Monthly Archives: September 2008

– WAMU and the City

The City and WAMU

The City and WAMU

A few hours ago WAMU (Washington Mutual Savings Bank) ceased to exist, seized by Federal regulators, and partially sold to J. P. Morgan. WAMU was a modern day success story, going from a small Seattle savings and loan to a national banking powerhouse headquartered in two gleaming new skyscrapers in downtown Seattle. Seattle is a center of 20th and 21st Century innovation, but, like the national economy, is stumbling just a bit. What are the effects of our current economic troubles on Seattle as a City, and upon its city government?

Seattle is a hotbed of innovation: examples abound. Weyerhaeuser and forest products, Boeing and jet planes, Amazon.com and e-tailing, Starbucks and coffee, Microsoft and software, WAMU and banking. One success story after another. There are a few recent setbacks, perhaps not so widely known. Boeing has employment of about 74,000 in the State, down from a peak of 106,000 in 1989, and is in the middle of a machinists’ strike. Weyerhauser and Starbucks have both recently announced significant layoffs. SAFECO Insurance has be acquired by an out-of-state company. And WAMU headquarters will dissolve away to New York City, its buildings probably going on the market and many employees laid off.

What effect will these changes – and the dire national economic news – have on the City government of Seattle and government in general?

Traditionally, in good times people expect more services from their government, just as they expect more services from private companies (banks, insurance, retailers).

In bad economic times… well … people expect more services from their government! Unemployment insurance, homeless shelters, Medicare, “the support net”. Oh yes – and demands for public safety, libraries and parks (inexpensive entertainment) all increase as well.

Washington State’s tax system is built on two legs – property tax and sales tax. We don’t have an income tax.

Cranes and the Needle

Cranes and the Needle

So what happens to us in tough times? First, the economy in the Seattle area is still strong – just look at all the cranes around downtown Seattle or Bellevue, and we have a lot of well-paying jobs and relatively low unemployment. Amazon.com, Google and Microsoft are going strong and hiring. Nevertheless, sales taxes plummet as people – even people with good jobs – look at the national economy and cut back on spending. And, although property values here are still relatively high (they’ve gone down a bit), property taxes are, at best, stable. So, without an income tax, overall resources available to government are dropping.

What does this mean to the City government of Seattle? Well, we’ll get a glimpse on Monday at 2:00 PM, when Mayor Nickels delivers his budget to the Seattle City Council. You can watch it live on the City’s version of YouTube, www.seattlechannel.org . And the whole budget document will be online at www.seattle.gov then as well.

What are the implications of these reduced revenues for technology in government?

Ideally, in tough times, businesses and governments continue their technology investments in order to improve their efficiency and effectiveness. Over the next few weeks and months I’ll tell you how Seattle has done that. I’ll include some of our shortcomings and warts, as I’ve done before in Bleeding Edge Government. And I’ll give you some hints about some interesting things coming down the pike.

But, for the time being, I weep for once-powerful WAMU, tighten my personal belt a bit, and am prepared to help the City government of Seattle weather the storm through wiser use of technology.

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Filed under economy, Microsoft, Uncategorized, WAMU

– Emmys for Government TV?

A "Northwest" Emmy

A "Northwest" Emmy

Tonight (Sept. 14th) I watched The Daily Show receive an Emmy for Outstanding TV Series. Last night (Sept. 13th) I watched – in person – the Seattle Channel – Seattle City Government’s own Channel 21-  receive the national award for Excellence in Government Programming – essentially being named “Best Government TV Channel” for a large city.

Even more amazing, the Seattle Channel also consistently wins Emmy Awards.  What’s the catch here?  How can a broadcast of the Seattle City Council’s Finance and Budget Committee compete with Desperate Housewives or The Daily Show for an Emmy Award?

Well, unfortunately, the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences doesn’t recognize government television stations as members or the Seattle City Council when making those awards for Outstanding Drama Series (or maybe it would be “Comedy” series).

View the Seattle Channel

View the Seattle Channel

But almost every City and County government has a television station or at least television programming. And many are members of the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA – pronounced nah-toe-ah).  NATOA conducts a juried competition for city/county television programming each year in 63 categories.  NATOA’s annual conference just ended in Atlanta with its gala awards banquet Saturday night, September 13th.  The Seattle Channel (www.seattlechannel.org) took home six “first place” awards in those 63 categories, including that overall “Excellence in Government Programming” for stations with an operating budget over $500,000.  Remarkably, the Seattle Channel now has won this honor two years in a row, 2007 and 2008.

