to adequately communicate and protect the public.

FirstNet’s mission is grand:  to build the first nationwide public safety communications network for responders, especially first responders to both daily incidents and larger disasters.

Here we are, two years into the ten-year mission authorized by Congress.  It has been a slow start, and lately – over the past 6 months – FirstNet’s progress appears to have either stalled or is undergoing a reboot.

This is very frustrating for those of us in states and cities who are trying our best to evangelize and support FirstNet’s mission.   I’m the FirstNet State Point of Contact (SPOC, commonly pronounced “spock”) here in the Other Washington on the west coast.    I’ve been speaking to groups of public officials and police chiefs and emergency managers and firefighters and other responders in Washington State about FirstNet since May, 2013.

Lately, the mood of the audiences is starting to change.   “Yeah, yeah, we’ve heard you say that before, Bill, but what’s happening now?  Where’s the beef?”

I’m starting to feel a bit like a computer software salesman pushing vaporware.    “Oh yes, that feature will be in our next release slated to come out in 2017”.

So here’s my take on what’s going on Inside-the-Beltway.

1.  Here come the Bureaucrats.   There is one phrase in the Spectrum Act which causes a lot of confusion:  “There is established as an independent authority within the NTIA the ‘First Responder Network Authority’ or ‘FirstNet’” (47 USC 1424 Section 6204).

An “independent authority” “within” a long-established bureaucracy?    What the hell does that mean?   Well, I’m sure lawyers at NTIA and the Departments of Commerce and Homeland Security and the FCC have all been spending thousands of hours trying to figure that out.

I know if I was a head bureaucrat at Commerce or NTIA that I’d interpret it as having another function (or office or directorate or whatever the bureaucratize is) within my organization.   In other words “You report to me, FirstNet. Start acting like all other NTIA offices.”

I suspect there is an epic struggle going on within the Beltway for the control of FirstNet and its $7 billion in funding.  I don’t have direct evidence, but if you look at job descriptions which have been posted, e.g. for the Chief Information Officer, they clearly stated the FirstNet CIO would report to the NTIA CIO on a dotted line and would enforce NTIA information technology policies.  We know FirstNet is subject to all Federal personnel procedures for hiring staff, issuing RFPs and doing procurements.   FirstNet Board members have publicly said it will take them a full year to develop and issue and receive RFPs.

So much for the “independent” part of that law.

paul-fitzgerald--sh2. Contract staffing.    FirstNet’s already had a scandal.   Story County, Iowa, Sheriff and FirstNet Board member Paul Fitzgerald spoke out at the April 23, 2013, Board meeting.  Sheriff Fitzgerald protested, among other things, conflicts of interest between board members and contract technical staff hired to do the real meat-and-potatoes work of designing and building the nationwide network.   I’ve heard – but cannot verify – that some of the contract staff hired in late 2012 and 2013 were paid $300 an hour.

Now hiring contract staff for engineering and technical work at market rates is done all across the federal government.   Federal employee pay scales are compressed and have been kept low for a number of years by Congress.  So hiring outside technical staff is a prudent action.  The allegations of Sheriff Fitzgerald go far beyond just cost, however.   They also relate to the contract vehicle used, how the staff were identified and hired, and more.   And the conflict-of-interest allegations are still open and under investigation by the Inspector General of the Department of Commerce.

But here’s the upshot:   the contract under which the staff were hired expired in October, 2013.  Most of the existing 35 or so contracted staff (who were quite competent, by the way) were laid off.    Three new contracts were established in October.   But as of this writing – four months later – no technical contractors, and only a handful of public relations contractors, have been hired.

How do you create a nationwide design and individual state-specific plans for a wireless network without technical staff?

I suspect #1 above is at play here – the typical reaction of any government bureaucracy to allegations or scandal is to circle the wagons and lay on the rules, regulations, oversight, multiple approvals by multiple levels of officials.     This doesn’t bode well for either the short-term or long-term ability of FirstNet to get the staff support it needs.

