Category Archives: future of technology

Lessons from NG-3-1-1 for NG-9-1-1

Next Generation 911When you are in a life-threatening emergency – a serious car accident or having a heart attack or your house is on fire – what do you do? You call 9-1-1, of course. With the emphasis on CALL, because, with just a few exceptions, there’s no other way to get police or firefighter or emergency medical help except calling on the phone. You can’t text 9-1-1 or send an email to a PSAP or tweet to 9-1-1.

9-1-1 Centers, often called PSAPs or Public Safety Answering Points, have a lot of sophisticated technology beyond 1920s-era voice phone calls, but very little of it is used to communicate with the public.

The National Emergency Number Association (NENA) and the government – specifically the Federal Department of Transportation – have a plan to fix that. The plan is called “Next Generation 9-1-1” or NG-9-1-1. At some point you may be able to text 9-1-1 or send an e-mail message or upload photos and video to help first responders protect life and property.

Some cities, however, have already implemented 3-1-1 systems for non-emergency customer service. In these cities – Portland and Denver for examples – you call 9-1-1 for emergencies and 3-1-1 to get help with any other municipal government service such as building permits, streetlight repair or animal control.

I recently did a podcast with Mark Fletcher on the Avaya Podcast Network (APN) discussing 9-1-1, 3-1-1 and these next-generation contact methods for the public. Fletch (@Fletch911) and I came up with the term “Next Generation 3-1-1” to describe using a set of new technologies and social media for citizens to reach their governments for service.

What can NG-9-1-1 and PSAPS learn from “next generation 3-1-1”?

Next Generation 311 - term coined in this blogWell, for one thing, “next generation 3-1-1” has already arrived. If you are in one of the places with 3-1-1, you can obviously just call that number to initiate almost any government service or report a problem. But virtually all those 3-1-1 cities also offer a 3-1-1 web input form and give you a tracking number. Some of them now tweet and allow tweeting as an input. Others are experimenting with Facebook pages, online chat, and email. Many of these contact methods allow you to send a photo or video of the issue.

Another common contact method is texting – there’s even “an app for that” in Textizen, developed by Code for America. In truth, Textizen is as much about citizen engagement and interaction as it is 3-1-1 and requesting service. But the important point is that Philadelphia, Austin, Salt Lake City and other places have implemented it as an alternate contact method.

Seattle's Find-It Fix-ItA final, powerful, “NG3-1-1” technology is the downloadable mobile app. Some cities have developed their own app such as Boston’s Citizen Connect or Seattle’s Find It Fix It. These are sometimes built on technology developed by private companies such as Connected Bits or See-Click-Fix (Ben Berkowitz, the CEO, is a worldwide leader in this space).

A frequent criticism of NG-3-1-1 services and apps is that they only work in one city. You can download the “Chicago Works” NG-3-1-1 app, but cross into the suburbs and it is useless. But Boston and Massachusetts fixing this by extending Boston’s Citizens Connect into Massachusetts Commonwealth Connect. This allows 40 cities in Massachusetts to have their own individually branded app, but, using the GPS feature on smartphones, to report problems no matter where they are. A resident of Chelsea who is in Boston for a Red Sox game could see a problem – a smashed stop sign for example – and use the Chelsea app to report it to the Boston.

Admittedly, we have a long way to go with 3-1-1 – most places in the nation don’t have it (indeed, even in Boston and Seattle you don’t call 3-1-1, but rather a 10 digit phone number). But we can still think about some future “next generation” features for 3-1-1 which would be relatively easy to implement with today’s technology even if they are still difficult to implement in the culture of government operations:

  • Fedex-style tracking of service requests. With tracking you could snap a photo of graffiti, get a tracking number and then be notified as the service request is reviewed, triaged, sent to the police department for review by the gang unit, sent to “graffiti control central” to determine if it is on government property and which department (transportation, parks, etc.) is responsible to clean it up, see when the crew is dispatched, be notified when the work is done, and then be asked your opinion of how well the whole process worked. (Some 3-1-1 apps purport to do this now, e.g. Chicago, and the Open 3-1-1.org organization actually is evangelizing it).
  • 3-1-1 Open Data and analysis.  The details and results of 3-1-1 calls for service should be on an open dataset for anyone to review and, indeed, are in some cities such as Boston, New York City, and San Francisco. Certainly departments and Mayor’s Offices should be analyzing the tracking data to improve service management processes. But how about mashing the 3-1-1 data up against datasets such as building code violations, utility shutoff due to non-payment or crime incident reports to find “hot spots” of difficulties in the City which need to be broadly addressed by cross-functional teams from law enforcement, code enforcement, social workers and more. Boston is, indeed, doing this, but I’ve not been able to find detailed data about it.  (Note:  Socrata, headquartered in Seattle, is the software driving all the “open data” sites mentioned above as well as hundreds of others such as the Federal Governments own data.gov.
  • Facetime and Skype to 3-1-1, conveying video to the 3-1-1 operator so they can see your situation or you can show them graffiti, a problem in the street, and so forth.
  • Chat and video chat. Chat functions are fairly common on private customer service sites but extraordinarily rare in government. Indeed, I can’t cite a single example. I think government customer service departments are concerned about being overwhelmed by work if chat is opened to the public.
  • Twitter and Facebook comments/apps. Elected officials certainly realize the power of Twitter and Facebook. And I think they (or their staff) actually review and respond to comments or tweets, and even turn them into service requests for follow up. But most of the line departments in most cities (water, transportation, public works, certainly police and fire) don’t accept calls for service via these social media channels. I’d also like to see developers write Facebook apps or games which could be used inside that social media community to engage the public or manage 3-1-1/service requests.

