Monthly Archives: January 2017

Can Government CIOs Avoid Politics?

The short answer, as known by everyone who has been a government Chief Information Officer, is a resounding “NO”.

This question is becoming more urgent as a new federal government administration in Washington charts its own, unique, path of policies and directives.   But it is a question which is lurking in the shadows of the march of technology, and will emerge as a more painful question for CIOs soon.

korematsu-fred-googleTechnology companies and executives have tried to stay apart from politics.  Taking sides on political questions is usually the recipe for customer disaffection and even a boycott.  #deleteuber has gone viral in the past few days as customers perceived Uber lacked opposition to President Trump’s executive order on immigration.   In response to that same order, many have called for a boycott of Starbucks after its CEO planned to hire 10,000 immigrants, responding to that same presidential order.  Most companies involved in technology are now taking sides on this political issue.  Google, for example, wryly protested the order by putting an image of Fred Korematsu on its search site.  Korematsu protested the internment (by Executive Order) of Japanese-American’s in World War II.

Since the emergence of the role of chief information officer in the 1990s, federal, state and large city CIOs have always been involved in politics.  They work for elected officials who are members of political parties, and are expected to have allegiance to those individuals and those parties.

On the other hand, CIOs of smaller cities and counties – usually those with a professional city or county manager – often have long tenures if they are professionally competent.   Steve Monaghan of Nevada County, California, has served in that role since 1999.  Phil Bertolini of Oakland County, Michigan, has served as CIO and Deputy County Administrator since 2005 and was information technology director prior to that.

Competent and politically savvy CIOs of larger cities and counties have survived changes in their executives too – witness Joe Marcella’s 18 years in Las Vegas.  Others have successfully moved between jobs in major jurisdictions such as Cathy Maras who started as CIO in Cook County and is now in Bexar County (San Antonio) or Steve Reneker who has moved from the City of Riverside to the City of Los Angeles and is now in Riverside County.  Adel Abeid, Jon Walton and Beth Niblock are other examples of successful CIOs moving between multiple large jurisdictions.

In the future, however, government CIOs are going to face daunting political and ethical questions, for examples:

  • Facial Recognition. Your City (county, state) operates video cameras in public spaces.  These might include traffic cameras, security cameras or surveillance cameras in public spaces.  Your executive wants you to implement facial recognition, and build a database of individuals who attend protest marches, to find those who commit violence and crimes in order to arrest and prosecute them.   While this is a noble mission, such a database also will capture the identities of many others who are legitimately exercising their right to free speech.
  • Social Media. Your police chief or executive asks you to find and implement software to scan social media use by existing and prospective employees.   The immediate need is to make sure they are not criminals, racists, or committing other illegal acts.   But that same database could be used to determine their political affiliation and views.    It is clearly unethical to use such information when making employment (or continuation of employment) decisions about employees protected by civil service.  But is it ethical to consider such information for political (“at will”) employees or in jurisdictions without civil service?  Could such information be used to go on a “witch hunt” for employees who do not share the chief executive’s view?
  • Protected classes. Your executive is concerned about terrorism and potential hacking or damage to the City’s image by disgruntled employees.  You know that disgruntled employees are a primary cause of cyber theft and other insider threats.  Your executive asks you to use a social media monitoring tool and other technology to build a dossier on employees who potentially pose such threats, especially if they have family/friend links to known terrorist nations.
  • New technology. Your executive demands you improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the City’s call center for city services.   You can implement a variety of new technologies such as chatbots, natural language processing (think “Alexa” or “Siri”) and even artificial intelligence such as IBM’s Watson.   Such technologies will eliminate dozens or hundreds of living wage jobs for people of color and those who are single parents or the sole breadwinner for their families.  While a typical response might be to offer re-training programs, the displaced workers in many cases will not have the basic education or abilities to learn the replacement high-tech jobs which will become available.

The convergence of the new “America First” policy in Washington, D. C., and the availability of a number of new technologies ranging from the Internet of Things to natural language processing to video analytics (facial and object recognition) to massive databases with associated “big data” analytics (and the threat of significant misinterpretation) will present many dilemmas for the government Chief Information Officer.

artificial-intelligence-iconEven more frightening, artificial intelligence will vastly transform the face of society and the economy of the United States over the next 20 years, as documented in a 2016 federal government report here.  Millions from jobs ranging from call centers to lawyers to accountants to everyone who drives a vehicle are at risk of elimination or significant change.  All of this technology change will be infused with politics as elected officials scramble to create jobs, save jobs or fix blame for loss of jobs.

