Monthly Archives: August 2008

– A National CTO?

Which is the National CTO?

Which is the National CTO?

Barack Obama states he will appoint the nation’s first Chief Technology Officer (CTO) . And, indeed, his own campaign even has (had?) its own CTO (see CIO-dot-com).  Blogger Robert Scoble recently listed (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) the “A list” of names for the National CTO job.

Vint Cerf (as quoted by Ed Cone in his blog on CIO Insight) worries about “centralizing” technology or technology policy in the Federal government. He correctly points out that a “technology czar” would have about the same level of success as previous administration’s “energy” and “drug” and “fill-in-the-blank” czars.

But what would a “national CTO” actually DO?

Obama’s campaign website lists a potential set of duties. These include:

  • More transparency in government – presumably this means the federal government. Chief Geek comment: Yes!
  • Development of an interoperable wireless network for first responders. Chief Geek comment: Oh Gawd no. There are so many different groups and bureaucracies trying to do this now, vying for attention and dollars, that we’ve created a mini-first-responder-industrial complex.
  • Sharing of best technology practices between government agencies. Chief Geek comment: Well, maybe. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) of the Bush Adminstration is already and consistently scoring agencies on their management, and specifically the use of electronic government (see the latest scorecard here )

As CTO (aka Chief Geek) for the City of Seattle, I do have an opinion about this (surprise!) .

The City of Seattle does not have a CIO.  To some extent, the title “CTO” instead of CIO is an historical anomaly dating from the time the position was created by the Seattle City Council in the mid-1990s. But I also head a department (Information Technology or DoIT) which largely manages infrastructure. Applications are supported by the individual departments who conduct the business of City government (providing water, electricity, transportation, policing, parks, fire and emergency medical service, etc.).  As CTO, my office provides oversight and standards for the use of technology in City government, but I only directly manage about 215 of the 600 or so IT employees in the government.

In the Fedgov, not even the technology infrastructure of the government can be centralized under a CTO. The Fedgov is just too large and diverse.

I’ve previously written that government generally should not be on the bleeding edge of technology – we should take technologies pioneered and honed by the private sector, and apply them to the business of governing. In the Fedgov this is also true, with the exception of the military and homeland security, who have unique duties which will stretch the envelope of technology in new and different ways from the private sector.

So what would a national CTO actually DO? I suggest:

  • Make that blob of the Fedgov more transparent. Absolutely.
  • Find technologies and best practices for using technologies pioneered in the private sector and imfuse them into Federal agencies. I’ve previously listed a number of ideas about the use of Web 2.0 tech, for a specific set of examples, in government.
  • Push the OMB Scorecard further and deeper with aspects of technology other than “e-gov”. The best way to push agencies to cooperate and interoperate is to score their performance. We do that with project management at the City of Seattle, and it works wonders.
  • Where possible, demand, direct and lead Federal agencies to cooperate and consolidate – share web services, share infrastructure, consolidate data centers and so forth.

In terms of national (non-federal-government) leadership by this Federal CTO position, I’m a little more cautious and skeptical. I like Vint Cerf’s idea about an information technology advisory committee (PITAC). But, in general, I’d say the robust set of private technology companies (led by Seattle’s own Microsoft), the University community and the open source Internet community are doing just fine in national and worldwide technology leadership. 

We do have a number of Federal agencies which appropriately regulate or support technology, for example the FCC, the Federal Trade Commission, National Science Foundation and, of course (famously) DARPA.  Most of these agencies could be improved in an administration more technologically enlightened than the present one.

But we don’t really need a federal technology “czar” to “help”.

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Filed under egovernment, Fedgov, government, government operations

– Fossils and Technology

a Stone Rose

a Stone Rose

I’ve spent the last couple of days in Republic, Washington, a small, isolated town in Northern Washington State. Republic has a population of less than a thousand people, and is surrounded by many miles of forest and prairie and mountains and ranchland in virtually every direction. The nearest big cities are Tonasket (pop. 1013) to the West and Kettle Falls (pop. 1527) to the East, 40 and 30 miles distant, respectively.

