Category Archives: egovernment

A 10 point Tech Plan for Mayors of Large Cities

Ed-Murray-Dively-Choe

Ed Murray (center), with transition team leaders Dwight Dively and Martha Choe

(On November 5, 2013, State Senator Ed Murray was elected Mayor of Seattle.  Seattle voters have thrown out all thre of their incumbent Mayors who held office in the 21st Century.  Here are my suggestions for what Mayor-elect Murray – but, really, any Mayor in any large City – can do immediately to use technology to enhance City services and improve efficiency of operations.)

Washington state has an extraordinarily robust tech community, anchored not only by big companies like Microsoft and Amazon, but by the University of Washington and an active start-up scene. Yet our city’s engagement with that tech community – and the technology used by government itself – are inadequate and falling behind other major worldwide centers of technology.

Here’s how mayor-elect Ed Murray can create a government that uses technology to facilitate citizen involvement and provide efficient effective services …

(Read the remainder of the article on Crosscut here.)

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Filed under 311, broadband, CIOs, eCityGov, egovernment, elections, fiber, government, management of technology

– Just Another Apps Competition?

Evergreen Apps winnersThe first-ever Evergreen Apps Competition came to a close last night in Seattle as we recognized the top applications developed over the last six months with government open data. Top honors went to Living Voters Guide with other prizes for WhichBus, Trash Backwards and Food Inspector.

I was one of the judges for the event, and, I have to admit, I had a lot of fun downloading and testing the apps on Android and iPhone platforms, as well using some apps on the web itself.   Full results are posted on the Evergreen Apps website and on Geekwire.

“Apps competitions” might seem a little passé these days. It sure seems as if there have been dozens of them, starting with the original Apps for Democracy in the District of Columbia in 2008.   New York City has had at least three renditions of their Big Apps contests and San Francisco continues to innovate with a whole catalog of apps.

What makes this one different?  And where should we be going with Government data and apps contests in the future?

Evergreen Apps ChallengeEvergreen Apps is different because it was a joint effort by the City of Seattle, King County and the State of Washington. Three governments at different levels, multiple different open data sites and $75,000 in prizes. Plus, of course, it was held in Seattle, center of the technology world, with over 100,000 people employed by companies ranging from Microsoft to Cozi to Amazon to Google to Socrata to Urbanspoon.

In return for the prize money, the rules stipulate the apps must be maintained an enhanced for a year. That, hopefully, will give some longevity to these apps. Alas, many of the results of apps contests elsewhere have resulted in dead ended apps which no longer work for a whole variety of reasons ranging from changes in the underlying data structure to developers who go on to other things.

A huge issue is sustainability.   One of my very favorite apps from the original Apps for Democracy contest – “Stumble Safely” which maps crime around your present geographic location – appears to be long dead.

Developers and their startup companies can’t live on coding alone – cash really REALLY helps, but apps built on government open data are hard to monetize.

Another huge problem is non-portability. An app built in Seattle with data.seattle.gov information works in Seattle, but not in LA or Chicago or Podunk Center. We need either much better standards for the underlying datasets, along the lines of Google’s GTFS for transit data. Many transit agencies have adopted this format because increasing their ridership is core to their business, and using the standard advances that goal.

As an alternative, we could use a schema and data interchange process to mask the differences in data between different cities, counties and states.

Cities Data GovI have great hopes for Socrata, a Seattle-based technology company which hosts the federal data.gov, data.seattle.gov, and hundreds of other government open data sites. They are one of the movers behind cities.data.gov, a first attempt at combining datasets from multiple cities.

If cities.data.gov or maybe a future states.data.gov or even restaurantinspections.data.gov can be made real, then an app writing against those open data sites would work anyplace in the world which contributes data.

City, County and State Open Data SitesAnother huge problem is simply the lack of governments who participate. Sure, there are 176 federal government agencies who make data open, thanks to the commitment of the Obama Administration, the United States CTO Todd Park, his Deputy Chris Vein, U. S. CIO Steve Van Roekel and data.gov evangelists like Jeanne Holm. But only 19 cities and counties in the United States, and only 34 states have open data sites. See the list here. And many of those have incomplete or only a few datasets.

When are local and state governments going to “get it” that transparency and open data are a way to enlist a wide site of private companies and developers into helping them better serve their constituents?

Finally, there is the abysmal situation with transparency in lawmaking. Most state legislatures and city/county councils and commissions put proposed laws and ordinances on their websites, but in PDF format or non-machine readable format, making them almost impossible to consume with apps. Is this stupid, shortsighted or maybe intentional? A positive development here is the recent launch of congress.gov, which the Sunlight Foundation hails as putting much more machine-readable bulk data online.

So where do we go from here? My suggestions:

  • Initiate a nationwide or at least statewide (for individual states) effort to standardize the format of the open data, or create data interchange software to mask the differences in the underlying data, as Socrata is trying to do.  Collaboration such as that shown by a City, County and State at Evergreen Apps is a great step forward on this path.
  • Establish statewide and GSA contracts with private companies to host the data. The State of Washington has done that and it ismuch easier for cities and counties in that state to build their own open data sites. Data.seattle.gov was live two months after we started the project, by using such a contract.
  • Pass laws which mandate all data produced by a city, state or county which can be on an open data site is put there. New York City leads the way on this.
  • Also mandate city, county and state legislative processes be open with machine-readable data, as congress.gov is starting to do.