Lessons for NG-9-1-1. I’ve laid out a long list of examples and suggestions above which, together, could be called the “landscape and roadmap” for Next Generation 3-1-1. Some of them clearly could be adopted for use in PSAPs and 9-1-1 centers. The “low hanging fruit” here, I think, for NG 9-1-1 is:

  • A smartphone app for texting 9-1-1. Although you can directly text 9-1-1 from your phone, an app would be better because it could prompt you for critical information such as your location. Textizen could be an NG-3-1-1 model for this.
  • A smartphone app for calling 9-1-1. This sort of app might not just telephone 9-1-1, but also allow you to include photos or other data from your phone, including GPS coordinates, direction and speed of travel etc.
  • Facetime or Skype to 9-1-1. Such an app (when PSAPs are able to receive the information) would allow the telecommunicator in the PSAP to see what’s happening to you or in your area.

A number of obstacles remain, however:

  • Technology is an obstacle, as most 9-1-1 centers don’t have even text messaging available, much less email, twitter or chat. A notable exception: York County, Virginia, where past APCO president Terry Hall directs the 9-1-1 center – you can text 9-1-1 in York County.
  • Culture and training are an obstacles. Telecommunicators (call takers and dispatchers) in 9-1-1 centers know their jobs extraordinarily well and execute them almost flawlessly, as you hear from tapes after any major incident. Every new technology or method of communication we add to the PSAP makes those jobs harder in terms of training and obtaining the right information to get first responders to the incident.
  • Chain of evidence. When a video or video call or image is sent from a citizen to a 9-1-1 center about a crime, can it be used as evidence? Has it been altered (even by Instagram) thereby perhaps rendering it useless in a court of law?
  • Security and cybersecurity. We’ve seen cases of “spoofing” telephone numbers and “swatting”, where 9-1-1 centers are tricked into sending officers or SWATs to unsuspecting citizens. Every new method of communicating adds new difficulties in verifying caller identities and preventing such antics.

And, most importantly, with 9-1-1 lives are often at stake, so thorough research and preparation must precede adoption of these new technologies in PSAPs.

My podcast with Mark Fletcher on the Avaya Podcast Network was a fortuitous meeting. We’ve probably coined the phrase “Next Generation 3-1-1”. But while the tools and technologies of NG-3-1-1 certainly chart a path for PSAPs and NG-9-1-1, following that path will require innovative solutions to a number of obstacles.

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Filed under 311, 911, apps, future of technology, open data, social media

– No More Car Collisions or Speeding Tickets

Seattle Car Accident

Seattle Car Accident courtesy Univ Of Washington

A long, long time ago in a galaxy – well, actually, a City – far away, I was a police officer – a street cop.  I witnessed some of the most horrific episodes of my life as I came upon scenes of automobile collisions with gruesome injuries.   I also wrote my share of speeding tickets (and NO, I did NOT have a quota!) and arrested a fair number of drunk drivers.

New technology, however, heralds the potential for an end to automobile collisions, speeding tickets, drunk driving and even most traffic management.   Gee, there’s even the possibility that the traffic jam may be relegated to the dustbin of history (along with the dustbin itself, I might add).

A combination of technologies is maturing which foretells such a future.

Google Driverless Car

Google Driverless Car

The first one, of course, is the driverless car.   Google has been at the forefront of prototyping that vehicle, to the point where California and Nevada have both passed laws explicitly allowing such vehicles on their roads.   Beyond Google, most of the major automobile manufacturers are also testing driverless vehicles.   And it’s only a matter of time before such vehicles are regularly driving our roads.

Next, we are seeing the appearance of the “vehicle area network” and “networked vehicles”.

