Author Archives: Schrier

About Schrier

Former Chief Technology Officer ("Chief Geek") of the City of Seattle. This blog is personal, not official.

Can Police BodyCam Video be Public while protecting Privacy?

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray launches bodycam Workshop

You have a serious car accident. The police arrive and investigate. They issue a citation and write a report. The officers are wearing body-worn video cameras and their cars have dashcam video. At the end of the event the officer gives you a code. The next day you go online to the police department’s website, key in the code and all the materials regarding the collision are available to you – the videos, with a written transcript, the officers’ reports, the citation, the sketches and photographs of the accident scene, witness statements, and perhaps a history of other collisions and problems at that intersection.

That’s one vision laid out at a body-cam video workshop hosted by the Seattle Police Department on Tuesday, June 23. The event included officers from the Orlando, Louisville and Dallas police departments, plus representatives of the Police Foundation, Code for America and Socrata, the Seattle company which powers open data portals such as data.gov and data.seattle.gov. These organizations are all participating in the White House sponsored Police Open Data initiative, announced last month by the Obama Administration.

“Policing is in a crisis,” said Seattle Police Chief Operating Officer (COO) Mike Wagers several times during the workshop. “Police are not necessarily using more force or making more mistakes,” he added, but there’s been a change in the technology available to the general public. “Two-thirds of adults in the United States will own a camera-capable smartphone by the end of this year.” Those smartphones mean there is more video than ever being taken of police-citizen encounters and uploaded to YouTube and similar sites.

What’s the real future for police video?   Can the privacy of victims, children and witnesses be protected while at the same time making this video public?   Is it possible to “redact” or blur the faces and audio of such people to protect them yet release the video to the public?

The rest of this article is on GeekWire here.

See also the previous article discussing how Seattle Police held a hackathon in December, 2014, to find ways to redact video.

Implementing a body-worn video camera program requires much more than just buying the cameras themselves – there is storage and indexing and search and making the video public and much more – here is a previous blog post discussing these issues.

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Filed under 911, hackathon, Law Enforcement, Seattle Police, video

The Internet of First Responder Things (IoFRT)

IoT-toasterThe “Internet of Things” or IoT is a common buzzword in the technology community these days.  It refers to the increasingly prevalent distribution of sensors throughout the natural world, and the connection of those sensors – as well as other machines – to the Internet.

The running joke is that IoT is about putting your home refrigerator, thermostat, washer, dryer, microwave, range, TVs, computers, smart phones and even toasters on the Internet, or at least connecting them so they can talk to each other.  Now what a toaster would say to a TV, or what the conversations between a washer and a dryer might include, could certainly make for a lot of talk show jokes and lists on a David Letterman show (should he return).

But clearly creating such an “Internet of Household Things” or IoHT would be quite useful.  Take, for example, the urgent water crisis in California and throughout most of the West.   If you could add sensors to every water fixture in the house, and then connect those sensors to computers and smartphones, you could determine where your water is being used and take steps to cut back use.   Going one step further, if those water sensors also had valves, you could control your household water use from anywhere in the world.  So when your teenager’s shower has gone over five minutes in length, you could abruptly get a notification and then shut off the water (or turn on the cold water full blast) from your hotel room in Hong Kong.

How might this Internet of Things concept apply to First Responders – the paramedics and firefighters and police officers who respond to our 911 calls?

I recently had a twitter conversation about this with Ray Lehr, former fire chief in Baltimore, and former FirstNet State Point of Contact (SPOC) for Maryland.  Ray suggested we should start talking about the Internet of Life Saving Things (IoLST) which I morphed into a possible Internet of First Responder Things (IoFRT).

There are many applications for the IoFRT, and I’d guess they fall into several buckets:

  • First Responder Personal Things – the sensors and equipment which would be on or near a First Responder to help that officer do the job and keep the officer safe.
  • 911 Caller and Victim Things – these sensors would help alert 911 centers and responders to problems so First Responders can quickly and accurately respond to calls for assistance.
  • Information and Awareness Things – these sensors and machines would improve public safety by monitoring the natural and built environments.
SPD-cars-and-uniforms

Seattle Police Body Worn Video

“First Responder Personal Things” would include a variety of sensors and communication devices.  Body worn video cameras – so much in the news recently after the events in Ferguson, Missouri – are one example of an IoFRT device.  Most such cameras today record their video and hold it in the device.  But if wirelessly connected to the Internet (by, say, FirstNet), a police commander, 911 center and other authorized users could see the video in real time to advise and support the officer.

A police officer’s badge or other apparel might have a small radio which broadcasts a signal unique to that officer, which allows many other communication devices (smart phone, radio, tablet computer) to automatically recognize the officer and therefore allow access to restricted databases such as criminal history.  A similar situation for a paramedic would allow her/him access to restricted patient files and healthcare history.

A police officer’s weapon could have a sensor which only allows it to be fired if it is personal possession of the officer.  Firefighters – especially those fighting long, sustained, wild fires, would have an array of sensors to monitor heart rate, respiration, ambient air quality, etc., alerting the firefighter and incident commander to firefighters who are overworked or in dangerous situations.

“911 Caller and Victim Things” would include those sensors on a victim or in their home or place of business which help to monitor and protect them.   Medical sensors are an obvious application:  people with a history of heart disease, stroke, diabetes or other conditions would have such sensors which would immediately alert them and their healthcare providers to impending problems.  Such sensors might further alert 911 centers for dispatch of emergency medical technicians to an immediate problem.

Vulnerable people in high crime areas might have sensors or video cameras which could be activated at a moment’s notice when they come into dangerous situations.   Many homes and businesses are now equipped with video cameras, movement sensors and other sensors.  A 911 call from the premise (or other activation by the owner) could give 911 centers and responding officer’s immediate access to the telemetry and video from those cameras.

Finally, General Motor’s OnStar gives us a premonition of the technology which will go into vehicles in the future.  Vehicles which communicate with roads or automatically notify 911 centers after an accident, to include transmission of telemetry and video are definitely in the future.

