Original Post: 3 June 2008
The purpose of this blog – blog.chiefseattlegeek.com – is to render some ideas and opinions about the role of information technology and a chief information officer in a municipal government. That’s not stated anywhere, yet, I guess, because the blog is still an experiment for me.
Any senior government official, by definition, is involved in politics. Politics in the honorable, “can do” sense – government is all about community – people coming together, and, together, doing what they cannot do individually or in private business – providing water, parks, policing, firefighting. For this we need elected officials, legislatures, laws and Chief Executives. And politics. In the honorable sense.
I have a friend, Aaron Bert, who works at the City of Seattle who is on his second deployment to the Middle East. In his first deployment, he was activated as a Captain in the Washington National Guard and sent to Iraq for over a year. Leaving two kids and, ultimately, a marriage behind. Now he’s in the Army Reserve and in Afghanistan. He should be here in Seattle, managing capital projects for our Parks Department.
He writes a blog published in the Seattle Times here, and it is sometimes painful to read.
There is another City of Seattle employee – also an Army Reservist – who is a server administrator. He’s also been notified that his unit will be activated – again – for deployment to the Middle East. The first time it was Iraq, and this time to Kuwait. At least initially. He also leaves two kids and his wife here to worry until he returns.
I spent 22 years in the Army and Army Reserve. I’ve been out for more than 10 years, and my military retirement will kick in this year (and THAT tells you how hold I am). I’m proud of that time – that I did more to earn my citizenship than just pay taxes.
But I feel sorry for these two “kids” – young men in their thirties, really not kids – and their kids, who will be without fathers for the next year or more.
Read Aaron’s blog.
And, while you are at it, buy some shoes for Afghani kids.
Monthly Archives: July 2008
Original Post: 3 June 2008
Google’s corporate ethics includes “do no evil”. Well, not exactly. Technically their corporate philosophy includes ten things “Google has found to be true” and number six is “You can make money without doing evil”.
A noble piece of philosophy.
Not really true.
Ultimately, the Internet boom and the boom in startup web companies, like the newspaper and magazine industries before them, is fueled by advertising (puns intended). And most advertising is fundamentally evil because it encourages consumption. Lots and lots of consumption. Buy buy buy.
And most buying is bad for individual human beings, for developed societies and for the planet.
Sure – we need food and shelter and a few other basics. Pretty low on Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy. In fact, plastic bags, the toys you get in kids fast-food meals, GPS locator units, wine cellar machines, two cell phones and one automobile per person probably don’t rate a place in Maslow’s hierarchy at all (maybe – and it is a stretch – “self esteem”?). Such consumption consumes vast amounts of our planet’s resources, contributing to climate change through transportation and processing of all the raw materials, not to mention the use of the materials themselves. All that petroleum use makes us more dependent upon Middle East oil, and therefore more embroiled in the politics of that region.
Ergo – for the most part, the consumption caused by advertising is “doing evil”.
See next entry “Second Life” from May 30th for a fun way to consume without consuming.
Original post: 31 May 2008
The Governing Magazine “Managing Technology” conference just concluded here in Seattle today, May 29th, 2008.
Among many other topics, we discussed the phenomenon of “Second Life” and similar virtual reality web-based universes. I learned that some governments have established a presence in “Second Life”, including the State of Missouri, which uses their Second Life presence to recruit Information Technology professionals. It’s also been widely reported that the government of Sweden and the City of Boston have second life embassies or city halls.
My initial reaction to governments’ presence in “Second Life”. Let’s just say I’m … ah … not supportive. Those government officials messing around creating “Second Lives” on government time need to … ah … “get a life”. The folks from Missouri said their second life presence only cost $112, but that cannot count all the employee time and staff time spent to create the presence.
People demand a lot from their governments – parks, utilities, cops and firefighters to name a few. Real “boots on the ground” to address the real issues of medical emergencies, crime, clean streets (or even just “streets”), parks, water and electricity. Given all these demands – and public safety needs, frankly – for government in our First Lives, it seems quite absurd to spend any amount of taxpayer dollars on a virtual life. That’s my initial reaction.