I just purchased a new 2013 Toyota Prius C (and then promptly crashed it in a minor accident – subject matter for a different blog post).  When I plugged my iPhone into the Prius to charge it, the Prius recognized the iPhone and linked to it, and offered the ability to use the iPhone’s cellular connection to link the Prius’ own touchscreen display, maps and apps to the wider world.   Toyota also has an “entune” app for this purpose.

We’ll see much more of this in the future – where cars are linked to the Internet.  BMW already connects most of its vehicles worldwide to collect performance data via Teleservices.   GM’s Onstar has been around for a number of years.    Insurance companies are starting to offer discounts for good drivers who consent to put a monitoring device in their vehicle to sense sudden starts and stops, speeding, and other actions which may be dangerous (or at least insurance companies think are dangerous).

Future vehicles will have networks which link the vehicle to all your personal devices – keys, smart phone, tablets, DVD players and more, to keep you “connected” and in control on the highway.

Furthermore, cars will talk to each other.  They could exchange location information, proximity information, directional information and much more.   In this fashion cars might be able to avoid each other or allow for smooth lane changes and turns without colliding.

A related development is the instrumentation of the highway.

Seattle Traffic Management Center

Seattle Traffic Management Center

I had the privilege of working with the Seattle Transportation Department, which was at the forefront of intelligent transportation systems (ITS), when I was City CTO there.   Today ITS means, for the most part, traffic sensing and detection devices to time traffic signals, extensive networks of traffic cameras linked with fiber cable, readerboards on streets, and some novel technologies like traffic time estimators and displays.   Mobile apps are all the rage, of course, to display traffic conditions.   Seattle just launched an amazing mobile app which actually shows live video from traffic cams on your smartphone.

Indeed, the City of Los Angeles just became the first major City worldwide to automate all  of its 4,500 traffic signals, synchronizing them.   That will reduce travel times somewhat, although our experience with expansion of capacity (e.g. building new freeways or widening them) is just that more traffic is generated.

But sensors and instrumentation can be taken a step further.

Almost everything in the roadway could, of course, be instrumented – sensors in guard rails, school crosswalks, stop signs, bridges.   Such sensors might not only collect information but also broadcast it to traffic management centers or, indeed, nearby vehicles.

Your car would know when you are approaching a stop sign and automagically apply the brakes – gee, the “California stop” might become thing of the past.   As you approached a school zone during school hours, your car would automatically slow to no faster than the allowable speed.   Radars or sensors in the vehicle would detect the presence of children and stop for them – indeed, if every child was somehow sensor-equipped, they might never be struck by cars whose intelligent management systems would automatically avoid them.  (And no, I am NOT going to discuss the potential for placing microchips in human beings, although some sort of sensor attached as a smart phone or bracelet or watch DOES have its advantages!)

And you can see where this is leading – as cars become more “intelligent” with their own networks and sensors, and roads become more “intelligent” with their own sensors, networks and computers, the need for human drivers may become irrelevant.

  • You could put your 3 year old alone in a vehicle, tell it to take her to daycare, and have it drop her off there and return home.
  • Drunks (or their Washington-State modern day equivalents:  pot smokers) could stumble into their cars and the vehicle would quickly and efficiently woosh them home – or to the detox ward, as the case may be, with almost zero chance of that drunk killing or maiming someone.
  • With driverless cars, even the need for taxicab drivers might be eliminated – you’d use your smartphone to call a taxi and it would smoothly come to the curb;

Speeding tickets, collisions, accident investigations, even automobile deaths might become history.

This, of course, has many implications for local and state governments:

  • Cops would no longer “work traffic”, investigate accidents or write tickets – they’d concentrate on investigating and preventing non-traffic crimes;
  • There could be a new set of government regulations requiring regular maintenance of vehicles and government inspections of them, because the only major source of collisions would be mechanical failure;
  • Emergency rooms and morgues would not be treating traumas and death from car collisions;
  • A significant source of revenue for local governments (traffic tickets) would dry up, although they could respond by increasing parking rates or licensing fees;
  • As emergency vehicles speed to fires or crimes, traffic would autmagically stop and pull over  – somewhat like the parting of the Red Sea – reducing response times for police and fire.
  • Lawyers and courts would be freed (or put out of a job) litigating traffic accidents and court cases (see my blog post here explaining why most lawyers will be become history anyway);
  • Auto insurance rates would drop steeply, and, again, put a lot of people out of work adjusting claims, fixing cars, etc.;
  • Indeed, traffic might actually move faster and more efficiently through cities because the need for traffic lights and synchronization might end as vehicles negotiate with each other to speed along roads and through intersections.    However traffic signals would not go away in many places, because pedestrians still need to cross streets;
  • Transportation departments would probably spend less time building new roads and widening existing ones, but high quality roads would be essential to prevent damage to vehicles driving at higher speeds.
  • Many delivery jobs might be gone.  Perhaps mailboxes would move to the curb (if not there already) and driverless Postal Service, UPS, FedEx and similar vehicles with robotic arms would just deposit most mail and packages in the box.  This is a logical extension to today’s robot-filled Amazon warehouses.   Of course how people are able to buy anything to be delivered, given all the job losses, is a separate issue!

