Category Archives: firefighting

Is 2017 the Year for Big Change in Civic Tech? No.

No.

big-diaper-change2017 is not the year for Big Change in city, county or state tech.   I’d argue NO year is a year for “Big Change” in the technologies used by government.   Government does not change fast, which may be a Good Thing.

Civic Technology – the information technologies used by local, state and federal governments – typically plod along many years behind commercial adoption of technology and a decade or more behind the latest, leading edge, advances in tech.

Here are some examples: commercial companies go whole hog to adopt cloud technologies while government still operates data centers and even builds new ones (State of Washington, 2014).   Consumers and commercial companies adopt the iPhone; government still uses the Blackberry or (Congress and President Obama finally ditched them in 2016) or doesn’t even issue smart phones to its first responders.   Commercial companies adopt agile development, with sprints that update apps every few weeks; governments still do “big” multi-year projects which invariably go over budget and implement years later than planned, often with semi-disastrous consequences.

Stephen Goldsmith, Director of Innovation in Government at the Harvard Kennedy School and former Mayor of Indianapolis, believes 2017 will be the year for technology breakthroughs in government such as virtual assistants, artificial intelligence, chatbots, natural language processing (think Alexa, Siri or Cortana), machine-to-machine communications and predictive analytics.

I’m not so sure.

Or rather, I am virtually certain 2017 will NOT be the year for chatbots, artificial intelligence and natural language processing.  I’m pretty sure we won’t get very wide adoption of predictive analytics, especially given the recent implosion of “predictive policing”.

There are a number of reasons for my skepticism, but that’s a topic for a different post.

Ok, so if I’m certain no one will be saying “Alexa, pay my parking ticket” in 2017, what technologies will governments be adopting?

  1. iot-smart-cities-nlc-dec-2016Smart Cities. Cities are finally networking their sensors and harnessing the Internet of Civic Things (IoCT) to improve transportation, public safety, and quality of life.   Kansas City, Missouri, led by a gutsy Mayor Sly James and Chief Innovation Officer Bob Bennett, along with networking vendor Cisco, is leading this charge with LED street lights, transportation signal timing and tracking, and a smart city map.  Former Mayor Mark Funkhouser, now publisher of Governing Magazine, also deserves credit for his innovative leadership style, as does Google Fiber, for making KCMO its launch city.  Boston will not be far behind as it received 104 responses from 85 companies for its smart city RFI, one of which includes outfitting the city with 15,000 smart street lights.  And Columbus, Ohio, has the right idea – using tech to help people – rather than tech for tech’s sake – as it uses its Smart City Challenge Grant to try and reduce deaths of infants and connect low-income residents to jobs.
  1. Free public Wi-Fi. This was a totally stupid idea when it first surfaced in Philadelphia in 2004, and died a slow, lingering death there and in a hundred other cities across the nation.  But now, with advent of smart street lights, well-developed municipal fiber networks, and the whole concept of “smart cities”, the idea has come of age.   If a city is already connecting its parking kiosks, street lights, public buildings and other infrastructure to the network, popping up “free” public wi-fi is trivial.  New York City’s LinkNYC, after it fixed its porn problem, is starting to be quite successful, with 600+ kiosks enabled.  Kansas City is using its smart city platform to provide Wi-Fi to 50 blocks in the downtown area.
  1. Cloud computing. Governments have been extraordinarily reluctant to get rid of their dinosaur data centers.  The move to the cloud is actually accelerating now, led by initiatives such as body-worn video storage in Taser’s evidence.com, for example, which is hosted by Microsoft in its Azure cloud.   But, as a matter of fact, many other cloud based solutions are being adopted by government such as NeoGov for human resources, Accela for licensing, permitting and finance, and Workday for human resources and financial management.  In many cases the line departments (utilities, public works, permitting, public safety) of governments acquire these cloud solutions, either with the support of their IT departments or despite them.
  1. Ufirefighting-drones-jpgnhumaned aerial vehicles – UAVs or Drones. Drones seem to have suddenly exploded on the scene a couple of years ago when the technology was ripe, although radio-controlled aircraft have been around for decades.  Now, however, governments have discovered the tremendous usefulness of these aircraft, far beyond the military applications.   North Carolina’s Department of Transportation is working with other agencies to use drones in crises ranging from flooding to traffic collisions.     Use of drones in search-and-rescue (SAR) is becoming so commonplace there is even an organization of 1,100 SAR drone pilots, which goes by the name of SWARM.   Both police and fire agencies are using drones for searches, observing major fires to guide firefighting, and other purposes.   We will see a major expansion of use in 2017.
  1. Body-worn video (BWV). Body-worn video burst on the scene after the Ferguson, Missouri, riots, with many police departments adopting them quickly, without thinking about the privacy and policy implications.  We will not only see improved policy controls, but also see wider use of BWV for officers and detectives to walk around and describe serious auto collisions and crime scenes in great detail, easing investigation and prosecution.   While the original reason for use of BWV was making police officers more accountable, we’re also seeing increased professionalism, decreased liability (fewer sustained complaints) and better investigations, according to work done by Dr. David Makin of Washington State University.  In 2017 more law enforcement agencies will realize these benefits, along with, of course, an increased workload for officers, detectives and prosecutors.

