Category Archives: government

Get Over It, Already

trump-cover-final

“Thousands Across the U. S. Protest Trump Victory”.  USA Today, November 10, 2016.

“Not My President, Thousands Say”, Washington Post, November 10, 2016

“Campuses Confront Hostile Acts Against Minorities After Donald Trump’s Election”, New York Times, November 10, 2016.   (An article about how some Trump supporters are targeting minorities with hate crimes.)

I’ve rarely blogged here about political themes or issues (a notable exception:  Last year when Trump slandered John McCain’s military service.   I’m a retired Army Officer and that was too much.)

I’m also an unabashed Democrat and supporter of Hillary Clinton.  I’m fiscally conservative – too often liberals and Democrats think government is the solution to every societal problem, and they implement new taxes or programs without thought about the negative effect of higher taxes on rents, housing prices and middle/low income wage earners.

But the election is over.   Hillary Clinton won the popular vote.  More voters felt she was the best choice for President.   But, under the Constitution and the Electoral College, Donald Trump won the presidency.  To the protestors and the Trump-supporter-hate-crime-perpetrators I say “Get Over It”.

To the protestors, I say:  did you vote?  Where were you over the last 6 months?  Why didn’t you work on registering voters and getting out the vote before Tuesday November 8th rather than taking to the streets in virtually fruitless protests afterwards?  Get involved in your government, your public safety and in politics starting today so you can really effect the change you want.

I could, like the protestors, write and scream about all the regressive laws and consequences which will take place over the next two years:  repeal (rather than fixing) Obamacare, actions against immigrants (although, frankly, Obama deported more illegal immigrants than any prior President), backing away from climate change and environmental protection, and so forth.

But, to be honest, Donald Trump will be President and we all need to concentrate on common ground – on all the work that needs to be done to improve the safety, quality of life and economy of the United States.

City InfrastructureHere are some examples of such common ground:

  • Infrastructure. Both Clinton and Trump correctly proposed massive increases in spending on roads, bridges, utilities and other infrastructure.   Let’s get together and do it.
  • Cybersecurity.  The Obama Administration has made great strides toward improving our cyber warfare and defense capabilities, and we need to do more.  In particular, we need to protect our local and state governments, our financial institutions, our defense industries from the potential of a devastating cyberattack.  Let’s get together and do it.
  • Veterans. It is a serendipitous coincidence that I publish this post on Veterans’ Day, 2016.  The terrible and stupid Iraq war perpetrated by the Bush-Cheney administration has resulted in hundreds of thousands of mentally- and physically-injured veterans.  The Obama Administration has started to correct the awful way the VA Healthcare system has treated veterans, but we must do more.  I support a son-in-law – a Marine with 100% disability – by buying him food and helping him with rent and care for his PTSD because his military disability pay and care is simply not sufficient for him to live in Seattle.  But many veterans don’t have anyone to help them and end up homeless and wandering the street, causing problems for our police and paramedics and emergency rooms.  For example, the Seattle Police Department alone has 10,000 encounters a year with people in crisis on the streets, many of them veterans.  Let’s get together and fix this.
  • Mental health and Opioid Addiction. Just as with veterans’ care, many people have mental health issues and/or are addicted to heroin, methamphetamine and other drugs.  Up to 60% of the calls a Seattle police officer handles are people in crisis.  This must be addressed and it is a bi-partisan issue.   Republican Ohio Senator Rob Portman has made addressing opioid addiction a centerpiece of his campaign and his legislative agenda.  Let’s get together and do it.
  • FirstNet and support of our First Responders. I joined the First Responder Network Authority because I fervently believe in its mission to build a nationwide wireless network for public safety and our first responders.   FirstNet was created by both Republicans and Democrats in bipartisan legislation passed in 2012.  That legislation funded FirstNet with $7 billion from sale of spectrum to commercial carriers, and that same sale provided $35 billion or more to reduce the deficit.  FirstNet will give first responders – indeed all public safety responders – the technology and tools they need to deal with many of the issues listed above, as well as crime, wildfires and emergency medical care.  Let’s get together and do it.