“The Internet of Information and Awareness Things” is both more fascinating and frightening.  Applications to support 911 response can be harnessed to many of these “things”.

Seattle-police-video-drone

Seattle Police Demonstrate a UAV aka “drone”

For example, Video surveillance cameras are becoming less expensive and more ubiquitous.   Surveillance camera systems deployed by cities and counties receive significant scrutiny and attention from the ACLU and city/county councils such as the brouhaha surrounding Seattle’s attempted deployment of a $5 million system.  The use of unpiloted aerial vehicles with cameras is just starting deployment.  But most such cameras are in the hands of businesses and private individuals, as demonstrated by the identification the Boston marathon bombers.  Powerful new technology tools are becoming available for automated analysis of video, for examples automated license plate recognition, facial recognition and object recognition.  We aid and abet this analysis by gleefully tagging faces in our Facebook photos, all of which Facebook uses to build its database of known faces.  The largest license plate recognition databases are in private hands.  In the near future every human being is likely to be recognized and tracked (and NOT by governments) whenever we are outside our own homes.

In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Department of Homeland Security was created.  Fearing potential chemical, biological and nuclear terrorist attacks, it deployed a network of sniffers and sensors in cities and other potential targets.  Similar technologies and networks could be deployed to support first responders.

For example, every load of hazardous material being transported by road, air or rail could be tagged and tracked.  Every hazmat container stored in a building could also be identified and tracked, with firefighters watching them pop up on a tablet computer app when they respond to an event in the building.

We could even tag every can of spray paint or every cigarette lighter as the combination of those two items, plus a healthy dose of stupidity (which, alas, cannot yet be tagged) contributes to major home fires like this one.

It is now easy to imagine a world like that depicted by George Orwell in his novel 1984, where surveillance is both nefarious and ubiquitous, fueled by a government (probably controlled by private companies) out of control.

Like so many other choices faced by our early 21st Century society, the Internet of First Responder Things hold both great promise and some peril.   Elected officials and chiefs of responder agencies will have many decisions to make over the next few years.

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Filed under 911, FirstNet, government operations, Internet of Things, Seattle Police

Live Long and Prosper?  Impressions from the SPOCs Meeting

spock

A SPOC?

The First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) conducted its first-ever meeting of “state points of contact” or SPOCs (pronounced like “Mr. Spock”) in Reston, Virginia, this past week.   Here are some of my impressions from the event.

Every state or territorial governor has appointed a SPOC – there are 55 all together.  SPOCs range from public safety radio systems managers to policy wonks to state Chief Information Officers (CIOs) to The Adjutant General (i.e. Commander of the National Guard), depending on the state.

FirstNet was created by Act of Congress in February, 2012 – over three years ago – and most SPOCs were appointed in 2013.  Yet this is the first time we’ve all been invited to meet together to share experiences and hear and advise FirstNet itself.

A Subtle Shift in Tone

SPOCs are a skeptical bunch.  In past regional and “initial consultation” meetings we have expressed a number of reservations about FirstNet. In those meetings many of our questions were aggressive, almost accusatory. In this meeting I detected a subtle shift in tone.

SPOCs and others at this meeting asked questions in a supportive and generally curious way.  In many cases SPOCs actually chimed in with suggestions to improve FirstNet’s process and project management.  For their part, FirstNet staff were more welcoming and accepting of such suggestions than I’ve seen in the past.  There is still a tendency for FirstNet folks to “go legalistic” – hide behind the Law which created the Authority.   But that is less pronounced than in the past.

Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing.   This is Bruce Tuckman’s model which describes the phases which most organizations and projects go through.  Perhaps we are shifting from “storming” to “norming”.

At some point I hope FirstNet moves from Norming to Performing:  you’ll know that time has arrived when SPOCs start to refer to FirstNet using the pronoun “we”.   That is, instead of saying “you should do this, FirstNet” you’ll hear “we should try this approach”.  That time is still months or years away.

firstnet-roadmap-larger

Roadmap or Timeline to FirstNet

What’s the Timeline?

As we SPOCs talk to fire and police chiefs and other potential users of FirstNet, we always get two questions:  what will it cost and when will it happen?

Amazingly, the “what will it cost” question is easy to answer.  FirstNet’s leaders say again and again that FirstNet’s monthly subscription fee has to be about the same as what commercial wireless companies charge police and fire departments today.  That appears to be about $40 to $60 a month for an “all you can eat” (unlimited data) plan.

Guesstimating the timeline is somewhat more problematical.   After all, we are now more than three years into the 10 year life of FirstNet.   However just in the last month the timeline has become clearer to me.  Here’s the Bill Schrier (NOT official) guesstimate:

  • April, 2015 – Draft Request for Proposals (RFP) issued
  • July 31, 2015 – Initial dump of data collection (number of users, kinds of devices) due to FirstNet from states – this will be another input into the RFP
  • December, 2015 – RFP issued seeking vendor(s) to deploy the network
  • Sometime in 2016 – RFP responses due
  • Late 2016?? – RFP evaluation complete
  • Sometime in 2017 – “state plans” issued by FirstNet to each State. The state plans will include coverage and cost information from the apparent successful RFP vendor(s). Governors have 90 days after the state plan is issued to either accept the plan or decide to build on their own
  • Sometime in 2018? – expect the first network deployments

This timeline may be too optimistic – I’ve often been accused of being a Pollyanna in my guesstimates.  And we should never underestimate the power of the non-FirstNet federal bureaucracy to find issues and obstacles to slow progress.

Pushing Forward with Outreach

Some states have been quite aggressive in their outreach plans.  Iowa has one of the very best plans.  Iowa has a FirstNet point of contact in each of its 99 counties (would those be County Points of Contact or CPOCs?).  Iowa has held face-to-face meetings with responders in almost all the counties and is forming committees in each of its six homeland security regions.  Iowa has also received some of the best media coverage, such as coverage by Cedar Rapids TV stations for its meeting with responders in Linn County.

On the other hand, some states have not even started to talk to their responders about FirstNet.  Usually that’s because the Governor is skeptical of FirstNet as “another bureaucratic Federal agency” or is concerned that FirstNet won’t be able to deploy the network at all, reflecting poorly on the State’s own outreach effort and therefore the Governor.

