Will our Love for our Guns Make Us a Police State?


Parkland School Shooting – ABC News

I’m a gun owner. I’m a former cop and a retired Army officer.  I’ve personally fired everything from .38 police specials to M60 machine guns to TOW anti-tank weapons to 105mm howitzers.

I fear, however, the unmitigated love for weapons, and the ever-expanding “rights” to “keep and bear arms” will make the United States a police state, which is the exact opposite of what gun advocacy organizations want.

Here’s the problem:   as more and more mass shootings occur – such as the latest one in Parkland, Broward County – people will become more and more vigilant for signs of potential crackpots who would go on such a rampage.

On the same day as the Parkland shooting – February 14, 2018 – a grandmother in Snohomish County, Washington, read the journal of her grandson, detailing plans to shoot up a school and kill as many students as possible.  He had even purchased a weapon such as the one used in the Columbine school shooting, robbed a 7-11, and felt a sense of power in that robbery.  The grandmother notified authorities, who arrested the teenager.  During the arrest, he assaulted an officer and now is being held on $5 million bail.  The grandmother is (rightly) being hailed as a hero.

Is that what life in these United States has come to – that we are encouraging people to spy upon and inform upon their family and friends to prevent mass murder?   What will we encourage next – spying on family and friends who might sexually assault others? Isn’t that a noble cause too, in the #metoo movement, especially given the abuses of power we’ve seen with the U.S. Gymnastics Team and people like Harvey Weinstein?  President Trump has accused Democrats of treason for not applauding him during his State of the Union address.  Perhaps we should encourage people to report suspected treason like this too?

report-suspicious-activityAre we creating a new Gestapo or East German Stasi, where we encourage citizens to report on their family, friends and neighbors?   All in the name of keeping us safe?

No right is unlimited.

The first amendment states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Yet we do require parade permits for people to “assemble”.  We don’t protect people who slander others or falsely accuse them of crimes in public.  Television stations cannot use the “f” word in their broadcasts during prime time.  The first amendment has limits.

Similarly, the complete text of the second amendment is “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

Does this mean people can keep and bear nuclear weapons? No.  Can they buy and use 150mm howitzers? No.  Can anyone – including those who are insane or convicted felons – keep and use firearms? No.   Indeed, one could read the second amendment to state that only people who are part of a “well-regulated militia” have the right to “keep and bear arms”.

It sure seems to me that further restrictions – strict background checks, prohibition on any machine gun or automatic weapon, banning of bump stocks and 60 round magazines, requirements for gun safety courses – might well be in order.

I’d rather limit the “right to keep and bear arms” rather than encourage citizens across the nation to be reporting anything suspicious about their friends and neighbors.  I really want my seven grandchildren, ages 1 to 12, to be able to walk to school and learn there, without fear of having the place shot up. And  I’d live in a nation with strict limits on firearms any day, before living in a nation of informers.

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How the City of Seattle can improve its relationship with Amazon (and Microsoft, too)


Amazon office buildings and cranes dot the Seattle skyline. (GeekWire Photo / Nat Levy)

Amazon is looking for a second headquarters city, “co-equal” to Seattle. Seattle’s city Leaders suddenly have an immense interest in their relationship with the city’s largest employer, a company which has ignited the largest economic boom here since the Klondike Gold Rush. A meeting of the behemoths (city and Amazon) is apparently set for Feb. 9.

Meeting with Amazon is a good step. But city government leaders should not ignore other companies which contribute to making Seattle a wealthy, world-class city, especially Microsoft.

How do Seattle’s elected officials improve relationships with these companies while, at the same time, improve services and quality of life for Seattle’s residents? Elected officials should not “give away the city” as the State of Washington did in 2013, giving Boeing an $8.7 billion dollar tax break; Boeing then actually reduced employment in the state.

Here are some ideas: (read the rest of the article on GeekWire here).

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5,953 Days Later: A Miracle Occurs. 8,859 Days to Go

September 11, 2001.  Terrorists attack the United States.  2,996 people died.  The economic damage was more than 250 billion dollars.  The 9/11 Commission Report made 46 major recommendations in 8 categories.  Virtually all the recommendations were implemented.

Except, perhaps, one.

On December 29, 2017, that is 5,953 days after the attacks, this recommendation finally was addressed:

Allocate more radio spectrum and improve connectivity for public safety communications, and encourage widespread adoption of newly developed standards for private-sector emergency preparedness—since the private sector controls 85 percent of the nation’s critical infrastructure.


FirstNet’s States

On December 29, 2017, the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) became a reality in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and two United States Territories.   FirstNet was created by Congress on February 22, 2012.  Congress allocated 20-megahertz of radio spectrum for FirstNet’s use in creating a nationwide mobile wireless (cellular) network where first responders will have priority.  Congress stated FirstNet must use long-term-evoluation (LTE), a worldwide standard, for the network.  And, while many public safety responders work for governments, there are private sector first responders too, protecting critical infrastructure, who will have priority on the network.   AT&T won a competitive contract to deploy the network, and promised priority on all its existing LTE spectrum, as well as the 20-megahertz assigned to FirstNet.