But I do admit to being “fair and warmer” on the concept of Second Life in general.
My Mayor – Greg Nickels – has been a national and world leader combating Global Warming (no puns intended). In his speech at the Governing conference on Thursday, May 28th, he talked about excessive and conspicuous consumption, and such consumption’s insidious side effects.
This consumption ranges from buying plastic-bottled water to using plastic or paper bags to six block automobile trips to the grocery store to needless purchases of clothes, toys, and all variety of stuff – much of it made from plastic which, in turn, is made from precious oil.
My theory is that much of this consumption is impulse driven – we see a bottle of water at the 7-11 or we see an advertisement for a new “thing” in the newspaper or in a store check-out line and we impulsively buy it, whether we need it or not.
But, suppose we indulged our “conspicuous consumption” by buying stuff in Second Life and outfitting our virtual second lives with all those trappings of conspicuous consumption? We satisfy our impulse and craving to buy stuff.
Then we show our “stuff” off to our fellow second life avatars. And we live frugally and wisely in our First Lives. Seems like a great trade-off to me.
So, Second Life on the taxpayer dime for a government presence? Naw, I don’t think so.
Second Life in your personal life to satisfy those consumptive urges? Absolutely.
Original post: 31 May 2008
First, let me congratulate Mark Stencel, who will be filling at least a portion of Peter Harkness’ shoes as Peter retires from his position as Editor and Publisher of Governing Magazine. Mark, long-time technology columnist for Governing and governing.com, is a terrific guy with great insight into the often uneasy marriage between government and technology.
In Mark’s recent column, “At Work on the Web” he argues for the reduction or removal of Internet filtering in government agencies. While his reasons are noble, with roots in trust of workers and the fundamental democracy of the web, the realities of working in government agencies give me a different view.
Let me first say that almost all the employees I know at the City of Seattle are ethical, diligent, and hard-working. I see that diligence, that dedication, every day.
But everyone (government employee or not) has their weakness. Some folks are addicted to alcohol, others to shopping, many to cigarettes/smoke breaks and many others to surfing the Internet or YouTube. They can’t help themselves from surfing or bidding on e-bay or browsing MySpace for their friends.
Pin-up girls. The very phrase evokes images from World War II barracks. In City of Seattle call centers in the 1970s, we had problems with pin-up girls decorating cubicles. Then it was pin-up guys. Naked pin-up guys. In guy’s cubicles. We ended up banning all such photos from the workplace and no one would think of allowing them back in today.
Yet I’ve had workers visiting dating sites, and leaving images of half-clothed people on the computer screen scandalizing a co-worker. I’ve seen workers leaving their City e-mail address for craigslist and e-bay sales. I know of employees surfing Internet sex sites. We “flatten” at least five computers (out of 10,000) a week. (This is a process also known as “re-imaging” or wiping a desktop computer clean and re-installing all programs.) Why? Because they became infected with malware from visiting non-business websites.
In every single case cited above, the City employee was a good employee. Hard working and well-intentioned. Someone I’d be proud to call a friend. But they either didn’t know the rules or had to indulge a low-level addiction to the Internet.
One department director tells me how much he loves the “websense” (Internet filtering software) installation in his department because it reduces the number of loudermill hearings he conducts, disciplining workers for non-business use of City computers. Websense helps keep honest people honest.
And hard-working City employees chafe when they see co-workers wasting time “surfing”. My experience is that morale among the top-performing City workers improves when they see low-performing employees unable to indulge their Internet addictions and/or disciplined for it.
Most City government workers earn a living wage. They work 40 hours a week, and many get overtime for hours beyond that. They have both the ability to buy a personal computer for home and the time to indulge themselves in the cyberworld at home. Public employees are held to a higher standard than workers in any other industry. When there’s a disaster, private employers shut down and their employees go home. Public employees work 12 hour shifts for the duration of the emergency.