A major question for most SPOCs is how rapidly to push our efforts to contact responders.  It is hard – and perhaps cruel – to get responders and their agencies excited about a network which is still largely undefined and won’t be deployed for at least three more years at the earliest.

opt-in-or-out-keysClosing off Options

The Act which created FirstNet explicitly required a network plan for each state.  The Act allows the Governor of each state to “opt in” to that plan or “opt out” and have the state itself build the radio access network (RAN) – that is the towers, transmitters, fiber and microwave links etc.    At first it may seem that “opt in” should be the easy choice.  Opt-in costs a state almost no money, and doesn’t really obligate the state to commit any resources or even use FirstNet.

But, of course, no one has a real idea what FirstNet’s “state plan” will look like. First responders and SPOCs in each state will put a lot of time and effort into helping FirstNet construct that plan.  But how can a network with only $7 billion in capital to deply be able to match the coverage, capacity, apps and functionality of commercial networks which spend $20 billion or more a year to upgrade and operate their networks?  What if financial constraints mean the FirstNet state plan falls far short of responders’ expectations?

There are a number of good answers to these questions, but they are largely irrelevant.

No elected official – especially State Governors – wants to be told “this is your only choice”, that is, to “opt in”.  And no Governor will want to “opt in” to a state plan which the fire and police chiefs, Mayors and County Commissioners in a state believe is inadequate to meet their needs.

One good solution to this dilemma is to fully explore what it would take for a state to “opt out” and construct the radio access network itself.   In discussions at this meeting, many SPOCs and FirstNet staff believe that only a handful – perhaps 5 or 6 – of the mostly densely states could feasibly opt out and expect income from user fees and spectrum use fees to pay for the state’s own network.

But how do we know that’s true?  Ideally, states would use coverage modeling software and financial modeling software, plus the expertise of cellular industry consultants to build and test a variety of scenarios.   The result of such models could be an “opt out” plan for the state.  But those results would also be independent reviews and opinions on FirstNet’s own plans, thereby strengthening those plans.

Furthermore I believe the results of such modeling would quickly demonstrate the costs and obstacles a state would face in constructing the RAN itself.  Those identified issues would convince state officials and Governors that opting-out is financial folly.  Therefore most Governors will be much more comfortable in their opt-in decision.

However, NTIA has recently decided no federal grant monies (SLIGP) can be used to explore any option other than “opt in”.  FirstNet itself recently asked for review of its interpretations of the Law (“second notice”), and those interpretations also tend to restrict the ability of states to explore options to build their own.  It is clear NTIA does not want states doing coverage and financial modeling, even though such work would result in improved FirstNet plans for each state.

This ill-conceived decision by NTIA can be added to the list of other mistakes that agency has made to impede public safety’s pursuit of a nationwide public safety wireless broadband network.

A Potpourri of Observations

  • Former Governor Jim Douglas of Vermont is a phenomenal addition to the FirstNet Board. Governor Douglas keynoted the second day with a mixture of humor and substance.  He’s briefed newly elected Governors and 44 Gubernatorial Chiefs of Staff about FirstNet.  This is exactly the sort of support SPOCs need with their Governors.
  • FirstNet might allow representatives of state and local governments to help evaluate RFP responses. There are a lot of restrictions on this, but it would be a material step forward if someone other than federal government employees was involved.
  • firstnet-data-collection-larger

    Data Collection

    FirstNet is aggressively seeking to collect on-the-ground data to craft its RFP. It has asked states to query each potential user agency (for example:  police and fire department) asking about their current wireless broadband contracts, number of potential users, number and kinds of devices, coverage requirements and so forth.  (See slide 7 of this PDF.)  As with everything else FirstNet, this activity has been in progress for at least 18 months, but only released to states in March, with a demand for collection of the first data by July 31st.   I can only guess that the many layers of lawyers and approval processes internal to the Federal government elongated the timeline.

  • FirstNet is finally hiring employees in each of its regions (which mirror the FEMA regions) to more directly engage states in consultation. Steve Noel (Region 10) and Tim Pierce (Region 5) are the first two of ten to be hired.  Acting Chief Technical Officer Jeff Bratcher has also hired a great set of technical leaders for the Boulder-based FirstNet technical office.   FirstNet’s hiring timeframes continue to be atrocious – these positions were six months from announcement to getting Steve and Tim on board.  I understand the federal personnel management agency – after some spurring by Sue Swenson at March’s Senate hearing – is now allowing FirstNet to shorten some hiring processes to rapidly hire skilled staff.
  • To paraphrase George Orwell, “all states are unique – some are more unique than others”. I’m being facetious here:  we SPOCs tend to emphasize the unique challenges we each face, but, frankly, we’re not that unique.  Sure, Iowa doesn’t have tsunamis but it does have floods.  Washington doesn’t have hurricanes and Florida doesn’t have earthquakes (except sinkholes, of course).   Here’s my point:  we SPOCs need to start looking at what we have in common, how we can best support the wireless data needs of our responders, how we can work together to overcome our challenges in getting this network built, and stop raising stupid red-herring issues like procurement.  If we state government bureaucrats can’t figure out our own procurement laws to buy something vital for our first responders like FirstNet, we ought to be shot (to quote FirstNet Board Chair Sue Swenson).
  • The FirstNet Board needs to hire T. J. Kennedy as its Executive Director. The General Manager/Executive Director position has been vacant for a year now.  Kennedy has all the right background and leadership skills necessary to push this project forward, and he needs the ability to hire a deputy to help him.

A Final Thought

For the first time since the First Responder Authority was created in February, 2012, there now appears to be a clear path forward to build the network – see my timeline above.  There are many positive signs:  the aggressive move to collect data to properly craft the RFP, the impending release of the draft RFP, a promise to issue the final RFP by the end of the year, the hiring of regional staff such as Tim Pierce and Steve Noel, and the hiring of skilled technical leaders by Acting CTO Jeff Bratcher.