AT&T delivered on that promise on September 30, 2017.  But the Governor of each State and Territory, and the Mayor of D.C., each had to decide whether to participate in this network.  On December 28, 2017, California became the 50th state, and 53rd government (including D.C., Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands) to decide to participate in FirstNet.


Public Safety Officials

Thousands of Chiefs of fire-and-rescue, law enforcement, emergency medical services, and 9-1-1 centers advocated for FirstNet to happen.  Hundreds of federal, state and local officials worked on the details, and hundreds of AT&T employees brought it to fruition on the carrier’s existing infrastructure.

The vision of the 9/11 Commission is, at long last, 5,953 days later, realized:   a nationwide public safety communications network.

Still, there is much to be done.

New advances in technology and therefore terrorist, criminal and public safety capabilities are constantly occurring.  Hacking, cybersecurity, new smart phones, the Internet of Things, body-worn video cameras, new applications, unmanned airborne vehicles, natural language processing (Siri, Alexa, Cortana) and artificial intelligence are just a few of those advances.  Public safety agencies often lag in adopting these technologies to support their mission of keeping 320 million Americans safe.

While one of the last chapters of the 9/11 story is now closing, many new challenges and opportunities present themselves.

The contract for FirstNet has a 25 year life, starting March 30, 2017.  There are 8,859 days remaining.   Many challenges still remain to be completed:  public safety agency adoption of FirstNet, an applications store filled with innovative apps, the Internet of Life-Saving Things, cybersecurity, network connectivity in remote areas and more.

Nevertheless, our nation’s first responders now, on December 29, 2017, finally have a nationwide wireless network with priority for their smart phones, mobile data computers, tablets and other devices.

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1,945 Days and a Miracle Occurs

A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.  A 1,945 day journey to a nationwide cellular network for first responders begins on a single day, February 22, 2012, when Congress passes the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, and comes to a waypoint on June 19, 2017.   On that first day, Congress created the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet).  On the last day, today, FirstNet published a definitive plan for each state detailing how the network will be deployed in that state.

Oh, you can quibble about the dates.  Perhaps the starting date should be in 1997 when the FCC set aside spectrum for use in creating a cellular network for public safety.   And you can argue that “delivery of a plan” is not deploying a network.

But I’m going to count February 22, 2012, as the starting date, because that’s when this network became possible, because Congress funded it and created an agency to make it happen.    And I’ll count June 19, 2017, as the ending date, because these “state plans” are much more than plans.   They are an “on” switch for FirstNet.

All a state Governor need do is “flip the switch” to “on” and immediately FirstNet becomes a reality in that state.

I always believed – since I became involved in this work in 2008 – that deploying a network with priority for first responders would take many years.  I thought it would be an arduous process of acquiring cell sites, putting antennas and electronics at those sites, stringing fiber optic cable between them, and then slowly, one-by-one, lighting up each site to put it on the air.  Just like the long, painful, process of deploying the first cellular networks in the 1980s.

But it isn’t.   Turning on FirstNet is as simple as a Governor signing a letter which says, “go do it”.

then-a-miracle-occurs-firstnetThe Governor doesn’t have to commit any funds or make any commitments.  No public safety agencies in a state have to use FirstNet – they are free to choose other networks.  But if those agencies want priority above all other users, if they want a dedicated help desk, a customized app store, end-to-end security and all the other benefits, they can sign up with AT&T and get it.

All it takes is a simple signature by a Governor, and a miracle occurs.

P.S.   To see the plan, go here.

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First Responder Field, Home of the Seattle Mariners



SAFECO Field has been the home of the Seattle Mariners’ Baseball Club since 1998, when SAFECO Insurance acquired the naming rights.   SAFECO is not planning to renew that 20 year naming agreement when it expires in 2018.

Major league stadiums carry the names of insurance companies, banks, financial institutions, airlines, ketchup companies, even a pet supply store (PETCO).   But none are named for law enforcement, firefighters, emergency medical services, or the military.  These responders willingly place their own lives at risk – daily – to keep 340 million people in the United States safe from harm, both here at home and abroad in foreign nations.

Naming rights are not cheap.  SAFECO Insurance is probably paying $1.8 million a year to get its name on this Seattle stadium.  Citi Field in New York City may be the highest priced venue at $20 million a year.   See a complete list from ESPN here.

First Responders (from FirstNet.gov)We should have a First Responder Field to honor our daily heroes.   But the owners of SAFECO field shouldn’t have to forgo significant revenue to provide that honor – after all, the costs will probably be borne by those attending games in Seattle.

It would be a travesty to ask first responders themselves to pay for naming rights.   Perhaps we could do a Kickstarter campaign to pay for the rights.   Or maybe some of Seattle’s billionaires who own Starbucks, Amazon or Microsoft could kick in the dollars.

But it would be even better, more noble, if the owners of Major League Baseball teams, each of them billionaires, could each kick in a few bucks to compensate the owners of SAFECO Field who could then honor our cops and firefighters and paramedics who respond and save lives nationwide, every day.

