Category Archives: Seattle City Light

– 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

– Miracle of Government Regulation

The Chicken Gun

The Government-Mandated Chicken Gun

Are there any “good guys” in government (or elsewhere) these days?

To listen to the crop of presidential candidates this year, you’d think government on all levels is a total drag on the economy and if you’d just eviscerate it and starve it via budget cutbacks, the private sector would explode creating millions of jobs and an economic nirvana.

An editorial in today’s (October 14th) Wall Street Journal talked about 81,405 pages of government regulations being added to the Federal Register last year, at a “total cost to the economy of $1.7 trillion a year” (although no source is cited for this figure).

Coincidentally today, I had the chance to listen to Steven Berlin Johnson, author of “Where Good Ideas Come From“.  Steven was speaking at the Code for America Summit in San Francisco [a wonderful gathering of innovators inside and outside government – I’ve blogged about Code for America before and I’ll do so again shortly].

Johnson related the story of U.S. Airways Flight 1549, which made an emergency landing in the Hudson River after striking a flock of geese upon takeoff from New York’s JFK Airport. The incident was dubbed the “miracle on the Hudson” because no one died – or was even seriously hurt – in this near tragedy. Great credit for that result goes to a true hero of aviation, Captain “Sully” Sullenberger.

But Johnson made another point – the incident really could be called the “Miracle of Government Regulation” and another hero is the Chicken Gun. The Chicken Gun fires chicken carcasses into jet engines to test their abilities to withstand bird strikes. Such testing is required by the Federal Aviation Administration before it will certify jet engines and airplanes. Flight 1549’s engines were certified in 1996 and, after the goose strike, simply shut down, rather than flying apart or exploding when they ingested geese.

Thank you FAA and your regulations and engine certification processes!

(Note and confession: I shamelessly stole the title of this blog from Johnson’s presentation at Code for America.)

As we know, there are a whole host of federal regulations relating to aircraft and flying. And those regulations contribute to an air safety record which has been phenomenally successful.

Would any of us want to get in an aircraft or fly without these FAA regulations in force?   Of course not!

No doubt the FAA are “good guys”.

Today’s same Wall Street Journal edition carried a front page photo and headline regarding the conviction of Raj Rajaratnam for insider trading. Raj gets 11 years in prison for using insider information to manipulate stock prices and make himself (and friends) rich. Also in the Journal are pictures of Bernie Madoff, sent to prison for 150 years for his Ponzi scheme, and Jeffrey Skilling of Enron sent to prison for 24 years for all the accounting and other shenanigans at Enron in the early 2000’s.

Here we have three individuals who hurt every one of us Americans.

We all own stocks in one way or another, and insider stock trading takes money from our pockets and puts it in the likes of the Raj Rajaratnams’.

Enron's Lies
Enron

Skilling was especially evil – Enron tried to corner the market for electricity, driving up prices nationwide. Many investor and publicly-owned utilities, including Seattle City Light and Snohomish Public Utility District, went heavily into debt as a result, to pay for the artificially inflated prices created by this criminal.

Thanks to various Federal laws and regulations, these monsters and many others who have sapped our economy of money and jobs are in prisons.   Is insuring the fairness of the “playing field” of business and the financial markets a “drag” on the economy?  I think not!  Bring on the regulators!

In just one more example, think about automobile gas mileage. Would any car maker willingly invest tons of money into improving gas mileage without government regulation?  Undoubtedly NOT. They’d continue to produce gas-guzzlers, which would use a lot more petroleum, further enriching the oil companies, who willingly would pull it out of the ground at whatever price, increasing our dependence on imported oil, while at the same time increasing air pollution. That’s the cheap way to do business and make tons of money, despite all the deleterious effects.

I could go on-and-on about the miracles of government regulation which keep our water clean, make sure that sewage is purified rather than being dumped raw into rivers, keep working conditions in farms and factories safe, provide for safe automobiles and highways, reduce the risk of disease and contamination in our food supply, and much much more.

How does this relate to being a City government CIO?

Amazingly, I’m a regulator too! I and my department regulate cable television franchises for the people of Seattle, making sure that cable TV and telecomm companies build out all areas of the City, not such affluent ones where the companies can make a lot of money. We also require low-income and senior discounts, and a basic cable rate of $12 a month or less. We require, through a cable customer bill of rights, that customers be treated fairly and with dignity.  These are regulations which make cable television available to almost everyone.

I’m sure there are useless or burdensome government regulations, but I think most regulators are really the “good guys”.

Hey, Editors at the Journal, if business people and the financiers and corporate executives on Wall Street would police and regulate themselves (and, in honestly, many of them – especially small businesspeople – do), if they would not pollute the air and water creating superfund sites, would not use inside information to manipulate stock prices and enrich themselves, and would build safe homes and cars which are frugal with gas and low polluting, maybe we wouldn’t need so much regulation by governments.

Until that day arrives, I will proudly talk about the “Miracle of Government Regulation” and I would not want my family living in these United States without it.