To some extent, the past three years with FirstNet has been like taking a train through a tunnel.  When a train goes through a tunnel and it gets dark, you don’t throw away the ticket and jump off.  You sit still and trust the engineer.  This meeting heartened me that there might be light at the end of the FirstNet tunnel.

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Filed under broadband, FirstNet, wireless

Will FirstNet become the next Healthcare.gov?

FirstNet-Innovate

FirstNet Must be Innovative

On October 1, 2013, the website healthcare.gov opened for business.   This website was the centerpiece of the Affordable Care Act (“ACA” commonly known as “Obamacare”).    ACA is one of the signature achievements of President Barack Obama.   Certainly the core of Obamacare would have the latest in innovative technology, interactivity and customer experience, right?

Healthcare.gov’s debut was a bomb.

But then healthcare.gov was resurrected.   Through an extraordinary effort the website was rapidly fixed and rebuilt by a top-notch team who were freed from most of the stultifying bureaucracy and regulations of the Federal Government.

Today another signature achievement of the Obama Administration – the First Responder Network Authority – appears headed down a path similar to the original healthcare.gov.   We can recognize the danger signs.   Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker and other administration officials have the authority to free FirstNet from the shackles of “Fedgov” allowing it to innovatively accomplish its mission of creating a nationwide public safety wireless broadband network for our responders.

But will they act?

FirstNet must be Innovative

Martin Cooper and the first cell phone

Martin Cooper and the first cell phone

In the 1980s, Craig McCaw recognized the potential of cellular phone networks and, starting with a single small cable company in Centralia, Washington, built an $11 billion nationwide wireless network, earning the name “the wizard of wireless”.

Also in the 1980s a Harvard drop-out named Bill Gates purchased a piece-of-crap operating system named 86-DOS and used it to build a powerhouse company, Microsoft, which today still dominates the desktops of the entire world.

In the first decade of the 21st Century Steve Jobs took a company on the edge of bankruptcy and transformed it into the largest company in the world through three startling innovations: the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad.

Today we have a company which has an opportunity to transform the operations of every government agency – local, state and federal – while at the same time radically improving the safety and security the United States’ 330 million people.   This company doesn’t need to invent anything new.  All it has to do is follow in the footsteps of Craig McCaw, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, and adapt their innovations for government.

This “company” is the First Responder Network Authority – FirstNet.

FirstNet was born in 2012 from the hopes and dreams of cops and firefighters and paramedics and emergency managers nationwide.  But, increasingly, it is burdened with risk-adverse lawyers, saddled with outmoded rules and regulations, chained to the very insider Washington, D.C. bureaucracies so derided by Republicans, Democrats and everyday citizens.

FirstNet was created on February 22, 2012 and funded with $7 billion to build a nationwide public safety wireless network, following in the footsteps of pioneers of the wireless industry – people like Craig McCaw and Sam Ginn.    FirstNet was charged with creating a nationwide architecture and a plan to develop the network in each state.  The Governor of each state can then make a decision whether to allow that plan to proceed.

The evidence for FirstNet’s difficulties is abundant.

Three years later, FirstNet has less than 100 full-time employees, does not have a permanent executive director and – odd for a technology company – does not have a permanent chief technology officer.   Most of the full-time employees are transfers or on detail from other federal government departments – competent and dedicated to be sure – but few with recent experience, on the ground, with local and state government responder agencies.

Today – three years after the law created FirstNet – the agency plans to issue a draft RFP by the end of March, and perhaps a final RFP by the end of 2015.  Given the extraordinary complexity of such an RFP (“build a nationwide wireless network in 55 states and territories serving all local, state and federal first responders”), responses to the RFP probably won’t come in until mid-2016.  The evaluation of the responses might take another year, and the final state plans another 6 to 12 months after that.  It is likely to be 2018 – six years after FirstNet was created – before the network implements anywhere.  And, of course, there could be protests after the contract award is announced, lengthening these times.

In the meantime, the technology industry is innovating and changing at a record place.  While FirstNet writes an RFP in 2015, who knows what the wireless, smart phone, tablet computer, Internet-of-Things, connected and autonomous vehicle industries will look like in 2018?  Noted wireless industry Chetan Sharma thinks 5G networks will be implementing at that time, while FirstNet implements 2015 or earlier technology.

Is there a way to change the direction of this impending train derailment?

We have at least the one recent federal government derailment to guide us.

Healthcare.gov.

Healthcare.govLessons from Healthcare.gov

The Affordable Care Act had the noble vision of affordable healthcare insurance for all Americans.  It was passed by Congress in March, 2010, and implemented in October 1, 2013.  But the technology and website had numerous difficulties and problems.  While the original cost of the website was probably about $500 million, the overall cost after fixes probably reached $1.7 billion.

There are many reasons for this initial failure:  much-too-detailed requirements, many changes during the implementation, many subcontractors, no single prime contractor, diffuse oversight by bureaucrats in the federal Department of Health and Human Services (who, frankly, had no experience in managing such a pioneering project) and more.

But healthcare.gov, despite the technological failures of its initial roll-out, was rescued by a series of unorthodox – and innovative – measures by the federal government.    President Obama, recognizing this abysmal situation with his signature accomplishment, called in a group of geeks from Silicon Valley, many of whom had helped build the technology which won two of his elections.  To oversee the fix, he called in folks like Kurt DelBene, who had built Microsoft Office into one of the most widely used software products in the world.  (And DelBene has a lot of experience with bureaucracies – having engaged with one of the worst internally at Microsoft.)

This team both fought and made peace with the risk-adverse bureaucrats who oversaw healthcare.gov. They used innovative techniques like cloud services from Amazon Web Services.   They implemented agile development practices to do short sprints of software fixes and upgrades, a vastly different philosophy than the slow, painful, requirements-RFP-evaluation-development-implementation process used on most federal government projects.

And they fixed healthcare.gov in a matter of months.