I don’t expect to see this traffic “nirvana” anytime soon. But I clearly see it on the horizon. Yes, there will be a lot of disruption and both loss of jobs and creation of new, unknown ones.

But I welcome the day when grandparents are not killed and ripped from their families by drunk drivers. I hope to see over 36,000 Americans saved from needless death and 3.9 million from injury at the hands of automobiles and their drivers.

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Filed under future of technology, google, Law Enforcement, Seattle Transportation

– Will we give up our Privacy to keep our Guns?

Steam WeaponsAlthough Congress cannot agree on a method to avoid the so-called “Fiscal Cliff” (at least as of this writing), last week both Republicans and Democrats agreed to extend FISA – the “warrantless wiretapping” law.  FISA – really the “FISA Amendments Act” – essentially allows the federal government to eavesdrop on email and other communications without a warrant.  The Senate even rejected amendments which would require some transparency in the process, such as revealing how many Americans are monitored in this fashion.   This same law also gives telecommunications carriers blanket immunity when they turn over records or allow wiretapping of citizens.

On a slightly different issue, the National Rifle Association is reiterating its adamant opposition to the banning of assault weapons or other restrictions on the purchase and ownership of guns, despite the death of 20 young children to gunfire in Newtown.    The NRA supports, however, a national registry of the mentally ill.   And, of course, the Gun Control Act of 1968 prohibits gun sales to individuals who have been committed to a mental institution or “adjudicated as a mental defective.”   Because individual states have a wide variety of laws (or lack of them) which implement this provision, it has few teeth, hence the NRA’s call for the registry.

Recent advances in technology promise unprecedented ability to further monitor and pry into the private lives of citizens.  The law is still murky about the GPS information in your cell phone, but some courts have ruled a warrant is not required for law enforcement to obtain it.   Congress also approved a new law in 2012 which allows commercial pilotless aerial vehicles (“drones”) to populate our skies.  And technology is being developed to allow your TV to monitor your viewing habits, perhaps even via a camera which watches YOU and is embedded in the TV.  This information could be reported back to advertisers and others for further targeting you as a consumer.  Given the FISA extension (which protects telecommunications carriers who turn over information to the government), such data might also be available to government authorities.
(More detail on drones, phones and TV monitoring here.)

Let’s add these new technologies to many which already exist – a proliferation of video surveillance cameras in both private and public hands for example, as well as a massive library of video and still images collected on sites such as Flikr, Facebook, Pinterest and YouTube.   Most such sites encourage “tagging” of individuals by name in the images.  Many private companies are developing facial recognition technology to allow these “tags” to proliferate to images across the Internet.  Governments are also building facial recognition technologies and applying them at least to mug shot databases of criminals or suspects.   License plate recognition (LPR) is now widely used by transportation and law enforcement.  Indeed, between LPR and facial recognition, there might very well be a time when anonymity is essentially dead – whenever you leave your house your whereabouts will be known, tracked and entered into either a public or private database.

Add to all this the explosion of “big data” and “data analytics” such as the Domain Awareness System (DAS) developed by Microsoft for the New York City police department.  DAS and similar technologies promise an unprecedented ability to analyze a vast variety of information about criminals – and citizens – to build a profile of each and every individual in the nation.

Now let’s circle back to the NRA.

FISA-AA-scroll-smAt first thought, the idea of a national database of the mentally ill – who would then be prevented from at least purchasing and, perhaps, owning, weapons – seems an attractive thought.  Clearly anyone who would brutally kill 20 first-graders – or murder a dozen theater-goers in Aurora – is mentally ill.  Yet neither Adam Lanza or James Holmes were diagnosed prior to their acts.  In retrospect, almost all perpetrators of large-scale massacres show signs of mental illness, but are rarely diagnosed before the crime.     Some would argue that most cold-blooded murderers (as opposed to those who commit murder in a fit of passion or rage, or under the influence of a drug), are mentally ill.