TV programming in many other outstanding cities such as Tucson, Carlsbad California, Aurora, Colorado, and Prince William County Virginia was also recognized. A complete list of the categories and nominations are on NATOA’s website here  and the list of the winners will be posted later this week on the NATOA website.

While the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences doesn’t recognize government programming, local chapters of the Academy do give their own Emmys each year. Government and public television stations do participate, and the Seattle Channel consistently brings back two or more Emmy awards from the Northwest Chapter each year.

Many smaller cities and counties only have the budget to broadcast meetings (“all meetings, all the time”)  But innovative governments find ways to budget for creative programming which highlights the issues in their communities.

The Seattle Channel has an outstanding news magazine, City Inside/Out, hosted by C. R. Douglas (won two first place 2008 NATOA awards).  C. R. drills down into the issues, and occasionally “grills” elected officials about their positions.  And the Seattle Channel has a whole series of programming – ArtZone – which highlights the music, visual and literary arts scene in Seattle.

And the coolest thing?   Not only is it all free, but it is all free online.   Anyone, anywhere in the world with an Internet connection can watch any of the Seattle Channel’s programming at any time.  Just go to www.seattlechannel.org and … well … “click”.

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Filed under NATOA, seattle channel, video

– Talk Groups will keep You Safe

Public Safety Radio - Click for more info

Public Safety Radio - click for more

The Truth may make you Free, but it is the Talk Groups which keep you Safe.

What the hell is a “talk group”?
Well, it is not the senior citizens who gather at the corner café or feedstore (are my Iowa roots showing?) to discuss the issues of the day? Nope – talk groups are the fundamental element of a public safety voice radio system.
Seattle has five police precincts.  One of them – West – got really busy at about 2:00 PM today.  A bank robbery occurred at the Bank of America branch in the center of downtown. And the West Precinct “talk group” was filled the voices of dozens of police officers and FBI responding, surrounding the building and searching for the suspect, which they’d caught by 2:30.  (Coincidently, at 2:09 PM, an automobile rescue was dispatched to 7700 16th Ave SW, with eight fire units plus police units dispatched – get more details on the City’s website here).

When police and fire departments first started using radio for dispatch and operations in the 1920s, one radio “frequency” was allocated for each precinct or task, such as the West Police Precinct, or a large-scale medic incident such as the auto rescue.  We all know what a radio frequency is – “tune to KJR 950 on your radio dial” – 950 kilohertz that is, although most folks don’t know the “kilohertz” part (and the geeks reading this can get a better explanation in Wikipedia)  .
Public safety departments were assigned similar frequencies.
Using radio for dispatching and operations is really really useful.  So everyone  tarted using it!   Buses and water utilities and taxis and just about any other operation with a mobile workforce.  And, with the advent of cell phones and then wireless data communications such as those offered by the cell phone companies, or wi-fi, the available frequencies rapidly were allocated.  In dense urban areas like Seattle, virtually every kilohertz of radio spectrum is allocated to something, or reserved by FCC for a future use.
In fact, the transition to digital TV which is occurring on February 19, 2009 (see the explanation here) is all about freeing more frequencies for other uses. The FCC has also taken TV stations 70 to 83 (UHF) off the air to free frequencies.

In Seattle, however, we only have about 28 radio frequencies for all City government uses. Yet we have hundreds of police and firefighters and utility workers and others on the street at any given time.  Plus public safety officers from many other jurisdictions come to Seattle to transport prisoners or attend court.  How can we stretch 28 frequencies to cover all those uses?
The answer: “talk groups”. Plus a bit of technology.

Motorola developed a technology called “trunked radio”.  Essentially no radio frequency is ever used every second of the time.  Even during the bank robbery downtown this afternoon, with dozens of officers listening and talking, there were long gaps between transmissions.  Part of this is good training and “radio discipline” by the cops.  Motorola’s system allows each transmission to use any available frequency, not just one.  In this fashion, dozens or hundreds of “talk groups” (like West Police Precinct) can use the same 28 frequencies, all at the same time, without interference and with plenty of spare capacity. Indeed, during most days, there are over 60,000 individual radio transmissions on the Seattle network, but rarely are more than half the 28 available frequencies in use.

The interesting part: this is 1980s technology!  It is 20 years old!  Indeed, these radio systems are based, in part, on the Motorola 6809 chip, developed 30 years ago in 1978, and also used in wonderful machines like the Tandy “Color Computer”.

Are these systems getting old?  You bet, and they’ll need replacing soon.  But for right now, Seattle’s Public Safety Radio system is up and working 99.999% of the time (that is only minutes of downtime a year), a credit not just to solid technology but good maintenance and fast response to problems by the City’s Comm Shop (part of my Department of Information Techology).