18F

18F of the GSA

This one success has rippled through the federal government.   Innovative, agile, processes are starting to creep into the slow-moving federal bureaucracy.  The Government Services Administration (GSA) now has an agile development team with its 18F unit.   The White House has launched the United States Digital Service to serve as a tech “SWAT” to help struggling tech projects.   Even the staid, conservative, CIA has enthusiastically adopted cloud services and rapid development techniques (although, in fairness, it has been quite innovative in past with projects like intellipedia).

Today FirstNet.gov is heading down the same path as the original Healthcare.gov.

But can we fix it now, since we see the problems coming?

Absolutely.

The Fix

The Fix

The Fix

Here’s one roadmap to a fix:

More freedom and independence, not more regulations and oversight.   The reaction of a typical bureaucracy to any problem is to clamp down the restrictions – add more lawyers for legal review, more layers of approval, more oversight.   In the high tech, rapidly moving world of wireless communications and applications, that’s exactly the wrong approach, yet it is the one the federal government has taken.   The Obama Administration has proved itself to be fast-moving and innovative in many initiatives, and it needs to take the same approach with FirstNet.

Independent authority.”   Congress has already provided direction on this – it created FirstNet as an “independent authority” within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.  Congress wants FirstNet to be innovative and extraordinary, not just another Federal agency.

Adopt agile.  Every private technology company is using agile techniques to develop products and services.  Agile techniques have been adopted by 18F, the U.S. Digital Service and a few other agencies.  Christopher Webster and Max Romanik have written an ground-breaking blog post demonstrating how agile can be applied to public safety.  FirstNet too can adopt agile to transform its approach.

Full-time staff.  FirstNet has difficulties hiring full-time employees, probably due to the constraints of the federal personnel hiring process of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and to delays in obtaining security clearances. As an “independent authority” FirstNet should be granted relief from the OPM personnel processes allowing it to hire employees who have local and state responder experience, agile development skills and technical staff with recent experience in the commercial telecommunications industry.

Contract staffing difficulties.   Much of the expertise FirstNet needs will require salary levels beyond those available in the federal personnel system.   Recognizing this, NTIA has provided contracts and contract staffing for many of the technical positions.  However NTIA made a number of mistakes in these staffing contract procurements, resulting in a Department of Commerce Inspector General (OIG) investigation.   As a consequence, FirstNet has lost most of the individuals with technical expertise which it used in 2013-2014.  Hiring of replacement staff has been quite slow, probably due to onerous rules put in place by NTIA staff to prevent a repeat of the problems cited by OIG.   Conversely, healthcare.gov rapidly hired staff from the technology industry to rebuild its website.   FirstNet should be freed to adopt the same model.  As an “independent authority” FirstNet should be allowed to rapidly hire technical contract staff through legal contract mechanisms and using its own internal controls independent from external ones imposed by NTIA.

Roadmap

FirstNet Roadmap – Click to see more

Unknown FirstNet Business Plan.  The $7 billion funding available to FirstNet is not sufficient to develop and operate its network.   The maximum likely user base – five to seven million users – will be insufficient, through user fees alone, to operate and enhance the network.  FirstNet plans to leverage income from the secondary use of its spectrum by commercial entities which will provide services to consumers and businesses.  FirstNet leadership states there is a business plan to use these income sources to develop, expand, enhance and upgrade the network.  But the details of such a plan are unknown outside FirstNet’s Board and immediate staff.   FirstNet could engage and trust states to more completely develop this business plan to drive the RFP process and marketing of the network to public safety entities.

Remove the useless oversight.   FirstNet must render an annual report to Congress.   It’s most recent report – due out February 23rd – still has not been published.  Why?   Because it has to be reviewed by at least 10 different federal agencies!   Why are employees of the FCC and the Department of Justice and even the Department of Commerce reviewing that report?   What value is being added to the speed or quality of the project?  FirstNet is an “independent authority”.   Its customers are cops and firefighters and paramedics and other responders.  A bunch of federal bureaucracies should not stand between it and reporting to Congress or between it and first responders.

Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR).  The FAR is a detailed, lengthy and often onerous regulation designed to guarantee fair procurements by the Federal government.   However the FAR also inadvertently discriminates toward single procurements from large nationwide companies with substantial legal and contracting staff resources.   Consequently smaller, innovative, local or regional companies often will not be successful in FAR-managed procurements.  Furthermore, the FAR effectively prevents innovative partnerships between FirstNet, private companies and states, local and tribal entities to build the NPSBN at a local or regional scale.  FirstNet, as an “independent authority” could be granted relief from certain aspects of the FAR to allow more innovative partnerships and local procurements.

Partnerships with early builders, tribal nations and states.  In any technology-based project, the idea of prototypes, beta and initial implementations are critical. Multiple projects (pilots, if you will), combined with active integration and expansion, will reap significantly more benefit than waiting for a single massive implementation project for the entire nation.   FirstNet could seek partnerships with the existing early builder projects (Adams County Colorado, Los Angeles, New Jersey, New Mexico and Harris County Texas) and their states to expand and enhance those projects to serve larger geographic areas and user communities.   Other states, multi-state regions, and tribal nations may seek to partner with FirstNet and private companies to build the network within their borders.  Such partnerships could serve other public purposes, e.g. providing high speed broadband to consumers and businesses (as secondary users) in underserved, rural and tribal areas.

FirstNetIs the Federal Government Bold Enough to allow FirstNet to Succeed?

FirstNet is a noble effort.  Its network, the cutting-edge devices it will put in the hands of responders and the rapidly evolving public safety apps which will be born in this ecosystem will transform very nature of response, investigation and recovery during public safety incidents and outages and disasters, just as smart phones and tablet computers have transformed the lives of hundreds of millions of consumers and business in the United States and around the world.

But is the federal government courageous enough to unleash FirstNet?  Gutsy enough to trust FirstNet’s Board and its management and its web of supporters in local and state government and private industry?   Trusting enough of Congress’ intent to make FirstNet a truly “independent authority” and then watch it succeed?