iot-internet-unfollow-coffee-machine

  • Internet of Things (IoT).
    Many if not most of our electronics and gadgets will become part of the Internet of Things, perhaps 25 billion devices by 2020.  Smart light bulbs, thermostats, DVD players and video cameras are just the start. Utilities will connect every water and gas and electric meter, transformers, valves and the rest of their infrastructure.  Industry is creating whole manufacturing plants with every device connected.  But IoT is a huge security risk, as shown by the Mirai IoT botnet attack of September 20th.  IoT poses both great potential and risk for our society, and, frankly, the IoT needs to be regulated and secured as well as deployed.  Let’s get together and do it.
  • The march of technology and loss of jobs. Much Presidential campaign rhetoric talked about the loss of jobs to China or Mexico.  But, frankly, only 12% of the 5 million factory jobs the United States lost since 2000 have been lost to trade.  A whopping 88% of the job loss is attributable to automation and robotics!  Indeed, U.S. manufacturing output increased by 18% between 2006 and 2016, while the number of jobs decreased.  The issue we need to address is finding living wage jobs which can co-exist with the never-ending march of technology and automation.  Let’s get together and do it.

obamasnumbers-2016-q2_4

I agree, there is a time to protest, and I’m certain I will be in the streets at some point in the next two years.

But I’m also going to roll up my sleeves, find common ground on the issues I’ve listed above, and work to continue the improvements in the economy, quality of life, technology, infrastructure and public safety which have happened in the years since the beginning of the Great Recession (graphic at right).

I encourage you to join with me.

Let’s get together and do it.

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Filed under cybersecurity, economy, elections, Fedgov, FirstNet, government, government operations, Internet of Things, Uncategorized

Fearing Government, Fearing Technology: the Ying and Yang

America's Top Fears 2015Americans fear government corruption more than anything else.

More than terrorist attacks, identity theft, running out of money, economic collapse, drunk drivers, police brutality, insects and snakes.   Gee, we fear Government Corruption more than we are afraid of Obamacare and even more than Reptiles.

Government corruption?  In the United States of America?   Our greatest fear?

And that fear trumps any other by a wide margin – 13 percentage points.   Our second greatest fear – Cyberterrorism – isn’t even close.

Well, so says Chapman University’s Wilkinson College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences which recently completed a statistically valid survey of what Americans fear.

Chapman classified all the fears into 10 “fear domains” such as man-made disasters, technology, government, crime, daily life, and so forth.   As a group (or domain), Americans most feared man-made disasters, then technology, then government.  Lowest domains on the “fear scale” are Personal Anxieties, Daily Life and the Judgment of Others.

This makes some sense.  We believe we have much control our personal lives than we do over global issues such as war, disaster, or even the march of technology.  “Daily Life” we as individuals can conquer.  “Cyber terrorism” not so much.

Here are the respondents’ worst fears:

Fear Fear Domain Afraid or Very Afraid
Corruption of Government Officials Government 58.0%
Cyber-terrorism Technology 44.8%
Corporate Tracking of Personal Information Technology 44.6%
Terrorist Attacks Man-Made Disasters 44.4%
Government Tracking of Personal Information Technology 41.4%
Bio-Warfare Man-Made Disasters 40.9%
Identity Theft Crime 39.6%
Economic Collapse Man-Made Disasters 39.2%
Running out of Money in the Future Personal Future 37.4%
Credit Card Fraud Crime 36.9%

 

Many, if not most, of these concerns revolve around technology.  Even a couple of fears classified as “crime” are really technology-based:  identity theft and credit card fraud.

“Fear of technology” is a long-standing and even ancient human dread.   Such fears gave rise to the Luddite movement, when humans smashed power looms creating cloth in the early 19th Century, and many science fiction stories ranging from Frankenstein to the 1927 film Metropolis to the computerphobia of the 1980s (“you’ll never get one of those damned computers on my desk.  I have a secretary with a typewriter.”)

New waves of techno-phobia are now washing our shores, including the fear of robots taking over work and a significant new fear of artificial intelligence (AI).  Even tech heavyweight entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk and Bill Gates have voiced the fear of AI, which, of course, might be the last fear humans ever have, as our future robot overloads decide to do away with the frail, short-lived, human beings who created them.   This concern about AI has caused the White House to hold four workshops around the United States to address the effects of artificial intelligence.  The first one, held in Seattle on May 24, 2016, focused, perhaps not surprisingly, on the effects of AI on government and the legal system.

Tracking Personal Information

Some of these fears interact with other.   Respondents to this survey clearly are concerned about tracking of their personal information by corporations and governments.   Yet many of us willingly “opt in” to this tracking, using store loyalty cards or tagging the faces of our friends and children on sites such as Facebook and Instagram.

Don’t we know that we are willingly building huge corporate databases every time we search for something online or make a credit card purchase?    Every time we tag a friend’s face online we are contributing to vast corporate data store which will be (or perhaps is) being used for facial recognition.  For these reasons, and the advent of apps like FindFace, the Observer recently recommended individuals pull all their photos off the Internet. (if you check out my Facebook page you will see very few photos of family.)

