Monthly Archives: September 2010

– CIO Loners and Joiners

Chief Information Officers need “help”. Some might say we need psychiatric “help”. I’d say we especially need the psychiatrist’s couch. Or, perhaps, we need to play the psychiatrist, listening to the people on the couch – our customers.

CIOs need to be “joiners”. We need to be good at establishing relationships, empathizing (putting ourselves into the shoes of others), and we need to be generalists in our businesses.

I was reminded of this again last week as the Metropolitan Information Exchange (MIX) held our annual conference in Raleigh. MIX is composed of about 60 CIOs from larger (over 100,000 population) cities and counties who collaborate together to harness information technology to make their individual governments efficient and effective.

But I’m constantly amazed that we only have 60 members when there are 276 large cities and 578 large counties. So MIX has only 60 members although there are over 850 large cities and counties. So why don’t other government CIOs join up? I’ll get to that.

Yes, CIOs need to be “joiners”. Yet, IT is not a field which easily produces leaders who are collaborators, listeners and joiners. IT engineers and technicians and programmers are naturally heads down “hey guys let’s write this code” or “get this server installed”. We tech types prefer to use e-mail or text message or even face-to-face contact rather than the telephone. In many ways we are “geeks” or “nerds”. I’m often proud to introduce myself as the “Chief Seattle Geek“.

Yet, when we become senior IT managers or CIOs, exactly the opposite skills are required. Here are some specific examples:

  • Empathy with customers. Often this is called “knowing the business” or “customer service”. As a City CIO, my job is not to build and implement IT networks or applications. It is, rather, understanding the business of City government – what the Parks department or the water worker or the cop on the street or the elected officials need to do their job in service to constituents. Sometimes I need to help them adapt new and emerging technology to their businesses. Or push them a bit to do so. One of the things which most surprises me is when a department director says “I’m not technical”, as if they expected me to speak in ones and zeroes or bits and bytes. Dang! I don’t expect YOU to be technical, Ms. Department Director – I expect you to be the chief of all the firefighters or the director of planning and zoning and building permits. And it is MY responsibility to understand YOUR business and help you adapt technology to support it. The City (or County or State or Federal) government is not about” technology” but about serving citizens and people.
  • Empathy with employees. Most employees work for a government because they are proud of their public service. Yet, especially in these times of shrinking budgets and frozen salaries and layoffs, they are under enormous strain. Helping them to stay focused and making sure they have the tools to do their jobs requires a lot of empathy. And a bit of time on the psychiatrist’s couch. And maybe a few shared tears and a crying towel.
  • Re-Inventing the Wheel (collaboration). More than any other job in a government or corporation (except, perhaps, CFO), the CIO has to understand almost all aspects of the business of government, and understand how the pieces fit together. Governments (like all businesses, I suppose), are a set of department silos – an electric utility and a water utility and a transportation department and a police department and a fire department and a parks department and more. While these departments often collaborate on certain functions (such as permit reviews or handling a public emergency), their natural tendency is to operate independently. They prefer to invent their own (or buy their own) tools such as work management, document management and financial management. Unless corralled, the will design their own logos and build their own websites and get their own phone and network systems. It is the job of the CIO (along with CFO, and in support of the government’s elected CEO and other elected officials) to help departments collaborate. To help them work together rather than re-invent the buggy and horsewhip. To help them understand that we are really one government, not a collection of individual departments.

In terms of collaboration, CIOs not only need to prevent re-invention of the wheel within their city or county, but they also need to watch for collaboration and innovation opportunities across the nation.

Is the District of Columbia making itself transparent with an open data catalog and “Apps for Democracy”? Gee, wouldn’t that work in Seattle? Has Harris County, Texas, built an 800 megahertz public safety radio network which allows cops and firefighters from many counties to interoperate and support each other during small disasters and large? Would that work elsewhere? Baltimore and Chicago and Miami-Dade have created innovative new 311 centers and constituent relationship management systems. Wouldn’t something like that make governments more accessible everywhere else?

And that’s where organizations like MIX (for City/County CIOs) or the Digital Communities information sharing group , with 644 members, or NASCIO for State CIOs or even (here in the Seattle area) the Technology Executive Peer Group (about 40 mostly private and some pubic CIOs) come into play. These groups help CIOs to exchange information about applications and best practices and solutions which work.

Yet, out of the hundreds of government CIOs in the nation, only a few join these groups. Are the rest “loners” out on their own? Or are they working so hard within their individual governments – managing their technology workers, building relationships with their own elected officials and business departments and draining their own swamps – that they don’t have time to collaborate with the rest of us who are “joiners”?