Government CIOs work for these elected officials.  CIOs have this technology tiger by the tail.  They should pray it does not eat them alive.

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Filed under Alexa, artificial intelligence, big data, CIOs, future of technology

When Alexa Calls 911 …

alexa-call-911CES, formerly the Consumer Electronics Show, recently concluded in Las Vegas.  Alexa conquered the show (Wired), and seemed to be everywhere (Fast Company).  Alexa is, of course, the voice-activated digital assistant developed by Amazon, headquartered in Seattle.

Alexa has a long and growing list of commands ranging from “Alexa Shut Up” to “Alexa Give me a Game of Thrones Quote” to skills commands like “Alexa Ask Lyft for a Ride” which enables a specific skill written by Lyft to engage their car-sharing service.

Alexa is being married with a new generation of “smart devices”.   So if your light bulbs are smart enough, Alexa can control them (“Alexa, turn off the lights in the bedroom”).  If your garage door is smart enough, Alexa can open it.   Audio equipment.  Smart phones.  Even cars (Ford is building Alexa into its vehicles) will have Alexa controls.  Indeed, Shelly Palmer, a long-time observer of CES, says “anything which can be connected, will be connected” to Alexa.

But what happens when you say “Alexa, call 911”?

Right now, of course, nothing.   Alexa cannot use the telephone, or make a phone call.   But, it can – and does – send data and your voice across the Internet to the Amazon cloud.  And, as Amazon develops Alexa’s expertise, it is only a matter of time until such a “call 911” skill is built.

The Bright Side of Alexa 911 Calls

Anyone who has been a victim of a crime understands the potential for using Alexa to call 911.  Someone breaks into your house, and you fumble to find a phone and fumble to unlock it and then punch in 911.   But Alexa is “always on, always listening”.  You simply say “Alexa, call 911”.

But then what happens?   Does Alexa “keep the line open” so you can talk to the 911 operator?  What if you have to leave the room or get out of Alexa’s range as you retreat into a closet or try to find the burglar?   Should an individual Alexa device in one room automatically activate all the other Alexa devices (Echo, Dot, Tap, Firestick etc.) everywhere in the house and put them on the line with the 911 operator?

ng911-2020Alexa will soon be able to control video cameras and audio devices throughout the house.  Should “Alexa call 911” automatically activate all such devices?   Should it connect them to digital recorders or maybe automatically connect them all to the 911 center so the operator can hear and see what is going on? (Of course 911 centers can’t receive video right now, but with Next Generation 911 that capability will become available, eventually.)

FirstNet will be deploying a nationwide cellular network for first responders and their smart phones, mobile and tablet computers.   With FirstNet, responding officers could actually connect, as they are responding, with such inputs – video cameras and Alexa devices, so officers could hear and see what is happening inside the house.

2017 CES - Ford offers Amazon AlexaThere will also be Alexa-enabled vehicles.   Could an Alexa-enabled vehicle become somewhat “self aware”, so it might detect that it is being hotwired – that its owner is not present, and call 911 to alert police of the crime-in progress?    Or perhaps the car would detect that its windows are being broken, activate tiny video cameras around the car, and also, with Alexa, alert the 911 center to that car prowl in progress.

But some 911 emergencies are not crimes, but a fire.   The urgency of a quick connection to 911 is underscored in a fire, as people need to call 911 and get out of the premise quickly.   Alexa-capable devices will eventually connect to fire alarms and sensors in the house.   Perhaps, eventually, people will also have sensors in their clothes so Alexa could also precisely locate people inside a house.  These devices will eventually have GPS beacons so their locations are precisely known.  All of this information could be available to responding firefighters so they could see the location of the fire and potentially the location of every human being and pet inside the home, invaluable information for saving lives in the first few seconds after firefighters arrive.

Many 911 calls are medical emergencies – diabetic shock or a heart attack or a stroke or a fall.  Again, Alexa will be invaluable in summoning aid.  An elderly neighbor of ours recently fell out of bed and shattered her femur.   She slowly, painfully, crawled to a phone to call us (and we called 911).  But with Alexa, all she would have to say is “Alexa, call 911” and she’d be immediately connected to aid.