But how about those predictions of chatbots, virtual assistants, natural language processing and artificial intelligence?

Well, these technologies are all linked.  Natural language processing (“Alexa”) allows humans to easily communicate to virtual assistants, which, in turn, can engage artificial intelligence like IBM’s Watson, Google Tensorflow or Microsoft’s Scattershot (my reference to the significant work Microsoft is doing, but not necessarily tied into a single AI engine).

alexa-call-911But it will take significant time for these engines to be linked to civic problems.   Las Vegas is writing some skills for Alexa and New York City would like to harness Watson for its 311 center.  But, like everything else in government, don’t expect a “Big Change” to suddenly happen, but rather an evolutionary development and adoption of these technologies.

With some luck, sometime in the near future, there will be a Sherlock AI for helping detectives solve crimes and a Bob-the-Builder AI for helping people navigate the myriad building and zoning regulations of a modern city and similar ways that AI linked to natural language processing and personal assistants or chatbots help city residents.

But not in 2017.

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Filed under Alexa, artificial intelligence, drones, firefighting, Internet of Things, smart cities

Echo, Public Safety, FirstNet

Amazon's Echo

Amazon’s Echo

I recently attended and spoke at the Government Technology Beyond-the-Beltway event.  Our panel of local and state Chief Information Officers (CIOs) was asked “what is the most significant technology advance in your lifetime”.   I answered “either the IBM PC or the iPhone”.  Others mentioned the Internet and the world-wide-web.   (No one mentioned the development of email, invented by Ray Tomlinson, who just recently passed away, and sometimes considered the bane of our existence.)

A more significant question might be “what will be the most significant technology advance in the near future”.   Or, to narrow it a bit, what will be the most significant technology advance for public safety first responders in the near future?

I’m convinced such technologies already exist, or, in the words of William Gibson:  “the future is here, it is just not evenly distributed yet”.

One of the candidates is Amazon’s Echo.

Echo is a speech-enabled technology which is arguably better than Apple’s Siri or Microsoft’s Cortana and which can be used right now in homes to do everything from order more laundry detergent to play music to control the thermostat. All by recognizing speech.  And connecting to Amazon’s website, of course.

We hire and extensively train police officers, state troopers, sheriff’s deputies, firefighters and paramedics as first responders. Then, because we want to be “data driven”, we tell them to sit down at computers and type crime reports, hand-write medical reports, prepare fire code inspections and do what are essentially clerical tasks which take them away from the real work of law enforcement and fire protection.

Enter Echo.