What do you think?

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If it is always “Day 1” at Amazon, it is Day 10 in Government

jeff_bezos_headshot11“I’ve been reminding people that it’s Day 1 for a couple of decades. I work in an Amazon building named Day 1, and when I moved buildings, I took the name with me.  [So] what does Day 2 look like?”

“Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day 1 [at Amazon].”

So says Jeff Bezos, Founder of Amazon, soon to be a trillion dollar company, in his annual letter to Amazon’s stakeholders.

What are the lessons Government can learn from Bezos and Amazon?  But also, how is Government different from Amazon and other entrepreneurial private businesses?

Government is NOT at Day 2

The City of Seattle is at Day 53,830 (incorporated December 2, 1869) and the United States is at Day 87,948.   Governments have been around for dozens, hundreds of years.  They rarely go into “excruciating, painful, decline” and very very rarely die.   Are governments irrelevant?  Try getting a driver’s license or not paying your taxes.

But this longevity also leads to complacency, poor or indifferent customer service, and skepticism or outright hate by some citizens.   And governments are in competition – for industry, business, skilled and educated citizens, revenue and tax dollars.   Poorly operated governments drive away business and smart citizens, and they decline, even if they don’t die.

process-as-king-cartoonProcess as Servant, not King

Every private company and every government has bureaucracy, process, and procedures to do its business.  But in private enterprise or government, process is should not be the goal:  satisfied customers are the goal.

Jeff Bezos wants a customer-obsessed culture where Amazon employees “experiment patiently, accept failures, plant seeds, protect saplings, and double down when you see customer delight”.

Almost always governments – and most large corporations – focus on the process of customer service, not the customer.  We make following procedures and abiding by policy take center stage, no matter what happens to our customers. The ugly episode where United Airlines recently had police drag a customer off a plane is a one example.  But government – and the Veteran’s Administration is a another example – makes process King.

This isn’t because individual employees aren’t committed to the mission – the VA is filled with thousands of dedicated employees (second only to the postal service in total numbers), working hard to take care of veterans.  But it also has bureaucrats for whom process is King, and too often they are in charge.

This lesson of keeping the focus on customers comes in tiny increments. I recently stayed at a Hilton Hotel which had a happy hour with free beer.  I arrived 15 minutes after the end of happy hour.  The bartender asked “were you here for happy hour”?  I honestly replied “no”.  She gave me a complimentary beer anyway.  In doing so, she made me a delighted customer.

In a more substantial example, I needed assistance on a social security and Medicare application.  I went to a local social security office and had to “take a number and wait in line” for more than 30 minutes.  But when I saw a counselor, she did not hurry me, asked me good questions, and gave me wise advice on choices with advantages and disadvantages of each.  Then she executed on my choice – she made it happen.  I walked away delighted by customer service, despite the wait.

We need to empower government employees to do the right thing, just like Amazon, Nordstrom and similar businesses do.

Embrace external trends

Technology for customer service innovates quickly.  Traditionally government has moved slowly and has been risk adverse.  This must change.

Computers have automated tasks which could be described with clear rules, if-then statements, and algorithms.  Think of an algorithm as a recipe where the inputs and outputs (ingredients) are described along with the steps (procedure) necessary to make the entree.

Private companies now embrace machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) to power chatbots, text messaging, frequently-asked-questions and help desks.    IBM is harnessing its artificial intelligence engine Watson to revolutionize law firms, healthcare and help desks.   The City of New York is trying to use Watson to fix its aging 311 system.

Bezos points out several projects in which Amazon uses AI, including Amazon’s Prime Air delivery drones, its new futuristic grocery stores, and its virtual home assistant, Alexa.

Siri-cartoonVirtual digital assistants are proliferating in homes and businesses.  Burger King intentionally created  “TV commercials that cause Google’s voice-activated, artificial intelligence-driven Google Home speaker to start talking about the Whopper sandwich” (USA Today).  Amazon’s Alexa, invoked by its Echo devices in millions of homes, now will start appearing in many other devices including automobiles.

But few governments embrace these leading-edge technologies, preferring to force our customers to “telephone between 8:00 AM and 5:00 PM” including the “our menu options have changed” phone tree, or to physically, actually show up at a government office to do business.

Public safety officers – law enforcement and firefighters – heavily use two-way radio, but are forced to sit at a keyboard to type reports or make routine queries like checking license plate numbers or verifying identities.  These are all tasks which could be automated with natural language processing and speech-to-text capabilities available in Alexa and similar products.

Governments need to adopt these high-value customer service technologies rapidly.

High-Velocity Decision Making

Most governments and large companies make high-quality decisions, but they make high-quality decisions slowly.  In the case of governments, the decisions can be excruciatingly slow.  For some reason government employees love to play “gotcha”, trying to find every risk and every potential problem with a new idea, even if the chances of the issue materializing are one in a million.

