Category Archives: community technology

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

– Improving Govt Health with a Fiber Diet

Louisiana Immersive Tech Enteprise - click to see more

Louisiana Immersive Tech Enterprise

I was honored to be in Lafayette, Louisiana, this past week for Fiber-Fete. Lafayette is just finishing a City-owned fiber optic network which reaches every home and business. Fiber-Fete was an international gathering to celebrate the innovative work led by Parish President (Mayor) Joey Durel and his team of people from business, non-profits, education, healthcare and government.

Lafayette’s fiber network boasts speeds of 10 megabits per second, both ways, to every home and business in the City, for $29 a month, and 50 megabits both ways for $58. Speeds of 100 megabits or even a gigabit per second are possible very soon. The FCC’s recently released national broadband plan set a goal for much of the United States to achieve such speeds by 2020. But Lafayette virtually has it now, in 2010.

During the conference, one of our breakout groups brainstormed a set of ideas for using this network to improve government and governing. Here are a few of our ideas.

A Mini-Connect Communication Device. The telephone is almost ubiquitous in American homes, with 95% or more of homes having a phone. Land-line penetration is dropping now, of course, as many people use only their cell phones or use voice-over-Internet connections via their computers. An essential device for future premises certainly seems to be a mini-comm, possibly modeled after the mini-tel which was widely deployed in France a few years ago. The mini-comm would be a voice telephone, videophone with a small screen, and potentially have connections for a TV and keyboard to allow it to be used as a web browser to connect to the fiber network. Such a device needs to be cheap and probably subsidized so every home, regardless of income, has one.

The mini-comm has many potential applications beyond phone, videophone and web browser. It would have batteries so it would function even during extended power outages due to natural disasters. It could be activated by government preceding or during such disasters to alert residents to an oncoming hurricane, or the need to evacuate, with further instructions on what to do. It might even have a wi-fi connection so that students who bring laptops home from school (school-issued laptops for all students are another great idea) have connectivity at home.

Video and Web via TV. Ideally, every television set in a home will eventually be internet-enabled with a built-in video camera and web browser. Certainly the latest generation of set-top boxes for cable TV have such functions built in.

Video 311 and 911. With the devices above, anyone who calls 911 with an emergency or 311 for non-emergency access to government services could also activate a two-way video function. For 911, this means the 911 center could view a burglary in progress or domestic violence situation, and help the responding police officers understand what is happening. For medical emergencies the 911 center might be able to activate monitoring devices and understand the known health issues of the caller, thereby better directing care over the mini-comm or to responding emergency medical personnel. Residents might be able to transact a variety of business over the phone/data link, including consultation about potential building plans and permits, more accurate understanding of utility billing issues (especially if smartgrid or automated water/gas/electric metering infrastructure is in place). And even for routine calls or complaints, we could put a “face” on government via a live video chat with a customer service agent.

Public health nurse or Probation Officer virtual visits. Public health officers, human services and probation officers often have an obligation to check upon or visit clients. With the mini-comm or other two way video devices, such visits might be conducted over the network. This would be especially useful if people are quarantined for pandemic flu or other diseases. But it could includes home health monitoring for seniors, and monitoring of people on probation or any reason, but especially for alcohol or drug abuse and sex offenses.

Enhancing public meetings. Public meetings of city/county councils and other public boards or commissions are almost unchanged from 250 years ago. To attend such a meeting, people travel to the meeting room, wait in line, and speak for a closely-timed two or three minutes. Essentially the public meeting becomes a series of usually un-related mini-speeches. With a fiber network, there are some opportunities to enhance such meetings. At a minimum, people who are unable to travel due to work or childcare or disabilities could participate remotely. But using tools such as Google moderator or Ideascale or Microsoft’s Town Hall, participants could also submit questions remotely, and then rank them. The top ranked (“crowdsourced”) questions could then be asked. Indeed, with high-quality video, the people who submitted the highest ranking questions could ask the question her/himself. Meetings could also be enhanced as viewers are able to see PowerPoint or video presentations, or link to web-based documents, at the same time they are watching the meeting.

Virtual Neighborhoods to visualize redesigning a town or do community or neighborhood planning. Lafayette has Louisiana Immersive Technologies Enterprise (LITE), where innovative uses for 3D imaging are on development and display. Using these technologies along with some existing data such as Google Maps “bird’s eye view”, Microsoft’s Photosynth and digital orthophotograhy, we could create virtual representations of neighborhoods. Neighborhood planning groups could use these technologies to visualize how their neighborhood would appear with certain changes such as a new apartment building, or a boulevard, or different proposed configurations for a park.

These are just a few of the ideas we brainstormed for government use of such high speed networks. Other Fiber-Fete workgroups addressed uses for education, libraries, utilities, energy, business and much more.

Several facts are certain. Lafayette is the center of innovative Cajun culture plus great Cajun food and music. And this mid-sized city in Louisiana, is leading the nation with this innovative network. In ten years, the applications developed and tested there will be used throughout the nation.