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FirstNet: More Choices than Just Opt-in/out

FirstNet LogoThis blog was originally posted on Medium.com on February 7, 2015

The First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) was created by Congress in 2012 and funded with $7 billion to deploy a nationwide wireless network dedicated to public safety. But Congress also attached many strings to FirstNet. One of the major requirements is the creation of a plan to deploy FirstNet in each state. That State Plan — created in consultation with public safety responders in that state — is then presented to the Governor of that State for an explicit decision: opt-in and allow FirstNet to proceed, or opt-out. Technically if the Governor “opts out” the state itself is supposed to build the network in the state, with some financial support from the First Responder Network Authority.

But are opt-in or opt-out the only “options”?

Hell no.

(Read the rest of this post on Medium.)

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Municipal Broadband – Not a Walk in the Park

President Obama

President Obama supporting Municipal Broadband

President Obama recently called upon the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to use its authority to pre-empt state laws restricting municipal broadband.   At least 19 states have laws prohibiting cities from constructing municipal broadband networks providing Internet access for businesses and citizens.  Tom Wheeler, Chair of the FCC and a former telecommunications industry executive, has been publicly talking about doing just that for almost a year.   On January 22 three Democratic Senators introduced the Community Broadband Act which would explicitly make it illegal for states to prohibit “public providers” (cities, counties) from offering broadband.

But if municipal broadband is so great, why haven’t cities in the other 31 states been building broadband networks right and left?

To be fair, some cities are building high-speed broadband networks, usually with fiber optic cable to every home and business. In Chattanooga Tennessee, the Electric Power Board – a rough equivalent of Seattle City Light – has built fiber broadband and is offering gigabit (one billion bits) per second service.   In New York City, Citybridge, under the City’s authority, is replacing up to 10,000 payphones with free gigabit Wi-Fi hotspots which include free phone calls nationwide, tablet computers and charging stations.  Tacoma, Minneapolis, Riverside (California), Lafayette (Louisiana) and even places like Cedar Falls, Iowa, have municipal broadband.

2005 Report

2005 Report on Seattle Municipal Broadband

Seattle has had an on-again, off-again, love affair with the concept of a municipal broadband network (and in full disclosure, I’ve led some of that effort).  Now a local group is forming to push politicians to actually make it happen, although that campaign still lacks a nameUPTUN (Upping Technology for Underserved Neighborhoods) has long advocated for fiber broadband networks for Beacon Hill, the Central Area and nearby neighborhoods.

But, for most places in the United States, including Seattle, municipal broadband is like a shining city on a distant hill:   alluring and inspiring yet distant.

Implementing municipal broadband is not simple or easy.   In fact, the path to municipal broadband is strewn with a whole series of landmines and gotchas similar to the “simple” idea of tunneling a freeway under downtown Seattle.

People are attracted to government-owned and operated broadband networks primarily because the incumbents are so roundly despised.

The cable companies continually raise their rates.  Comcast’s rates have risen 50% faster than inflation since 1996 according to Mark Cooper of the Consumer Federation of America.   People hate their customer service, as well – the 2014 American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) rated Comcast, which serves most of Seattle, as the “worst-rated company in the worst-rated industry”.   Well, that isn’t exactly true.   Time-Warner Cable was rated worse than Comcast, but Comcast is proposing to buy Time-Warner, perhaps to cement its bottom ranking.

Telecommunications companies like CenturyLink provide some competition for the cable companies in Internet service provision.   But the ACSI rates CenturyLink, AT&T and Verizon only slightly above the cable companies.

It is an amazing situation when private citizens demand government get into competition with private companies to improve customer service and lower prices.

What benefits could city government bring to the cable business?   Here are a few:

  1. Wired broadband is a natural monopoly.
    "You could try another cable company if there was one." Jeff Stahler, 2014.

    “You could try another cable company if there was one.” Jeff Stahler, 2014.

    It is expensive to run fiber optic cable to every home and business, just as it is expensive to run gas, water, sewer and electric lines.   Most local governments either provide such monopoly services themselves, or heavily regulate the private providers, including regulation of rate increases.   But the Federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 prohibits local or state regulation of Internet service. While the law does allow local or state government regulation of cable television, it severely restricts that authority.  Local cable franchising authorities, for example, can only regulate the most basic, lowest cost, tier of service.  Municipal Broadband would be as “natural” as municipal ownership of sewer, water or other utility services.

  2. The cable industry has abused its monopoly. Susan Crawford, former technology adviser to President Obama, describes how, in 1997, the cable companies met and decided not to overbuild each other’s systems, cementing the monopoly on cable in most areas.   Comcast has purchased a number of other cable companies – including the pending purchase of Time Warner – further cementing its monopoly and profitability.  Comcast also has purchased a lot of the content delivered over cable TV channels and the Internet.   It owns or partly owns NBC Universal, Oxygen, MSNBC, History, PBS Kids, Sprout and many more producers of programming.   While all of this is legal, the continued concentration of cable networks and content leads to rising rates.   A municipal broadband network would be governed by the local elected Mayor and city council, rather than a board of directors in a faceless corporation in a distant city.
  3. Municipal broadband is good for the economically disadvantaged. A municipal network – controlled by elected officials – could offer discounts and other special services to low income residents, or for children in school, thereby reducing the digital divide and improving economic opportunity.
  4. Competition is good. If several different service providers offer any service, customer service should improve, rates should drop, and Internet speeds should increase.   We’ve seen this already, as Comcast’s rates in Tacoma are lower due to the presence of Tacoma Click (although Click! loses money).  Comcast has increased the speeds of its internet service, perhaps because CenturyLink recently announced it will provide fiber broadband to certain locations in Seattle and elsewhere, and Wave Broadband is also offering gigabit service.
  5. Theoretically, municipal broadband would have lower rates. A municipal network would not have to make profits, pay shareholders and pay exorbitant executive salaries.  Comcast’s CEO Brian Roberts made $31.4 million in 2013.  CenturyLink’s Glen Post made almost $9 million.  Comcast’s part-time directors made $173,000 each.  Seattle Mayor Ed Murray makes less than $184,000, and Seattle City Council members make less than $118,000 each.
  6. Municipal networks would be higher speed and have fewer technical problems. Cable company networks typically are fiber optic cable to each neighborhood, with older coaxial cable down streets and alleys and into each home or premise.   Coaxial cable has connectors, is made of copper (which rusts), and can be decades old, all factors contributing to poor signal quality and technical problems.   Telephone companies usually deliver their DSL broadband over copper wires with similar kinds of technical problems combined with lower speeds.   In contrast, a new network – such as those in Chattanooga, Lafayette and Cedar Falls (but not Tacoma) – would be fiber optic cable throughout.   Fiber carries signals with light, not electricity, and is much more resistant to aging and technical issues.
  7. Municipal networks can serve other city needs.
    United States at Night