When I was the Chief Technology Officer at the City of Seattle, I would gladly take one enthusiastic, “can do”, positive, product manager looking at the “new idea” glass as half full instead of a dozen devil’s advocate employees who always want to see the glass half empty, or an engineer who would say “the glass doesn’t meet our specifications”.

Speed matters.   Many decisions are trivial and inconsequential.  They can be easily reversed.  Make them fast.   But the very worst outcome is to banish a decision to a committee or kick it upstairs for a more senior manager to make.

Governments are Not Businesses

However there are differences between governments and private businesses.

Governments cannot choose their customers – we need to accept all comers.  This includes those with special needs, low income, the senile, the mentally disturbed, the homeless and the technologically challenged.   This often means we will have a “real person” help desk as well as a chatbot.

Governments are in the eye of public scrutiny.  Amazon can hide most of its bad decisions (the very public failure of the Fire Phone is an obvious exception).  Government cannot.  Mistakes such as a $43 million budget overrun for the City of Seattle’s utility billing system make headlines and are featured on the 11:00 PM news.

Does this mean government should avoid big projects?   Not at all:  Governments must embrace modern cloud-based technologies, professional project management and agile development of software systems, delivering incremental value every 6 to 8 weeks.

ChieGovernments don’t fail, private businesses do.   The United State Government has been around since 1776.  The City of Seattle has been operating since 1869.  Governments don’t face the same competitive pressure as private businesses.   Nevertheless, governments do compete for economic development, industry and citizens to locate within their boundaries.   Successful governments boom, unsuccessful ones languish.

Governments are operated by elected officials, not CEOs.    Mayors, City Council members, County Executives, Governors, legislatures and other elected officials run our various governments.   But almost all governments have three branches – executive, legislative and judicial.  These branches check and balance each other, slowing decision making.    Elected officials also … well … need to run for re-election.   That increases their aversion to taking risks.   Amazon and many private businesses, run by a CEO and a relatively uninvolved Board of Directors, can be nimbler.

It is always Day 1 at Amazon.  If Day 2 is stasis and irrelevance, government should try to be at day 1.5.


Filed under Alexa, artificial intelligence, customer service, future of technology

Nostalgia of the 2040s

20th_century-victoria-and-albert-museumThose of us who can remember the 20th Century fondly recall artifacts and phrases from our “youth”.   And time marches inexorably on.  The cool, whiz-bang, stuff of 2017 is the nostalgia of 2040.

First, as a bit of a reminder, here’s some of today’s technology nostalgia:

  • Television that only came in two colors – black, and white (well, and a few shades in between)
  • Telephone book, telephone booth, party line (and we are not talking politics here), telephone operator.
  • Video tape – along with video “tape” we’ve also remember Beta video recording, VHS video recording and “film” among other terms. Some of us older folks still talk about “filming” or “taping” but really “recording video” or something similar should be the operative term.  Related terms like photo film and negative are also gone from the lexicon.
  • No, not Google maps, but honest-to-goodness paper maps that you could get for free at the gas station as the station’s hired help filled your car for you (something which still happens in Oregon, incidentally).
  • Library research. There was a time when writing a term paper or doing research required a library card and a lot of work finding and reading books and magazines.  Now “research” is simply a Bing search and Wikipedia from a computer.
  • And quite a few other reminders: floppy disks, Blockbuster, game boy, transistor radio, cassette players and tapes, Polaroid cameras.
  • Humans as computers. See the movie Hidden Figures to understand this one.

dui_checkpoint_sign-orangecountyweeklyWhen the 2040s roll around, presuming civilization still exists, what out-of-date artifacts and phrases will we remember from 2017ish?   Here are a few of my ideas:

  • “Extra DUI Patrols On Now”. These signs often appear above freeways on readerboards.   People will still get drunk in 2040.  And they will still climb into cars.  And I don’t think there will a magic sobering pill or drug.  But all automobiles will be self-driving.  In fact it might be illegal to manually drive a vehicle on a public highway.  So DUI (and speeding tickets and auto injuries and millions of associated jobs) will be history.
  • Automobile ownership. People will still own cars, in the way that they own Brownie Cameras or a Victrola today: as an historic artifact to be polished and preserved and admired.  I suspect ride sharing services and public ownership of many vehicles will replace private ownership.
  • Dying of cancer. Perhaps I’m being too optimistic here, especially given the Trump Administration’s proposal to eviscerate funding for medical and health research, but it appears that genetically tailored cancer treatments and other similar discoveries will make cancer an historical anomaly by the 2040s.  Not too many folks will be nostalgic about it, though.
  • Fighter pilots. With the advent of drone warplanes, it is hard to believe that manned fighters or bombers will exist in the 2040s.
  • Paper forms. I was amazed, when I became a federal government employee in August of 2016, that almost all my in-processing consisted of a stack of paper forms on which I wrote my name, date of birth and social security number.  We’ll still use paper in 2040, but hopefully NOT for in-processing to a new job.
  • Certainly many many of today’s jobs will be automated.  Routine, repetitive, physical labor jobs are the first to automate, and perhaps 50% of the work in today’s economy will be done by robots in 2040.  But few jobs are 100% susceptible to automation, so work is likely to change, rather than completely go away.  Indeed, people may end up doing physical work for enjoyment – carpentry and gardening as examples.
  • Smart phone. The smart phone and the tablet computer have fundamentally changed the character of life and work over the past 15 years.  But the newest versions of these devices are only incrementally better than their predecessors.   I suspect that another personal technology innovation is lurking in the next 25 years.  I know it will have a voice control component (Bixby from Samsung or Alexa from Amazon or something similar).