In the end, of course, it all comes down to visionary leadership.

Open governmentPresident Barak Obama was really visionary in demanding open data and transparency from the Federal Government on his first day in office, on January 21, 2009. Then federal CIO Vivek Kundra and CTO Aneesh Chopra carried that ball forward. Mayor Mike McGinn in Seattle launched data.seattle.gov shortly after taking office in 2010 and I was proud to support him in that as Seattle CTO. Other visionary leaders range from Mayor Gavin Newsom in San Francisco to U.S. Deputy CTO Chris Vein in the White House to Mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York City.

But, alas, you can’t legislate leadership. You can only hope voters recognize it and cast their ballots for visionary candidates, and those elected officials, in turn, choose visionary CIOs.

We’ve got a great start on the brave old world of Government Transparency, and, with initiatives like Evergreen Apps, we’ll continue to push the “open data” ball forward.

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Filed under apps, egovernment, Fedgov, open data, open source, web 2.0

– CIO Champions “Change”

The White HouseCan Chief Information Officers – folks who are deeply into computers and data and technology – be “champions”?

We usually think of champions in the context of the Olympics or boxing (“heavyweight champion of the world”) or others who are victorious after a hard-fought competition. CIOs are not usually considered to be competing or fighting, although, really, they do a lot of both).

This past week the White House honored 13 people for being “Local Innovators” of Change in their communities. I’m proud that eight of those folks are CIOs or Information Technology leaders in their communities: Phil Bertolini, Adel Ebeid, Carolyn Hogg, Michele Hovet, Nigel Jacob, Jay Nath, Chris Osgood and John Tolva. Every one of these eight has been acknowledged here in the pages of Government Technology or Public CIO magazine for the great work they’ve been doing in places ranging from Boston to Fresno, and San Francisco to Chicago to Philadelphia, with a stopover in Oakland County, Michigan.

Coincidentally this week, the Ash Institute at Harvard named 111 “Bright Ideas” for innovation in government. These range from tracking government departments’ performance online (TrackDC) to Allegheny County’s Music Festival fund to “Blightstat” in New Orleans.
We talk a lot about “change”. We hear a lot about “change” from every manner of political candidate from far right to far left to far bizarre.

But, frankly, “some” change is good, but most of us want and need a stable, unchanging, base of government and life. In other words, we need to be “grounded” and have a safety net. With that, we can make selective, and sometimes radical change to improve our quality of life and the quality of life for the citizens we serve.

That’s why I’m so proud of this crop of eight local government leaders (as well as the other five, who I don’t know personally). They make wise but bold changes happen. They know the capacity of their employees and elected officials and constituents to tolerate change, and they push that bubble a bit. Sometimes quite a bit.

And I’m really really proud and happy that the Obama Administration – and specifically its Office of Science and Technology Policy – recognize these champions, these heros, and hold them up as examples for the rest of us to follow (thank you Todd Park and Chris Vein).

Read more about these “Champions of Change” and their specific accomplishments on the White House blog here.

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Filed under change, CIOs, egovernment, government, Uncategorized

– Best of the Web – The Secret Sauce

City of Seattle Best-of-the-Web Award, 2011

City of Seattle Web Team

Seattle’s City government website www.seattle.gov has been named the #1 City government web portal for 2011 by eRepublic’s Center for Digital Government.  I was honored to be with the City’s web team in Hollywood for the awards ceremony on September 16th.   Our open data feed, data.seattle.gov received a Digital Government Achievement Award at the same ceremony.

Not only that, but www.seattle.gov has been named the #1 City web portal three times in the past eleven years – years 2000, 2006 and now again in 2011.

What’s the “secret sauce” to winning the “Best of the Web” competition?

To answer that, I’ll share the electronic mail note I sent to all 200 employees of the Department of Information Technology (which I lead) on September 1st:

For all City of Seattle Department of Information Technology staff:

Today, Thursday morning,  September 1st, the Center for Digital Government announced its “Best of  the Web” awards for 2011. The City of Seattle’s web portal, www.seattle.gov , is named the top City government web  portal for 2011. The press release from the Center is online. In  addition, our open data website data.seattle.gov received a Digital Achievement
Award in the government to citizen category. We’ve won the “best web  portal” award three times – in 2000, 2006 and now in 2011. When you  consider there are 275 cities over 100,000 in population, and many thousands of  smaller ones, winning three times in 11 years is a phenomenal achievement.

This honor is a direct  reflection of the hard work of the City’s web teams, especially the central web  team led by Bruce Blood and Jeff Beckstrom, and the data.seattle.gov team led  by Neil Berry and Ben Andrews.