And access to these databases is sold to the highest bidder.   Soon we’ll walk into a restaurant or other store and be greeted by name, thanks to a database of faces and facial recognition software.  Perhaps the greeter will be a robot replacing the infamous elderly WalMart employees at the door.   The greeter will ask what we want for dinner or what we are shopping for, and even make suggestions based upon our previous purchase history of food and menu items, or our most recent online searches on Amazon.

Mobile phone companies are getting into the tracking game.  Verizon has tried it, and NTT Docomo launched its tracking software in May, 2016 (that link, if you click on it, has a tracking code embedded as well!).

Potentially even more disturbing uses exist.   Perhaps a store will match our face and identity with our history of unpaid parking tickets.  And some big data algorithm will identify that people with unpaid parking tickets who have few Facebook friends but are looking to buy camouflage clothes are at high potential for shoplifting.

Many private buildings and stores also use video surveillance.  These private videos were essential to capturing the Boston marathon bomber.   But how do corporations use their troves of video data?   Are they marrying facial recognition databases, online search/shopping data and video so they know and track who is on premise?  Certainly such data is useful in solving theft and other crimes, but how else might corporations use it?   It is possible that the whereabouts of individual human beings might be constantly tracked in the future, as soon as they leave their private homes.

Government Tracking and Corruption

Edward Snowden revealed new information about United States Federal Government tracking of data including a database of cell phone call data (although not, as far as we know, recording of domestic calls themselves).   We also know local and federal law enforcement has used “stingray” devices to simulate cell sites thereby capturing the identities of all cell phones in a geographical area.   Many jurisdictions have extensively deployed video surveillance cameras as well as dashboard cameras and now body-worn video.

Furthermore some police departments are monitoring social media including twitter, Instagram and Facebook.  Much of this “monitoring” is really for criminal investigation.  Many crooks are notoriously vain and stupid, posting their hauls from home burglary on Facebook or fencing the goods on Craigslist.  Unfortunately domestic violence threats and threats toward teachers and schools are also often found on social media.

No police department, in my extensive personal experience, is building a giant database of facial images and personal information for tracking and spying on citizens.  Certainly such databases exist for people who have been booked into jail, and facial recognition apps exist for use by law enforcement, based upon mug shot databases.  But collection of information about individual law-abiding citizens is, I think, rare.

And this brings me full circle back to Americans’ Number 1 fear:  government corruption.

Again, in my personal experience, corruption simply does not exist in the work of the average government employee.  On the West Coast, at least, police officers don’t accept $20 bills when you hand over your driver’s license after being caught speeding, and building plans officials don’t expect cash to expedite a permit or overlook certain violations of the building code.   There certainly are individual cases of corruption such as one which recently occurred in Utah.

Politicians – elected officials – get in trouble all the time, to the point where Virginia and Illinois both seem to expect corruption from their Governors.

And, indeed, perhaps this is why Americans fear Government Corruption.   It is not the cop they meet on the street, or the building inspector, or the DMV license examiner.  It is the Governor, the assemblymen, who are on the take.   It is Hillary Clinton, who kept her State Department email on a server in the basement of her home, or Donald Trump, who lies publicly about Muslims rejoicing after 9/11, yet wins elections.

Perhaps government corruption should be our number 1 fear.

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Filed under corruption, cybersecurity, disaster, fear, government

Schrier’s Technology Wish List for 2015

Predicting the Future

Predicting the Future

It’s that time of year again where the top ten lists for the old year spurt out of pundits’ pens along with generally wrong prognostication predictions (that is “guesses”) for the next year.

I’m not very good at either figuring out which recent changes are most significant (I’ll bet the iPhone was one) or predicting what will happen during my day tomorrow, much less 365 days in the future.

But I’m not too bad at looking at the state of technology – especially in government – and wishing for what I’d like to see in the near future.

And here they are:

  • government (including its workers) embracing the cloud,
  • more women in tech,
  • police body-worn video cameras,
  • video recognition software and
  • last, but most important, wise elected officials.

Government Embracing the Cloud

Embracing the Cloud

Embracing the Cloud

Cloud services are the “next hot thing” in technology.  Or they were the next thing hot thing in 2010.

Jeff Bezos of Amazon – along with a number of other technology leaders – believes that very few private companies and governments will operate their own data centers in the future.   This is undeniably true simply because cloud service providers such as Amazon Web Services (AWS) have a tremendous economy of scale.  AWS probably has more than five million servers worldwide.  Every day – 365 days a year – Amazon Web Services installs more server capacity than the entire Amazon e-tailing enterprise had online in 2004.   And AWS has won notable contracts, such as the contract to operate the CIA’s data center.

