Category Archives: Code for America

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

The Dallas Divide: A Problem Technology and FirstNet Can’t Fix

I have long been an advocate for using technology to improve government and governing, and in particular for advancing law enforcement.   I’ve been a long-time supporter of building a nationwide public safety wireless broadband network – a network for priority use by first responders for their cell phones, body-worn video, tablet computers and sensors. And we are seeing that network come to fruition in FirstNet.

But there are some problems technology and FirstNet can’t fix.   Specifically, technology can’t repair the divide between law enforcement and the black community, underscored by the events in Dallas, Baton Rouge and Minnesota.

You-Tube-Post-Hour

In fact, technology probably exacerbates those divisions, as smart phone video of officer-involved shootings and use of force goes viral on social media, which itself is another feature of modern society made possible by technologies such as the Internet and the Web.

As an “old white guy” I certainly have no special expertise on police-community relations and how to repair or improve them.   But I can cite some innovations which many communities could adopt:

  • Community-police academies. The Seattle Police Department and many other major urban departments have such training, which helps educate non-law-enforcement people as to how their police and sheriff’s departments operate.   Of course people have to actually sign up for these courses, and then attend them.   And often they are operated at night, at times when people may be busy with family or work.
  • Ride-alongs. Most departments have a ride-along program, where a citizen can ride along with a police officer and see law enforcement “in action”.   Trust me – too often it is fairly boring, but can be punctuated with moments of terror.
  • Police situation simulators. Karen Johnson of the Black Alliance of Thurston County and Austin Jenkins of National Public Radio’s KUOW (University of Washington) put themselves into such a simulator recently.   They faced real-life situations similar to those cops find themselves handling, with some surprising results.
  • Better police training. Ron Sims was the longest-serving Executive (Mayor) of King County (Seattle). He was the Deputy Director of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.  He lives in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Seattle, Mount Baker.  Yet he’s been pulled over, while driving, by cops 8 times.   He’s 68.  He’s African American.  Apparently he’s “driving while black”. How many of you reading this blog posts have been pulled over 8 times?
  • dallas-police-protecting

    A Dallas Police Officer protects Protesters

    Guardian, not warrior, mentality. Sue Rahr, former King County Sheriff and now director of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Center, advocates for this change in culture and attitudes by police agencies and officers.  Certainly the behavior of Dallas Police Officers during the recent sniper attack, putting themselves in harm’s way to protect the Black Lives matter protesters, is the highest exemplar of this change in attitude.

  • Better police training. Many departments, including Seattle Police, are training hard with de-escalation training and crisis intervention programs.   Crisis intervention is phenomenal, as it seeks to have police officers support the mentally ill, homeless and others in crisis by getting them the services they need rather than taking them to jail or a mental health ward.  Seattle Police, in fact, are working with Code for America to develop a new app to make crisis intervention data available to police officers on smart phones and tablet computers.
  • Open up the data. The Obama Administration launched a police data initiative, which 53 cities covering 41 million people have joined.   The open data portal is powered by Socrata, a Seattle technology firm.   Amazingly, the Dallas Police Department has been one of the most forthright in opening up its data, publishing datasets on use of force and officer involved shootings, something most other departments have failed to do.  Code for America publishes a report card on which police departments have released which datasets.   The Police Foundation has pushed departments to go beyond the White House initiative in being transparent in their actions and operations.
  • President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.   This Commission, headed by Charles Ramsey, former Chief of Police in Washington, D.C. and then Philadelphia, made a number of recommendations to improve police-community relations.  I was honored to present some recommendations to the task force which were adopted in its final report.
seahawks-parade-crowd

The Seattle Seahawks Superbowl Victory Parade, 2014, which cell networks where jammed – one reason we need FirstNet

Technology and FirstNet have significant roles to play as well.  Many of the innovations above rely upon technology such as open data platforms, apps, and training simulations.   Body-worn video, in-car video and similar technologies to record how police operate will build community trust.   FirstNet is extraordinarily important to providing real-time two-way wireless communications for not only police and other first responders, but anyone who responds to public safety issues – transportation, public works, utilities, non-profits like the Red Cross and even teachers who are often “first responders” to incidents in their schools.