How do we determine who is mentally ill, and therefore goes into the national database, and is then prevented from buying or owning guns?  Ultra conservative groups like the NRA, who would never support government officials registering weapons, are, apparently, more than willing to allow deep violations of privacy to determine if a person is mentally ill. Do we need to build that nationwide profile of every single person living in United States (or perhaps the world), looking for those tell-tale signs of a killer?  Do we need to put those cameras on every TV in every house?  Do we need to wiretap and analyze every telephone or Skype conversation?  And do we then use our business intelligence and big data analytics to create those profiles?

What’s amazing is not the potential for building such a database, but how far we’ve already allowed it in law, with FISA and the FISA Amendments Act and the Patriot Act and the use of our present technology.  Even more amazing, is the ability of the far right and the far left, the liberals and conservatives, Obama and Boehner, Republicans and Democrats, all to sign on and support it.

We go willingly into this deep, dark night.

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Filed under big data, future of technology, Privacy

– I-Everything, Lawyers, Watson and Plumbers

The I-Everything

The I-Everything?

Robert Reich* had an interesting piece on October 10th on NPR’s* Marketplace:  “Is technology to Blame for Chronic Unemployment?” He talked about the immanent end of many jobs and professions in the developed world, and specifically the United States, due to massive changes in technology.  Read or listen to it here.

The logic of his arguments is quite clear.

First, the miniaturization of electronics coupled with the consumer technology revolution (smart phones and tablets) is really just in its infancy. Gee, the smart phone, for example, is just five years old, and the tablet computer (in its very usable, iPad-type format) is not even three years old. We’ve just begun to tap their potential.

Next, we are seeing more and more data and information squeezed into ever smaller spaces. While the first personal computers had less than 640 kilobytes of memory*, today we have widely available thumbdrives with 64 gigabytes of memory. Service members and others can carry their entire medical history on a chip in a credit card.

Indeed, Reich said, we may very well, in the future, carry an “all purpose” device, the “I-Everything” as he dubbed it. It could contain all relevant information about you, ranging from medical history to financial information to personal preferences (all suitably encrypted, one would hope!). Using a personal-area-network it could communicate with many other devices in or on your body to monitor your health, allow self-diagnosis of medical issues and even carry on most routine financial transactions and interactions. The I-Everything.

These revolutions in technology have already terminated many kinds of jobs. Word processors and data entry jobs are gone and secretaries, if not gone, are highly endangered. Telephone and switchboard operators, and many newspaper jobs, are gone.

More jobs will fall victim to technology. Bank tellers are endangered, as are travel agents. Retail store clerks are still employed in great numbers, but a decline must set in as more shopping goes online. Even restaurant servers may be somewhat endangered as i-Pads and other devices become common at tables.

IBM's WatsonThis change will strike at professional jobs too.  Sloan-Kettering medical centers have been testing the use of IBM’s Watson to help do diagnosis of medical conditions and, starting soon, it will start dispensing medical advice.

(You undoubtedly remember Watson from its appearance on the Jepoardy television show.)

We can see many other professional jobs which will be suspectible to the “artificial intelligence” powers of computers such as Watson.   Such jobs might include attorneys and finance. Lawyers research and interpret laws, but computers are vastly better at raw text-based search. And artificial intelligence as demonstrated by IBM’s Watson computer can do much, if not all, of the interpretation and preparation of legal documents and briefs.

My title “Death of Lawyers” is a little dramatic. Lawyers aren’t going to die, but their profession will rapidly and significantly shrink. I suppose we’ll need trial lawyers for a while but almost all the “clerical” work of legal documents, wills, property transfer, tax preparation and so forth will fall victim to information technology. Most law schools and paralegals will soon follow. Indeed, most of the process of adjudication (“judges”) can probably follow as well.

IBM has 200 people working on applying applying Watson’s abilities to commercial problems like medicine and finance.   And my purpose in writing this column is not to “raise alarm” and cause people to “rise up against the machine”.    Computing is going to keep advancing and hundreds of companies and thousands of people are working to make that happen.  Smarter machines will have many applications to improve our quality of life.

Many professions, however, will experience resurgence. Plumbers, electricians, carpenters, and auto mechanics are definitely not susceptible to replacement by Watson – or to outsourcing to China and India either, for that matter.  But the sophisticated computers embedded in homes, appliances and automobiles will dictate more sophistication in these professions. Childcare, nursing and eldercare will still require “real people”.   Demand for, and the valuing of, these professions will rise.

Computers such as IBM’s Watson will eventually merge with the “I-Everything”, I think, to produce a true digital assistant, able to interact and transact much of the routine business of your usual life. The only trouble is that, with so many people out of work, who will be able to afford one?

Digital GovernmentWell, this is, actually, supposed to be a blog about the use of technology in government. What do these revolutionary changes mean for government workers?