Those same higher standards apply to use of City equipment, and conduct at work day-to-day, and the Internet content filters remind all of us of our duty to meet that standard.
The Pin-up Girls are long gone from the workplace. Let’s not bring them back with the web and Internet.
Original post: 28 May 2008
I often say information technology in any organization is like the human nervous system.
You never think about your nervous system, do you? Gee, how many times have your breathed in the since you started to read this blog entry? Have you made sure that your heart is beating lately? Oh – and that mouse under your left (or right) hand – the one you’ve been using your index finger to click a button and surf to this page (or maybe, at this point, away from it!). Has that index finger responded to your brain? All of this occurs for each of us, of course, thousands and tens of thousands of times a day.
Until it doesn’t … maybe your heart skips a beat. Or perhaps you get a cold and breathing isn’t so easy for a few days. You never notice your nervous system until that really small of amount of time (for most of us) that it DOESN’T WORK!
Information technology is the same – in many senses it is the lifeblood of City government. What is government, except taking care of people – doing for the people of Seattle what they cannot do on their own, easily, as individuals or even in small groups: clean parks, clean water through the tap (and the unclean water down the drain). In the case of Seattle, electricity at the flick of a switch. A cop when you need one and a firefighter or EMT sometimes too.
How do you get all this service? Typically you call on the phone – 911 or 311 or 206-684-3000 (for a cheap thrill, give that one a try). Often, nowadays, you surf the web or send an e-mail. And all of this requires phone systems and computer servers and software.
And how do City employees coordinate their responses to your requests? Well, they use radio systems to dispatch police calls or fires or public utility crews. We use an internal phone system to call each other. We use desktop computers and utility billing systems and work management systems. And e-mail is ubiquitous to the tune of a million messages a week. Oh … and Peoplesoft Financial Management system to track the cost and a payroll system to keep us paid.
And no one notices, until something doesn’t work.
As my telephone services operations manager – Stephanie Venrick – says, “dial-tone comes from God”.
Naw, it actually comes from the City of Seattle’s Department of Information Technology.
And that dial tone is there, 99.99% of the time.
Original post: 28 May 2008
Brier Dudley, Seattle Times Technology Columnist, stays on the leading edge of Seattle-area technology. His article in Monday’s (May 26th – Memorial Day) Times’ business section described the work of Microsoft TV via an interview with Enrique Rodriquez. I’ll let you read the column here, along with an announcement by Microsoftabout touch-screen technology which – although available in tablet computers today – will apparently be integral to the next, post-Vista, version of Windows. These developments helped crystalize some ideas of mine.
It is actually somewhat amazing that the commodity personal computer has been around since 1981 (thank you, IBM), along with a “video screen”. Yet we’ve never successfuly melded it with that much more ubiquitous video screen – the TV. It seems natural that TV’s should be computer monitors and computers should be TV’s. Yet that marriage has been slow coming.
I certainly envision the day when most rooms in most homes have a flat-panel touch-screen TV. Besides watching television and getting video on demand, there are a hundred applications for such a technology:
• Web browsing, perhaps linked to a TV program. How many times have you seen something interesting on TV and immediately gone to google … er … “Microsoft search” the subject for more information?
• And with a touch-screen, we get rid of all those damned remotes (three of the little goobers are within 15 inches of my left hand as I write this). And maybe it is time for the “death of the mouse?”
• Interactive gaming (“Warcraft” or “Sim City” whatever the hot game is today) using a touchscreen.
• Controlling all the appliances and utilities in your house (gee, did I turn the furnace down?).
• Two-way video calls (having a grandpa like me “virtually” over for dinner with my grandkids – well, my grandkid actually lives in the basement, but if she didn’t I’d want to make a video call often!). Video telecommuting.
• People could call 911 at the touch of a button (perhaps TOO easily), activate a camera and actually have an emergency medical technician or police dispatcher view an emergency.
