Monthly Archives: November 2010

– Thanks & Turkeys 2010

Apologies to the Virgina Tech Hokies for using their LogoThis week Chief Technology Officer Bill Schrier has a LOT for which to be thankful.   But I also have a few turkeys to carve.

My most significant thanks go to the phenomenal people who work in information technology in local government, especially here at the City of Seattle.    Most City and County CIOs, such as those who are the 60 members of MIX (the Metropolitan Information Exchange)  will agree with me and give thanks for their employees as well.  While some members of the public think government employees are 8 to 5 clock-watching bureaucrats, that’s decidedly NOT true of most employees, especially our technology workers.

This fact slammed home to me again this week – Seattle had a snowstorm.    Two inches.    Those of you in Chicago, Boston or Washington DC are probably laughing.  Two measly inches?  What’s the big deal?  But here in Seattle, because of the uniquenesses of our weather systems/geography and the rarity of snow in the lowlands, it was a real show-stopper.  Monday night many of my employees spent four, five or nine hours commuting home on jammed icy freeways.   I and several of my staff walked home five miles in the snowstorm (video of commuters walking across the West Bridge here).

In Seattle’s Department of Information Technology, we had staff who worked all night Monday, or slept at their workstations Monday night, or stayed in hotels downtown, or turned right around and came back to work Tuesday morning after the long commute home.    They did this because they know the work of a City government and the safety of the people of Seattle depend now, more than ever, on reliable technology:  websites, data networks, e-mail systems and much much more.   For these two hundred dedicated people working in the City of Seattle’s technology department, I give thanks.

(My colleagues elsewhere have similar stories, whether in Houston and Mobile, Alabama, who have suffered through hurricanes, or Los Angeles and Riverside who have suffered through earthquakes, or Chicago and Washington DC, with their snowstorms.)

As I attend conferences and talk to my counterparts across the country, I find similar dedication to keeping the public safe and our governments operational. As just one example, we have twenty cities and states around the nation who have authority from the FCC to build fourth generation wireless networks.  Over the past 11 months I’ve been working with officials from these twenty jurisdictions, as well as the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, the Public Safety Communications Research Program of the Department of Commerce, and Homeland Security’s Office of Emergency Communications.   Every one of these agencies and the people involved have been working tirelessly to build a nationwide public safety network, a vision which sprung out of the September 11th World Trade Center disaster.     This year we’ve made real progress, despite a number of hurdles.  Now the first networks are under construction.   For all these dedicated government officials and technical staff, I give thanks.

I also give thanks to the many private companies who are doing extraordinary work with technology – Microsoft and Windows and Office, Google with Android and search, Apple with iPhones and iPads, IBM’s Smart Cities Challenge, and a few more who not only want to make money, but also want to use a significant part of that money make the planet a better place in which to live and work.

Finally, I give thanks for my elected officials – Mayor and City Council – and the department directors running City departments here in Seattle.     This year of the Great Recession they have faced terrible choices with budget shortfalls of $67 million in Seattle.  And precipitously falling tax revenues.  And urgent needs from the public for safety nets for our jobless citizens and the poor and homeless.   My own department’s budget was cut by over 17% and I’ve laid off over 10% of my workforce over the past two years.    These are all tough choices, and they are done in the glare of publicity with many competing demands by constituents for the ever-shrinking pot of money.  But we have a sustainable budget and services going into 2011.  Thank you to the officials who stepped up and made these tough choices.

Now on to the turkeys – at least the ones I’d like to carve and serve.

First are some of our technology vendors, a few of whom have ever increasing appetites for money.   Some of them are resorting to “compliance audits” to make sure we are paying for every last danged software license we are using.  One vendor even demanded to have access to every one of the 11,000 computers at the City of Seattle to see if their software was installed.   Others absolutely refuse to negotiate reduced pricing or flexible maintenance plans.  These few money-grubbing vendors get my “tech turkey” award.

Next there are a few of our public employee unions.   Many public employee unions here in the Seattle area realize we are in an unprecedented recession.   Those unions have willingly forgone raises which were in their contracts, understanding that few workers in the private sector get raises, and many private sector workers have lost their jobs and retirement money.   But a few public sector unions have held out for their contracted raises, which are far larger than inflation.  This, frankly, can make all city and county governments and our workers look greedy and foolish.  The public backlash was evident in our recent elections where few tax increases were passed and many revenue sources were cut.  These few unions get my turkey award as well.

My final turkey award goes to those politicians who want to whip the public into a frenzy about supposed fraud and waste in government, or think we can continue tax cuts, increase defense spending, and balance the budget all at the same time.  How do they think public schools, parks, police and fire departments, child protective services, streets or public health are funded, or how do we pay the dedicated people who provide all those services?   I’ve blogged about this at length before, and will just leave these politicians with my tea-party-turkey award.

All in all, however, at this Thanksgiving of 2010, I’ve got a lot more reasons to give thanks than to carve!

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Filed under disaster, employees, fcc, government operations

– ePark, gooPark, noPark

Click to see Travelers' Information Map

Travelers' Info Map

Concrete and asphalt are everywhere in the Naked City or in any City for that matter.  I was startled to learn that up to 50% of any City is paved or tarred over to provide space for transportation – autos, trucks, buses and trains.  I certainly know about intelligent transportation systems (ITS).   But streets can’t be very intelligent, can they?   They are just slabs of concrete supporting the movements of vehicular contraptions of metal and rubber with fume-spewing internal combustion engines, right? 

So I was quite surprised when ITS snuck up on me and bit me right in the tailpipe.  The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT), mirroring the work of similar organizations around the country and the world, actually has built an intelligent street grid right under my nose.