It’s hard to see how the “I-everything” with integrated Watson can replace cops, firefighters, water pipe workers, electrical line workers, emergency medical techs, pothole-fillers and parks and recreation staff. Spouses angrily fighting with each other, throwing kitchen utensils and pulling out knives and guns – and then calling 911 – are not exactly susceptible to Watson-like reasoning. “Bureaucrats”, in the sense of employees who process documents, issue licenses and permits, and manage finances, may see their jobs in jeopardy.

And, of course, we’ll always need elected officials. Who would want to go to a public meeting and yell at a computer?

Or, perhaps, we’ll just send our I-Everthings to the meeting to yell at the electeds’ I-Everythings!


*Robert Reich is former Secretary of Labor for President Bill Clinton and presently professor of public policy at University of California – Berkeley. http://robertreich.org/

*NPR – gee, you know what NPR is – its that public broadcasting service which includes Big Bird and Jim Lehrer and others who may be sacrificed to the god of Federal Deficit Reduction.

*Bill Gates did NOT say “640k of memory should be enough for anybody” – see here.

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Filed under artificial intelligence, economy, future of technology

– 3 Minutes, 38 Seconds

Albuquerque Police DepartmentVisionary. That word surely describes Albuquerque Police Chief Ray Schultz. He’s not a “visionary” Chief with his head in the clouds, but, rather, a Chief who is actually making his vision a reality on the ground in his City today.

I had the chance to hear part of that vision from Chief Schultz at the annual Integrated Justice Information Systems industry summit in Albuquerque on July 27th. The Chief covered a wide variety of topics, but I’m going to highlight just a few which inspired me.

3 minutes, 38 seconds

That’s the amount of time it takes the Albuquerque Police Department (APD) to respond to a priority one call. And that’s also the amount of time the Department has to collect a wide variety of data, analyze it and turn it into the vital pieces of information which the responding officers need to have, literally, at their fingertips.

What is this information?

(Click here to read more)

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Filed under future of technology, Law Enforcement

– Tech Lessons from the Seattle Snowstorm

Seattle EOC Activated

Seattle EOC Activated

The Seattle area and I just went through a four day snow/ice storm event.  The City of Seattle’s emergency operations center (EOC) was activated and coordinated the City government’s response.  That response received high marks from the public and media for a variety of reasons (see Seattle Times editorial here), including the leadership of Mayor Michael McGinn.

I was able to personally observe that response and lead the technology support of it.   Information technology materially contributed to the improved response, nevertheless I see a number of further potential enhancements using technology .  And that’s the purpose of this blog entry.

GIS GIS GIS (Maps)

Every city, county and state is all about geography and maps.  Maps are the way we deploy resources (think “snowplows”).  Maps are the way we understand what’s happening in our jurisdiction.  Everyone who has lived and traveled inside a city can look on a map and instantly visualize locations – what the “West Seattle bridge” or any other street, infrastructure or geographical feature (think “hill”) looks like.

SDOT Winter Response (Snowplow) Map

SDOT Snowplow Map

For this storm, we have some great mapping tools in place, especially a map which showed which streets had been recently plowed and de-iced.   This map used GPS technology attached to the snowplow trucks.  That same map had links to over 162 real-time traffic cameras so people could see the street conditions and traffic.  (Other cities, like Chicago, have similar maps.)

Electrical Outages Map

Electrical System Outage Map

Another useful map is the electrical utility’s system status map, which shows the exact locations of electrical system outages, the number of outages, the number of customers affected and the estimated restoration times.  This is really useful if you are a customer who is affected – at least you know we’ve received your problem and a crew will be on the way.

What could we do better?  We could put GPS on every City government vehicle and with every City crew and display all that information on a map.   That way we’d immediately know the location of all our resources.  If there was a significant problem – let’s say a downed tree blocking a road or trapping people – we could immediately dispatch the closest resources.  In that case we’d typically dispatch a transportation department tree-clearing crew.  But that crew might have to travel across the City when a parks department crew with the proper equipment might be a block away. 

This same sort of map could show a variety of other information – the location of police and fire units, which streets are closed due to steep hills and ice, where flooding is occurring, blocked storm drains, as well as water system and electrical outages.   This “common operating picture”, across departments, would be enormously useful – as just one example, the fire department needs water to fight fires, and it needs good routes to get its apparatus to the fire and perhaps it would need a snowplow to clear a street as well.

Obviously we wouldn’t want to show all of this information to the public – criminals would have a field day if they knew the location of police units!  But a filtered view certainly could be presented to show the City government in action.