Seattle has become a hotbed of cloud technology over the past 18 months.  The Seattle area has a number of the major players in this space such as Amazon, Microsoft Azure, CenturyLink, Google, and now even Dropbox and Apple.  The list includes a number of “niche” companies such as Taser International’s Evidence.com which supports cloud hosting of law enforcement data such as body-worn video data and Socrata, the leading cloud service for government open data.

Yet governments have been slow to adopt cloud technologies.  Governments continue to build and operate their own data centers, containing a few hundred servers, and operate much less efficiently than cloud services providers.   While some governments use cloud services such as Accela for permitting, Workday for human resources, and Socrata for open data, most applications continue to live in expensive government-owned data centers operated by government employees.

Why?

Part of the reason government is slow to adopt the cloud is perceived security concerns:  unless the applications data are on disk arrays and servers which government CIOs can touch and feel and see behind the doors of their very own data centers, these officials feel that, somehow, the hackers will get to them.   This concern is patently absurd, as cloud providers such as Microsoft and Amazon can afford to employ hundreds of security professionals compared to the handful in most governments.

Another problem is potential loss of jobs for workers who presently staff government data centers.   However governments badly need employees who will adapt new technologies for government businesses, who will code new web applications and apps for consumers and businesses to better do business with the government.   Government agencies are chronically short of such developers who, by the way, make a lot more money than data center operators and server administrators.   A retraining program for such government technology employees coupled with a move to the cloud will benefit everyone – taxpayers, businesses, government officials and tech employees.

It’s long past time for a wholesale move of government technology to cloud services.

More Women Coders and Women in Technology

Grace Hopper, Inventor of COBOL

Grace Hopper, Inventor of COBOL

I recently had the chance to visit a cloud services development company in the Seattle area.   The company had a variety of very leading edge practices, such as small team environments, self-directed teams, and superior compensation.    They bragged about their employee interview process:  they accepted about 1% of the people who applied or were recruited.

The place was entirely white and Asian-American men.    Well, there was a woman at the front desk.

Now, perhaps it is true that only young males have the interest and ambition to pursue coding.   But having an all young-white-male environment in any business anywhere is not good, for a whole variety of reasons:  all-male business cultures give rise to frat-house-like cultures such as apparently happened at Zillow.    With incomes stagnant or dropping for middle-income people, coding and app development are one of the few areas with tremendous growth in skills and wages – it is important this growth be shared by people of all genders.   Seattle, in particular, seems to have the widest pay gap between women and men.

There are probably many reasons for this disparity.  Perhaps our educational system needs to better emphasize technology careers for girls.   Maybe we need more tech savvy teachers in general, so we don’t have to import so much tech talent via the H1B visa program.  And we certainly need to embrace programs such as the “hour of code” evangelized by Seattle’s code-dot-org.

In fact, linking this problem back to the one above (governments’ need to embrace the cloud), perhaps we should start with an hour of code for all government workers – not just information technology workers, mind you, but ALL government workers.

Ubiquitous Use of Police Body Cams

body-worn-go-pro-wrist

Body Worn Video Camera (sort of) courtesy Go-Pro

President Obama’s December 1 announcement of funding for equipping 50,000 police officers with body-worn video is an innovative approach to improving public safety.   This initiative follows several tragic events such as those in Ferguson, Missouri.   Certainly the idea of recording most police-citizen interactions is appealing.

In a time of polarization about the role of the police in our communities, the use of body-worn video cameras seems to have universal support.   The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) dislikes video surveillance in general but likes body-worn cameras because they hold police officers accountable for their actions.   Police Unions like them because they hold citizens accountable for their actions – in two small studies, civilian complaints against police officers declined by 60% to 88% after implementation of body-cams.  Police officers like them because 98% or 99% of what the police do is overwhelming supportive of people in the community – saving drivers during auto accidents, breaking up domestic violence in homes, helping the homeless.  The Department of Justice likes the cameras, as do elected officials.    And they appear to work:  one DOJ study found showed use of force by officers declined by 60%, and violence from citizens against police also declined.   Prosecutors like video, as it helps establish and support criminal charges.

But, as in everything else, implementing body-worn video is not a panacea for improving policing.   I’ve written earlier about the difficulties of implementing such a program, so I won’t rehash those here.    And others have written about a variety of other problems such as the potential for “constant on” video cameras to create a surveillance state worse than even George Orwell envisioned.