Maybe, with comments to this blog, we’ll find out … !

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Filed under CIOs, government, MIX

– Why Don’t Cops just use Cell Phones?

The National Plan for Public Safety - click to see more

The National Plan

Police officers and firefighters carry $5000 radios.  Local and state governments spend hundreds of millions of dollars to build public safety radio networks.  Yet, today, cell phone networks seem to be everywhere, most people carry a mobile phone and many of us think paying $199 for an iPhone is expensive.  

Why can’t cops and firefighters and emergency medical technicians (EMT) use cell phones like everyone else?   A Washington State legislator from Seattle recently public argued for this approach in his blog.  And, at first, this appears to be a simple way for governments to save a lot of taxpayer dollars.

Here are a few reasons public safety officers need their own dedicated networks:

  1. Priority.  Cellular networks do not prioritize their users or traffic.   A teenager’s cell phone has the same priority as a cell phone used by a police officer or, for that matter, the BlackBerry used by President Obama.  We’ve all experienced “no circuits available” or “network busy” when using a cell phone.  When I’m being assaulted or have been injured in an automobile accident or even have had my house burglarized, the last thing I want is to have the network be “busy” so a police officer or EMT couldn’t be dispatched.   Public safety needs dedicated frequencies where police officer sand firefighters have priority and even, perhaps, exclusive rights to for use, without calls being clogged by the public.
  2. Reliability.  Seattle’s public safety radio network, part of the larger King County-wide 800 megahertz public safety radio network, handles more than 60,000 police, fire  and emergency medical calls every day.  It operated last year with 99.9994% reliability – that’s about 189 seconds of downtime out of more the than 31 million seconds which composed the year 2009. On the average, only about five out of the 60,000 calls were delayed for any reason, and even then the average delay was about two seconds.  What cell phone network has that kind of reliability?   How many times have you experienced “no service” or “call dropped” with your cell phone?   Do we want firefighters who are reviving a heart attack victim and talking to the emergency room on the radio to all-of-a-sudden have their call dropped?  Or should police officers lose service when drunk drivers clog the roads and bars are closing at 2:00 AM because a cell phone company decides to do maintenance because “no one uses the network then”?
  3. Disasters.  Even small disasters cause cell phone networks to collapse.   In Seattle, we’ve had swat team actions or car accidents which have shut down a freeway.   Suddenly cell phone service abruptly ceases in that area because EVERYONE is on their phone.  A few years ago a rifleman was loose and shooting people in Tacoma Mall.  Responding police and EMTs had communications because they had dedicated networks and frequencies, but again cell phone networks were overloaded and down.   In a larger disaster such as an earthquake or hurricane (with associated evacuation of large cities), commercial networks will be overloaded or jammed for days by people trying to escape the affected areas. Do we want police and fire departments – or even transportation, electric utilities and public works departments – to be trying to use those same networks while they are are responding to the disaster? I don’t think so.
  4. Talk-around. A key feature of most government-operated networks is something called talk-around or simplex or “walkie-talkie” mode. In this mode, individual radios talk directly to each other, without using a radio or cell tower. This is very important at incident scenes – firefighters commonly use it at the scene of a fire, because the radios will operate at the scene even if there isn’t a tower nearby. But this NEVER a feature of cellular phone networks. If the cell tower is down or out of range, that cell phone in your hands is a useless lump of plastic. But the radios of publicsafety officers still work and will talk to each other even without the tower.
  5. Ruggedness. No firefighter in his/her right mind would fight a fire using a cell phone for communications. The heat, water and ruggedness of the environment would quickly destroy the device. Yet most public safety radios will survive being dropped repeatedly on the ground or being immersed in water for 30 minutes or more. No standard cell phone can survive the rigorous work of firefighting or policing.

Are there problems with the current dedicated public safety networks? Absolutely. The use proprietary technologies, for example “Project 25“. Theoretically all “Project 25” radios work on any “Project 25” radio system. But only a few of those are deployed around the nation. These proprietary technologies are one reason the radios cost up to $5,000 each.

Representative Carlyle, in his blog, proposes that we deploy “Tetra” radios for public safety. While Tetra is common in some parts of the world, it is not used at all in the United States. This is a dangerous proposal, because it means Tetra networks we buy would not work with the equipment used by any other government or telecommunciations carrier anywhere in the United States. If called to respond to a diaster overseas, we could talk to firefighters in Hong Kong or the police in Ireland, however.