3.  Full-Time Staffing.    I think FirstNet has about 25 federal employees working for it.  Their goal, I believe, is to have 100 or more full-time staff to do the work.

Gee, two years into a $7 billion project and only 25 full-time staff have been hired!?    And, frankly, most of those folks are transfers from other federal departments such as Commerce and Homeland Security.   In the Federal personnel system, it is relatively easy to hire and transfer existing federal government employees.   It is much harder to hire from the non-Federal staff – especially folks with on-the-ground responder experience.  Multiple interview panels and layers of human resource review, not to mention background checks and financial disclosure.

There have been a few major hires from the outside – General Manager Bill D’Agostino with commercial/Verizon background, T.J. Kennedy with Utah State patrol background, and Bill Casey formerly of the Boston Police via the FBI.   But key positions go unfilled, such as the CIO and CTO positions.

Despite the difficulties, every full-time person working at FirstNet who I personally know – no matter what their background – is very committed and competent.

But, again, #1 is at play, and at this rate it will be years before FirstNet gets its complete complement of full-time staff.

4.  Stiffing your friends.     Eight cities, regions and states around the country were funded for about $400 million under the Federal stimulus (technically the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, ARRA/BTOP, a mouthful) or similar grants to build public safety LTE networks compatible with FirstNet.  Many of these networks were well along – Harris County (Houston) is operational.   Charlotte, North Carolina and Mississippi (statewide) were substantially deployed.  The San Francisco Bay area (BayRICS) was moving rapidly in planning and site development.

But when FirstNet was created in 2012, NTIA abruptly stopped seven of these projects, restricting their construction until FirstNet could review them and authorize them to be completed.  FirstNet started negotiations with them, but in the case of Charlotte and Mississippi, those negotiations have fallen apart and the LTE part of the networks is shut down.    Motorola, vendor on the BayRICS project, was unable to reach accord with FirstNet and gave up its BTOP grant in December, 2013.

I don’t know specifically why each of these negotiations failed.   In some cases I believe it was FirstNet’s refusal to promise to incorporate the local network into its overall nationwide plan.   In other words, FirstNet might actually overbuild the BTOP-funded network in the city, region or state.  Such an overbuild would not give the local agencies time to recoup their investments.  In other cases FirstNet refused, I think, to allow the local network the ability to expand over time and improve coverage in its geographic area, which could hamstring the use of the network by responders.

Los Angeles Regional Interoperable Communications SystemEach of these jurisdictions invested considerable local funds and political capital, not to mention time and effort, into these projects.    The projects, if completed, would have been showcases for the promise of FirstNet.    More importantly, FirstNet would have created a cadre of mayors, elected officials, Sheriffs, police chiefs, fire chiefs and others singing the praises of public safety broadband.

Maybe the states were asking too much of FirstNet.   Perhaps the lawyers got things tied into legal knots.    Maybe the business plan for funding and operating these networks wasn’t going to work under any circumstance.   All I know is that now, in these jurisdictions, there is simply bitterness over a failed effort and promise.

And there are four jurisdictions which DO have spectrum leases with FirstNet, although their timelines and deliverables are still murky.    Undoubtedly there are lessons to be learned and advocates to be created via those projects.

5.  Overpromise and under-deliver.    We’ve had a number of false starts.  At the very first Board meeting, in September, 2012, member Craig Farrill announced a “conceptual network design”.  Really?   Where was the collaboration with the public safety community before this announcement? At regional meetings in May and June 2013, FirstNet Board members were talking about coming out to states and meeting with Governors within 60 days.    Yeah, right.    In the fall of 2013 we in the states were hoping to have a lot of specifics in terms of materials and data requirements to conduct outreach and education for potential users in our states.   We’re still waiting.   Even minor things like having a viable website at www.firstnet.gov branded for local and state public safety has been promised since summer, 2013.   Today that website has still got the NTIA brand all over it, and is only minimally functional.   Gets us back to #1, I guess.

Still, I’m hopeful.

I’ve listed a whole set of concerns and issues, but I also see some positive signs.