All of these innovations are cool and important.  But, ultimately, it is not technology which will bring law enforcement and the black community back into balance.  It is cops getting out of their cars and talking to people in cafes and barber shops and on the streets.    It is one community meeting after another where police officers and commanders show up to hear the real problems facing real people and modify their tactics to help.

We cannot rely on police departments and sheriff’s department for all of our public safety needs.  Keeping the community safe from those who prey upon us is, ultimately, everyone’s responsibility.

Police officers are also citizens, and need to think like citizens, not as warriors.   But also, perhaps every member of our communities needs to become a police officer, or at least put themselves in the shoes of cops.

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Filed under Code for America, community technology, Law Enforcement, open data, Seattle Police

– The Inception Event (CfA)

click to see moreI guess you can teach an older CTO (me!) new tricks.

I was pleasantly surprised by a Code for America “inception event” on March 17th. The event was the kickoff – really the kickoff of the second half of our “game” (project) to create open source software which will help Seattle and Philadelphia and other cities’ neighborhood leaders … well … “lead”.

Every City and County has neighborhood activists – people who care about their blocks and their communities – and want to improve them. Most often, such activists are “made”, not born. There are many “inception events” which create activists for examples:

  • A child or a senior citizen is struck by a speeding car in a crosswalk.
  • A sex predator moves into the neighborhood.
  • A rash of burglaries occurs in homes on the block.
  • A vacant lot becomes overgrown with weeds and becomes a breeding ground for rats and insects.

Quite often, many people in the neighborhood recognize the problem. Sometimes, someone in the neighborhood recognizes the problem and decides to take action to fix it.

Code for AmericaAn activist is born.

But what do they do next? What action can they really take to change the situation?

Nine times out of ten, they call their local government – their City or sometimes their County. Sometimes it is a call to 911, sometimes to their Mayor or City Council member, sometimes to 311, sometimes they spend time flipping through the blue pages in the phone book (or the modern-day equivalent – an often-hard-to-navigate municipal website) trying to find who to call.

Often the answer they receive – if they get one, especially in these days of government budget deficits and cutbacks in services – sends them from one phone call to another, or maybe directs them to “go to a meeting” of their local blockwatch or community council.

Then our newly minted activist will search online for the meeting of a local community group.  Or maybe they’ll search, usually in vain, for the name of the local blockwatch captain.  Blockwatch captains – community members – are often skittish about publicly releasing their contact information, and understandably so, since blockwatches represent a threat to the local gangs or criminals in the neighborhood.  But finding a blockwatch/community meeting or event can be a dizzying trip through a maze of websites and online calendars or bulletin boards in grocery stores.

Our neighborhood activist, by this time, can be thoroughly frustrated not just with the problem on their block, but with government, community councils, blockwatches and life in general.

How can we in government fix this situation, and help neighborhood activists turn into civic leaders and also help those leaders to be successful?

Code for America - click to see moreFirst, we need to recognize the many people in our cities who have figured this out – have become neighborhood activists, blockwatch captains and civic leaders.  They’ve figured out the “secret sauce” to getting things done.

Next we need to recognize the many government employees – city and county – who really take their jobs seriously.  They want to fix problems and help improve quality of life for residents, but are often stymied by siloed department bureaucracies and simple lack of information – a transportation worker filling a pothole in the street often doesn’t know who to contact about a rat-infested vacant lot, any more than any other citizen.

Finally, government doesn’t have to be involved in the solution to EVERY civic problem.  Quite often citizens working with each other can take action and make their neighborhoods better.

Enter Code for America.