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Filed under economy, ethics, Seattle City Light

– A Tech Thanksgiving

A Technology Thanksgiving Feast

As many of us sit down to the average American Thanksgiving 3000 calorie meal tomorrow, we’ll be in uncertain and frightening times. But I’m also counting my technology blessings, and here are a few:

1.  I’m thankful for the generosity of the people of Seattle. We’ve asked a lot of them over the years, and they have consistently voted to tax themselves to give our city and region an improved quality of life, for examples:

•   A completely re-built and remodeled Seattle Public Library system, a beautiful central library and 26 branches, including wi-fi in every branch and 1000 computers for public use, all financed with a $196 million levy. This week we have a wonderful new City Librarian in Susan Hildreth, coming to us from the California State Library.

•   A new light-rail line from downtown to the airport, set to open in 2009,  and a just-passed bond $17.9 billion measure to extend that line by 34 miles over the next 20 years

•   A $167 million fire facility levy which, although strapped for cash in times of rising costs, has already seen us build a new state-of-the-high-tech-art emergency operations center and fire alarm center  , a new fireboat and a joint training facility. The technology systems supporting Seattle Fire help them achieve an average four minute response time to calls, and you can even see those calls in real-time on our website.

•   Note: although I’ve highlighted the investments above, Seattle voters also have approved housing levies, parks levies and funding for other projects to improve our quality of life.

2.  I’m thankful for wonderful, dedicated, employees in the City of Seattle and especially those 600 folks who run our information technology across multiple departments. Throw out your old ideas about clock-watching government bureaucrats pushing paper from the in-box to the out-box. These high-tech folks run the electronic mail systems and internal phone network and electronic payment systems and customer service systems which make our City government a truly 24 hour-a-day, 7 day-a-week business. And we have some unique twists such as an online directory of almost all employees to help customers cut through the organization – not many other companies or governments have that: . I’ve blogged before about how diligently and competently these folks respond to disasters large and small, e.g. the 108 degree data center, , Dial Tone comes from God , and Nervous System of a City Government .

3.  I’m thankful for an award-winning City of Seattle web portal http://www.seattle.gov , twice winning the top city web portal from the Center for Digital government . And also for the Seattle Channel, winner of both Emmys and back-to-back 2007 and 2008 excellence in government programming awards from NATOA

4.  Finally, I’m thankful for great and supportive leadership such as Mayor Greg Nickels who recognizes the efficiency and effectiveness which technology brings to City government by proposing significant technology improvements even in the upcoming lean budget years. And Seattle’s City Council supported that vision by passing the technology portions of his 2009-10 budget with few changes – and those changes were improvements such as a Technology Matching Fund increase and a Citizen Engagement Portal.

Of course this sounds self-serving, because Greg’s my boss and the Council holds the purse strings. But there are hard, solid, initiatives in this budget: a new customer relationship management system, an Outlook/Exchange replacement for an aging e-mail system, an electronic parking guidance system, outage and asset management systems for Seattle City Light, and much more.

5. And, in terms of leadership, we techies can also turn to the federal government and see a new President who knows the importance of broadband and technology to the economy and to making the Federal Government more effective and in touch with people. Everyone in the United States can rejoice and give thanks for that.

You may think I’m a bit Pollyannaish in this blog, and I am, because it is a time to give thanks. But I promise my next blog will be a bit different, as I give you my Recipe for making Technology Turkeys.

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Filed under budget, government operations, NATOA, seattle channel, Seattle City Light, Seattle Fire Dept

– City Averts Power Outage

Click to see more info about the Seattles emergency planning

Seattle City Data Center under Full Power

Seattle’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) was activated yesterday, Friday, August 15th, for a downtown Seattle power emergency – several banks of transformers failed at City Light’s Union Street substation, one of two substations serving the downtown core.  City Light (Seattle’s municipal electric utility – a department of City Government) shut down power to some portions of the waterfront, and asked downtown buildings to significantly reduce their electrical use in order to avoid a complete failure of the downtown grid.  All this on one of the hottest days of the year (95 degrees) for Seattle.

There was no exensive power failure, so the headline “City Light Avoids 90 Degree Outage” in the Seattle PI was buried in the local section, and the problem was just a footnote in the Seattle Times.

How do City government information technology workers respond to emergencies like this?   We’ve had lots of practice – WTO riots, Nisqually earthquake, electrical vault fires, windstorms, actual cyberattacks – and we intentionally conduct emergency operations drills both as a Department of Information Technology (DoIT) and as part of City-wide or region-wide drills such as Soundshake.  

Yesterday we went through our well-drilled disaster response:   directors and managers alerted all employees.    On our own – even before the EOC was activated – we sent desktop and server technical staff plus telephone, data communication and radio system technicians to the EOC to prepare it for activation.   The EOC was activated using a DoIT-maintained “community notification” or telephone call-out system to all critical City government executives.   When the EOC was activated, we sent an executive there to support the City’s leadership in making crucial decisions about the event.  (See also my previous blog entry about the City’s new EOC facility.)

Because this was a power emergency – and because our data centers are a major consumer of downtown power – we activated a long-standing protocol to reduce power consumption.   All servers and equipment in the data center are color coded based on their importance to government operations.   We shut those systems down in an orderly fashion as rapidly as possible.   We also have uninterruptible power supplies and a one-megawatt backup generator for the main data center, plus many other backup generators for critical technology services throughout the City of Seattle.

Yesterday was a hot day in Seattle.  It didn’t get hotter, thanks to well-practiced disaster drills and pre-planning!

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Filed under emergency operations, Seattle City Light, Seattle DoIT