This coming week and in early March, FirstNet and NTIA staff will hold two workshops for the SPOCs and our staff in the Eastern and then the Western U. S.    We’re hoping to see a clear roadmap for the FirstNet’s ahead.    Deputy Manager T. J. Kennedy recently laid out much more detail on how the consultation with states will occur.   FirstNet has published a number of Requests for Information (RFIs) seeking a lot of information from potential vendors and others on a number of aspects of the network ranging from devices to network design to applications and apps stores (although, with the staffing shortfalls mentioned above, I’m not sure who is reading the responses).    General Manager Bill D’Agostino says his plan for the year ahead “will make your head spin”.

There are hundreds of us out here, FirstNet, who still believe in you, believe in the mission, and want to help make it happen.

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Saturday, 22 February 2014 · 2:08 pm

Saving Cities from the Clutches of the Internet Monopoly

internet-monopolyOn January 14, the United States Circuit Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia ruled that telecommunications and cable companies can “play favorites” among websites, video channels and all other content providers. This decision struck down FCC rules which tried to make the Internet “neutral,” carrying all kinds of content with equal speed.

In other words, if the New York Times pays Verizon (or AT&T, or Comcast or any other company which owns wires) a fee to deliver its content, but Crosscut cannot, www.nytimes.comwill zip onto your computer screen rapidly, whilewww.crosscut.com will ever so slowly and painfully appear. Indeed, if Comcast owns NBC (which it does), NBC’s video content might zoom across Comcast’s wires into homes and businesses, while ABC, CBS, the Seattle Channeland other video feeds stumble slowly onto those same television sets.

It could get even more interesting when you go shopping. Do you want to buy a book or toys or new shoes? Well, if Wal-Mart pays Comcast and CenturyLink to deliver its content, you might seewww.walmart.com rapidly appear on your web browser, while Amazon, Sears and Macys come up slowly — or not at all.

As the Los Angeles Times headlined, “Bow to Comcast and Verizon, Your Overlords”.

All this wouldn’t be so bad, of course, if we…

[Read the rest of this post on Crosscut]

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Filed under broadband, cable, fiber, google, seattle channel, wi-fi, wireless

What IT Workers should say to their CIOs

who-moved-cheeseI’ve worked as a public sector employee and a manager of government technology workers for three decades. While public sector workers share many attributes and work attitudes with their private sector counterparts, there are also some things unique to public sector employment. In writing this, I was inspired by two recent blog posts by Steve Radick including “Ten Things You Should be Saying to Your Boss.”

First, government is, in the minds of many people, synonymous with bureaucracy. I’ve blogged about this before, but all large organizations, public or private, are painted with the bureaucracy brush. The bigger the organization, the more bureaucracy – and this applies to banks, manufacturing companies, the software industry and, well, everything where there are at least two people working together.

What should public employees be saying to their CIO bosses? When I was a CIO in a large City government, what should my folks have been telling me? And again, thanks Steve Radick for the inspiration for many of these. http://www.steveradick.com

1. “Don’t worry about it – I got it.” It is really great when, as a manager, I know an employee is going to handle something – take care of it, keep people informed and get the job done. Erin Devoto, my deputy at the City of Seattle and now the acting Chief Technology Officer (CTO) there, is a living, breathing, example of this. She took so many projects and drove forward to make sure they were accomplished.

2. “Here’s a problem – here’s what I’d recommend and why.” Some of my worst experiences as a public sector manager were “monkey transfers”. That’s where an employee recognized a problem or potential issue, brought it to my attention and then walked out of the office – transferred the monkey from her/his back to mine. But some of my best experiences were when employees recognized an issue, worked with their team to brainstorm some potential courses of action, and laid them out for a decision. Usually those employees, after the decision was made, walked out of the office saying #1 above – “I’ll handle it”. What a relief. I’m going to especially call out Mr. Stan Wu at the City of Seattle on this one, as he did this many times for me on projects ranging from fiber optic networks to radio networks and others.