    Smart Grid (photo: NIST)

    Municipal networks could support smartgrids for water and electric utilities, where all the transformers, meters, distribution centers and valves in those networks are both automated and managed via the network.   Smartgrids reduce repair times because outages can be quickly located to a specific location.  Smartgrids also allow residents to control their costs because they can see their electric or water use in real time, minute-by-minute or appliance-by-appliance.   This also supports municipal goals for conservation and reduction of climate change.

But if municipal networks are nirvana, why aren’t they also sprouting like mosquitoes in a swamp?

  1. Incumbent internet providers would oppose cities tooth-and-nail. And they have deep pockets.   Comcast has $5 billion cash on hand for lowering rates, advertising and legal expenses.
  2. A new network is expensive. Building a fiber optic network to every one of 320,000 homes, apartments and businesses in Seattle might cost $800 million or more.  Now, that’s not much compared to the $4 billion price tag of Seattle’s ill-fated tunnel under downtown – and a fiber network would serve every home and business in the City, not just cars and trucks using the tunnel.   And $800 million is roughly the equivalent of building a new football or baseball stadium.  But getting voters to approve a $800 million bond issue.
  3. Legal challenges are certain. Lafayette had numerous challenges from Bell South and Cox (Cable) Communications, with both victories and losses in district and appellate courts, but ultimately prevailed in the Louisiana Supreme court after three years of litigation.  Chattanooga did not have as much difficulty, but the Tennessee legislature passed a law limiting its ability to expand its $70 a month gigabit fiber service.   Any major city which tried to implement a fiber broadband network must be prepared to litigate for years.  And Mayors and City Council members would probably have to stand re-election during the legal battles.
  4. The business case for subscribers to pay network costs doesn’t work. A 2011 study conducted by the City of Seattle estimated a municipal broadband network – if supported solely by subscriber fees for television, Internet and telephone – might need to attract 50% of the subscribers from existing service providers.  But a company like Comcast could use its huge cash reserves to cut its rates for Seattle customers for years, essentially starving the municipal network of operating capital until elected officials either gave up or were not re-elected.  The lower rates would be great for consumers and businesses, of course.
  5. Other business models have political risk. There are other models – using a property tax or property assessment to supplement the income of the municipal broadband network.  This makes good economic sense, as a high-speed broadband network in a high-tech city should attract technology workers from Amazon, Microsoft and other companies, improving property values.   But higher property values also means higher rents and housing prices, driving middle and low-income residents from the City.   And again, such an assessment – if passed by Seattle voters – would certainly face legal challenges.  (Note:  it is clearly illegal under state law to use electric utility or water utility rates to support a broadband utility.  Electric rates cannot even be used to provide streetlights, and water rates can’t be used for water flowing through fire hydrants).
  6. Some municipalities have struggled.
    Help me Google Fiber

    Google saves Provo

    Provo, Utah, built a $39 million fiber network in 2004, but, unable to create a successful broadband utility, sold the network to Google for $1.  UTOPIA, a coalition of suburban Salt Lake City cities, has $500 million in debt but no successful network.

  7. Content costs for a municipal network will be higher. The large cable companies have tens of millions of subscribers and, as mentioned above, often own or partially own content providers such as NBC or ESPN.   Their wholesale rates for such content will be lower than the rates a city would pay.   They can also extort payments from some content providers, such as Netflix, which recently agreed to pay Comcast so its movies and video would be delivered faster and more reliably.  This “net neutrality” debate rages in Washington DC, but today provides additional income for incumbent providers.
  8. In Seattle’s case, many of these risks, plus the different business models, are clearly laid out in a 2011 study.
  9. Governments aren’t good at operating entrepreneurial businesses. Governments are great at police and parks and fire and water utilities.  But providing Internet service is a business which has changed radically in the past 20 years, and will undoubtedly change radically again over the next 20.  Is a city government nimble and flexible enough to enter such a marketplace?

Municipal broadband has captured the imagination of Barack Obama and the Federal Communications Commission.  It’s had some notable successes.  Many Seattle consumers want an alternative to the existing monopolies.  But is municipal broadband right for Seattle?   Perhaps the next study by the Murray administration will find the right mix of politics and business to make it work.

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Schrier’s Technology Wish List for 2015

Predicting the Future

Predicting the Future

It’s that time of year again where the top ten lists for the old year spurt out of pundits’ pens along with generally wrong prognostication predictions (that is “guesses”) for the next year.

I’m not very good at either figuring out which recent changes are most significant (I’ll bet the iPhone was one) or predicting what will happen during my day tomorrow, much less 365 days in the future.

But I’m not too bad at looking at the state of technology – especially in government – and wishing for what I’d like to see in the near future.

And here they are:

  • government (including its workers) embracing the cloud,
  • more women in tech,
  • police body-worn video cameras,
  • video recognition software and
  • last, but most important, wise elected officials.

Government Embracing the Cloud

Embracing the Cloud

Embracing the Cloud

Cloud services are the “next hot thing” in technology.  Or they were the next thing hot thing in 2010.

Jeff Bezos of Amazon – along with a number of other technology leaders – believes that very few private companies and governments will operate their own data centers in the future.   This is undeniably true simply because cloud service providers such as Amazon Web Services (AWS) have a tremendous economy of scale.  AWS probably has more than five million servers worldwide.  Every day – 365 days a year – Amazon Web Services installs more server capacity than the entire Amazon e-tailing enterprise had online in 2004.   And AWS has won notable contracts, such as the contract to operate the CIA’s data center.