Code for America is a non-profit established by Jen Pahlka, who is also CfA’s Executive Director.  Jen also runs Web/Gov 2.0 events for Techweb, in conjunction with O’Reilly media.   Many of you probably know Tim O’Reilly, a prominent – perhaps THE prominent proponent of the interactive, social web (sometimes called Web 2.0 or Gov 2.0).

Code for America’s premise is simple – citizens and governments face the fundamentally the same issues whether they live in South Beach on Staten Island or San Antonio or Seattle.  Sometimes we can create online applications to help solve those problems.  And if we create them – and we make those applications open source – cities across the United States – perhaps even the world – can take those open source solutions and use them.

Code for America hires “fellows” – usually recent college grads or others with real world experience and a lot of tech savvy – to analyze these problems and write these apps.

This does require money, of course. The City of Seattle (the department I lead – DoIT) pitched in some dollars. But I’m very grateful to Microsoft via Joanne Harrell for contributing $50,000, and to Jack Dangermond of ESRI for chipping in an additional $50,000. Joanne and Microsoft, Jack and ESRI see the potential of this amazing model.

Seattle, Philadelphia and Boston are the launch cities for this ambitious concept.  I’ve previously blogged about what I hoped to get from our Code for America project – see my blog about Citywatch.

In February, the CfA fellows came to our three cities and spent a lot of time with those people I mentioned above – the civic leaders who have “figured out the secret sauce” to getting things done in their neighborhoods – but also the City staff often stymied as well.  They heard about the problems with trying to take action – that civic leaders can’t find each other and have difficulty getting their message out to like-minded activists.  And they heard about the difficulty in finding those meetings of neighborhood blockwatches and community councils and precinct advisory boards – the “meet ups” for neighborhood leaders.

Cue the Code for America “inception event” on March 17th.

This was an amazing eight hours.

First, all the fellows assigned to Seattle, Philly and Boston got together with Code for America staff and our Cities technology folks, including me.  The fellows had already brainstormed several potential applications to solve our community activism problems.

Dan Melton, CfA’s Chief Technology Officer, took the whole group through an exercise to develop the concepts for four potential apps, and determine our overall level of interest in them.  People stood on their feet throughout this exercise. If we were wildly enthusiastic about an idea, we stood to the far right of the room.  If we were “meh” (ambivalent) about it, we stood at the left side.

Then Dan asked us why we were enthusiastic – or not.  In the process, we also further developed the ideas – added functions or features or discarded them.

Next, we voted on the ideas and came up with the top two.

In the afternoon, we went through a deeper dive to develop each application further.  This reminded me a lot of doing a work breakdown structure for a project.  We looked at potential users of the application (our civic leaders) and what they would find useful.  We considered which features would be essential for the first version, and which ones could wait until later versions. We talked a little about what apps presently perform the function, because we don’t want to re-invent an app which already exists.

I worked on the “engagement toolkit” project. As we developed it, it turned into a simple web-based application which a neighborhood activist could use to describe their particular issue or passion.  It would include a “splash page” which simply describes the issue or idea.  But it could also include flyers or doorhangers to solicit others to the “cause”. It might include e-mail list capability or an online map describing the issue.  And it could include simple project management tools – checklists or timelines – to help move the issue forward.

Most importantly, the engagement toolkit would allow neighborhood activists to mobilize their friends and neighbors to the cause.  Working together, they might solve certain problems without any help from their city or county government. They might also be able to find similar groups across a city – or even across the nation – who have already solved their particular problem, and adapt the same solution.

Over the next few months the Code for America staff and fellows will develop this concept into an online application.  They’ll test it out with the civic leaders they’ve already identified in Seattle and Philly.  And in August or September we’ll roll it out and starting using it.

With a little luck, we can marry the “inception event” at Code for America, combined with “inception events” which create budding civic leaders, to create new, online, tools to improve our blocks, our neighborhoods, our communities, and our America as a nation.

From the ground … up.

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Filed under Code for America, community technology, social media