The latest iteration of intelligent street grid is SDOT’s travelers’ map, which displays actual travel times between major points in the City.  This map also shows video from every traffic camera in the City and real-time alerts for transportation issues and construction.   All of this can be viewed from smartphones as well as the web.  

The travel times are calculated through license plate recognition.  A traffic camera in one place records license plates of cars passing through its field of vision.   A camera a little ways down the road does the same.  The computer compares the two, calculates the elapsed time, which is displayed on the Travelers’ Information Map.   A set of dynamic signs hoisted above roadways in the city shows similar information to motorists.

Another major use of concrete in cities is for parking.  SDOT is also bringing intelligence to parking, with EPark.  A major source of motorist frustration and air pollution on downtown streets is cars circling the streets looking for on-street parking.  Epark brings automation to this, as downtown parking garages automatically catalog available parking spaces and the City’s website and on-street signs direct motorists to places with parking.  There is even a map catalog of most of the parking lots and garages in the City.  That same map also shows on-street parking zones, street-level views of the spaces, and more.  

San Francisco is taking this intelligence to a new level, thanks to a $20 million federal grant.  The other “City-by-the-Bay” (Seattle is on a bay too) is trying to track on-street parking spaces in real time, dynamically cataloging the open spaces to help circling motorists (presumably with a smartphone) find them on the street.    

Many cities have ripped out their parking meters at each space in favor of parking kiosks on each block.   The kiosks take credit cards and spit out a piece of paper to put on the car’s window.  To me, however, the logical step would have been to automate the parking meters – give them each detection technology to determine if the space was occupied or not, and then wireless technology to communicate that back to the traffic computer in the sky.  Then you could see an open space from your smartphone, pay to reserve it online, a little yellow flag goes up on the meter to show it is reserved, and then you drive to the space.  No fuss, no muss, no waiting.  Of course if any City wants to implement that, it means ripping out the parking kiosks and putting the meters back in, but that’s life in the ever-changing world of high technology.

Seattle is also taking parking ticket technology to the next level.   Already Seattle police cars with special cameras cruise the streets employing license plate recognition to find stolen or wanted cars.   The same cars also enforce two-hour parking restrictions.  They drive down the street once, drive down the same street two hours later and then parking tickets can be issued to overtime parkers.

The Boot is coming to Seattle as well (as it has come to some other cities).  Today cars with more than four parking tickets are towed by private companies.  But in an odd twist of bureaucracy, you can pay the towing bill to get your car out of hock but you don’t have to pay the tickets.  So some people are racking up dozens or hundreds of tickets.  The new Seattle system will have the parking enforcement officer Boot the car.  You can call a 1-800 number, pay all your tickets, then get a code to unlock the boot, which you will, being a good citizen, dutifully drive back to the police precinct.  This might make the towing companies mad about the lost business.  But if you don’t pay and remove the Boot expeditiously (say within 8 hours), the car will be towed.  Then you’ll have to pay the towing company to get the car back, and the Booting company to get the Boot off, and then drive the Boot back to the Precinct.   Or maybe just leave the car as a donation to the City.

The ideal situation for commuters and traffic engineers, I suppose, is the self-driving automobile, which, we all are surprised to learn, has actually been traversing our streets for some time, thanks to Google.   In the ultimate scenario, you might not even need to own a car.  You could “call” for a car which would drive itself to your house, then drive you to work, then drive itself away to pick up the next passenger.  Kind of a combination of the Google driverless car and the Zipcar concept.   A ZipGoog program.  Perhaps the ZipGoog cars can, when not in use, park in special GooPark parking spots until they get their next call.  

I suppose some users of the program would end up trashing the ZipGoog cars just as they spray paint graffiti and drop cigarette butts on buses and trains.  But knowing Google, they’ll add graffiti-detection and trash-detection technology to the cars, probably with automatic door locks to prevent the scofflaw’s exit until the mess is cleaned up

Of course what I (and many others) would like is the “no park” City, where every home and business is connected by fiber optic cable (fiber-to-the-premise).   This makes really high speed internet, two-way HDTV and 3D TV possible.  With such connections, many people could work from home, attend school or college classes from home, shop from home and even visit friends and family without long times wasted traveling in automobiles and on buses.  Grandparents could “virtually” eat dinner every evening with their grandchildren.  Seniors in nursing homes could have virtual visits from relatives every day. 

Future technologies will include rooms with projectors and video so you could actually attend meetings for work, or even feel like you are sitting in someone else’s home while visiting virtually.  Somewhat like a Star Trek Holodeck  but probably more like Cisco’s Telepresence. And the entertainment/gaming possibilities are endless.  

Many progressive cities and nations (Tokyo, Seoul, Hong Kong, Australia, Amsterdam, Chattanooga) have built or are building such fiber-to-the-premise networks.  Because of entrenched monopoly cable and telecom companies with their legacy copper-wire networks, most places in the United States will be the last  to realize the benefits of such fiber networks, which also include less greenhouse gas and carbon emissions, less use of precious fossil fuels, and less dependence on foreign oil.

Streets and parking won’t really go away, of course.  We’ll still need to move goods and even have our physical bodies travel occasionally.  It is hard to visit the beach or the zoo or attend a dinner party (and actually eat the food) via telepresence. 

But until the days of ubiquitous fiber networks and telepresence come to pass (and probably for some time afterward) we’ll need license plate recognition, the Boot, Travelers’ Information Map and ePark.  They are great innovations thanks to forward-looking transportation agencies like Seattle’s.

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Filed under broadband, egovernment, future of technology, google, Seattle Transportation