Video Recognition and Indexing Software

Video video everywhere, underground and in the air.

Video cameras are becoming more and more ubiquitous.   Most of the population now carries a video camera on their person with them all the time.  Video surveillance cameras are in wide use in both private businesses and by public agencies such as Departments of Transportation.   A billion people use YouTube, which has 4 billion views each day and 100 hours of video uploaded each second.   And that’s just one video site!

But, like the thousands of unindexed photographs most people have lurking somewhere on hard drives and smart phones, video is hard to index and identify for future use.   Content recognition software is still inadequate – basically under development.

Good content recognition software will serve a variety of useful purposes – it could detect unauthorized use of copyrighted material, could recognize individuals and objects thereby indexing the clips, and could form the basis for databases of video metadata.   Such databases would useful for a variety of purposes such as indexing all that video of your family gatherings for the past 20 years, or storage and retrieval of police body-worn camera video.   Video is quite useful in solving crimes – video from private companies were used to solve the Boston Marathon terrorism and police dashcam video caught Christopher Monfort, alleged killer of Seattle Police Officer Tim Brenton on October 31, 2009.

A Wise Official

A Wise Official

Like audio or voice-recognition software, which is really still in its infancy, good video recognition software is a two edged sword, presenting privacy concerns as well as the useful purpose.

Conclusion

As always, these technology changes will outstrip the ability of our elected leaders to enact laws to deal with the resulting cultural and legal issues.   We demonstrated that this past year with all the controversies surrounding Uber and other car-sharing services in cities across the globe.   We see it in the constant struggle between public safety and privacy.

My final “wish” is for elected officials wise enough to embrace the positive power of new technologies, while controlling the negative implications.    And having the wisdom to know the difference.

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Filed under employees, future of technology, government, government operations, jobs, video

People Live Horizontally but Government Organizes in Silos

Silos

Silos

One of my biggest frustrations with government organizations is their “silos of excellence” approach.

Somehow each and every government department or organization thinks it is a business unto itself, with little relationship to other departments within the same government, much less other nearby such as cities, counties, states, and fire districts.  Many Police departments think and act like they are unique, with little relationship to other government functions.  So do electric utilities (Seattle City Light), water utilities, parks departments and so forth.

People don’t live that way.   We turn on the dishwasher which uses electricity from the power company and water from the water utility and then wastewater goes down the sewer to be managed by the wastewater utility.   Then we put our trash on the curb for the solid waste utility to remove.  We get in a car which has been licensed by the DMV to drive on streets maintained by the City  and also County Transportation Departments (DOT) and then onto freeways maintained by the State DOT.  We drive to parks which we expect to be clean and safe. If we crash into something we call 911 and expect the cops to show up and ticket the perpetrator who caused the crash and we want the fire department and paramedics there to extract us from our crushed vehicle.

More importantly, many significant societal problems cannot be addressed by just one government function.  Crime is the most obvious, which isn’t so much a police problem as it is a problem with poor schools, jobs economic inequality plus inadequate support for healthcare and food.  Environmental issues are another example, where keeping Puget Sound (or any other body of water) clean is a matter not just for the “Department of Ecology” or “Environmental Protection Agency”.  Electric utilities (which often burn coal or oil in their generators), water and wastewater utilities, parks and recreation and natural resource departments all need to cooperate.

Our lives are a seamless continuum.

Governments are organized by departments each with a specific function.   The Parks Department maintains the parks, the police department enforces the laws, the fire department has the paramedics to help with medical emergencies.  The DOT maintains the street with the water and sewer lines running underneath it and the electric power lines running overhead.

This makes sense because there are so many specialist jobs involved.  I don’t want firefighters wasting their time mowing the grass in parks or electrical lineworkers writing parking tickets.

Why can’t these departments work together to make the services more seamless and efficient?

logo_minneapolis_311

A City with 311

Example 1:   who do you call?  If you have an emergency, you call 911 almost everywhere in the United States.  Everyone knows that and we teach our kids to do it at an early age.  But for almost every other service there are a bewildering series of different numbers you depending on what service you want or what problem you have.   If you get chased by an angry dog do you call the police or the fire department or animal control?   If a streetlight is out do you call the streets/transportation department or the electric utility or someone else?

Many major cities have cut through this crap by implementing 311 as a non-emergency number.  But most counties, cities and states have not done so.  311 is far from ubiquitous.  Seattle, for all its high tech reputation, is woefully behind in this, forcing people to squint through pages and pages of telephone numbers in six point font to get a non-emergency service.

