Every Citizen needs a Data Dossier

Schrier's Data Dossier

Schrier’s Data Dossier

Governments collect a lot of data on citizens.  Private companies like Google, Amazon and even Safeway collect even more.   In fact, a whole new thriving business of data brokers has emerged.  These are companies like Datalogix which indexes, mashes, cross-correlates, buys and sells our personal information.

On  May 27 the Federal Trade Commission released its report “Data Brokers:  a Call for Transparency and Accountability”.   The report demonstrated the pervasiveness of the data brokering business.  The brokers use billions of data points to build profiles – dossiers – on every American.   The data comes from both online and offline sources.   Online sources include searches you make using Google or Bing, as well as things you buy from Amazon and other e-retailers.  Offline sources include purchases you might make with loyalty cards from companies like the grocery chains.

The “billions of data points” include a wide variety of information such as age, religion, interest in gambling and much more.   Here is a list of 200 such fields.  From this data the brokers make inferences and classify people into affiliations such as “bible lifestyle” or “rural everlasting” (older people with low net worth).

Americans are rightly concerned with the amount of data collected on us by our governments.   Government data collection is widely reported in the press.  But private companies collect similar vast amounts of information.   That fact is not widely reported.  Examples:

  • License Plate Recognition.   Cities and other police forces collect large quantities of license plate scans which include location and time-of-day information.  For example, Seattle Police deployed 12 police units and collected about 7 million license-plate records in one year, identifying 426 stolen cars and 3,768 parking scofflaws.  But most of those records capture normal citizens parking their cars in front of their houses.  However private companies such as Digital Recognition Company collect 70 million scans a month and have a database of 1.5 billion such scans.   Such data is used to repossess vehicles when the owner defaults on a loan.  At least police departments report to elected officials who can oversee and manage how the information is used.  But who oversees the private scanners?
  • Facial images.  The National Security Agency (NSA) collects millions of images each day, including about 55,000 of high enough quality for facial recognition.   But Facebook alone has 1.23 billion active monthly users who post 300 million photos a day (2012 statistic).  Facebook users willingly “tag” the photos, adding the names to the faces.  This has created one of the largest facial databases in the world.   Such data could be used to automatically recognize people when they enter a restaurant or bar, or to display advertisements tailored to them in public or when walking down the street.
  • Drones.  There is great weeping and gnashing of teeth over the potential use of unpiloted aerial vehicles by government agencies.   The Seattle Police Department was so roundly criticized about potential drone use that the Mayor ordered the program ended.  Seattle’s drones were given (“gifted”) to the City of Los Angeles igniting a debate there.  Obviously people are concerned about the video and other data such drones might collect.   In the meantime however, commercial use and uses of such technology are exploding, ranging from real estate to news media to farming and private photography.
  • Sensors.  The Internet of Things is upon us.   Sensors are being added to almost every conceivable device.   Sensors on cars will be used to tax drivers for the number of miles they drive, partially replacing gas taxes.   Sensors on cars also are already being used to track drivers who break laws or otherwise have poor driving habits, and their insurance costs may increase.  Fitness sensors track our activity.   Refrigerators, furnaces, homes, even coffeemakers (“your coffee machine is watching you”) are getting sensors.

Who is collecting all this information?  What are they using it for?   What are we to do?

Perhaps we need to follow the example of the Fair Credit Reporting Act, which requires the credit reporting companies to provide reports to individual citizens, but also allows those citizens to challenge information found in the reports.

Perhaps we need a “Citizen Data Dossier” law and portal – a secure online site or vault where everyone could find the information collected by each data broker and each government agency about them.    In addition, individuals could challenge the information, ask for it to be replaced or removed and allow citizens to “opt out” of how their information is collected and used by the broker.

Biker-Hells-Angel-Type

Biker-Hells-Angel-Type

Governments, of course, represent a somewhat different issue.   Clearly convicted sex predators should not be allowed to “opt out” of government collection of their conviction data or have it removed from government records.   But certainly those who have false conviction data or other data (e.g. incorrect notice of suspended driver’s license) should be allowed to correct that information.

One thing is for certain:   once such data is available, we will discover how much of our information is available, and what private companies infer about us using it (“this guy is a Biker/Hell’s Angels type“).   And I suspect we will be scared and upset.

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Filed under big data, government, open data

Mr. FirstNet Comes to (the other) Washington

Image

Ed Parkinson comes to the other Washington

Ed Parkinson, Director of Government Affairs for the First Responder Network Authority, visited Washington State (“the other Washington”) and Oregon this week.  Mr. Parkinson met with senior officials here in Washington, including the State CIO, Michael Cockrill, and the Director of Emergency Management.   He met with Oregon State officials and also gave a talk at the joint meeting of the independent telecommunications companies of Oregon and Washington.   His appearance here in the Pacific Northwest gives me some additional hope for this noble effort called FirstNet.