2001-space-stationOn the other hand, I’m fairly certain some facets of life are unlikely to change significantly over the next 25 years:

  • Space travel (or lack thereof). It is amazing that the last manned moon landing was 45 years ago in December, 1972.  Arthur C. Clarke imagined huge space stations in orbit around the earth, and missions to Jupiter for 2001, wildly optimistic.  Elon Musk, China and others are planning moon and Mars missions.   There will be some such missions, but I think human space travel will still be relatively rare in the 2040s, or relegated to suborbital, expensive, pleasure jaunts for the wealthy.
  • The 20th Century heralded some major innovations in the kitchen.  Indoor plumbing, refrigerators, dishwashers, gas and electric ovens are all innovations which have really occurred in the last 100 years.  Indeed, only the microwave oven and the Keurig coffeemaker are recent innovations of any widespread significance in the kitchen.   Remember the TV dinner?  This quick-to-fix, complete-meal-on-a-tray never really caught on, perhaps because the tray tasted almost as good as the food in it.
  • Artificially intelligent killer robots. Nope, I don’t think the singularity will occur by 2040.  I love the concept of IBM Watson and similar “artificial intelligences”, but think we have a long way to go.  And I’m pretty sure I don’t want to live in a world where machines are more intelligent than humans.

I’d welcome your thoughts on any of this, via comment or email, but particularly any ideas on innovations you see (or don’t see) over the next 25 years.

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Is 2017 the Year for Big Change in Civic Tech? No.


big-diaper-change2017 is not the year for Big Change in city, county or state tech.   I’d argue NO year is a year for “Big Change” in the technologies used by government.   Government does not change fast, which may be a Good Thing.

Civic Technology – the information technologies used by local, state and federal governments – typically plod along many years behind commercial adoption of technology and a decade or more behind the latest, leading edge, advances in tech.

Here are some examples: commercial companies go whole hog to adopt cloud technologies while government still operates data centers and even builds new ones (State of Washington, 2014).   Consumers and commercial companies adopt the iPhone; government still uses the Blackberry or (Congress and President Obama finally ditched them in 2016) or doesn’t even issue smart phones to its first responders.   Commercial companies adopt agile development, with sprints that update apps every few weeks; governments still do “big” multi-year projects which invariably go over budget and implement years later than planned, often with semi-disastrous consequences.

Stephen Goldsmith, Director of Innovation in Government at the Harvard Kennedy School and former Mayor of Indianapolis, believes 2017 will be the year for technology breakthroughs in government such as virtual assistants, artificial intelligence, chatbots, natural language processing (think Alexa, Siri or Cortana), machine-to-machine communications and predictive analytics.

I’m not so sure.

Or rather, I am virtually certain 2017 will NOT be the year for chatbots, artificial intelligence and natural language processing.  I’m pretty sure we won’t get very wide adoption of predictive analytics, especially given the recent implosion of “predictive policing”.

There are a number of reasons for my skepticism, but that’s a topic for a different post.

Ok, so if I’m certain no one will be saying “Alexa, pay my parking ticket” in 2017, what technologies will governments be adopting?