Again, biosensors are being embedded in humans today and this trend will continue.  Heart pacemakers, insulin pumps, glucose monitors, blood pressure monitors are all devices we attach to our bodies to monitor our health.  These devices could eventually be controlled by Alexa, or at least send information to Alexa, which would establish a history and pattern which could be invaluable to the paramedic responding to 911 calls.     With “Alexa call 911” plus FirstNet all of that information could be sent to emergency medical technicians and emergency room physicians at hospitals before the Medic unit even leaves the station.

In fact, the potential for such live-saving applications could, eventually, lead to a mandate that all voice-activated digital assistants in a home must have the capability to call 911 just as today every cell phone – even if you haven’t paid the bill in years – are mandated to connect 911 calls to a public safety answering point.

The Dark Side of Alexa 911 Calls

Just as Alexa’s potential for saving lives and solving crimes through 911 calling is the “bright side”, there is also a “dark side” of enabling this capability.

911-center-seattleThe most immediate effect will be on understaffed 911 centers.  The sheer number of 911 calls will rise.   The quality of the calls may also drop as people try to talk to their voice enabled devices as they move from room-to-room, making it hard for 911 operators to hear and interact with the caller.   In fact, many Alexa-based 911 calls may become the equivalent of a “911 hang up” call today, where officers are dispatched out of concern that domestic violence or another crime is occurring and the caller is unable to reconnect with the 911 center.

In addition, Public Safety Answer Points (PSAPs) may become overloaded with data during these calls.  Security companies, certainly, will rush to develop Alexa-enabled products.   These could be video cameras placed around the home, coupled with movement sensors, heat/fire sensors, door and window sensors (to determine if a door/window is open or shattered), and so forth.   Such a system would allow a homeowner to know the status of her home at any time or place.   But all of this data could also be transmitted to a 911 center or (via FirstNet) to responders as they are en route.   With the advent of inexpensive video cameras, the sheer amount of data (multiple video feeds, for example) would easily overwhelm a 911 center or responders.

(Note:  911 centers presently only receive voice phone calls, although an increasing number call also receive text messages.   Very few can receive photos, images, video and similar information from 911 callers).

Privacy, Hacking

Today there is significant concern about the amount of data and information collected about individuals today through their use of the Internet and social media.  The advent of voice-activated digital assistants and homes of sensors increases those concerns.  Shelly Palmer has written “How Dangerous is Alexa”, an exploration of the potential for these devices to collect vast amount of information about us simply by listening in the background, as well as by the control of our other smart devices.

Beyond the data collection is the potential for hacking these digital assistants – or the smart devices they control.   The Mirai Botnet incident of September, 2016, clearly demonstrated the power of such hacking.   We can imagine many frightening scenarios, such as criminals hacking into a home’s smart devices and directing them to open all the doors and windows to simplify a burglary.   Worse yet, a criminal syndicate or a hostile nation state might direct all the Alexas (or other digital assistants) in a city or state to “call 911” overwhelming first responders and throwing a nation into chaos.

Conclusion

“Alexa, Call Nine One One”.   Five simple words which carry such power, such potential for improving public safety, solving crimes and rushing aid to victims of fires and health emergencies.    Five simple words which raise numerous issues about the staffing preparedness of our 911 centers and public policy which our elected leaders will need to address.

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Filed under 911, Alexa, APCO, Internet of Things, ng911

Ten Years after the iPhone, why don’t we give Cops and Firefighters Smart Phones?

original-iphone

The iPhone is 10 years old.

 

Being from Seattle, Microsoft Country, I’ve always made fun of Apple.  When I see people using Mac’s, I’ll say “oh, you use a computer made by a fruit company”.  I talk about having a “mixed marriage”, as my spouse is a Mac user.  During speaking engagements, if I suggest doing an online search, I’ll say “Bing it” (ok, that’s technically a put-down for Google, not Apple).

When I was Chief Technology Officer (also CIO) for the City of Seattle, we brought the first widespread use of mobile phones with email capability into that City government, in 2005, by introducing BlackBerrys.  We had the support of major department directors as diverse as the Human Services Director and the Police Chief, Gil Kerlikowske.

But when I left City government in 2012, and needed to get a personal smart phone, I purchased an iPhone.  My first-ever device made by the Fruit Company.

Why?

Ease of use. Robust apps and apps catalog.  Integrated camera.  Everyone writes apps for the iPhone first.  Almost Schrier-proof.

galaxy-s7-edge

In recent years products from other companies have eclipsed the iPhone in some respects.  The Samsung Galaxy S7 (not the infamous Note 7) has a better camera, for example.  But the smoothest, most integrated experience is still probably the Apple iPhone.