Seattle has become a hotbed of cloud technology over the past 18 months.  The Seattle area has a number of the major players in this space such as Amazon, Microsoft Azure, CenturyLink, Google, and now even Dropbox and Apple.  The list includes a number of “niche” companies such as Taser International’s Evidence.com which supports cloud hosting of law enforcement data such as body-worn video data and Socrata, the leading cloud service for government open data.

Yet governments have been slow to adopt cloud technologies.  Governments continue to build and operate their own data centers, containing a few hundred servers, and operate much less efficiently than cloud services providers.   While some governments use cloud services such as Accela for permitting, Workday for human resources, and Socrata for open data, most applications continue to live in expensive government-owned data centers operated by government employees.

Why?

Part of the reason government is slow to adopt the cloud is perceived security concerns:  unless the applications data are on disk arrays and servers which government CIOs can touch and feel and see behind the doors of their very own data centers, these officials feel that, somehow, the hackers will get to them.   This concern is patently absurd, as cloud providers such as Microsoft and Amazon can afford to employ hundreds of security professionals compared to the handful in most governments.

Another problem is potential loss of jobs for workers who presently staff government data centers.   However governments badly need employees who will adapt new technologies for government businesses, who will code new web applications and apps for consumers and businesses to better do business with the government.   Government agencies are chronically short of such developers who, by the way, make a lot more money than data center operators and server administrators.   A retraining program for such government technology employees coupled with a move to the cloud will benefit everyone – taxpayers, businesses, government officials and tech employees.

It’s long past time for a wholesale move of government technology to cloud services.

More Women Coders and Women in Technology

Grace Hopper, Inventor of COBOL

Grace Hopper, Inventor of COBOL

I recently had the chance to visit a cloud services development company in the Seattle area.   The company had a variety of very leading edge practices, such as small team environments, self-directed teams, and superior compensation.    They bragged about their employee interview process:  they accepted about 1% of the people who applied or were recruited.

The place was entirely white and Asian-American men.    Well, there was a woman at the front desk.

Now, perhaps it is true that only young males have the interest and ambition to pursue coding.   But having an all young-white-male environment in any business anywhere is not good, for a whole variety of reasons:  all-male business cultures give rise to frat-house-like cultures such as apparently happened at Zillow.    With incomes stagnant or dropping for middle-income people, coding and app development are one of the few areas with tremendous growth in skills and wages – it is important this growth be shared by people of all genders.   Seattle, in particular, seems to have the widest pay gap between women and men.

There are probably many reasons for this disparity.  Perhaps our educational system needs to better emphasize technology careers for girls.   Maybe we need more tech savvy teachers in general, so we don’t have to import so much tech talent via the H1B visa program.  And we certainly need to embrace programs such as the “hour of code” evangelized by Seattle’s code-dot-org.

In fact, linking this problem back to the one above (governments’ need to embrace the cloud), perhaps we should start with an hour of code for all government workers – not just information technology workers, mind you, but ALL government workers.

Ubiquitous Use of Police Body Cams

body-worn-go-pro-wrist

Body Worn Video Camera (sort of) courtesy Go-Pro

President Obama’s December 1 announcement of funding for equipping 50,000 police officers with body-worn video is an innovative approach to improving public safety.   This initiative follows several tragic events such as those in Ferguson, Missouri.   Certainly the idea of recording most police-citizen interactions is appealing.

In a time of polarization about the role of the police in our communities, the use of body-worn video cameras seems to have universal support.   The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) dislikes video surveillance in general but likes body-worn cameras because they hold police officers accountable for their actions.   Police Unions like them because they hold citizens accountable for their actions – in two small studies, civilian complaints against police officers declined by 60% to 88% after implementation of body-cams.  Police officers like them because 98% or 99% of what the police do is overwhelming supportive of people in the community – saving drivers during auto accidents, breaking up domestic violence in homes, helping the homeless.  The Department of Justice likes the cameras, as do elected officials.    And they appear to work:  one DOJ study found showed use of force by officers declined by 60%, and violence from citizens against police also declined.   Prosecutors like video, as it helps establish and support criminal charges.

But, as in everything else, implementing body-worn video is not a panacea for improving policing.   I’ve written earlier about the difficulties of implementing such a program, so I won’t rehash those here.    And others have written about a variety of other problems such as the potential for “constant on” video cameras to create a surveillance state worse than even George Orwell envisioned.

Video Recognition and Indexing Software

Video video everywhere, underground and in the air.

Video cameras are becoming more and more ubiquitous.   Most of the population now carries a video camera on their person with them all the time.  Video surveillance cameras are in wide use in both private businesses and by public agencies such as Departments of Transportation.   A billion people use YouTube, which has 4 billion views each day and 100 hours of video uploaded each second.   And that’s just one video site!

But, like the thousands of unindexed photographs most people have lurking somewhere on hard drives and smart phones, video is hard to index and identify for future use.   Content recognition software is still inadequate – basically under development.

Good content recognition software will serve a variety of useful purposes – it could detect unauthorized use of copyrighted material, could recognize individuals and objects thereby indexing the clips, and could form the basis for databases of video metadata.   Such databases would useful for a variety of purposes such as indexing all that video of your family gatherings for the past 20 years, or storage and retrieval of police body-worn camera video.   Video is quite useful in solving crimes – video from private companies were used to solve the Boston Marathon terrorism and police dashcam video caught Christopher Monfort, alleged killer of Seattle Police Officer Tim Brenton on October 31, 2009.

A Wise Official

A Wise Official

Like audio or voice-recognition software, which is really still in its infancy, good video recognition software is a two edged sword, presenting privacy concerns as well as the useful purpose.

Conclusion

As always, these technology changes will outstrip the ability of our elected leaders to enact laws to deal with the resulting cultural and legal issues.   We demonstrated that this past year with all the controversies surrounding Uber and other car-sharing services in cities across the globe.   We see it in the constant struggle between public safety and privacy.

My final “wish” is for elected officials wise enough to embrace the positive power of new technologies, while controlling the negative implications.    And having the wisdom to know the difference.

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