But everything we do in  the Department of Information Technology is a team effort. We don’t have a  great web portal without a great server and unix computing team to do the  hosting. Our community technology folks help those without access to the Internet to get that access and use www.seattle.gov . We absolutely need a great data communications team to maintain our data network and Internet access. Solid 24×7 operations is essential, and our data center staff provide that. Information
security is of paramount importance not just to the web site but also in our web applications and throughout our infrastructure.  And our technology planning and oversight unit helps facilitate a visionary strategic technology plan for the City and our department.

Content for the web site comes from departments, and that requires great partners in our department web  teams and content providers like the Seattle Channel.   That, in turn, requires a strong desktop  support team and good service desk to keep our desktop and other technology systems functional. We need  money and good people to support all this effort, and we have a great finance,  accounting and human resources team to support that.

They don’t give awards for  “best telephone network” or messaging team or communications shop or  telecommunications integration team, but “best web portal” is a  direct reflection of the excellence and commitment by work groups across the
department.

But it is also a reflection of Mayor McGinn’s leadership, especially the thoughtful leadership and decisions of Chief of Staff Julie McCoy, with input and support from many others in the Mayor’s Office, on the Council, and in departments.

In addition to the top honor for web portal, our open data site, http://data.seattle.gov received a Digital Government
Achievement Award in the Government to Citizen category.  I especially want to thank Mayor McGinn, Chief John Diaz, Chief Gregory Dean, and Diane Sugimura for leadership in making departmental data available on that site, and Council member Harrell for his support of funding for data.seattle.gov despite the difficult budgets we’ve recently faced.   They lead a true ommitment to an open, transparent, government for Seattle!

We live in difficult  times. The economy is rocky. Budgets are constrained, and we’ve lost a number  of people and positions. I had a meeting with the Mayor earlier today, talking  about budget. I directly told him that despite losing 27 positions and $11  million in funding over the past four years, our workload has only increased as  the use of technology expands in City government. He  acknowledged that and told  me how proud he was of the continued dedication and skilled work of DoIT’s  staff, despite the hard economic times and the reduced revenues available to  City government.

For one moment today, as  you encounter and overcome the everyday problems and challenges of your job,  sit back and bask in the glory of this achievement.

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Filed under egovernment, employees, open data, seattle channel, Uncategorized

– Bright Shiny Objects

Bright Shiny (Shifting?) ObjectWhy are human beings and governments so attracted to bright shiny objects such as smart phone apps?

I’m sure there is a psychological malady in here somewhere – perhaps a “Bright Shiny Object Syndrome” (BSOS), which also might explain why some people passionately love geocaching and others are inveterate collectors of stuff and still others become compulsive hoarders. And BSOS may be related to that urban legend(?) about capturing monkeys by putting bright shiny objects (BSOs) into a monkey trap.

Certainly Apple seems to be making a handsome living off BSOS, with over 10 billion downloads from its iPhone Apps store at a 30% cut of the price each.  Apple also receives a percentage from iTunes music downloads, and has capitalized on what I would call “hardware BSO” by being first to market with products like the iPod, iPhone and iPad.  Of course plenty of other companies also cash in on BSO.  A perfect example is all the companies hoping to make money in the forthcoming boom in tablet computers this year.

How does this all relate to government?

Government employees, including senior executives and elected officials, range the gamut from early adopters to tech troglodytes.   And more than a few of them are afflicted with BSO syndrome.   Sometimes that’s harmless, like the employee who has an iPod plus video camera plus digital camera plus iPad and maybe two kinds of Smart Phones.   As long as “he” (they are usually men) uses his desktop computer with Windows XP for work, and operates all those gadgets on his own time, I see no harm in this.

A worse situation is a senior official who directs the government or department he/she leads to adopt the latest gee-whiz gadgets or web applications without connection to either the department’s business strategic plan or a coherent technology plan.  Then that department tries to simultaneously reach constituents – and perhaps obtain input from them – via too many methods, such as:

  • a website (and maybe a variety of website domains such as countyparks.gov and parksforall.com and a domain for each major park)
  • a variety of online services such as payment engines, permit applications, maps etc.
  • blogs (and comments on blogs)
  • tweets (and @replies)
  • many different facebook pages
  • webforms
  • multiple YouTube postings and channels, in addition to the municipal cable TV channel
  • open data
  • smartphone apps
  • e-mail
  • mass-e-mailed newsletters
  • crowdsourcing via a tool such as Google Moderator or Ideascale
  • and probably via other bright-shiny-methods.

Sometimes I almost feel I “resemble these remarks” (i.e. have BSO syndrome myself):    The City of Seattle has a number of web applications and “bright shiny objects” such as Citylink – interconnected blogs at citylink.seattle.gov, multiple tweeting departments, a whole set of interactive services for making payments and obtaining information, a variety of Facebook pages and social media sites, open data at data.seattle.gov, a customizable website at my.seattle.gov, an award-winning municipal TV channel and much more.