  1. iot-smart-cities-nlc-dec-2016Smart Cities. Cities are finally networking their sensors and harnessing the Internet of Civic Things (IoCT) to improve transportation, public safety, and quality of life.   Kansas City, Missouri, led by a gutsy Mayor Sly James and Chief Innovation Officer Bob Bennett, along with networking vendor Cisco, is leading this charge with LED street lights, transportation signal timing and tracking, and a smart city map.  Former Mayor Mark Funkhouser, now publisher of Governing Magazine, also deserves credit for his innovative leadership style, as does Google Fiber, for making KCMO its launch city.  Boston will not be far behind as it received 104 responses from 85 companies for its smart city RFI, one of which includes outfitting the city with 15,000 smart street lights.  And Columbus, Ohio, has the right idea – using tech to help people – rather than tech for tech’s sake – as it uses its Smart City Challenge Grant to try and reduce deaths of infants and connect low-income residents to jobs.
  1. Free public Wi-Fi. This was a totally stupid idea when it first surfaced in Philadelphia in 2004, and died a slow, lingering death there and in a hundred other cities across the nation.  But now, with advent of smart street lights, well-developed municipal fiber networks, and the whole concept of “smart cities”, the idea has come of age.   If a city is already connecting its parking kiosks, street lights, public buildings and other infrastructure to the network, popping up “free” public wi-fi is trivial.  New York City’s LinkNYC, after it fixed its porn problem, is starting to be quite successful, with 600+ kiosks enabled.  Kansas City is using its smart city platform to provide Wi-Fi to 50 blocks in the downtown area.
  1. Cloud computing. Governments have been extraordinarily reluctant to get rid of their dinosaur data centers.  The move to the cloud is actually accelerating now, led by initiatives such as body-worn video storage in Taser’s evidence.com, for example, which is hosted by Microsoft in its Azure cloud.   But, as a matter of fact, many other cloud based solutions are being adopted by government such as NeoGov for human resources, Accela for licensing, permitting and finance, and Workday for human resources and financial management.  In many cases the line departments (utilities, public works, permitting, public safety) of governments acquire these cloud solutions, either with the support of their IT departments or despite them.
  1. Ufirefighting-drones-jpgnhumaned aerial vehicles – UAVs or Drones. Drones seem to have suddenly exploded on the scene a couple of years ago when the technology was ripe, although radio-controlled aircraft have been around for decades.  Now, however, governments have discovered the tremendous usefulness of these aircraft, far beyond the military applications.   North Carolina’s Department of Transportation is working with other agencies to use drones in crises ranging from flooding to traffic collisions.     Use of drones in search-and-rescue (SAR) is becoming so commonplace there is even an organization of 1,100 SAR drone pilots, which goes by the name of SWARM.   Both police and fire agencies are using drones for searches, observing major fires to guide firefighting, and other purposes.   We will see a major expansion of use in 2017.
  1. Body-worn video (BWV). Body-worn video burst on the scene after the Ferguson, Missouri, riots, with many police departments adopting them quickly, without thinking about the privacy and policy implications.  We will not only see improved policy controls, but also see wider use of BWV for officers and detectives to walk around and describe serious auto collisions and crime scenes in great detail, easing investigation and prosecution.   While the original reason for use of BWV was making police officers more accountable, we’re also seeing increased professionalism, decreased liability (fewer sustained complaints) and better investigations, according to work done by Dr. David Makin of Washington State University.  In 2017 more law enforcement agencies will realize these benefits, along with, of course, an increased workload for officers, detectives and prosecutors.

But how about those predictions of chatbots, virtual assistants, natural language processing and artificial intelligence?

Well, these technologies are all linked.  Natural language processing (“Alexa”) allows humans to easily communicate to virtual assistants, which, in turn, can engage artificial intelligence like IBM’s Watson, Google Tensorflow or Microsoft’s Scattershot (my reference to the significant work Microsoft is doing, but not necessarily tied into a single AI engine).

alexa-call-911But it will take significant time for these engines to be linked to civic problems.   Las Vegas is writing some skills for Alexa and New York City would like to harness Watson for its 311 center.  But, like everything else in government, don’t expect a “Big Change” to suddenly happen, but rather an evolutionary development and adoption of these technologies.

With some luck, sometime in the near future, there will be a Sherlock AI for helping detectives solve crimes and a Bob-the-Builder AI for helping people navigate the myriad building and zoning regulations of a modern city and similar ways that AI linked to natural language processing and personal assistants or chatbots help city residents.

But not in 2017.

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Filed under Alexa, artificial intelligence, drones, firefighting, Internet of Things, smart cities

Can Government CIOs Avoid Politics?

The short answer, as known by everyone who has been a government Chief Information Officer, is a resounding “NO”.

This question is becoming more urgent as a new federal government administration in Washington charts its own, unique, path of policies and directives.   But it is a question which is lurking in the shadows of the march of technology, and will emerge as a more painful question for CIOs soon.

korematsu-fred-googleTechnology companies and executives have tried to stay apart from politics.  Taking sides on political questions is usually the recipe for customer disaffection and even a boycott.  #deleteuber has gone viral in the past few days as customers perceived Uber lacked opposition to President Trump’s executive order on immigration.   In response to that same order, many have called for a boycott of Starbucks after its CEO planned to hire 10,000 immigrants, responding to that same presidential order.  Most companies involved in technology are now taking sides on this political issue.  Google, for example, wryly protested the order by putting an image of Fred Korematsu on its search site.  Korematsu protested the internment (by Executive Order) of Japanese-American’s in World War II.

Since the emergence of the role of chief information officer in the 1990s, federal, state and large city CIOs have always been involved in politics.  They work for elected officials who are members of political parties, and are expected to have allegiance to those individuals and those parties.

On the other hand, CIOs of smaller cities and counties – usually those with a professional city or county manager – often have long tenures if they are professionally competent.   Steve Monaghan of Nevada County, California, has served in that role since 1999.  Phil Bertolini of Oakland County, Michigan, has served as CIO and Deputy County Administrator since 2005 and was information technology director prior to that.

Competent and politically savvy CIOs of larger cities and counties have survived changes in their executives too – witness Joe Marcella’s 18 years in Las Vegas.  Others have successfully moved between jobs in major jurisdictions such as Cathy Maras who started as CIO in Cook County and is now in Bexar County (San Antonio) or Steve Reneker who has moved from the City of Riverside to the City of Los Angeles and is now in Riverside County.  Adel Abeid, Jon Walton and Beth Niblock are other examples of successful CIOs moving between multiple large jurisdictions.