Another problem we face is the small market – the total market for public safety is perhaps 10,000,000 radios which are replaced, say, once every 10 years. On the other hand, the cell phone market is huge – 260 million cell phones replaced every two years in the United States alone. The economies of scale means consumers will have a lot more choice, and their cell phones will be relatively cheap.

So is there some way to reduce the sky-high cost of these dedicated public safety networks while at the same time not endangering cops, firefighters, EMTs and the public in general?

Absolutely. The FCC, in its national broadband plan, and the federal Department of Commerce, with its forward-thinking grant program for broadband, are lighting the way for a new public safety network which will be more robust, national in scope, and interoperable. By “interoperable” I mean the new public safety equipment will probably operate almost anywhere in the nation, wether on a dedicated government network or on a commercial cell phone network. Here are some features of the new networks:

  • The FCC and major public safety organizations have called for the new public safety networks to be built using a fourth generation (4G) technology called LTE – long-term evolution. Not coincidently, this is the same technology which will be used by the major cell phone companies Verizon and AT&T when they construct their 4G networks. The commercial networks will operate on different frequencies than the public safety networks, but they will all be built in same general area of the wireless spectrum – the 700 megahertz (MHz) band.
  • Because they are all using the same technology (LTE) and are in a similar slice of radio spectrum (700 MHz) potentially they will all interoperate. That means that public safety officers will use the government networks and frequencies when they are within range, but could “roam” to a commercial network if necessary. So cops and firefighters will have the best of both worlds – coverage from dedicated government networks and coverage from multiple private carriers. The FCC is even considering rules which would require the commercial companies to give public safety priority on the commercial LTE networks.
  • Because everyone – consumers, cops, firefighters and even general government workers such as transporation and utilities – are all using LTE, constructing the networks can be much cheaper. Commercial telecommunications carriers could put government antennas and equipment at their cell sites, and vice-versa. Perhaps the network equipment at the cell site, or even the central switches could be shared as well. Public safety will still be using its own frequencies and have priority, but could share many other network elements.
  • And the radios used by individual public safety officers or placed in police vehicles and fire trucks can be much cheaper as well. Because manufacturers are all making equipment for the same technology – LTE – it could cost just a few hundred dollars. Again, there will be specialized and ruggedized devices for firefighters and others working in punishing environments, but the “innards” – the electronics – will be much less expensive.
  • Next, we have to get all first and second resopnders to use the same or common networks. Here in Washington State, for example, we have multiple overlapping and duplicate networks. City and County police and fire in the region have one network, each electric utility (e.g. Seattle City Light) have another network. Transportation departments have their own networks (e.g. Seattle Transportation and Washington State Transportation each have their own separate network). The Washington State Patrol has its own separate network. The State Department of Natural Resources has its own network. Fish and Wildlife has its own network. And federal government agencies (FBI, cutoms and immigration) have their own networks. This is patently stupid and expensive. As we build these new fourth generation LTE networks, we need to build a single network with lots of sites and a lot of redundancy and hardening to withstand disasters. And everyone – first and second responders from all agencies – should use it.
  • Finally, and perhaps most importantly, all the networks will be nationally interoperable. The lack of communciations interoperability was a major finding of the Commission which investigated the September 11th World Trade Center attack. But with these new networks, a Seattle police officer’s 4th generation LTE device will also work on New York City’s LTE network or New Mexico’s :LTE network or on any Verizon or AT&T network anywhere in the nation. As disasters happen anywhere in the United States, and first and second responders are rushed to the scene of the disaster, they can take their communications gear with them and it will work.

The City of Seattle is one of a handful (about 20) forward-thinking governments leading the way to deploy these new networks. Seattle’s public safety LTE network, hopefully launched with a federal stimulus grant, will eventually expand throughout the Puget Sound region and across the State of Washington. The State of Oregon also has authority and a grant request to build an LTE network, and we are working with Oregon to make sure our networks work with each other seamlessly.

Is all of this a pipe dream? I don’t think so. A number of public and private companies, governments and telecommunciations carriers and equipment manufacturers are working together to realize it. Many of them are in the Public Safety Alliance. In the Federal government, the FCC is working with the National Institute of Standards and the Departments of Commerce and Homeland security are providing grant funding. It will take a lot of work and many years to realize this network.

But when it is finished, we’ll have public safety networks which work to keep us safe, and consumer networks which work to keep us productive and linked to our friends and families. These networks will be separate yet connected. They will be built from common technologies. And they will be less expensive for taxpayers than the networks we have today.

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Filed under broadband, disaster, fcc, Fedgov, homecity security, Sept. 11th