So I’ll offer some tips – and this is advice the City of Seattle itself doesn’t always follow – on avoiding BSO syndrome in a world of Web 2.0 and Gov 2.0:

1.  Establish the brand of your website and try not to dilute it.  We have established www.seattle.gov as the definitive site for Seattle’s City government.  We actively resist setting up a whole series of competing domains with City information, e.g. seattlewater.gov or twistandsave.com (for a compact florescent bulb promotion).   We host our own implementation of WordPress, so that even the blogs (citylink.seattle.gov) are really part of the website.
I’ll be honest – this tenet is often hard to follow.   Many departments think they have some unique message which has to be communicated in a unique way with their own domain and website.   Sometimes this is just a new departmental web administrator trying to make a name for him/herself as a cool web designer.   Sometimes it is a legitimate request.  And sometimes it is something else entirely.  As CIO I need the wisdom of Solomon to recognize the difference!

2.   Drive traffic and inquiries back to the website from the other media.   When you tweet, include a link back to information on the website or in a blog.  When posting to the department’s Facebook wall, make the post short and succinct (include a photo or two, if appropriate) and link back to more information or an app on the website.

3.   Try to make the website as consistent as possible in look, feel and operation.  Use consistent headers, footers and navigation, as well as the same look-and-feel throughout the site.  Any government is not a collection of independent departments, but one entity headed by a single elected official with a single elected legislative body.  And try to be consistent in using a single payment engine for online payments, as well as “single sign-on” – one userid and password which provides access to all of the government’s online services.

4.   Be judicious in the proper use of tools.  In other words, use the right tool for the job.  Too often we have a hammer, so everything we see looks like a nail, even if in reality it is a screw or window or thumb.  

The best example of this is probably Citizens’ Briefing Book.   In January, 2009, President Obama’s transition team used Google moderator to try and crowdsource the major issues facing the nation.  Ideas such as “legalize marijuana”, “legalize online poker” and “revoke the tax status of the Church of Scientology” bubbled to the top.  Citizens’ Briefing Book is a noble effort, but I seriously doubt the tax status of Scientology is one of the most serious issues facing the nation!  Such crowdsourcing tools are more properly applied to single, specific, issues such as “what do we do with this vacant piece of land” rather than broad ones like “what are our budget priorities”.  Broad-based questions can be easily “gamed”.

5.  Dilution of effort.   Some governments or departments are huge, and can devote a lot of people and resources to maintaining a vast variety of social media and web channels for information.  A San Francisco or Seattle can have numerous Facebook pages and twitter accounts.  

But in every case – large or small, governments should start with just a few social media channels tailored to their communities.   Some communities will rarely use twitter, or will rely on traditional sources (TV stations or newspapers) for information.  Others will actively get information from blogs or Facebook postings.   Trying to do too much – too many social media channels – will be difficult to keep operating and only confuse the public or weaken their confidence in government.

6.  Fail fast.   If you try a new social media channel and it doesn’t resonate with constituents, close it down and post a “nothing to see here anymore – see our website” notice on the door.

7.   Assign responsibility.  Most departments will assign their public information staff the duty of updating social media and insuring accuracy.  In Seattle, the Police and Fire and Transportation PIOs will tweet as they speed to an event or incident, and then tweet again as well as blog about what happened at the incident.  The tweets link to the blogs.   With the demise of the traditional media (television, newspapers), the rise of neighborhood blogs and ubiquity of computing devices (computers, tablets, smartphones) in the hands of the public, this approach also is the fastest way to get information to everyone.

Ten years ago, in 2001, the year of “A Space Odessy” and HAL, who could have imagined today’s environment of Facebook and Twitter and blogs and smart phones?  What will the social media and constituent relationship landscape be like in 2021 or even 2016? 

Perhaps, instead of titling this post “Bright Shiny Objects”, the title should be “Bright Shifting Objects” as we continuously roll with the changes in technology.

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Filed under blog, egovernment, open data, seattle channel, social media, web 2.0

– ePark, gooPark, noPark

Click to see Travelers' Information Map

Travelers' Info Map

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Web 2.0, Gov 2.0, Society 2.0

What is Government 2.0 - click for more

Government 2.0

The whole two-dot-oh thing seems so “contrived”. Like a marketing gimmick. Or selling the “new improved” laundry soap, that is, the “new, stickier, more connected, web”.

Yet there is a kernel of truth here, not so much in the technology but in the fabric of our society. It is Society 2.0.

First of all, I’m not coining the term Society 2.0. I’m not sure who coined it, but I first heard of it on Monday, June 21st, from Julius O. Akinyemi, Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the Media Lab at MIT. I was privileged to be one of 25 or so folks who came together under the leadership of Zach Tumin of the Ash Institute at Harvard’s JFK School of Government. Zach sponsored an executive session at Harvard on the topic “Making the Move to Gov 2.0: Citizen Engagement and Empowerment”.

The phrase “Web 2.0” seems to have significant validity. Tim O’Reilly created and defined the term Web 2.0, I think. There IS a vast difference between the World Wide Web as it existed before about 2003, and the kinds of web “stuff” available in the last six years. Perhaps the watershed moment was in 2003 when MySpace was founded by Tom Anderson and Chris DeWolfe. MySpace is a signal achievement, marking the true “social web” where normal people could post information and easily interact with each other. Web 1.0 was about viewing information and doing transactions. Web 2.0 is about social interaction.

And the term “Society 2.0” certainly makes sense to me as well.