3. “What can I do to help?” There are few better experiences for anyone – employee or boss – than being faced with a difficult situation, and having the team come together to figure out a solution and implement it. Willingness to proactively help address issues or problems – not waiting to be tasked with an assignment, is a hallmark of a great employee.

4. “Playing the ‘Angel’s Advocate’ …” I’ve been in so many meetings which go on and on as employees raise one potential issue after another with a proposed course of action or an idea. I used to cringe when someone said “Playing the Devil’s Advocate …” and then went on to describe some low probability stupid scenario about how a course of action might fail. It’s almost like the employees had a pool or a bet on who could come up with the most issues or the most unlikely scenarios to kill the plan. Give me an “Angel’s Advocate” – a proponent – any day of the week. And if it is a legitimate issue or problem with the idea, suggest a way to mitigate it (see #2 above).

5. “I just read/watched/heard … and it got me thinking that…” As the boss, I love new ideas, and with all the changes in technology we’ve seen in the last 20 years, such ideas abound. In government it is relatively easy to find ideas which haven’t been tried – usually private sector companies are first to adopt new technologies such as online services or mobile applications. Figuring out creative ways to use those in the government’s service to constituents is something every employee can do.

6. “This idea has some risks, here they are, but I’d like to try doing it … ” Government employees are notoriously risk adverse. I never quite understood that – most are protected by civil service or seniority rules or union bargaining agreements. Perhaps the risk aversion rises from fear of a newspaper headline or wasting taxpayer money. Frankly, I think bad bosses have a role to play too – ones who steal ideas for themselves or have a negative attitude about anything new. In any case, an employee who is willing to risk their reputation on an innovative solution can be a breath of fresh air.

7. “You know how we’ve been doing X? Why do we do it that way?” This one needs little explanation. We call it “paving the cowpath” when we apply technology or automate some business process without examining how to improve the process itself. Whether it be procurement or personnel actions or decision making or delivering a service, we should always look at the process first. This is even more important in government organizations where culture can be hard to change and existing business processes have very deep roots. No amount of technology or automation will materially improve an outmoded process.

8. “How am I doing?” Frankly, I used to cringe at employees who asked me this. Giving feedback – and honest feedback – is hard. Many employees don’t want to hear bad news and many bosses don’t want to give it. But regular sessions of feedback are much more important than formal performance evaluations. And, of course, the flip side of this coin is willingness to accept that feedback, including #9 below. And employees don’t need to wait for the boss to initiate such conversations.

9. “Here’s what I learned and how I’ll do it better next time”. It is hard for many bosses to give feedback to employees on performance. It’s much easier if the employee recognizes their own strengths and weaknesses and proactively brings them forward for discussion. This requires, of course, a high level of self-awareness, which is difficult for many people. (I had a long-standing employee who was totally delusional about his technical skills and abilities.) Going through post-mortems on projects and honest self-evaluation is important, and then vetting it with the boss is, again, more important than formal performance evaluations.

10. “Here’s how I feel about that … ” It takes a lot of guts for an employee to come forward to his/her supervisor, manager or director and give their honest opinion. The other side of this coin is that your opinion should be well considered and logical, not just some unsupported personal opinion. And it should be YOUR opinion, as an employee. I hated it when an employee said “And everyone else feels this way too”. Oh yeah? Where are they at? And who appointed you as the spokesperson? Of course, some supervisors don’t want to hear what their employees have to say, which is a subject for a different blog post.

11. “Yes, Boss, sometimes I know you’ll move my cheese … ” Change is a constant in any technology organization, or, indeed, any organization which uses technology at all. Whole industries are undergoing upheaval – just ask anyone in the newspaper, photography or land-line telephone business. Employees need to expect change, even in government, and sometimes it won’t be an improvement. But, conversely, the boss needs to explain the changes and the rationale for them.

And speaking of bosses, just like with Steve Radick’s columns, my next blog post will be about what the CIO or boss should be saying to Public Sector Employees.