All we need is really high speed broadband (“fiber to the premise”) and for Microsoft’s TV unit to succeed. Go for it Enrique!
Original post: 23 May 2008
Life is full of coincidences and crossing paths on the journey of life. I had such a set of coincidences this week. On Tuesday night I had a couple glasses of wine with an acquaintance of mine, Gino Menchini, who was in town to keynote a conference. Gino was CIO of the City of New York for a few years early in Michael Bloomberg’s administration. I first met Gino at a “Large Cities CIOs” conference he hosted in NYC in 2004.
Tonight (May 22nd) the move “Battle in Seattle” kicked off the Seattle International Film Festival. This film purports to depict the WTO riots of 1999, which gave Seattle a huge black eye in the media, but also helped galvanize us to improve our preparedness for disasters.
Sunday morning, May 25th, a team of employees of my department – the Department of Information Technology (DoIT) of the City of Seattle, will give up a good chunk of their Memorial Day weekend to upgrade the major telephone switch serving Seattle’s City government to the latest release of the switch’s software. Many of these are the same folks who helped put the technology into the City of Seattle’s new Emergency Operations Center / Fire Alarm Center (see my blog entry from May 18th).
What do these events have in common? Just why are they a “coincidence”?
Just this: Heroism comes in many flavors. September 11th, unfortunately, created many heroes, most of which are still with us. Those are folks who supported the City of New York (and also Washington, D.C.) during those difficult days. Gino was one of them – although he was working as an account executive for Cisco Systems on September 11th, he ran TOWARD the World Trade Center, and “collected” (appropriated?) a lot of technology from Cisco to allow the City of New York’s Emergency Operations Center to be up and functioning within 24 hours of the disaster. He stayed on duty for weeks after that, helping to direct Cisco’s resources toward the recovery from that disaster.
Similarly, the WTO riots here in Seattle created a number of heroes, including Assistant Police Chief Jim Pugel, who was a police Captain and in command of the police officers on the street during that difficult week. Jim is one of the most caring, unassuming people you’d ever meet. But he took care of his officers and protected the people of Seattle despite terrible planning by the City (thank you Paul Schell) in preparing for the event.
In their own ways, those DoIT employees coming in on Sunday to upgrade a telephone switch are also quiet heroes. While many people are enjoying their Memorial Day weekend, these folks will be in downtown Seattle working. The City of Seattle’s phone network is up and available over 99.99% of the time, which is really important in disasters and emergencies, because it WORKS when the public telephone network will be overloaded. As I mentioned, these are the same folks who worked many long hours to install technology in the EOC to make it quite prepared to weather and manage future disasters. And on September 11th, 2001, they stayed on the job in a skyscraper in downtown Seattle, keeping City of Seattle technology operating, when all the employees of banks and private companies left those skyscrapers and went home in fear.
These are different levels of heroism, but they all require commitment to keeping the people of the United States, the City of New York and the City of Seattle safe. And these are the quiet heroes, not the folks who get a medal or have their name on the front page.
I am so proud to know and work with them.
Original post: 20 May 2008
Robert Atkinson, research policy director for the Columbia Institute for Tele-Information (there’s a mouthful) has some provocative thoughts about really high speed broadband – “ultrabroadband”, at least as reported by Jon Van in a recent Chicago Tribute article. Atkinson believes new technologies such as “three dimensional HDTV” will need such high speeds. He also thinks about ultrabroadband as almost a natural monopoly in some markets, but competition is required in the largest markets to “provide benchmarks for what to expect in service, technology and price”.
This is pretty much what we’ve been saying in Seattle for some time – going back to the 2005 report of our Task force on Telecommunications Innovation. That report decried the lack of telecommunications and cable competition in Seattle. See my entry from May 16th (“Wireless with a Kirkland Signature …”) for more details about lack of competition here.