Those of us old enough to remember life in 1980 may still remember what life was like in those days of ancient history. Typewriters, secretaries, phones with cords. Film cameras. Giant paper phone directories plopped on your doorstep. Anyone who used a computer or talked about bits or bytes (much less gigabits or terabytes) was an uber-geek who must have a pocket protector and be one full bubble off the level of normal.

Today, most human beings in the United States feel naked without at least a cell phone, but preferably a smartphone. Anyone using terms like “typewriter” or “secretary” will make listeners smile like they are humoring a very elderly relative who is suffering from dementia. Many of us have to check our e-mail constantly. Most of us use text messaging or multi-media messaging as a matter of course. And who uses a film camera or even knows a retailer which develops the stuff?

Welcome to Society 2.0. The technology-enabled society.

Government 2.0. Now that term is foreign to me.

I certainly understand “government”, as I am one (sorta). Or at least work for one.

This morning I attended Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn’s regular cabinet meeting. Did we talk technology? Hardly. Indeed, except for the specific details of the subject matter, this could have been a Mayor’s cabinet meeting from 1980 or even 1950. We talked about jobs – the overriding need for people in Seattle to have living wage jobs and how we, as a government, can help businesses large and small make that happen. We talked about the South Park Bridge, which will close in five days because it is rickety and dangerous, and that closure will isolate a whole neighborhood for over two years until we can find the money to replace it. We discussed the need for people to feel safe and secure on the streets, and how our departments – not just police, but transportation and neighborhoods and the electric utility – can work to help people downtown and in neighborhoods feel safe.

Sure, technology was there and it permeated the meeting – in the background. Three people, including the department director sitting my right, took notes on their iPads. I took notes using Microsoft One-Note on my HP Mini which uses Windows XP and which sat on top of the table – I’ve not yet become a fanboy for Apple technology. But I used my BlackBerry to set an appointment with the FCC and text message my deputy. Everyone else at the meeting surreptitiously checked their BlackBerrys for e-mail.

But Government 2.0? Whatever that is, it wasn’t present there, and it certainly should not have been.

Now don’t get me wrong – Government is doing a lot of innovative work with technology, and Seattle is a leader. You can follow the tweets of the Seattle police department and fire department and transportation. We’ve got a set of 15 interlinked blogs for up-to-the-minute information. You see any account balance and pay almost any bill or tax of the Seattle government online. And we do really cool stuff like a Traveler’s information map and posting Fire Department 911 calls on a map within a couple minutes of dispatch. Anyone can download a ton of information from data.seattle.gov. On Monday, June 28th, you be able to view a map showing crimes in your neighborhood and download redacted but pretty complete reports on any of them, a service probably unique in the nation.

But if websites are Web 1.0 and Facebook is Web 2.0, and typewriters/corded phones are Society 1.0 yet smartphones and ipods and email or text messaging are Society 2.0, then all that innovative stuff in Seattle is probably Government 1.5, not Government 2.0.

Government still has not quite figured out how to harness mobile phones and Facebook and LinkedIn. We still conduct public meetings with presentations by officials followed by citizens trooping one by one to the microphone to deliver a two or three minute diatribe to elected officials. We are not gutsy enough to allow even moderated comments on our blogs, or to establish a free-wheeling social network of citizens, much less a smartphone app for interacting with elected or senior government officials.

But there are glimmers of hope for Government 2.0. Mayor McGinn’s public meetings often include a display of tweets projected on a screen. The Seattle Channel has figured out ways to live-stream video from almost every major public meeting in the City. The Channel’s Ask-the-Mayor show includes interaction from constituents via e-mail, telephoned and even videotaped questions from citizens. IdeasforSeattle gives people an opportunity to suggest and rank ideas, and we’ll have a new, improved Idea generating tool later in the summer.

Gov 2.0 in Seattle - Click for More

Gov 2.0 - Ideas-for-Seattle

A true Government 2.0 needs to be more interactive.  Government 2.0 will be about inclusion:  elected officials having the ability to listen to a large number of constituents, not just the NIMBYs (not-in-my-backyard) who can show up at a meeting, or the lobbyists with the clout to get a face-to-face meeting with the official.   Government 2.0 needs to be about drafting new solutions from a wide variety of people (“crowdsourcing”), not just those who have the time or media attention to relentlessly push forward their own agenda.    Gov 2.0 will be empowering people on their own blocks and in their own neighborhoods to have more control over and take charge of their safety and quality of life.  Fundamentally this requires a change in culture in government from “we’ll collect the data and make the decisions, and let you review them” to “let’s collaborate and work on this together”.**

Technology has a role in this.  For example, by using tools to harvest @replies from Twitter.  Or to engender comments and discussions on Facebook or blogs without having the conversation degenerate when a few anonymous people use four letter words to viciously attack government and elected officials, a problem old and new media outlets face every day. We need ways that a “public meeting” can span two days allowing everyone to attend and discuss the topic and voice and debate ideas with online and video tools, without the need to travel downtown to City Hall for a meeting at fixed time. 