Example 2:  information technology (near and dear to my heart). Does each department need to be buying its own desktop computers and software, and hiring its own employees to maintain them?   Does every individual department need its own financial management system and personnel management software?  The answer is clearly no – there’s nothing unique about the computers used in the water utility as distinct from the parks department.   In fact, there’s no real reason government employees need to even perform these functions.  Some major cities such as Minneapolis and Chicago and Riverside have outsourced most of this work to private providers.

This department-by-department approach leads to many absurdities, such as employees in a city garage installing light bars on a police cruiser, then having the cruiser driven to a radio shop for installation of two-way radios and brackets to hold a computer and then having it driven to a police computer shop where the computer is installed and software loaded.

Certain information technology is unique to departments – a Building Department has a construction licensing and permitting software whereas Parks will have software to manage recreation classes and allow citizens to sign-up.    But there’s also a lot of “enterprise” software such as budgeting and financial management and document storage which should be purchased and maintained separately, not department-by department.

All of this lack of trusting another department to do information technology, accounting, finance, human resources or similar functions leads to inefficiency and waste of taxpayer money.

So why do cities and counties set themselves up to operate vertically as independent departments?

One culprit is a department’s own view of itself as an independent entity with its own customers and customer service.  A public works department may become so self-centered that it thinks it needs its own customer call center and walk-in service center for customers and its own website with its own unique logo and brand.

Turf Wars

Turf Wars

Such a situation arises when department directors and senior staff are long-term employees who have outlasted many elected officials and collected significant positional power.

Another way this comes about is long-term employees in an IT unit or call center who have convinced their managers of their own importance – the department can’t function without their personal presence and unique experience.  Then these employees fight over turf – “this is MY department’s responsibilities, not yours”.  Government managers count their importance by the number of employees they manage and the amount of budget they control.  And the jealously guard and defend that turf.

But citizens rarely care about such crap.   They typically know who the mayor is and may also know their council member, and they want good service from their government, irrespective of the department lines.     Smart Mayors and city/county managers realize this, and set up strong, well-managed central services which are cross-departmental. Strong mayors confront departmental fiefdoms and employee self-importance, understanding citizen service trumps all that.   In smaller jurisdictions the city or county will partner with neighboring cities or counties to jointly offer better services with more efficiency.   Multi-city or county cooperation requires gutsy elected officials who are willing to give up a measure of control in return for better services.

But all of this – implementing a 311 service or consolidating a technology function – requires strong elected officials with a vision of citizen-centric customer service.

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Filed under 311, customer service, employees, government, government operations, management of technology

Every Citizen needs a Data Dossier

Schrier's Data Dossier

Schrier’s Data Dossier

Governments collect a lot of data on citizens.  Private companies like Google, Amazon and even Safeway collect even more.   In fact, a whole new thriving business of data brokers has emerged.  These are companies like Datalogix which indexes, mashes, cross-correlates, buys and sells our personal information.

On  May 27 the Federal Trade Commission released its report “Data Brokers:  a Call for Transparency and Accountability”.   The report demonstrated the pervasiveness of the data brokering business.  The brokers use billions of data points to build profiles – dossiers – on every American.   The data comes from both online and offline sources.   Online sources include searches you make using Google or Bing, as well as things you buy from Amazon and other e-retailers.  Offline sources include purchases you might make with loyalty cards from companies like the grocery chains.

The “billions of data points” include a wide variety of information such as age, religion, interest in gambling and much more.   Here is a list of 200 such fields.  From this data the brokers make inferences and classify people into affiliations such as “bible lifestyle” or “rural everlasting” (older people with low net worth).

Americans are rightly concerned with the amount of data collected on us by our governments.   Government data collection is widely reported in the press.  But private companies collect similar vast amounts of information.   That fact is not widely reported.  Examples:

  • License Plate Recognition.   Cities and other police forces collect large quantities of license plate scans which include location and time-of-day information.  For example, Seattle Police deployed 12 police units and collected about 7 million license-plate records in one year, identifying 426 stolen cars and 3,768 parking scofflaws.  But most of those records capture normal citizens parking their cars in front of their houses.  However private companies such as Digital Recognition Company collect 70 million scans a month and have a database of 1.5 billion such scans.   Such data is used to repossess vehicles when the owner defaults on a loan.  At least police departments report to elected officials who can oversee and manage how the information is used.  But who oversees the private scanners?
  • Facial images.  The National Security Agency (NSA) collects millions of images each day, including about 55,000 of high enough quality for facial recognition.   But Facebook alone has 1.23 billion active monthly users who post 300 million photos a day (2012 statistic).  Facebook users willingly “tag” the photos, adding the names to the faces.  This has created one of the largest facial databases in the world.   Such data could be used to automatically recognize people when they enter a restaurant or bar, or to display advertisements tailored to them in public or when walking down the street.
  • Drones.  There is great weeping and gnashing of teeth over the potential use of unpiloted aerial vehicles by government agencies.   The Seattle Police Department was so roundly criticized about potential drone use that the Mayor ordered the program ended.  Seattle’s drones were given (“gifted”) to the City of Los Angeles igniting a debate there.  Obviously people are concerned about the video and other data such drones might collect.   In the meantime however, commercial use and uses of such technology are exploding, ranging from real estate to news media to farming and private photography.
  • Sensors.  The Internet of Things is upon us.   Sensors are being added to almost every conceivable device.   Sensors on cars will be used to tax drivers for the number of miles they drive, partially replacing gas taxes.   Sensors on cars also are already being used to track drivers who break laws or otherwise have poor driving habits, and their insurance costs may increase.  Fitness sensors track our activity.   Refrigerators, furnaces, homes, even coffeemakers (“your coffee machine is watching you”) are getting sensors.

Who is collecting all this information?  What are they using it for?   What are we to do?

Perhaps we need to follow the example of the Fair Credit Reporting Act, which requires the credit reporting companies to provide reports to individual citizens, but also allows those citizens to challenge information found in the reports.

Perhaps we need a “Citizen Data Dossier” law and portal – a secure online site or vault where everyone could find the information collected by each data broker and each government agency about them.    In addition, individuals could challenge the information, ask for it to be replaced or removed and allow citizens to “opt out” of how their information is collected and used by the broker.

Biker-Hells-Angel-Type

Biker-Hells-Angel-Type

Governments, of course, represent a somewhat different issue.   Clearly convicted sex predators should not be allowed to “opt out” of government collection of their conviction data or have it removed from government records.   But certainly those who have false conviction data or other data (e.g. incorrect notice of suspended driver’s license) should be allowed to correct that information.

One thing is for certain:   once such data is available, we will discover how much of our information is available, and what private companies infer about us using it (“this guy is a Biker/Hell’s Angels type“).   And I suspect we will be scared and upset.

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Filed under big data, government, open data

Government Employees: Bureaucrats or Entrepreneurs?

Bureaucrat

Bureaucrat

There is an entrepreneur in almost every government employee.  It just needs to be unleashed.

“Innovation” is an overused word, especially in government.  Chief Innovation Officers are sprouting up in state and local governments as fast as dandelions bloom in the springtime.

I’ve contributed to this trend myself, publicly advocating Seattle’s new Mayor Ed Murray to appoint a Chief Innovation Officer.  He did appoint Robert Feldstein as Chief of Policy and Innovation (although my advocacy probably had little to do with that).

But can government employees at any level – City, County, State or Federal – really innovate?  Or are they doomed to be unrepentant bureaucrats, steadily but blindly following rules and procedures?

What is “innovation”?

Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison and Innovation

I like Bryan Sivak’s definition of innovation as the “freedom to experiment”.

Many organizations – not just government, but really any large organization (think Boeing, the cable company, Microsoft) is captive to its rules, regulations, processes and procedures – its “bureaucracy”.   Governments are especially captive to their processes because they are subject to public scrutiny and criticism.  Many government officials hide behind policies and procedures saying “we treat everyone uniformly and equally” even though uniform processes often produce discriminatory results due to the differing circumstances of neighborhoods and individuals.

Consider a police department, for example, which handled abandoned cars in a uniform way. Callers were directed to a voicemail where they left information about the abandoned car in their neighborhood.  The information was transcribed onto slips of paper which were then given to parking enforcement officers (PEO) for each neighborhood who, along with a host of other duties, would track the cars down and tag them – when the PEO had time.  This business process had numerous problems – on weekends the voicemail box would become filled, and callers became frustrated.  Slips of paper became lost, or the information was improperly transcribed.  In some neighborhoods PEOs were overworked with other issues, and didn’t get to tagging the abandoned cars.

Freedom to experiment takes a lot of guts on the part of government officials.   By giving their employees or teams the freedom to try new processes – new ways of handling old problems – they must understand experiments may fail, subjecting their department to criticism.   “Fail fast, fail cheap, learn from the failure.”

Innovation is not just about Technology

In this razzle-dazzle world of the 21st century, we tend to think of “innovation” as synonymous with some cool new smartphone app or a new computer system which automates a paper-based process.