A whole host of new services and applications could take advantage of ultrabroadband. In the Tribune article Atkinson specifically calls out 3D HDTV, really high quality video conferencing and telecommuting instead of paying for office space. And many others could be added: multiple HDTV streams to homes and businesses or “from” homes and business (imagine broadcasting in HDTV from your home! Talk about the ultimate in “public access’!). The folks at the University of Washington and elsewhere are experimenting with 3 dimensional “decision theaters” and superHDTV with four times the quality of HDTV (think about a TV screen covering the WALL of your living room). High quality multi-player gaming will probably drive the need for ultrabroadband.
Qwest DSL and Cable Company Internet service won’t cut it in the world Atkinson sees. But that’s what Seattle – with no true competition – will be stuck with while 3D HDTV comes to Chicago, New York and San Francisco.
Original post: 18 May 2008
We’ve opened a new fire alarm center (FAC) in Seattle – see yesterday’s blog entry. This center accepts 911 calls for medical emergencies and fires – anything handled by the Seattle Fire Department. There is a separate 911 center elsewhere in the City for 911 calls for police service and police dispatching. How do we manage two separate centers? The answer: all 911 calls go to police first, and then, if the situation requires the fire department, the caller is “hot transfered” to the FAC. “Hot transfer” means the police 911 call-taker stays on the line until the fire call-taker picks up the call.
Gee, this seems quite inefficient – we have two separate groups of folks answering 911 calls, two separate buildings, two separate telephone systems, two separate computer systems to enter the information (“computer-aided dispatch”) and so forth. Isn’t this much more costly for Seattle taxpayers?
A long time ago, I thought so. Many cities (e.g. Chicago) have a single 911 center where dispatchers and call takers for all three disciplines (police, fire, emergency medical) work.
But the philosophies and requirements have changed, largely after the San Francisco earthquake of 1989 and that event in New York City / the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. Now almost every City has a backup 911 center – a separate physical location with a whole set of separate systems. In most cities, this separate location just sits, unused, most days of the year. It is only activated for testing and during those very rare occasions where some event makes the primary 911 center unusable. Such events occur more often than one might think – they could include white power (anthrax) scares or power failures (including failure of backup systems), as well as disasters.
In Seattle we’ve chosen a different – and, in my opinion – wiser route. Both our 911 centers are active and in use every day, 24 hours a day. We KNOW all the backup systems work because they are constantly in use – we don’t just test the backup center once a year. Once again Seattle leads – becoming the City most prepared to deal with a disaster.
Original Post: 17 May 2008
I was privileged today to participate in the dedication of the City of Seattle’s new Fire Alarm Center, Emergency Operations Center (EOC) and Fire Station #10. The City is committed to building or remodeling all its fire stations, funded by a levy passed by Seattle voters in 2003 (more information here).
This building – and the people who work in it – are dedicated to managing and mitigating disasters. These disasters could be personal ones – a heart attack (Seattle’s long been known as the “best place to have a heart attack“!?) or an injury from a car accident or a house fire, as all calls to 911 in Seattle for medical emergencies and fires will be accepted and dispatched here. Or the disaster couple be a regional one such as an earthquake or a terrorist event or a trip by the Seattle Mariners to the World Series. Well, that wouldn’t be a disaster, exactly, but because of the security needs, we’d activate the EOC.
I’m especially proud of this facility, as over 120 employees of the Department of Information Technology (DoIT) and IT employees from the Fire and Police Departments worked to put $7 million in communications and technology into the building. This includes, for example, connections at Fire Dispatch consoles and every EOC table to the King County public safety trunked radio network. There’s also a state-of-the-art 96 way video switch for accepting input from traffic cameras, commercial television (CNN, Seattle broadcast stations), and video conferencing, and routing it to HDTV screens on the walls and at the desktops throughout the facility. There is fiber and phones and links to 911 and homeland-security-military-grade secure communications. All installed by this set of City employees in a remarkably short time – essentially over six months once the building was ready. Helping to fulfill the Mayor’s pledge to make Seattle the City best prepared for a disaster, including the small, personal, ones.