My wife and I come here to dig fossils at the Stonerose site, one of the few fossil sites where public digging is encouraged.

In the past, I’ve always been comfortable with Republic’s relative lack of modern technology. Cell phones don’t work here, an Internet connection is non-existent, few (if any) local businesses have a website. On one trip, a few years ago, my pager started to buzz and beep madly – but only as we were driving away – and we were 40 miles away – between Kettle Falls and Colville!

This trip there was free wi-fi in our hotel room. I had five bars on my Sprint BlackBerry. Not only cell phone calls but e-mail flowed freely to the device, even in our motel room in the basement of the Prospector Inn. Technology has come to Republic.

The fossils are still here, just as they’ve been for the last 48 million years.

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Filed under BlackBerry, fossils, history of technology, wi-fi

– Everything Important is “Local”

West Seattle Blog

West Seattle Blog

Tip O’Neill, late and former speaker of the U. S. House of Representatives, famously said “All politics is local”. He meant, of course, that no politician was ever elected or re-elected unless they listened to their local constituency and “delivered the goods” – that is, adequately reflected their voters’ views, opinions and needs*. Even if you are running for governor or President, you still need “feet on the street” in local neighborhoods to carry your message and translate it for voters – real people – neighborhood-by-neighborhood, block-by-block**.

Two relatively recent technology innovations underscore that more than “politics” is local: so are news, information, and government in general. And by “local”, here’s what I mean: certainly events like the Iraq war and the downturn in the economy are important and newsworthy and worthy of politician’s attention. But ordinary people don’t feel they have control over such monumental events. They feel they can control what happens in their neighborhood or on their block – building permits, helping the elderly, crime, condition of streets, what moves into their neighborhood (e.g. jails or halfway houses). Yet, while the Iraq war (or Georgian War) or the national housing slump grab the headlines, ordinary people often don’t have access to information about what is happening in their very own neighborhood – right down the block.

Here are a couple of developments which are, however, changing this paradigm:

The first development is the impending death of the paper newspaper. (Gosh I hope I’m wrong here, as I love getting ink on my fingers as I get information into my brain). Or rather than “death”, I mean the probable replacement of the paper-paper by the online-paper, the blog, and the Web.

The West Seattle Blog is a premier example of this. For almost a hundred years, the weekly West Seattle Herald has been the paper-paper for our neighborhood of about 40,000 people. Recently, the Blog is stealing the readers. Why? Because anyone can (and does) contribute news and information to the Blog. Sometimes the Blog reflects a bit of the ambulance-chasing and sensational-crime-reporting found in TV news or the paper-paper. But it also posts a ton of “come to the festival” and “photos of the parade” and “little league team wins” stories about neighborhoods. And Editor Tracy Record posts it almost immediately – morning, noon and night. It is timely, has a lot more information than the paper-paper (because it exists in cyberspace), and – more importantly – it is local – news about your neighborhood and even your block.

The Seattle Times – circulation 210,000 – and other urban newspapers face similar issues – see article here.

A second development is “Everyblock“. This is a fascinating mashup of publicly-available information. Information customized to within a few blocks of your home! In Seattle, at you can see 911 calls to the fire department, building permits and even restaurant inspections (I’ll never order from that Chinese food place five blocks from my house again!). In Chicago, where information on crimes is publicly available, you can even see a compendium of specific crimes committed in your neighborhood. The ultimate police blotter! “My Neighborhood Map” on the City of Seattle’s website has some similar information set up on a map.

Now, suddenly, the ordinary citizen has a ton of news and information available about their neighborhood and even their block. They can contribute to it (just ask Tracy Record) and will have better tools to shape their individual and neighborhood future.

Gives a whole new, and still developing, meaning to “all politics is local”, doesn’t it?

* Although sometimes a politician must also be a leader – taking people into the future – to where the nation or community must go, even if a majority of people don’t want to go there, e.g. the civil rights movement.
**These folks are called Precinct Committee Officers or PCOs, and they are elected officials themselves – at the most basic or lowest level of jurisdiction – elected for each party in each precinct.