And we – government – need to harness the tools which the “normal” people of Society 2.0 use every day. Their mobile phones, and smartphones and Facebook. We need to harness those tools, so that our constituents don’t have to come “downtown” or come to government to use services or give input on policy. So they can use tools they already use – the Internet and Facebook and mobile phones – to interact with officials at meetings or to give feedback to elected official.

Interacting with your government should be as easy as posting to your Facebook wall or texting on your smartphone or adding a comment to a blog.   But it will also be hard because it will require every constituent – as well as our officials – to listen to the ideas of others and interact, discuss and collaborate in new ways beyond giving a two-minute speech at a public meeting or writing an e-mail message.    When our culture changes that way,  then perhaps we’ll have “Government Two dot Oh”.   (And we’ll be talking about Gov 3.0!)**

**These paragraphs changed from the original post due to Jon Stahl’s comments, below.

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Filed under BlackBerry, egovernment, social media, Uncategorized

– Data Data Everywhere

Data.Seattle.Gov - click to see more

Data.Seattle.Gov

Seattle just became the latest City to start posting its government data on the Internet in an open format. Open Data publishing may very well transform not just government, but Democracy, as well.

Data.seattle.gov has been live for a couple of months but was just officially announced this past Thursday, February 25th.

An interesting initiative, but what implication does it have for governing and government?

Making government transparent is not new – it has actually been going on since the first government websites went live in the mid-1990s. Most governments have a wide variety of data posted online. But in many cases it is hard to find or get in bulk. Constituents can search for individual building permits or maps or police reports. But only in the past 18 months have they been able to download whole datasets of such information in a usable format from online sites.

By “whole datasets” I mean, for example, perhaps almsot every 911 call which occurred in San Francisco during the month of December, 2009, or every restaurant inspection in the entire City of Chicago, or all the building permits issued anywhere in the District of Columbia.

Government openness and transparency really found its legs with President Obama’s declaration, on his first day as President, that he would run an open and transparent government. Many large cities now have open data websites. San Francisco’s datasf.org is one of the most comprehensive and best, but Chicago, New York and Washington DC have similar sites in operation. Cook County Illinois and the State of Utah among many others put their “checkbooks” online.

The open data trend hasn’t really reached a lot of smaller counties, cities and states just yet, but it will. For one thing, commercial services such as Socrata ( www.socrata.com) which powers the City of Seattle’s data.seattle.gov and many federal websites, make it relatively cheap and easy for governments to post their data. (Socrata famously hosts the White House visitor log, which has received 400,000 views.)

But is putting data in bulk, online, anything more than a fad?

I believe it is the tip of a very serious explosion of a new version of democracy. Until now, governments use of the Internet has paralleled use in the private sector, although generally lagging two to three years. The private sector is driven by competition and is less risk adverse than those of us who work with taxpayer dollars.

Perhaps the first iteration of government presence on the Internet/web was simply putting information on line. For example, how to apply for a building permit, or explanations of how to report problems with streets.

The second version of online government is transactions, that is, actually doing some business online such as paying a utility bill or parking ticket.

Then the third wave of online work is expanding information to include this bulk download or easy, machine-readable, querying of data, such as data.seattle.gov and similar sites listed above. This makes fascinating applications available such as stumble safely or Cleanscores, listing the health inspection results for restaurants in San Francisco. An explosion of privately developed applications is starting to occur based on this open data. And also, in this wave of innovation, government diverges significantly from the private sector. Few private businesses will want to place large amounts of data collected at their own expense in the public domain for anyone to see and use.

A fourth wave of online interaction is now starting to appear, typified by the site “ see click fix” where constituents can not only report issues online (using a map-based interface in the case of see-click-fix) but also see what others have reported and even rank the importance of the issues which have been reporrted.

A fifth wave is bound to occur, as governments expose their internal processes to public scrutiny, in the same fashion Fedex has done for package shipments or banks have done for loan processing. In this iteration, governments will not only accept a report of a problem or a need, but will actually allow citizens to track the problem resolution online. The citizen can report a broken streetlight, see when it is acknowledged or logged, see when it is scheduled for work, know when the crew is dispatched, see when the problem is fixed, and then provide feedback on the timeliness and quality of work. This will really make government accountable, as we’ll have to streamline our business processes and expose them to scrutiny, along with the data about how government operates.

But yet another wave of citizen-to-government interaction is occurring as well. In this iteration, data will be posted online, and people will write applications and analyze it, and then use it to create and inform public policy options for elected officials to consider.

For example, a City might acquire a building such as a school which is no longer needed. How should the government use it?  Should it be torn down and sold to commercial developers?  Should it be torn down and used for a park (and what kind of park – swimming pool, grassy knoll, childrens’ playground)?  Should it be converted into a community center or housing or offices for non-profit organizations? 

Answering these questions requires a lot of data and analysis. How many kids live nearby and what is the neighborhood crime rate?  Are there already lots of parks and playgrounds and pools nearby?  Are there a lot of seniors or immigrants or people with special needs? In the past, government employees would collect the data and crunch it and present the analyses and drive the solution.  And then the government would have a public meeting to discuss and debate the options.