The First Responder Network Authority was created by Congress in February, 2012.  It was authorized to use $7 billion in funds obtained from the auction of spectrum to wireless telecommunications companies.   FirstNet’s mission is to design and build a nationwide public safety wireless broadband network.   Congress broadly defined “public safety” as not just First Responders like cops and firefighters, but also transportation, utilities, public works and anyone who has a role in responding and fixing the incidents that occur every day, as well as responding to major disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes.

I am known as a skeptic of FirstNet’s progress, which I’ve blogged about in the past (Is FirstNet Stalled?).

But I’m also definitely heartened by recent developments in FirstNet’s efforts.

My current weather forecast for FirstNet is “fair and warmer”.   Ed’s visit, plus a couple of other recent events contribute to that forecast.   There are, however, a few storm clouds still on the horizon.

FirstNet

FirstNet

Here are some factors contributing to my sunnier forecast for FirstNet:

  • “We’re going to work with states to design this network.”   FirstNet doesn’t just have a 12 step plan – it has a forty-five (45) step plan to design a network for each state.   The plan includes a number of specific actions and meetings where local and state public safety officials will be engaged to specify the areas the network must cover, who will be authorized to use it, and how much it will cost.
  • FirstNet Folks are everywhere, underground and in the air.   FirstNet acting general manager T. J. Kennedy, Ed Parkinson and other senior staff spend a lot of time speaking at conferences, talking to folks on the sidelines, answering questions, calling folks on the phone and responding to email.    The procurement staff seem to be open to meeting with almost anyone who may have a service usable to FirstNet (if you can find their contact information).   This represents a refreshing level of engagement.
  • State Consultation is on the Fast Track.   FirstNet promised to publish a set of criteria on how they will work with states to design the network in each state by April 30th.  And they met the deadline!   David Buchanan is driving this process forward despite being short-staffed.  FirstNet is actively working with state points of contact (like me) to set up meetings and come meet with local fire and police chiefs, mayors, sheriffs, county commissioners and others.   The fact that Ed Parkinson visits with governors and states like Oregon and Washington is a positive sign.
  • A draft RFP by the end of 2014.    FirstNet officials have promised a comprehensive request for proposals (RFP) for equipment and services.  They’ve also promised to publish a draft of that RFP for review/comment by states, local jurisdictions and the vendor community.   This is an excellent approach, as it should produce a good set of contracts which FirstNet can tap to build the network.
  • Public comment and review.   FirstNet promises to ask its stakeholders – police and fire departments, transportation departments, electric and water utilities, commercial companies supplying products and others – to review some of its plans and ideas.   These “public comments” build on a series of requests for information (RFIs) which FirstNet issued last year.   This public comment process has worked well for other agencies such as the FCC and should help to generate good ideas for FirstNet.   But as of this moment, such a process is still just a promise.
Storm Clouds with a bit of Light

Storm Clouds with a bit of Light

Here are some of the storm clouds or difficult waters which FirstNet still needs to navigate:

  • “I’m from the Federal Government, and I’m here to help.”   Congress said FirstNet is an “independent authority” within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.   Yeah.  Right.   FirstNet is part of the Federal government.   When a citizen calls 911, the FBI doesn’t show up.   The local fire or police department shows up.  Usually within 4 to 10 minutes.   And those local responders depend on local radio networks and local 911 centers for dispatch and communications.   Anyone who has waited in a line at the social security office (“your current wait time is one hour, 54 minutes”) or a veteran’s hospital (“your current wait time is 2 years, 54 days”) knows what a federal bureaucracy can be like.  FirstNet has acknowledged it is subject to the onerous Federal Acquisition Regulation for buying stuff and the ponderous Federal personnel process for hiring staff.  FirstNet needs to show it is nimble and able to meet the needs of the cop on the beat or the electric company lineworker on a pole inches away from a 25 kilowatt power line.
  • How much will it cost me?   Will it be sustainable?   Will there be enough money to build and operate it?   These are all questions which those of us who are state points of contact (SPOCs) get every day.   And, hopefully, they will be answered as design moves forward.
  • Staffing.   FirstNet is charged with creating technical designs and business plans for each one of 56 states and territories.   Due to the onerous Federal personnel process (see above), most FirstNet staff have been hired as transfers from other federal agencies – that’s much easier to do than to hire people with experience on the street but outside the Federal personnel system.  Finding highly skilled technical staff has been even more of a problem and charged with controversy.   But gee, here we are, two+ years after FirstNet was created, and the agency is really not staffed to do its work, with only about 50 Federal employees and maybe 20 contractors.   Of course the real numbers are murky because of …
  • Transparency (or lack thereof).    President Obama promised an open, transparent, government on his first day in office, January 20, 2009.   But Federal agencies have been as secretive as ever in withholding real information from citizens, as shown in a recent PBS documentary.   I’ve urged FirstNet to trumpet every small success, to acknowledge failures, to talk publicly about every person they hire, full-timer or contractor, to be open about their roadmap and finances.  I know FirstNet staff struggle within the straightjacket of Department of Commerce policies on this.  And I’m heartened by their embracing regular webinars with stakeholders, Twitter (at least five FirstNet folks tweet) and blogging to improve transparency.  But, gee, where is the list of FirstNet staff and contact information on their website?    I couldn’t even find the name of the procurement officer much less a current organizational chart on the website.  In terms of transparency, there is a ways to go …
  • Board meetings.  FirstNet Board meetings are … well … ballet.  They seem to be well-orchestrated public theater.   The members are in a closed room in an disclosed location with video cameras for the rest of us to observe.   When the meeting is over they escape out the back door to avoid reporters and those interested in engaging them.  This is totally opposite of the way county commissions, city councils and state legislatures work, where officials are very approachable before and after meetings.    I will immediately say individual board members such as Sue Swenson and Jeff Johnson, and senior FirstNet staff from T.J. Kennedy on up to the lowest-paid secretary are, individually, approachable and responsive to email and phone calls.  But FirstNet Board meetings need to be coached on transparency and openness by any School Board meeting in any School District in the nation.
  • Advisory Committees.   FirstNet has one advisory committee, the Public Safety Advisory Committee (PSAC) with 45 members.   The meetings of the PSAC are closed.  Although, again, the chair of the PSAC, Harlin McEwen, is very open and engaging with stakeholders.     I personally think FirstNet could use an advisory committee of state elected officials (Governors, Attorneys General, Mayors) and perhaps an advisory committee of industry and commercial enterprises in addition to the PSAC.   And PSAC meetings, just like FirstNet Board meetings or your local City Council meetings, need to be open for attendance by anyone.

I find that everyone I encounter at FirstNet, from Mr. Sam Ginn and Acting General Manager T. J. Kennedy on up to the  administrative assistants, to be committed to the job.

Building FirstNet: the Nationwide Public Safety Wireless Network

Building FirstNet: the Nationwide Public Safety Wireless Network

Commitment was clear at NASA in the 1960s, where even the janitors knew what they were doing: “I’m helping to put a man on the moon.”

FirstNet staff know they are going to keep 330 million people safe and improve our national and local quality of life:  “I’m building the very first nationwide public safety wireless network.”

I see that commitment in Ed Parkinson.   I see that in David Buchanan.   I see that in T. J. Kennedy.   I see it in members of the FirstNet Board.  I see that in those of us laboring to engage responders in Oregon and Washington and Florida and Maryland.

The next FirstNet Board meeting is on June 3, 2014 in Colorado.

Will we see that commitment there as well?

I think and I trust that I will.

But we’ll see …

(This version is slightly edited and updated from the original.)

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Filed under FirstNet, Sept. 11th, wireless

Government Employees: Bureaucrats or Entrepreneurs?

Bureaucrat

Bureaucrat

There is an entrepreneur in almost every government employee.  It just needs to be unleashed.

“Innovation” is an overused word, especially in government.  Chief Innovation Officers are sprouting up in state and local governments as fast as dandelions bloom in the springtime.

I’ve contributed to this trend myself, publicly advocating Seattle’s new Mayor Ed Murray to appoint a Chief Innovation Officer.  He did appoint Robert Feldstein as Chief of Policy and Innovation (although my advocacy probably had little to do with that).

But can government employees at any level – City, County, State or Federal – really innovate?  Or are they doomed to be unrepentant bureaucrats, steadily but blindly following rules and procedures?

What is “innovation”?

Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison and Innovation

I like Bryan Sivak’s definition of innovation as the “freedom to experiment”.

Many organizations – not just government, but really any large organization (think Boeing, the cable company, Microsoft) is captive to its rules, regulations, processes and procedures – its “bureaucracy”.   Governments are especially captive to their processes because they are subject to public scrutiny and criticism.  Many government officials hide behind policies and procedures saying “we treat everyone uniformly and equally” even though uniform processes often produce discriminatory results due to the differing circumstances of neighborhoods and individuals.

Consider a police department, for example, which handled abandoned cars in a uniform way. Callers were directed to a voicemail where they left information about the abandoned car in their neighborhood.  The information was transcribed onto slips of paper which were then given to parking enforcement officers (PEO) for each neighborhood who, along with a host of other duties, would track the cars down and tag them – when the PEO had time.  This business process had numerous problems – on weekends the voicemail box would become filled, and callers became frustrated.  Slips of paper became lost, or the information was improperly transcribed.  In some neighborhoods PEOs were overworked with other issues, and didn’t get to tagging the abandoned cars.