Filed under blog, newspaper, Uncategorized, web 2.0

– City Averts Power Outage

Click to see more info about the Seattles emergency planning

Seattle City Data Center under Full Power

Seattle’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) was activated yesterday, Friday, August 15th, for a downtown Seattle power emergency – several banks of transformers failed at City Light’s Union Street substation, one of two substations serving the downtown core.  City Light (Seattle’s municipal electric utility – a department of City Government) shut down power to some portions of the waterfront, and asked downtown buildings to significantly reduce their electrical use in order to avoid a complete failure of the downtown grid.  All this on one of the hottest days of the year (95 degrees) for Seattle.

There was no exensive power failure, so the headline “City Light Avoids 90 Degree Outage” in the Seattle PI was buried in the local section, and the problem was just a footnote in the Seattle Times.

How do City government information technology workers respond to emergencies like this?   We’ve had lots of practice – WTO riots, Nisqually earthquake, electrical vault fires, windstorms, actual cyberattacks – and we intentionally conduct emergency operations drills both as a Department of Information Technology (DoIT) and as part of City-wide or region-wide drills such as Soundshake.  

Yesterday we went through our well-drilled disaster response:   directors and managers alerted all employees.    On our own – even before the EOC was activated – we sent desktop and server technical staff plus telephone, data communication and radio system technicians to the EOC to prepare it for activation.   The EOC was activated using a DoIT-maintained “community notification” or telephone call-out system to all critical City government executives.   When the EOC was activated, we sent an executive there to support the City’s leadership in making crucial decisions about the event.  (See also my previous blog entry about the City’s new EOC facility.)

Because this was a power emergency – and because our data centers are a major consumer of downtown power – we activated a long-standing protocol to reduce power consumption.   All servers and equipment in the data center are color coded based on their importance to government operations.   We shut those systems down in an orderly fashion as rapidly as possible.   We also have uninterruptible power supplies and a one-megawatt backup generator for the main data center, plus many other backup generators for critical technology services throughout the City of Seattle.

Yesterday was a hot day in Seattle.  It didn’t get hotter, thanks to well-practiced disaster drills and pre-planning!

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Filed under emergency operations, Seattle City Light, Seattle DoIT

– Bleeding Edge Government

Click on image to see the City of Seattle's online services

Click to see the Seattle's online services

Why does government lag so far behind private business in the application of new technology to customer service, constituent service and government operations? Examples:
•   At the City of Seattle, for example, you can pay bills with a credit card or bank account, but the City’s website won’t “remember” the information – each month and for each bill you have to completely enter all the information again.
•   We print a million pages of utility bills (electricity, water, solid waste) and then mail them out each month, but there’s no option to receive bills electronically, as offered by most private utilities.
•   You can watch a City Council meeting via and you can actually pull up and watch any City Council committee meeting since 2003 there as well. But, in this age of You Tube, you need to download Real Player software in order to watch our meetings!
•   In an era when many private companies totally automate purchasing and hiring processes, City agencies still use paper documents and pen-and-ink signatures for most of this work.
Yet the City of Seattle is a leading adopter of technology, winning “best municipal web portal awards” in 2001 and 2006, and “top municipal TV station” in 2007. We are on the leading edge! Of government.
But clearly we’re NOT on the leading edge of what our customers and constituents use when dealing with their insurance companies, banks, and when they do their shopping on the web and Internet.
What gives with government’s apparent position on the “tailing” edge?
Well, first of all, we’re NOT on the “tailing” edge. Although many national or statewide private companies have robust retailing and transaction presence on the web, few mid-size or smaller businesses have much other than a “shopping cart”.
Next, we have to be careful. Damned careful. We are shepherds of taxpayer and ratepayer dollars. We have many “feet on the street” services to fund with those dollars – cops, firefighters, paramedics, parks, potholes, inspections, public health. We cannot afford costly experiments with technology. We need to let the private sector test and prove technologies. This also whets the appetite of consumers/constituents. Only then should we adopt new high tech. Plus, once a technology like web payments comes into mainstream use in banks and financial institutions, it will be cheaper for government to implement.
Finally, we have to be careful, damned careful. We are shepherds of personal information on hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of people. You – the customer – have a choice of a bank or an insurance company. If you give such an institution your name, date of birth, social security number and credit card number, and they misuse it or lose it, not only must they make it right, but you can choose a different place to do business. Government is held to a much higher standard because it compels constituents to turn over their personal information. And constituents have a very powerful voice when their government makes mistakes: a little event called “re-election”.
I want the City of Seattle to be on the “leading edge” of the mainstream adopters of technology. NOT the cutting edge or bleeding edge. We’ll let large private businesses break the ice of new high tech, and we’ll follow right on their “tails”!