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Filed under broadband, cable, community technology, customer service, fiber, internet, Uncategorized, video

– The Digital Fireside Chat

An Obama Text Message

An Obama Text Message

President-elect Barack Obama made groundbreaking use of technology to win the 2008 election. Can he now use technology to lead the nation and communicate with the nation’s people in new, life-changing ways?   I think so, and I think this foreshadows new ways for Governors, Mayors and other elected officials to lead and communicate.

On November 9th’s ABC program “This Week” (George Stephanopoulos), the discussion turned to our previous major national economic crisis – the Depression. Our current situation has some parallels to that in 1932 – new leadership in a nation facing an economic crisis of frightening dimensions. As we know, the New Deal never really “fixed” the Great Depression – it took World War II to do that. But 1932 is still remarkable for the terrific leadership of Franklin Roosevelt: fresh ideas, a new outlook, and a new way of communicating with people, including Roosevelt’s famous radio “fireside chats”. “This Week’s” commentators mentioned the possibility of “digital fireside chats” from our new President.

Barack Obama, with a tech saavy and skilled team, used the web and Internet to identify and mobilize up to ten million supporters, of whom at least three million financially contributed to the campaign. According to Time Magazine, the campaign raised $150 million in September, 75% of it online (not me, incidentally, I contributed by paper check!).

According to wired-dot-com, volunteers used Obama’s website to organize a thousand phone-banking events in the last week of the race — and 150,000 other campaign-related events over the course of the campaign. The campaign also created myBarackObama.com, essentially a social-networking site with 35,000 affinity groups – the site has some 1.5 million accounts. These social networks were also used to fight many of the false rumors and McCain robo-calls. The campaign even announced Senator Joseph Biden as Obama’s running mate via text message.

Bill Greener, a Republican consultant from Alexandria, quoted in the Seattle Times, said: “We are getting crushed in early voting and the efficient use of technology. It’s a huge deal when the other side is text-messaging to cell phones while our side is hoping we’ve got a good e-mail list.”

One surprising part of that statement is this: a “good e-mail list” is now taken for granted in campaigning – and it falls short!  Just three presidential elections ago, e-mailing was an esoteric technology only used by a small fraction of the population. 

Researchers at Princeton and the University of Michigan conducted a 2006 study and concluded that a text message delivered by cell phone could boost voter turnout among young people by 4 percent. While that might not sound like much, Obama’s margin of victory was just 6%.

Will the Obama campaign now shut down MyBarackObama.com and take its database of mobile phone numbers, e-mail addresses and supporter names and just put them on a backup tape and send them to Iron Mountain for storage until the next campaign?   I doubt it! More likely they will be used to communicate the new President’s message on programs and change, and turn out those supporters to lobby on behalf of legislation.

The “new” web, web 2.0, abounds with tools for communication and collaboration: not just text messaging, but blogging and social networking, YouTube channels and wiki’s. A vast variety of ways for a new, tech saavy, President to engage the people of the United States, and allow us to engage him with our ideas and energy.

Invariably eyes will turn to the 20% to 40% of the population who do not actively use technology or have Internet connections – the “digital divide”. Those without access to technology are, disproportionately, lower income and non-white. Bridging that divide has been a major effort at the City of Seattle and in many other governments.

Now, with a national leader who embraces high tech, it will become “cool” for everyone to use tech and have access. (We call this “Leadership by Example”). Cultural barriers to using technology will fall, and programs to bring it to everyone (such as Seattle’s Community Technology and Broadband work) will gain even more momentum.

Then perhaps we – the People – can become active participants in government, not just observers between elections.

All these are great ideas for a digital fireside chat – and a two-way one – via the electronic fireplace of the computer monitor.

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Filed under broadband, community technology, elections, web 2.0

– Matching People to Technology

Council member Harrell and Jefferson Terrace Awardees

Council member Harrell and Jefferson Terrace Awardees

Original post:  5 August 2008

We often hear requests for contributions for a variety of charitable causes. Sometimes those causes use the phrase “for less than the price of a latte a day you can … (fill in the blank with the good deeds which the organization can do)”.
Well, you’d be surprised what Seattle’s government – with a little help from a lot of volunteers – can do with about one-fourth of one-cent a day.
City Council member Bruce Harrell and I proudly presided at significant event on July 30th – the awards ceremony for the City of Seattle’s 2008 technology matching funds.
This is a program which is fairly unique. Almost every City in the United States which has cable television collects a franchise fee from the cable provider. The Mayor and Seattle City Council decided to dedicate some of that franchise fee to this technology matching fund (TMF) program. The cost to a typical cable subscriber is about $1 per year. TMF helps non-profit and community organizations to use technology to improve their communities and to bring access to computers and the Internet to people who otherwise do not have them. The neat thing about the program is “matching”. Each group must at least match the dollar amount of the grant with their own funds or in-kind labor. They use the funds to purchase computers or video equipment or other technology. And then they teach young people or seniors or immigrants how to use the technology to improve their lives and their neighborhoods.
Some of the organizations include Reel Grrls, which brings video production skills to teenage girls and the Seattle Hip-Hop Youth council which, similarly, is using video and audio equipment along with help from local artists to teach young people in the Central Area to create media and art.
Read more about the event here and read about all the grant recipients here.
And thank you, Seattle, for that third-of-a-cent a day, $1,500,000 over 10 years!

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Filed under community technology, people, Seattle DoIT