Freedom to experiment takes a lot of guts on the part of government officials.   By giving their employees or teams the freedom to try new processes – new ways of handling old problems – they must understand experiments may fail, subjecting their department to criticism.   “Fail fast, fail cheap, learn from the failure.”

Innovation is not just about Technology

In this razzle-dazzle world of the 21st century, we tend to think of “innovation” as synonymous with some cool new smartphone app or a new computer system which automates a paper-based process.

But the best innovations don’t necessarily involve technology.  Indeed, they often are just changes in business process, sometimes enhanced by technology.

For example, consider Seattle’s antiquated process for approval of siting of cabinets in the roadways.  These cabinets contain telecommunications equipment which allow higher speed internet in neighborhood. Placing the cabinets allows private companies to build high-speed fiber networks deep into the city.  But, sometime in 2008 or 2009, someone complained to a deputy Mayor that one of the cabinets appeared in a neighborhood and was unsightly and intrusive.  The City’s response was to create a draconian rule forcing telecom companies to get explicit approval of all homeowners, within 100 feet of a proposed cabinet, throughout the entire City of Seattle.

Such a rule has many problems, not the least of which is stifling competition to provide high speed internet.   But the City’s proposed response is to lift the rule, but require telecom companies to pay an annual fee for each cabinet.   The fee is, supposedly, to pay inspectors to make sure the cabinets don’t become overgrown by weeks or marked by graffiti.   In an age of 311 and citizen activism, with cameras in every smart phone, this is a solution worthy of the 1930s!   Clearly the city employees involved here are still living in a risk-adverse, anti-innovation age.

We do NOT want governments innovating on some issues.

Snohomish County Mudslide

Snohomish County Mudslide

Washington State just suffered a devastating mudslide near the town of Oso on State Highway 530.   Forty-three residents of that neighborhood lost their lives.    In some places in Washington State – and elsewhere – building codes would have restricted the construction of a home in a slide-prone area.  At the very least, the potential homebuilders could have been forced to acknowledge the danger in the area before they constructed.  Yet a few homeowners in Oso actively resisted such “government intrusion”.

We also want to be careful in how we innovate in matters involving public safety.  We don’t want experimentation with different shapes or colors of stop signs, for example.    In areas subject to hurricanes, earthquakes and similar natural disasters we probably want to be careful in how we change building codes.

 “Government Entrepreneur” is Not an Oxymoron

Mitchell Weiss said it best when he wrote this article in the Harvard Business Review on March 28th.  “The idea of ‘public entrepreneurship’ may sound … like it belongs on a list of oxymorons … But it doesn’t.  Public entrepreneurs around the world are improving our lives, inventing entirely new ways to serve the public.”   He cited a list of entrepreneurship in government, and there are many additional examples ranging from open data which begets a host of private sector apps to 311 to New Urban Mechanics, which has “institutionalized innovation” (and perhaps that IS an oxymoron) by both government employees and citizens.

Some things are best left to the private sector.

How about healthcare.gov as the poster child for this one?  No matter what you think of the Affordable Healthcare Act, the online implementation sucked.  Kurt del Bene, formerly of Microsoft, led a turn-around, but President Obama deserves credit for giving him the authority to fix the site.  And damn the bureaucrats in the Center for Medicaid Services (CMS) who used “tried and true” (i.e. non-innovative) processes to create it and failed badly.  Indeed, some states did much better, e.g. Washington.  In each case, however, engaging private sector companies and individuals is key to success.

Innovation is really about Leadership

It takes a lot of guts to be an innovative Mayor or Governor.   You’ll be subject to critics from every angle.  Government employees don’t want change because “this is the way we’ve always done it” and they fear individual responsibility to make decisions.    Members of the public and business communities will immediately line up on one side or the other, perceiving themselves as winners or losers.

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray

Yet examples of courageous, innovating, leaders are abundant.  In 1944, Franklin Roosevelt forced the Washington Correspondents Association to admit an African-American reporter Harry McAlpin.  In 1964 Lyndon Johnson pushed civil rights legislation despite the obvious and continuing (to this day) damage to the Democratic Party in the South.   Just this year, Mayor Ed Murray of Seattle pushed a $15 minimum wage and obtained a supermajority of 21 of 24 members of his business-labor committee on a plan.

Great leaders know when to push, when to ask, when to cajole, and, most important, how to accept risk to push forward innovation and improvement in government.

There is an entrepreneur in (almost) every government employee and every citizen.  It just needs to be unleashed.

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Filed under 311, employees, government, innovation, open data

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