P.S. You-Tube video (also known as MPEG4 or “flash”) is coming to at the end of August. Electronic billing – replacing paper, retaining of bank accounts and credit card info is coming to the City of Seattle early in 2009.

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Filed under customer service, egovernment, seattle channel

– Matching People to Technology

Council member Harrell and Jefferson Terrace Awardees

Council member Harrell and Jefferson Terrace Awardees

Original post:  5 August 2008

We often hear requests for contributions for a variety of charitable causes. Sometimes those causes use the phrase “for less than the price of a latte a day you can … (fill in the blank with the good deeds which the organization can do)”.
Well, you’d be surprised what Seattle’s government – with a little help from a lot of volunteers – can do with about one-fourth of one-cent a day.
City Council member Bruce Harrell and I proudly presided at significant event on July 30th – the awards ceremony for the City of Seattle’s 2008 technology matching funds.
This is a program which is fairly unique. Almost every City in the United States which has cable television collects a franchise fee from the cable provider. The Mayor and Seattle City Council decided to dedicate some of that franchise fee to this technology matching fund (TMF) program. The cost to a typical cable subscriber is about $1 per year. TMF helps non-profit and community organizations to use technology to improve their communities and to bring access to computers and the Internet to people who otherwise do not have them. The neat thing about the program is “matching”. Each group must at least match the dollar amount of the grant with their own funds or in-kind labor. They use the funds to purchase computers or video equipment or other technology. And then they teach young people or seniors or immigrants how to use the technology to improve their lives and their neighborhoods.
Some of the organizations include Reel Grrls, which brings video production skills to teenage girls and the Seattle Hip-Hop Youth council which, similarly, is using video and audio equipment along with help from local artists to teach young people in the Central Area to create media and art.
Read more about the event here and read about all the grant recipients here.
And thank you, Seattle, for that third-of-a-cent a day, $1,500,000 over 10 years!

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Filed under community technology, people, Seattle DoIT

– A Taxpayer Network Lock Out

San Francisco Locked Out

San Francisco Locked Out

Original post:  20 July 2008

Terry Childs, a network administrator for the City / County of San Francisco, was arrested last week on four counts of computer fraud. He presently sits in the San Francisco County jail on a $5 million bond. Childs apparently configured the City’s Cisco-based network so he along had the password(s) to control and manage that network. And – seven days after the arrest – the City’s Department of Telecommunications and Information Services is apparently still locked out of its network. The original report of this incident from the San Francisco Chronicle is here. Paul Venezia of Infoworld blogged “insider” information here which he obtained in an e-mail from a SF employee. Although this is an anonymous source, Venezia’s story certain rings true to me. (Note: Although I know Chris Vein, San Francisco CIO, and count him as a friend, I have not discussed this incident with him nor do I have any personal knowledge of the event).

This situation, on the face of it, is both outrageous and troubling. I won’t speculate about why it occurred in San Francisco, other than saying Venezia’s blog has the ring of truth. The larger question: has it happened elsewhere and could in happen again in another public agency or government? And what, if anything, can we do to prevent it?

Has it happened before?
Emphatically and undoubtedly the answer is “yes”. Can I cite a specific example? Not immediately, but there are many many networks – and too many of them are dependent on a single “guru” or talented individual. A couple of caveats are in order here: first, in San Francisco Childs only managed the data communications network of routers and switches – he did NOT have access to applications, databases, and servers. That’s why most City technology functions appear to be working fine. Second, most networks are owned by private companies and businesses. They are NOT in the public eye as the City of San Francisco or the City of Seattle. Security incidents in private networks or even smaller government networks will not be visible to the public or the press.