Perceptions and Citizen Contact

A lot of media descended on Seattle this weekPartly that was due to the uniqueness of the storm – it doesn’t snow much in this City.  And perhaps it was a slow news week in the world.  A lot of news crews filmed inside the EOC.  The Mayor and other key department spokespeople were readily available with information.  This is quite important – the television, radio and print/blog media are really important in advising the public on actions they should take (“public transit to commute today, don’t drive”) and actions they should avoid (“don’t use a charcoal grill to cook when you are without power”).  Our joint information center (JIC) was a great success.  

Mayor McGinn’s family even contributed to this – his 11 year old son filmed him in a public service announcement about how to clear a storm drain of snow and ice which is now posted on the Seattle Channel.  

What could we do better?   We need better video conferencing technology, so the Mayor and senior leaders can be reached quickly by news media without sending a crew to the EOC.  This video conferencing would also be quite useful in coordinating action plans between departments with leaders in different locations.   In a larger, regional, disaster, such capability would allow the governor, mayors and county executives to rapidly and easily talk to each other to coordinate their work.  It is much easier for anyone to communicate if they can see the visual cues of others on the call.  

Also, Seattle, like many cities, is a place of many languages and nationalities.   We need to have translators available to get communications out in the languages our residents speak.  This might include a volunteer-staffed translation team but at least could include recording and rapidly distributing written, video and audio/radio public service announcements in multiple languages.

Commuting; Telecommuting

In these emergencies, many people elect to use public transit – buses and trains for commuting.  (I actually took my “boat” – the water taxi – to work twice this week.)  Yet snowstorms are also the times when buses jackknife or get stuck in snowdrifts and going up hills.  

In this emergency, the coordination between the transit agency (“Metro”) and the City was quite improved, because we had people – liaisons – from each agency embedded with the other.   This allowed snowplows to help keep bus routes clear and help clear streets near trapped buses.  

And, with recent technology advances and sorta-broadband networks, many workers can now telecommute.  Seattle had few outages of Internet service this week, although in suburban areas trees and snow brought down not just power lines, but telephone and cable lines as well causing more widespread Internet issues.

What could we do better?  The easiest and most useful advance, I think, would be GPS on every bus and train and water taxi boat.   That, combined with real-time mapping, would allow people to see the location of their rides right on their smartphones.  If we deployed it right, such technology might also show how full the bus is and the locations of stuck buses.  This sort of technology would be useful every day for public transit users – but is especially important during snow emergencies.

Another huge necessity – which I’ve advocated often and loudly – is very high speed fiber broadband networks.   With fiber broadband – and Gigabit (a billion bits per second), two way, telecommuting and tele-education becomes really possible.  Kids could continue their school day with video classes even when schools are closed, you could visit your doctor, and of course citizens would have access to all that emergency information and maps described above, real time and two-way.  I could go on and on about this – and I have – read it here. 

Crowdsourcing and Two-Way Communications, Cell Phones

This area is the most ripe for improved technology to “weather the storm”. 

In any emergency – even a minor disaster like a major fire or a pile-up collision – just obtaining and distributing information early and often will have a significant result in managing the problem.   On-duty at any time, the City of Seattle may have 200 firefighters, 350 police officers and several hundred to several thousand other employees.   Yet we also have 600,000 people in the City, each one of which is a possible source  of information.   How could we get many of them, for example, to tell us the snow and ice conditions in their neighborhoods?   Or perhaps to tell us of problems such as clogged storm drains or stuck vehicles?  The Seattle Times actually did this a bit, crowdsourcing snow depths from Facebook. 

How can we “crowd source” such information?   I’m not exactly sure.  Perhaps we could use Facebook apps or Twitter (although not a lot of people use Twitter).  Two-way text messages are possible.   Any one of these solutions would present a whole mass of data which needs to be processed, tagged for reliability, and then presented as useful analytics.    Eventually, of course, there will be whole armies of remote sensors (“the Internet of things”) to collect and report the information.   Perhaps everyone’s cell phone might eventually be a data collector (yes, yes, I’m well aware of privacy concerns).

In the meantime, we should have some way citizens can sign up for alerts about weather or other problems.   Many such systems exist, such as the GovDelivery-powered one used by King County Transportation.   I’m not aware of such a system being used two-way, to crowd-source information from citizens.   There are also plenty of community-notification or “Reverse 911” systems on the market.  The Federal government is developing CMAS, which would automatically alert every cell phone / mobile device in a certain geographical area about an impending problem or disaster. 

Furthermore, during this Seattle snowstorm, many City of Seattle employees – including police and fire chiefs and department heads, used text messages on commercial cellular networks to communicate with their staff and field units.   This continues a tradition of use of text messaging during emergency operations which first came to prominence during Hurricane Katrina.