Why don’t we have Echo-like devices in police vehicles and fire apparatus and even in police officer badges or firefighter helmets?

star-trek-comm-badge

Comm Badge

Can you imagine a cop who comes to your house to investigate a burglary, taps her badge (just like the CommBadge in Star Trek) and asks “Alexa, have any red Schwinn bicycles been recovered lately?” or “Alexa, search all nearby pawn shops for Canon EOS rebel single-lens reflex cameras sold in the last three days”.

Or the traffic officer who goes to his police car and simply speaks to the car “Car 54 take a collision report for two vehicles who collided at this intersection twenty-two minutes ago,” then proceeds to dictate the report to the car.  And the Echo-like device in the car prompts the officer for any additional information, even doing database searches returning information like “Officer Schrier, I detect that the red Ford Mustang involved in this collision has fourteen unpaid parking tickets.  Shall I call for a tow truck?”

Similarly paramedics responding to an emergency medical call could talk to their devices “Alexa, get me the detailed health records for William M. Schrier, apparent heart attack victim, specifically including any known medications he is using and any known adverse reactions to meds”.  Or “Call Schrier’s personal physician at the highest priority, locating the doctor immediately for this emergency.” And that same paramedic could dictate observations and reports, rather than hand-writing them or typing them.

language-translation-software-image

Language Translation

Another significant use for speech-activated devices are language translation.   We are a nation of immigrants, and real-time translation services like Google translate or Skype.

Although most police cars are equipped with mobile data computers today, many police officers are justifiably skeptical of writing reports in their vehicles, especially if it means looking down at a screen and a keyboard, and not paying attention to their surroundings.   Killing of police officers like those in New York City, Houston/Harris County, and Lakewood (Washington) have reinforced this fear.  But with speech-to-text such as Echo, officers might be able to spend more time on the street, less time at computers in the police station.

Even in daily situations, police officers who need to tap or type on their in-car computer while driving represent a potential hazard to themselves and others.  Being able to give verbal commands such as “acknowledge that dispatch and set status to en route” or “text Sergeant Schrier that I’ll be following up immediately” improve not only speed but also safety for officers.

Echo and similar technologies do, however, require high speed Internet access.

FirstNet-logo-vertical

FirstNet

For first responders working in the field, that means 4G LTE networks.   The First Responder Network Authority (“FirstNet”) is planning to build just such a network, specifically designed for first responders.  FirstNet will, perhaps, have applications, apps and devices specifically tailored for first responder missions.  FirstNet recognized the importance of such voice technologies in a blog post here.

Even more importantly, public safety software vendors of computer-aided dispatch systems (CAD) and fire/police records management systems (RMS) should immediately start integrating speech-to-text technologies into their products.   A speech-enabled RMS will significantly reduce the time for a paramedic, law enforcement officer or firefighter to create reports.  Such reports will be more accurate and of higher quality, and first responders will spend more time on the streets and less time typing in front of a computer.

Echo or similar speech-to-command technologies should be high on FirstNet’s list.  And on the list of any company creating software for first responders.

 

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Filed under emergency operations, eRepublic, firefighting, FirstNet, future of technology, Law Enforcement

How Tech Could Improve Wildland Firefighting

The deaths of three wildland firefighters Aug. 19 in Okanogan County, Wash., is both painful and tragic. Unfortunately the deaths of these firefighters is only the latest in a series of firefighter deaths from wildfires.

On June 28, 2013, nineteen Arizona firefighters lost their lives when winds suddenly shifted in the Yarnell Hill fire. An airtanker carrying flame retardant was directly overhead at the time of the tragedy, but radio communications were both spotty and overloaded.

The Thirty-Mile Fire in 2001 in Okanogan County claimed the lives of four firefighters. The firefighters violated several rules of wildland firefighting, but radio communications difficulties also prevented nearby helicopter support from reaching them.
How can modern technology help in fighting these fires and keeping firefighters out of harm’s way?

(Read the rest of this post on Geekwire here.)

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Filed under drones, firefighting, FirstNet, Internet of Things, OneNet, radio, wireless