Could it happen again, elsewhere?
Again, undoubtedly it will. However, I think such an incident in a large network is quite unlikely. Such networks require a number of technical people to cooperatively manage. And the larger the network the more rigorous and formal change management processes are required. Indeed, according to Venezia’s blog, it was a requirement for documentation and change management which might have sent Childs over the edge.

Several small points are buried in the news articles: first, Childs allegedly monitored management’s electronic mail. Most technical folks in most organizations have some ability to do this. But most public employees (in my experience) have much higher standards of integrity. And with the availability of e-mail encryption, good security monitoring tools, and teams of employees working together, such monitoring should be rare and declining.
Next, San Francisco recently hired a Chief Information Security Officer (CISO), who was actively investigating, monitoring and instituting stronger security policies. Again, this is another factor which probably led to Child’s discovery and arrest. In my personal experience, CISOs have rigorous integrity and concern for processes and policies which protect agency information from harm.
Finally, Childs appears to have a strong ownership of San Francisco’s fiber-wide-area-network, proud of its construction and reliable operation. These are noble attributes which I find in many public technology employees. He also apparently had a disdain for other administrators, staff and management in the department. This is, thankfully, a rare attribute in my experience.

How can we prevent future occurrences?
Some will suggest conducting “background checks” on employees. These are valuable. We’ve been doing them as a matter of course for five years at the City of Seattle’ DoIT. However background checks merely make sure we’re not hiring employees with a history of convictions for driving while intoxicated or a current set of 100 unpaid parking tickets. And they would not have prevented the Childs’ incident. More importantly, when hiring we need to look for employees who are personable and can work as members of a team. Smart employees can be trained for technical skills. In the distant past (1980s), technology employees were very proud of their programming (“networks”, “systems”, “code”), identified it, and defended it intensely (“there aren’t any bugs in that program – I created it and tested it – are you questioning my technical skills?”) Today we can’t afford that – we need employees who are proud of the technology they control, but who have a life and an identity outside of the work they do. Employees who build reliable systems, but realize that it is not the system which matters, but the fact that the 600,000 people of the City of Seattle are safer and happier because their government uses that technology to better serve them. And we also need to employ “best practices” in technology management, hire Chief Information Security Officers, and have employees and technically-astute management who are diligent with change management processes to keep our technology operating reliably.

A Personal Note
A couple of years ago we at the City of Seattle hired a new network administrator. His managers and I fired him after six weeks on the job. Indeed, we should have fired him after two weeks. He displayed a penchant for trying to hack into network switches rather than collaborate with others on the network team to manage them and administer them. The lessons: teamwork is the most valuable attribute in any public employee! You can train and educate folks to be technologists, administrators and managers. Training for teamwork is much harder – you need to look for it when hiring. Second: don’t hesitate to act on bad behavior. And for this, the management San Francisco’s Department of Telecommunications and Information Services should be commended, even if it was late.


Filed under government operations, management of technology

– BTB (Back to Blogging)

Bill's broken arm before Surgury

Bill's broken arm before Surgury

Original post:  12 July 2008

I’ve taken an hiatus from blogging after splintering my right arm while bicycle commuting. The full story with x-rays and a couple photos (“parental guidance advised”) is here, along with an update as of 12 July. Now it’s time to get Back to Blogging (BTB). New entries above …

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Filed under bicycling, blog

– Seattle’s Toilets make E-Bay

Seattle's Hi-Tech Toilets

Seattle's Hi-Tech Toilets

Original post:  12 July 2008

Technology makes government vastly more efficient and effective. No cop or utility crew or building inspector could do their jobs without cell phones, radios and computers.
But technology is not necessarily the solution to everything. Seattle spent multi-millions of dollars for public hi-tech toilets in 2004. A noble experiment to try and improve the hygiene of the homeless and people on the street. Now the experiment is ending and you will be able to bid on the toilets on e-bay. See this article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Governing Magazine’s “13th Floor” article here
The lesson here? The same lesson those of us working in information technology have learned this lesson hard way over the last 30 years: first of all be clear on the scope and objectives of your project, then re-engineer the business processes, and only after that look for a technology solution. Quite often the solution is not high-tech, but rather changing the business culture or process or the routines and habits of people. And this lesson specifically includes how and where people use the toilet!