In the future, however, government CIOs are going to face daunting political and ethical questions, for examples:

  • Facial Recognition. Your City (county, state) operates video cameras in public spaces.  These might include traffic cameras, security cameras or surveillance cameras in public spaces.  Your executive wants you to implement facial recognition, and build a database of individuals who attend protest marches, to find those who commit violence and crimes in order to arrest and prosecute them.   While this is a noble mission, such a database also will capture the identities of many others who are legitimately exercising their right to free speech.
  • Social Media. Your police chief or executive asks you to find and implement software to scan social media use by existing and prospective employees.   The immediate need is to make sure they are not criminals, racists, or committing other illegal acts.   But that same database could be used to determine their political affiliation and views.    It is clearly unethical to use such information when making employment (or continuation of employment) decisions about employees protected by civil service.  But is it ethical to consider such information for political (“at will”) employees or in jurisdictions without civil service?  Could such information be used to go on a “witch hunt” for employees who do not share the chief executive’s view?
  • Protected classes. Your executive is concerned about terrorism and potential hacking or damage to the City’s image by disgruntled employees.  You know that disgruntled employees are a primary cause of cyber theft and other insider threats.  Your executive asks you to use a social media monitoring tool and other technology to build a dossier on employees who potentially pose such threats, especially if they have family/friend links to known terrorist nations.
  • New technology. Your executive demands you improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the City’s call center for city services.   You can implement a variety of new technologies such as chatbots, natural language processing (think “Alexa” or “Siri”) and even artificial intelligence such as IBM’s Watson.   Such technologies will eliminate dozens or hundreds of living wage jobs for people of color and those who are single parents or the sole breadwinner for their families.  While a typical response might be to offer re-training programs, the displaced workers in many cases will not have the basic education or abilities to learn the replacement high-tech jobs which will become available.

The convergence of the new “America First” policy in Washington, D. C., and the availability of a number of new technologies ranging from the Internet of Things to natural language processing to video analytics (facial and object recognition) to massive databases with associated “big data” analytics (and the threat of significant misinterpretation) will present many dilemmas for the government Chief Information Officer.

artificial-intelligence-iconEven more frightening, artificial intelligence will vastly transform the face of society and the economy of the United States over the next 20 years, as documented in a 2016 federal government report here.  Millions from jobs ranging from call centers to lawyers to accountants to everyone who drives a vehicle are at risk of elimination or significant change.  All of this technology change will be infused with politics as elected officials scramble to create jobs, save jobs or fix blame for loss of jobs.

Government CIOs work for these elected officials.  CIOs have this technology tiger by the tail.  They should pray it does not eat them alive.

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Filed under Alexa, artificial intelligence, big data, CIOs, future of technology

When Alexa Calls 911 …

alexa-call-911CES, formerly the Consumer Electronics Show, recently concluded in Las Vegas.  Alexa conquered the show (Wired), and seemed to be everywhere (Fast Company).  Alexa is, of course, the voice-activated digital assistant developed by Amazon, headquartered in Seattle.

Alexa has a long and growing list of commands ranging from “Alexa Shut Up” to “Alexa Give me a Game of Thrones Quote” to skills commands like “Alexa Ask Lyft for a Ride” which enables a specific skill written by Lyft to engage their car-sharing service.

Alexa is being married with a new generation of “smart devices”.   So if your light bulbs are smart enough, Alexa can control them (“Alexa, turn off the lights in the bedroom”).  If your garage door is smart enough, Alexa can open it.   Audio equipment.  Smart phones.  Even cars (Ford is building Alexa into its vehicles) will have Alexa controls.  Indeed, Shelly Palmer, a long-time observer of CES, says “anything which can be connected, will be connected” to Alexa.

But what happens when you say “Alexa, call 911”?

Right now, of course, nothing.   Alexa cannot use the telephone, or make a phone call.   But, it can – and does – send data and your voice across the Internet to the Amazon cloud.  And, as Amazon develops Alexa’s expertise, it is only a matter of time until such a “call 911” skill is built.

The Bright Side of Alexa 911 Calls

Anyone who has been a victim of a crime understands the potential for using Alexa to call 911.  Someone breaks into your house, and you fumble to find a phone and fumble to unlock it and then punch in 911.   But Alexa is “always on, always listening”.  You simply say “Alexa, call 911”.

But then what happens?   Does Alexa “keep the line open” so you can talk to the 911 operator?  What if you have to leave the room or get out of Alexa’s range as you retreat into a closet or try to find the burglar?   Should an individual Alexa device in one room automatically activate all the other Alexa devices (Echo, Dot, Tap, Firestick etc.) everywhere in the house and put them on the line with the 911 operator?

ng911-2020Alexa will soon be able to control video cameras and audio devices throughout the house.  Should “Alexa call 911” automatically activate all such devices?   Should it connect them to digital recorders or maybe automatically connect them all to the 911 center so the operator can hear and see what is going on? (Of course 911 centers can’t receive video right now, but with Next Generation 911 that capability will become available, eventually.)