But eventually, community activists and the neighborhood can do a lot of that, especially if they have access to all the same data and statistics as the government.

Furthermore, they can collect a LOT more and varied inputs. They can poll the neighborhood and canvas door-to-door and collect information from the “man on the street”.  They can take photos of neighborhood conditions and gather unique statistics about the health and quality of life in that community.  They can then combine these sorts of input with census data to produce an entirely new look at the options.  And public meetings about potential uses of this school building can be much more informed, with mashups and maps and interactivity using tools like twitter and blogs.  Online polls using tools such as Ideasforseattle or Ideascale can allow the neighborhood to debate and rank choices, and be engaged in deeper and more meaningful ways than ever before.

Ultimately, such interactive government should result in better decisions, informed by the communities affected.

Does this mean the end of representative democracy as we know it?  Could we do away with elected officials entirely and have true governing by the people?

Hardly.  There will continue to be very hard decisions which individual neighborhoods and communities will fight tooth-and-nail, but decisions that have to be made for the good of society as a whole.  No one wants a jail or a garbage transfer station or housing for sex offenders or a nuclear waste dump in their neighborhood.  But we need all those things for society to function, and elected leaders will need to make those hard decisions.

Data.gov, Datasf.org, Data.seattle.gov.  These are only the beginning of a new and exciting era in our democracy.  Still, good leadership will never go out of fashion.

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Filed under egovernment, web 2.0

– Open Cities

Open Cities and Social Media - click for more

Open Cities and Social Media

In 1940 the French declared Paris an “open” city so the invading Nazi Army would not destroy it while capturing it. Today modern cities are starting to declare themselves “open” in slightly more trusting ways, by exposing their data and information to all citizens and, indeed, to anyone on the Internet. By declaring ourselves “open” we hope to marshal an army of citizens, developers and analysts to give us new insights into governing and better engagement with the people we serve.

I’ve had the opportunity to participate in a couple of fascinating conferences lately. One was the Open Cities conference sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation in Washington DC. The other was “Future in Review”, Mark Anderson’s FiReGlobal conference held in mid-October, for the first time here in Seattle.

The theme is consistent: city governments, by opening their information, their data, their engagement processes, can generate a wealth of new ideas and understandings which make them more efficient and effective, and more robust, exciting places, with improved quality of life.

The old model, used for 250 years or more, is for a City is to collect as much data as possible about problems, its responses, services it provides and the general city environment. Then the typical city hires analysts or consultants – experts, if you will – to pore over the data and discern patterns. These experts then make recommendations for policy, action or changes.

Oh yes, we try not to forget regular citizens in this. We’ll present the experts’ ideas to citizens in public meetings for their “input”. And citizens can give feedback, one at a time, for two or three minutes each, in a public forum. A terrifying (or wonderful) example of this is a recent Seattle City Council budget hearing, 205 minutes of 2 and 3 minute mini-speeches, most focused on just one or two topics (cutback of Library hours) out of a $4 billion budget. If you have a spare three+ hours, watch it here.

Most such public hearings are very one-way – experts or city officials talking at people, citizens talking back individually to elected officials and experts. This is extraordinarily inefficient as dozens or hundreds of people “watch” the mini-speeches, while waiting their turn to speak. Far too much air time is taken up by one-issue, professional gadflies (“citizens in comfortable pants”), often with off-the-wall opinions not representative of most people. Almost as bad, often the only people with time or interest to show up are often homeowners and others who NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) the ideas, a negative dynamic. And this whole process is virtually the same as the process we used at the birth of the nation, in 1776, when our largest city was Philadelphia with 50,000 people.

Enter the Internet, and, more specifically, enter Web 2.0. All of a sudden, now in 21st Century America, there is tremendous computing power in the hands of ordinary people – smartphones, desktop and laptop computers. And those devices are connected, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Now you hear ordinary people talk about formerly obtuse technology concepts like databases and spreadsheets and pivot tables and Wi-Fi. And suddenly (at least in historic terms) there are millions of people and trillions of dollars involved in computing and software and development of applications.

In Seattle, for example, 84% of homes have access to the Internet. Nationally, there are 255 million cell phones , 21 million iPhones , and 101,000 iPhone applications . Cities are getting on the bandwagon. Many are publishing detailed crime statistics and even the details of 911 calls on their websites. You can find restaurant inspections and building permits and census statistics.

Public engagement, however, is still broken. We still hold public meetings with death-by-PowerPoint presentations and long lines of people trooping up to the microphone to give their 2 minute NIMBY mini-speeches.

Isn’t there a better way?

There are beginnings of better ways. Fedgov websites like Citizens Briefing Book and local sites like ideasforseattle allow some limited input online input from people – allowing people to post their ideas, view each others ideas, and rank them. More robust applications for engagement are emerging, from Seattle’s own Ideascale and companies like Athena Bridge. These applications allow people to shape ideas and develop them, commenting and ranking along the way.

But we need even more robustness – we need to bring such software to public meetings, so that, as officials or citizens are presenting ideas and talking, everyone in the room, or gee, anyone on the Internet watching the meeting, can be commenting, tweeting, and ranking, and the results are immediately displayed. The gadflies will quickly see their ideas have little public support.