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Filed under government operations, history of technology

– Farm Tech, High Tech, No Tech

Schrier Family's Iowa farm

Schrier Family's Iowa farm (click to enlarge)

 Original Post:  12 July 2008

I’ve spent the last couple weeks in Iowa with my five siblings, going through a farmhouse full of papers, furniture and mementos collected over the last 75 years of my parents’ life (Mom passed away in 2000, Dad on 31 December 2007). This led me to reflect upon changes on the farm over the last 50 years: High tech – and “no tech” –  has definitely reached agriculture.
You can find plenty of news articles on this in the popular press. Use of global positioning systems (GPS), low-or-no-till farming (the “plow” is obsolete and the cultivator is going there – more here), organic farming, self-guided tractors are examples of both high-tech and no-tech.
In Iowa, there is an explosion in the use of corn to make ethanol to use in gasoline, and soybeans can be used to make biodiesel fuel. But the reality of what is happening – “in the dirt” of central Iowa, at least – is a bit different. The most significant changes I observed on and near my brother’s farm near Waterloo are these:
•   Land prices are skyrocketing. Prime Iowa farmland which was worth $2500 or so an acre three years ago is now going for $5000, $6000 or even $8000. This is a direct result of the use of crops for ethanol and biodiesel. These prices CANNOT be supported by income, as cash rents are $180 a year (yet the 30 year mortgage payment on $5000 is $300 a year or more). Only corporations or farmers with existing mortgage-free land can purchase such acreage.
•   I personally think these prices are a “flash in the pan” and will come down over the next few years as other, alternative, energy sources such as power from wind/waves, biodiesel from grasses or marginal crops, fuel-cells etc. are developed. In the meantime, farmers will either profit or suffer.
•   Tractors self-guided by GPS are in use, but are cost effective only for the largest farmers.  Such technology allows straighter rows and better use of the land. GPS can also be used to precisely measure yields at each part of the field, thereby allowing more precise application of the right mix of fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides. Again, you have to have a large farming operation to justify such technology.
•   According to the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture – yes they use acronyms in farming too!), the average Iowa farm is 350 acres, which squares with my personal experience. But the the most successful farmers are tilling 1000 or 1500 acres or more. It probably takes farming 2000 to 3000 acres to justify some of these high-tech expenses.
•   The most interesting trends, to me, are organic farming of very small farms (a few acres), more extensive use of waterways to reduce erosion, no-till farming, and concentration on crops (rather than livestock). Organic farming is exciting because many farms still extensively use pesticides and herbicides. Traditional farming is a very petroleum-intensive industry – diesel for tractors, fertilizers (pesticides, herbicides) made from oil, and so forth. That’s why using corn or soybeans to make ethanol or biodiesel is not efficient. And pesticides/herbicides can be damaging to the environment and to health, probably causing cancers (four of the eight members of my family have had serious cancers).
•   When I grew up on our Iowa farm in the 1950’s and 60’s, we had corn, soybeans, hay, oats, a large garden, milk cow, hogs, chickens (for eggs and meat), and even sheep. Nowadays about the only livestock on most farms are a dog and cats (plus raccoons, fox, squirrels, possum’s, doves and owls).
Nevertheless, I’m very pleased to see improved prices for farm commodities. I’ll leave you one more statistic: in 1960 farmers received $1.03 for a bushel of corn, in 2006 it was $2.36. Check the price of anything else (and specifically gasoline, tractors, food, etc.). Source:  University of Illinois

Schrier Family's Iowa farm

Schrier Family's Iowa farm

Farmers deserve some good times.

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Filed under farm, Iowa