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Nobody Elected Me

Nobody Elected MeOne of my philosophies, working as a senior level public official in a local or state government, is that the boss – the elected official – is always right.   

Most State, City, County and other non-federal CIOs either work for a city/county manager or for a Governor or Mayor.   That official is the “boss”.     We give the boss our best advice, but if they decide to do something different, then I invoke “nobody elected me”.    In other words the elected official is responsible to the citizens and constituents of the city, county or state.    And that elected official will receive a report card every two or four years in the form of an election.   If the electorate doesn’t like the way the government is running, they’ll make their wishes known at the ballot box  The Mayor or Governor was elected to make the decisions, not me.

I’ve got two reasons for writing this blog post.   The first one is to try and reflect upon the stupidity of what happened in New Jersey in September.  The second reason is to demonstrate how “nobody elected me” plays out in information technology.

Nobody Elected Me and New Jersey

ChrisChristieOne potential issue with the “nobody elected me” philosophy is ethics.   If I recommended a course of action, and my boss decided to do something different – and his decision was – in my opinion – either unethical or illegal, what would I do?    There is really only one answer to this quandary:   it is my duty to resign.  (I won’t address the issue of “going public”, e.g. Edward Snowden, as that is a difficult and thorny subject.)

Such instances are, thankfully, far and few between.  One of my heroes is Bill Ruckelshaus, who resigned as deputy United States Attorney General.   He resigned rather than carry out an order from then-President Richard Nixon to fire the special prosecutor in the Watergate affair.

As any reader probably knows, staff members of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie ordered the closure of all-but-one traffic lane on an approach to the George Washington Bridge in early September, 2013.  Governor Christie was conducting a campaign for re-election, and the closure was apparently ordered to “punish” the Mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey.

If you were an employee of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and you were actually ordered to set up the traffic cones and shut down traffic for no apparent reason, what should you do?   Refuse to obey the order?    On what grounds?

I can’t judge the employees of the Port Authority because I don’t know what they (or their supervisors or their managers or their directors) were thinking as the traffic cones went into place and all hell broke loose for three days of traffic on that bridge.    Perhaps they invoked “Nobody Elected Me” or “the boss is always right”.   Perhaps they feared to question the order in order to preserve their jobs.    Somebody in New Jersey government, however, should have been asking questions in September, not now in January, 2014.

Nobody Elected Me and Information Technology

“Nobody elected me” is useful when explaining otherwise inexplicable decisions to technology department employees.

For many IT employees, the “right” decision often appears to be obvious.    Many such employees don’t see the nuances of political reality (especially when it comes to funding).

311-wordmap-NYCA few years ago, when I was CTO of the City of Seattle, I reported to Mayor Greg Nickels.   Mayor Nickels and I and a third department head – responsible for the central customer service at the City – jointly decided a 311 system was needed in Seattle.

311 seems enormously logical to me.   What phone number do you call if you see a fire or are having a bicycle accident (like I did) – 911, of course.   But what number do you call if you want to report a backed-up sewer or you want to complain about taxi service or your cable bill?    In some forward-thinking cities like Chicago and New York and Louisville that number is 311.    But in Seattle you search through six pages of 8 point font in the phone book (if you even have a phone book) or search a website (if you have Internet access) to find some incomprehensible number.    That sort of stupidity made no sense to me as CTO and it made no sense to Mayor Nickels.

Alas, the Seattle City Council didn’t see it quite that way, and rejected Mayor Nickels’ proposal because they didn’t see a need equal to the $9 million cost to implement.

I’m convinced the problem in Seattle was lack of Council member districts.   All nine Seattle City council members are full-time members and all are elected at large.   In that situation citizens don’t know which council member to call to complain about something, so they end up calling the Mayor.    The Mayor and his staff “feel the pain” of citizen complaints and see the need for a 311 number and system.  City council members don’t

But the electorate has spoken.   Two months ago, in November, 2013, they voted to start electing council members by district.    When that law takes effect in two years, council members will start feeling the pain of citizens in their district complaining and will, I think, be much more supportive of 311.