In many other cases, obscure and even anonymous ideas and unique solutions to problems will emerge and be developed. Then, with open data feeds and citizen-developed applications, those solutions can be quickly tested against the real data published by a city which defines the problem. Almost as fast, options will emerge and consensus may develop on the right approach.

This new, emerging world of public engagement via the Internet and technology is not a panacea. It will take a lot of tweaking and mistakes before usable software emerges and public officials understand how to use it. And it won’t work in every case or to address every problem.

Yes, the hordes and armies of citizens are about to invade. So let’s declare our cities “open” and embrace them.

P.S. Those readers who are astute will make comments that Seattle is one of the major cities with no data.seattle.gov. Believe me, THAT will soon change!

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Filed under egovernment, social media, web 2.0

– The Translucent Government

Translucent Seattle - click to see

Translucent Seattle - click to see

Making government “transparent” is in vogue in 2009, whether by doing map mashups of crimes or twittering by Mayors and public agencies. But I often wonder if we’re exposing the trees, without showing the forest or illuminating the true ecosystems of governing.

I’ll cite one thorny problem which (we hope) is somewhat susceptible to new, web 2.0 transparency tools such as data feeds, mashups, and social media: exposing government budgets for public scrutiny.

Google has a service for “making government transparent” usgov.google.com although I can’t tell the difference between this site and a normal Google search except only Government sites are returned.

The King County (Seattle) government recently passed a measure calling for each agency to publish a line-item budget. This law isn’t exactly news, of course.

Some governments are going even further, putting entire databases or data sets on the web. Open Alabama partially accomplishes this as do Georgia and Washington State and notably Texas.

I’ve heard rumors of governments showing all their financial management transactions on the web, so anyone can see every payment made by the government. Some large cities now expose detailed crime statistics – right down to the 100 block of where the crime occurred. Others make restaurant health inspections, building permits, and a wide variety of other such detailed data available.

So I’d say we’re starting to get adept at exposing the trees – or maybe the branches, twigs, leaves, owls, squirrels, nuts and bark of government operations. But what does all this data mean, and how can it influence government behavior, budgeting and public policy choices?

Jonathan Walters, in a recent Governing column, talked about the ongoing attempts to link budgets to performance measures and results. As Walters states “This isn’t about looking for fluff in budgets, for waste. We’re already efficient. The question is, are we efficient at the right things?”

Ideally, we’d be able cleanly link all the inputs, processes, outputs and costs.

For example, we might know the Metropolis city transportation department filled 10,000 potholes in 2008. And they had four pothole-filling crews, each with four workers and a truck. We could gather a lot of data about costs, wages, time-to-fill, and so forth. Even so, there are a lot of variables, such as the simple fact that due to weather, pothole-filling crews can’t work every day, or some days those crews need to be doing snow-plowing or sidewalk construction. And then there’s the factor of executive policy direction. Every Mayor knows that it is relatively easy to get more potholes filled quickly – you just divert staffpower from building sidewalks or maintaining bridges to the more visible task of pouring asphalt into holes. But is that the right long-term public policy choice for Metropolis, or any city government?

The problem only gets thornier when we start talking about crime: how many cops do you have to hire to reduce auto thefts by 10%? That question is non-sensical on many levels.

And even thornier when we discuss choices – should we hire more cops or school teachers or put more money into public health or homeless shelters? Choices get even worse in times like 2009 where we are making decisions about what to cut. And notice I haven’t even talked about investments in technology or software systems versus any of those other choices.

We – government – complicate this all through little tricks such as “holding positions vacant”. A department’s official budget might show 500 full-time employees, but as a matter of fact the department might intentionally keep 25 or 40 positions vacant and then using the salary savings for other purposes. At least one quite large City of Seattle department has zero dollars for replacing its desktop computers and funds them through this method. But it is a widespread practice, as recently noted by Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene in Governing.

So is it time to despair on performance measures and data-driven governing? Hardly.

Traditionally, the analysis of this data has fallen to finance staff in government departments, or to employees in offices with names like the “office of management and budget” or the “budget office”. Even in the largest cities or counties, only a few dozen people actually did the analysis which informed elected officials who make policy choices.

Today, with databases and the Internet and the world-wide-web, and the advent of tools like mash-ups and Excel spreadsheets, all of this raw data can be exposed to hundreds or thousands of people who are interested in doing the analysis – on their own time with their own computers in their own homes.

Will they make mistakes? Sure. Will there be people who latch onto the data only to cast it in the worst possible light to impugn the elected officials currently running any given government? You bet.

But they’ll also ask a ton of questions, such as how pothole-clearing crews are allocated and what those crews are doing during snowstorms. Overall, people will gain a better understanding of how government works and of the management, processes and costs involved in running a government agency.

They undoubtedly will come up with suggestions for improvement.

And, who knows, in many cases they might even conclude many government programs are, indeed, operating as efficiently and effectively as possible!

Will government ever be “fully transparent”? Probably not, but as we get more and more translucent, we’ll shed more light on the problems of governing.

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Filed under budget, egovernment, web 2.0