All of these solutions depend, of course, on reliable cellular networks.  We know during disasters commercial cellular networks can easily be overloaded (example:  2011 Hurricane Irene), calls dropped and cell sites can drop out of service as power outages occur and backup batteries at the sites run out of juice.   Yet, for people without power or land-line Internet, a smartphone with internet is a potential lifesaver and at least a link to the outside world.  I’d like a way to easily collect this information – privately – from the carriers so emergency managers would know the geographies where mobile networks are impacted. 

This leads me, of course, to my final point – that we need a nationwide public safety wireless broadband networkSuch a network would be built using spectrum the Congress and the FCC have set aside for this purpose.  It would only be used by public safety, although – as our Seattle snowstorm underscored, “public safety” must be used broadly to include utilities, transportation and public works – even building departments.  And it would be high speed and resilient, with 4G wireless technology and backup generators, hardened cell sites. 

These are a few of my thoughts on better management, through technology, of future snowstorms and other disasters, large and small, both daily and once-in-a-lifetime ones.   What have I missed?

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Filed under broadband, disaster, emergency operations, future of technology, Seattle City Light, Seattle Transportation

– The Selectric Desktop

Desktop computers are dead.

Desktops are soooo 20th century.

“The desktop computer is going the way of the fax machine” Or, to be really nasty about it … “going the way of the IBM Selectric typewriter.” (Congratulations, IBM, incidentally, on your 100th birthday!)

From mainframe to PC to tablet to ??

A very short history of computers from mainframes to ??

Tolling the death knell for the desktop computer certainly seems to be “in vogue” during this year of 2011 although its death has been predicted for many years.

This news fad gains additional momentum from the recent rise of the tablet computer. And – please note this -the tablet really has, “risen from the dead” itself, as tablet computers were developed a number of years ago.

News fads run in cycles, and in this case I prefer to paraphrase Mark Twain: “Reports of my desktop computer’s death have been greatly exaggerated.”

Desktop and laptop computers are far from dead and will be around for a long time to come.
Certainly tablets have some advantages. They:

  • are thin;
  • are light;
  • have long battery life
  • are versatile, i. e. they do a lot of stuff, such as play videos and music, surf the web, function as e-readers and Scrabble boards

They also have some disadvantages:

  • The on-screen keyboard functions rather like one original purpose of the QWERTY keyboard – it slows down touch typists. The screen keyboard also is tough on fat fingered folks like me, who inadvertently tap a Z instead of an A. Yes, you can get an external touch-typable (sort of) keyboard, but if you’re going to start lugging all that extra stuff around …
  • Tablets have very few applications. This undoubtedly will provoke some of my readers to anger or laughter or both. “Gee, Bill, there are tens of thousands of apps in the (fill-in-the-blank with your favorite name) apps store”. Yeah, sure, that’s true, but how many apps are for building inspectors or utility billing systems or police records management systems? Apps have a long way to go before they are “enterprise class” – usable for real workers at real jobs. Few enterprise applications support the strange browsers found on most tablets.
  • Tablets don’t do Microsoft Office. In particular, Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Oh sure, there are ways to work around this limitation, to some extent – but no tablet has full functionality of even the basic Office functions.
  • Tablets are heavily dependent upon a network (3G, 4G or Wi-Fi). That’s especially true if you want to do cloud apps such as Office 365 or Google Apps. I’m sorry, but there are a ton of places – like many airplanes or inside my house in West Seattle – where the network connectivity is not very good. Certainly not good enough to run bandwidth-intensive apps or do large up/downloads.

For me, the preferred road computer-weapon of choice is the trusty netbook running Windows 7 and the Office Suite. Touch-typable keyboard built in, Wi-Fi, long battery life (8 to 10 hours), replaceable battery for longer life (eat horse dung, non-replaceable iPhone and iPad), instant-on capability anywhere (I’m writing this on a Metro bus commuting home from work), USB ports (and lots of them), DVD drive, and so forth. And the thing is light and rugged. For those of you with a religious bent, Apple makes some pretty good netbook-equivalent devices too.

Even the netbook has limitations – and specifically if doing graphics and photography work, or other heavy duty apps, which require the power and larger screens of a desktop computer. But neither desktop or netbook make a good e-reader or electronic scrabble board.

Will tablet computers eventually and completely replace the desktop? Maybe, although I’m skeptical.

A Slide RuleWill tablet computers themselves eventually go the way of the slide rule and abacus?

Perhaps. But for the time being I think the tablet will become one more tool – one more device in a pantheon of devices from mainframes to mobile smart phones – which people use to make their lives happier and more productive.

But I’m not dancing on the grave of the desktop computer just yet.

[Credits for photographs: IBM 7074 computer courtesy IBM Corporation, IBM PC-XT, Apple I-Pad with Scrabble (trademarked and copyrighted) application photo by Bill Schrier]

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