Yup, nobody elected me, but there’s always an alternative path to the goal.

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2013 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 9,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 3 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Seattle Needs More Video Surveillance

Seattle Video CameraViolent crime statistics tell us that Seattle is safer now than it was 10 or 12 years ago; that violent crime – even in the last year – has decreased. But statistics are cold comfort to downtown shoppers in light of the September stabbing death of a Shoreline Community College professor after a Sounders’ game, drive-by shootings like the one at the Othello Street light rail station last month and the attack on a Metro bus driver downtown earlier this year.

Both Mayor Michael McGinn and Mayor-elect Ed Murray have proposed adding additional police officers — perhaps 15 to 25 more — to the Seattle Police Department. But those numbers are tiny: Putting an officer on the street costs $100,000 a year and, in order to make sure there’s one additional officer on the street at any given time, you’d have to add five officers to the department.

Clearly the city cannot afford to buy its way to improved public safety this way.

Luckily, technology provides a cheaper option: surveillance cameras.

Read the rest of this article on Crosscut here

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Lee Harvey Oswald and 9/11

lho_lee_harvey_oswald_as_boy

Oswald

Lee Harvey Oswald robbed my parents of their youth.

In a similar way, 9/11 and the destruction of the World Trade Centers may have robbed the rest of us (even those of us now in our 60s) of our youth.

When Oswald killed John F. Kennedy, he also killed – or at least damaged – the “youthful outlook” of the “Greatest Generation” – those who had survived the Great Depression and put their “youth” on hold to fight World War II.   That generation – which included my parents – came back to peacetime, after WWII, and immediately married, had kids (lots of kids – the Baby Boomers) and got engaged in work and business.   This generation saw Kennedy as a hero.   He was, indeed, a bonafide war hero from PT-109.  But he also had an eloquence and a youthful outlook on the world symbolized by his goal to put a man on the moon and his speeches including “ask not what you can do for your country …” and “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans”.

Oswald killed all that.

And afterward, of course, my own generation would not “trust anyone over 30”;  the nation became bogged down in the Vietnam War;  and my parents became “old fogies”.  Bill Flanagan on CBS Sunday Morning eloquently described the disillusionment which followed November 22, 1963.

Something similar occurred, I fear, after September 11, 2013.    For over 230 years, the United States survived on isolationism.  We were separated from Europe and Asia by vast oceans as well as centuries in time.  The United States was the “young democracy” on the globe.  Sure, we lived in fear of nuclear Armageddon during the Cold War.   But “bombs dropping invisibly from the sky” is an abstract concept.  And, of course, that nuclear war never happened.

September 11, 2001, changed all that.

The war came to our shores.

Americans died – by the thousands – in Manhattan.

And, I think, to a great extent, the “youthful outlook” of the generations who remember 9/11 died also.

Now we have a National Security Agency which tracks our phone calls and our social media and probably tracks our email and web browsing.   We’ve built a giant security apparatus worthy of George Orwell’s 1984.  Our drones strike at people around the world.   We fear the Chinese have completely cyber-infiltrated our government systems and private businesses.  Every time we go through a TSA line at an airport we are personally reminded that terrorists live among us.   We’ve wasted trillions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives (including the lives of the dismembered) on foreign wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.   Every month another mass-shooting born of mental illness and despair seems to occur. And we are constantly reminded that our passwords are not secure, our financial information is not secure, and our very identities may be stolen.

I have great cause for hope, as well.  There’s a whole generation growing up now who do NOT remember 9/11.  The wars are winding down (although the debt they left us has not).  We’ve got a vigorous non-profit sector of hackers (in the good sense of the term) who are building applications from open source and demanding open government data.   A whole set of technologies is sprouting which will enrich our lives:   network-connected glasses, autonomous vehicles, tablet and smartphone computers, and other wonders yet to be unveiled.

Lee Harvey Oswald robbed a generation of its youth.  9/11 robbed more generations of our youth.  Can our next generation perhaps live out its dreams?

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