This technology – and talk groups like “West Precinct” – help police officers and firefighters keep Seattle safe.

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Filed under radio, Seattle DoIT, Seattle Fire Dept, Seattle Police

– Back to Bicycling

The Chief Geek returns to Bicycling - click to enlarge

The Chief Geek returns to Bicycling - click to enlarge

I’ve previously blogged about my bicycling accident on June 3rd, my hospital experience at Harborview Hospital (aka Seattle Grace Hospital of Grey’s Anatomy fame), recovery and observations about the whole experience including the technology involved.   Today – September 3rd – I bicycled home for the first time since the accident.   New bicycle, new helmet (the old helmet was untouched in the accident), new pack, new stainless steel holding together my shattered right arm.   The arm is about 80% – still can’t lift more than about 10 pounds, still hurts, still doesn’t extend all the way, but on the way to a full recovery in about a year.

Thank you Harborview, Dr. Roberts, Aaron the Physical Therapist, the crew of Fire Station 36, and modern medical science!

P.S.  The new bike has disc brakes.

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– Keeping up with the Gateses

A Fox keeps up with the Gateses

A Fox keeps up with the Gateses

Internet Explorer Version 8 Beta is released! So proclaim the headlines over the past 10 days on the Internet ether and in the tech trade rags and e-mail magazines (e-zines). You know what we use at the City of Seattle? IE Version 6. I personally think IE V7, with tabbed browsing, is the best thing since the invention of the first browser. I use it all the time(along with Firefox) at home. But at work in downtown Seattle, I’m an IE 6 user because that is the standard. The one I’ve set for the government.
Does anyone care about Microsoft Vista? Oh sure, if you buy a new computer for home or personal use, you get Vista as the operating system. Because you don’t have any choice! And you probably don’t care, as long as it works. But if you are a large corporation, Windows XP rules. Indeed, those corporations, including the City of Seattle, will receive a computer with Vista installed, wipe the hard drive, and install Windows XP. And XP works fine for us.

Office 2007 has been on the market since, well, before 2007. Yet at the City, the most advanced users use Office 2003. Most users use Office XP (aka 2002) or Office 2000. In fact, there are still those who long for Word Perfect. Even the most skilled power users probably use 1% of the commands and functions of Word. Office 2007 does change the format of documents, making them more interoperable with documents on the web and other document formats. But that’s a feature few corporate users care about at this time.
Why the heck can’t the City of Seattle keep up with the Gateses? Why are we (and, frankly, almost all other large Corporations) so far behind? Is this another case of sluggish bureaucratic inertia?

Actually, computer systems today are all “ecosystems”. Very few pieces of software stand on their own, independently of others.
For a specific example at the City of Seattle, we use PeopleSoft Government Financials Version 8.8, one of the very latest versions of a financial management system. But PeopleSoft has engineered it to use IE V6 as an interface for most users, to work under Windows XP, and to download data into spreadsheets in Office 2003 or earlier formats. PeopleSoft certifies that it will support these versions, but not newer versions, until they exhaustively test them. We – the City – cannot upgrade to a newer version of any software without losing PeopleSoft’s support.

Microsoft is a little better, at least for its own applications. It extensively tests software so that Microsoft XP works with Microsoft Exchange works with Microsoft Office works with Microsoft fill-in-the-blank. This testing makes it easier on corporate IT folks (and sells more software in the meantime).
At the City of Seattle, we complicate this a bit by using some non-Microsoft software such as Novell’s GroupWise for e-mail and Novell’s NetWare to save and print files. So we have to test those ourselves with new Microsoft software.

Even more complicated than this, any particular user’s computer will have dozens and dozens of different applications running on it. Not just Windows XP, Internet Explorer and Office, but also our GroupWise e-mail system, maybe the financial management system or the utility customer information system and perhaps Microsoft Visio, Adobe Photoshop, Virtual Private Networking, McAfee anti-virus and many more. Changing any one of the pieces of software – and especially core software such as Office, IE and Windows itself – could break any of the other applications. And then the employee can’t do their job.
To complicate this even further, each one of the City of Seattle’s 11,000+ desktop and laptop computers can have different applications from every other computer! Things are not this bad, of course – the computers installed in police vehicles are pretty standard, for example. But certainly computers in offices will vary from cubicle to cubicle.

These complex systems are now necessary to do the work of City government.

But it also makes it hard to keep up the latest versions emerging from the Gateses.

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