FirstNet will be deploying a nationwide cellular network for first responders and their smart phones, mobile and tablet computers.   With FirstNet, responding officers could actually connect, as they are responding, with such inputs – video cameras and Alexa devices, so officers could hear and see what is happening inside the house.

2017 CES - Ford offers Amazon AlexaThere will also be Alexa-enabled vehicles.   Could an Alexa-enabled vehicle become somewhat “self aware”, so it might detect that it is being hotwired – that its owner is not present, and call 911 to alert police of the crime-in progress?    Or perhaps the car would detect that its windows are being broken, activate tiny video cameras around the car, and also, with Alexa, alert the 911 center to that car prowl in progress.

But some 911 emergencies are not crimes, but a fire.   The urgency of a quick connection to 911 is underscored in a fire, as people need to call 911 and get out of the premise quickly.   Alexa-capable devices will eventually connect to fire alarms and sensors in the house.   Perhaps, eventually, people will also have sensors in their clothes so Alexa could also precisely locate people inside a house.  These devices will eventually have GPS beacons so their locations are precisely known.  All of this information could be available to responding firefighters so they could see the location of the fire and potentially the location of every human being and pet inside the home, invaluable information for saving lives in the first few seconds after firefighters arrive.

Many 911 calls are medical emergencies – diabetic shock or a heart attack or a stroke or a fall.  Again, Alexa will be invaluable in summoning aid.  An elderly neighbor of ours recently fell out of bed and shattered her femur.   She slowly, painfully, crawled to a phone to call us (and we called 911).  But with Alexa, all she would have to say is “Alexa, call 911” and she’d be immediately connected to aid.

Again, biosensors are being embedded in humans today and this trend will continue.  Heart pacemakers, insulin pumps, glucose monitors, blood pressure monitors are all devices we attach to our bodies to monitor our health.  These devices could eventually be controlled by Alexa, or at least send information to Alexa, which would establish a history and pattern which could be invaluable to the paramedic responding to 911 calls.     With “Alexa call 911” plus FirstNet all of that information could be sent to emergency medical technicians and emergency room physicians at hospitals before the Medic unit even leaves the station.

In fact, the potential for such live-saving applications could, eventually, lead to a mandate that all voice-activated digital assistants in a home must have the capability to call 911 just as today every cell phone – even if you haven’t paid the bill in years – are mandated to connect 911 calls to a public safety answering point.

The Dark Side of Alexa 911 Calls

Just as Alexa’s potential for saving lives and solving crimes through 911 calling is the “bright side”, there is also a “dark side” of enabling this capability.

911-center-seattleThe most immediate effect will be on understaffed 911 centers.  The sheer number of 911 calls will rise.   The quality of the calls may also drop as people try to talk to their voice enabled devices as they move from room-to-room, making it hard for 911 operators to hear and interact with the caller.   In fact, many Alexa-based 911 calls may become the equivalent of a “911 hang up” call today, where officers are dispatched out of concern that domestic violence or another crime is occurring and the caller is unable to reconnect with the 911 center.

In addition, Public Safety Answer Points (PSAPs) may become overloaded with data during these calls.  Security companies, certainly, will rush to develop Alexa-enabled products.   These could be video cameras placed around the home, coupled with movement sensors, heat/fire sensors, door and window sensors (to determine if a door/window is open or shattered), and so forth.   Such a system would allow a homeowner to know the status of her home at any time or place.   But all of this data could also be transmitted to a 911 center or (via FirstNet) to responders as they are en route.   With the advent of inexpensive video cameras, the sheer amount of data (multiple video feeds, for example) would easily overwhelm a 911 center or responders.

(Note:  911 centers presently only receive voice phone calls, although an increasing number call also receive text messages.   Very few can receive photos, images, video and similar information from 911 callers).

Privacy, Hacking

Today there is significant concern about the amount of data and information collected about individuals today through their use of the Internet and social media.  The advent of voice-activated digital assistants and homes of sensors increases those concerns.  Shelly Palmer has written “How Dangerous is Alexa”, an exploration of the potential for these devices to collect vast amount of information about us simply by listening in the background, as well as by the control of our other smart devices.

Beyond the data collection is the potential for hacking these digital assistants – or the smart devices they control.   The Mirai Botnet incident of September, 2016, clearly demonstrated the power of such hacking.   We can imagine many frightening scenarios, such as criminals hacking into a home’s smart devices and directing them to open all the doors and windows to simplify a burglary.   Worse yet, a criminal syndicate or a hostile nation state might direct all the Alexas (or other digital assistants) in a city or state to “call 911” overwhelming first responders and throwing a nation into chaos.


“Alexa, Call Nine One One”.   Five simple words which carry such power, such potential for improving public safety, solving crimes and rushing aid to victims of fires and health emergencies.    Five simple words which raise numerous issues about the staffing preparedness of our 911 centers and public policy which our elected leaders will need to address.


Filed under 911, Alexa, APCO, Internet of Things, ng911