But the best innovations don’t necessarily involve technology.  Indeed, they often are just changes in business process, sometimes enhanced by technology.

For example, consider Seattle’s antiquated process for approval of siting of cabinets in the roadways.  These cabinets contain telecommunications equipment which allow higher speed internet in neighborhood. Placing the cabinets allows private companies to build high-speed fiber networks deep into the city.  But, sometime in 2008 or 2009, someone complained to a deputy Mayor that one of the cabinets appeared in a neighborhood and was unsightly and intrusive.  The City’s response was to create a draconian rule forcing telecom companies to get explicit approval of all homeowners, within 100 feet of a proposed cabinet, throughout the entire City of Seattle.

Such a rule has many problems, not the least of which is stifling competition to provide high speed internet.   But the City’s proposed response is to lift the rule, but require telecom companies to pay an annual fee for each cabinet.   The fee is, supposedly, to pay inspectors to make sure the cabinets don’t become overgrown by weeks or marked by graffiti.   In an age of 311 and citizen activism, with cameras in every smart phone, this is a solution worthy of the 1930s!   Clearly the city employees involved here are still living in a risk-adverse, anti-innovation age.

We do NOT want governments innovating on some issues.

Snohomish County Mudslide

Snohomish County Mudslide

Washington State just suffered a devastating mudslide near the town of Oso on State Highway 530.   Forty-three residents of that neighborhood lost their lives.    In some places in Washington State – and elsewhere – building codes would have restricted the construction of a home in a slide-prone area.  At the very least, the potential homebuilders could have been forced to acknowledge the danger in the area before they constructed.  Yet a few homeowners in Oso actively resisted such “government intrusion”.

We also want to be careful in how we innovate in matters involving public safety.  We don’t want experimentation with different shapes or colors of stop signs, for example.    In areas subject to hurricanes, earthquakes and similar natural disasters we probably want to be careful in how we change building codes.

 “Government Entrepreneur” is Not an Oxymoron

Mitchell Weiss said it best when he wrote this article in the Harvard Business Review on March 28th.  “The idea of ‘public entrepreneurship’ may sound … like it belongs on a list of oxymorons … But it doesn’t.  Public entrepreneurs around the world are improving our lives, inventing entirely new ways to serve the public.”   He cited a list of entrepreneurship in government, and there are many additional examples ranging from open data which begets a host of private sector apps to 311 to New Urban Mechanics, which has “institutionalized innovation” (and perhaps that IS an oxymoron) by both government employees and citizens.

Some things are best left to the private sector.

How about healthcare.gov as the poster child for this one?  No matter what you think of the Affordable Healthcare Act, the online implementation sucked.  Kurt del Bene, formerly of Microsoft, led a turn-around, but President Obama deserves credit for giving him the authority to fix the site.  And damn the bureaucrats in the Center for Medicaid Services (CMS) who used “tried and true” (i.e. non-innovative) processes to create it and failed badly.  Indeed, some states did much better, e.g. Washington.  In each case, however, engaging private sector companies and individuals is key to success.

Innovation is really about Leadership

It takes a lot of guts to be an innovative Mayor or Governor.   You’ll be subject to critics from every angle.  Government employees don’t want change because “this is the way we’ve always done it” and they fear individual responsibility to make decisions.    Members of the public and business communities will immediately line up on one side or the other, perceiving themselves as winners or losers.

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray

Yet examples of courageous, innovating, leaders are abundant.  In 1944, Franklin Roosevelt forced the Washington Correspondents Association to admit an African-American reporter Harry McAlpin.  In 1964 Lyndon Johnson pushed civil rights legislation despite the obvious and continuing (to this day) damage to the Democratic Party in the South.   Just this year, Mayor Ed Murray of Seattle pushed a $15 minimum wage and obtained a supermajority of 21 of 24 members of his business-labor committee on a plan.

Great leaders know when to push, when to ask, when to cajole, and, most important, how to accept risk to push forward innovation and improvement in government.

There is an entrepreneur in (almost) every government employee and every citizen.  It just needs to be unleashed.

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Why Google Fiber will never come to Seattle

google-fiberGoogle is bringing high speed fiber broadband networks to homes and businesses in three cities – Kansas City, Austin and Provo. In February, it announced 34 more cities it will approach for building fiber – Portland, Phoenix, Atlanta and more.
But not Seattle.
And Seattle won’t be making Google’s list anytime soon.
The “Seattle Process” and a balky bureaucracy at City Hall stand squarely in the way.
It wasn’t always this way. We were on the short list in 2010, when …
Read the rest of this article on Crosscut or Geekwire.

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