 

Today, of course, most companies issue iPhones or Android phones instead of Blackberrys to their field employees.   Even government agencies do so:  when I joined the federal First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) in August, 2016, I was issued an iPhone 6.

But in Public Safety agencies – law enforcement, firefighting and emergency medical response – an agency-issued smart phone to field officers is still a rarity.   Some large cities have done so – New York City for example.   But despite the obvious benefits of having a mobile computer in the hands of cops and paramedics and firefighters, the initial device costs and monthly service fees seem beyond many city and county budgets.

In other words, ten years after its introduction, the capabilities introduced with the iPhone in 2007 still evade the average police officer, firefighter and paramedic responding to 911 calls every day.

That must change.

And it will.

Here’s why.

  1. Personal safety of responders.   First responders have land-mobile radios for communication.  They are dispatched by these radio systems which are very reliable, survive disasters and allow great communications.  But these radios are voice only.  No apps, no maps, no data or information transmitted.  On December 17th Mount Vernon, Washington, Officer “Mick” McClaughry was shot and almost died when responding to a report of domestic violence.  The shooter had a long and extensive history of weapons and violence, including the abduction of four people.  This is an all-too-common story.  When police officers, firefighters, paramedics and even child protective services social workers respond to a premise they deserve to have the full history of all calls to that premise, who is likely to be on site, and everything about the history of violence and use of weapons.   Sent to their smart phone, immediately and upon demand, wherever and whenever they are.
  2. Phone calls and Siri. Responders need the ability to make phone calls from the field, using official, not personal, cell phones to continue investigations and contact victims, witnesses and suspects.  Hundreds of millions of people simply press a button on their smartphone and say “Siri, call my friend Billy.” And the phone dials (or Facetimes) their friends and relatives.  Siri, and its cousins Cortana, Alexa, Google Now, do much more than make phone calls of course.   They answer questions and do web searches.  Such capabilities would be extraordinarily helpful to first responders as they respond to 911 calls.  We can even envision a “Hey Joe” Friday voice assistant specifically trained to respond to first responder queries.
  3. evidence-digitalDigital evidence collection. Police officers, arson investigators, paramedics and other responders must collect vast quantities of information:  photographs, interviews, serial numbers, video and so forth.  Today that’s mostly done with spiral-bound notebooks, digital cameras, and pen and paper.  With smartphones and tablet computers, all this information – including video clips of witness interviews and questioning of suspects in the field – could be accomplished more quickly and efficiently.
  4. Patient care and tracking. Paramedics still, too often, fill out patient forms in quadruplicate on the patients they treat.  With smart phones or tablet computers this work could be done digitally.  Furthermore, emergency medical techs could access patient healthcare records, contact physicians and hospitals, and access a myriad of other information to better care for their patients.
  5. Situational awareness and geography. All the work of first responders involves geography.  Maps, locations, the location of other responding units, the best driving route to a location and even building outlines depend upon maps.  Responders urgently need this capability in their pocket.
  6. Many other uses.  Anyone with a smart phone can envision dozens of other uses for such devices in the hands of first responders such as reviewing and uploading body-worn video, viewing building diagrams, finding the characteristics of drugs and hazardous materials, accessing criminal history records, helping with those in crisis or mentally ill, and so forth.

police-mobile-computer

Of course, many departments put such capabilities in computers mounted in fire apparatus and police cars.  But once the responder leaves the vehicle, all that capability is not available.  Many responders, recognizing the advantages of mobile devices, use their personal smart phones or tablet computers, often contrary to their department’s policy.  That carries significant dangers – giving their personal phone numbers to victims and suspects, for example, or potentially having their personal device confiscated as evidence once defense attorneys learn it has been used to collect photos or other information.

And the smart devices we issue to our responders don’t have to be iPhones.  Many other companies make excellent mobile devices as well.

Private companies give smart phones and other mobile devices to their entire field workforces as well as all managers.  In City governments, most managers and all elected officials have government-issued smart phones.  We place our lives in the hands of first responders.  Shouldn’t we give our police officers, firefighters, sheriff’s deputies, paramedics and other responders that same basic tool?

It is virtually criminal that 10 years after the introduction of the iPhone, we still leave most of our first responders without these devices.

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Filed under BlackBerry, Code for America, iPhone