Category Archives: web 2.0

– Just Another Apps Competition?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So where do we go from here? My suggestions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

– CIO As City Cheerleader

Cheerleader(This post originally published July 8, 2012)

Do City, County and State government CIOs have a responsibility to be “cheerleaders” for their jurisdictions for economic development of the community?

I think so.

We CIOs have talked about “aligning information technology with the business” of government and “customer service” to other departments. Those are still important, although, increasingly, CIOs are contracting a lot of the actual “doing” of technology to software-as-a-service and other cloud providers.

But most elected officials have little interest in internal information technology functions, However virtually every one believes that bringing new business to their community – or growing it – is the key to improving the overall quality of life. New businesses bring new jobs. Governments prize technology businesses, especially, because they are “cool”, generally “green” and also bring high-paying jobs. Look on the websites of any number of cities and counties for economic development goals, and you’ll see emulation of Silicon Valley.

The governments’ CIOs are the technology experts within each government. Where better to get the expertise to help entice or grow such high-tech businesses?

Seattle recently sponsored a “Startup Weekend – Government Edition”….

(Read the rest of this blog post on my Digital Communities Blog here.)

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Filed under apps, CIOs, economy, web 2.0

– Bright Shiny Objects

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

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

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

How does this all relate to government?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Data Data Everywhere

Data.Seattle.Gov - click to see more

Data.Seattle.Gov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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– Open Cities

Open Cities and Social Media - click for more

Open Cities and Social Media

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t there a better way?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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– Great Recession? Opportunity!

Tech Trends on the Upswing

Tech Trends on the Upswing

In my previous blog entry, I discussed some of the “downswing” trends in IT in local government. This column will be about trends on the upswing – gaining prominence and resources – in cities and counties. Most of this information came from discussions with CIOs of other large cities and counties around the country, held at the Metropolitan Information Exchange (MIX) conference in Albuquerque in September.

On the rise in local government are cloud computing or hosted services, public safety support, geo-location, award-winning websites, social media use (blogging, twitter, Facebook, YouTube), consolidation, hiring chills or freezes, the “greening” of IT and responding to climate change.

MIX members certainly are leaders in online services, as recognized in the Center for Digital Government’s annual best of the web awards. We are all driving more services online, but also struggling to make more data available for transparency and accountability. Those governments receiving awards are doing an exceptional job.

 “Cloud computing” or hosted applications or software-as-a-service (SAAS) are finding fertile ground in government, although only the seeds have been planted – just a few applications are sprouting. Bill Greeves, CIO of Roanoke County, Virginia, has been a leader in this field in government, especially with his Muni Gov 2.0 initiative. Bill is also a fellow blogger here on Digital Communities.

As the budgets of IT departments are cut, they no longer have the staff or resources to support applications, sometimes even mission critical ones. Many of us are therefore hosting new applications such as job application or payroll systems in the cloud. The City of Seattle will probably implement both applicant tracking systems (although with budget constraints, jobs are few and far between!) and customer relationship management systems “in the cloud”. Besides ease of support, placing applications “in the cloud” also results in regular software upgrades and predictable costs.

Most MIX cities and counties are not cutting public safety or fire/emergency medical services departments. The City of Seattle, while cutting over 300 city employees in 2010, is preserving the number of firefighters and increasing the police department by 21 officers.

And support for public safety systems such as computer-aided dispatch (CAD) and records management is growing. A side effect of this growth is geo-location or automated-vehicle-location (AVL). Many local governments have implemented it for fire departments and it is seeing increasing use in police, transportation and utilities. AVL allows dispatch of the closest unit to a request for service, shortening response times. During disasters or major incidents, the incident commander and emergency operations center can quickly see and coordinate the deployment of units from many different disciplines to the scene. As one example, the City of Seattle just implemented a new CAD for Police which includes a mapping component showing not just unit locations, but active calls, waiting calls and completed requests.

Social media are seeing an explosion of use (duh!). Social media include blogging, online video (e.g. YouTube), twitter, mashups (data display on a map), and “friend” sites such as Facebook. Every MIX member is trying to figure out how to use these new technologies but at the same time comply with the web (pun intended) of laws for local government, including records retention and public disclosure while somehow preventing degeneration of public comment into the gutter often found in comments on newspaper articles. The City of Seattle just implementedd a series of social media policies, and is robustly using blogs and Twitter, as well as video and Facebook.

Again, Bill Greeves and the Muni Gov 2.0 crew are actively holding meetings and discussions in Second Life, another use of social media.

Next, I’ll mention climate change. Some amount of debate continues to swirl around this topic – is global warming real or not? Is it caused by humans, or flatulating cows? This whole discussion is actually irrelevant. The fact is the public – and their elected officials – are demanding climate-friendly reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, which, by the way, also reduce our use of and dependence upon foreign oil. Mayor Greg Nickels of Seattle just had the 1000th city (Mesa, Arizona) sign the Mayors’ climate protection agreement, an initiative he started in 2005. Bottom line: climate change is something IT departments need to address, too.

Then there is “green technology”. I’m a notable skeptic that technology can ever been “green” (see my blog entry on “gray technology”) although e-recycling programs like Total Reclaim in Seattle are recycling 99% of TVs and computer monitors. Every MIX member jurisdiction is working on green tech. Some of this is almost inadvertent, e.g. lengthening replacement cycles of desktop and server computers due to budget cuts. But other initiatives are quite proactive such as installing power-management software on desktop computers (e.g. from Verdiem), virtualization, and reducing the use of paper. In the future we will probably demand to know which manufacturers and vendors are kindest to the environment and use the lowest carbon emissions in production of their products.

As Rahm Emanuel has stated “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste“. Those of us who are CIOs in local government are trying to balance reduced budgets, make staffing cuts and yet meet the increasing demands for technology by line departments in our governments. And we’ll continue to share our good ideas through organizations such as MIX, publications like Government Technology and Public CIO magazine, and blogs such as these on Digital Communities.

We won’t waste this crisis!

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Filed under government, green technology, MIX, Seattle Police, web 2.0

– Politics and Technology

Mayor Greg Nickels

Mayor Greg Nickels

On Friday August 21st, Mayor Greg Nickels of Seattle conceded defeat in our 2009 primary election. In an eight-way race for Mayor, he came in third. Joe Mallahan and Mike McGinn, both running their first races for elected office, received more votes than Greg in the August 18th primary.  The general election is November 3rd.  Come January 1st 2010, there will be a new Mayor in Seattle.  As CIO and a Department Director, I work directly for the Mayor.  On January 1st, either I’ll have a new boss, or Seattle will have a new CTO/CIO and I’ll have a lot of free time on my hands.

“Technology is driven by the business need.”   That’s a mantra for CIOs everywhere, whether we work in government , the private sector or at a non-profit.  As a CIO you can work in banking or manufacturing or a federal government agency or in a foundation or at a hospital.  In every case, the primary purpose of your business is not technology, but rather creating a product or delivering a service.  You, as CIO, use technology to make the organization more effective and efficient at its business, to give it a competitive edge.  It’s a wonderful job, CIO. You get learn and understand the business.  In my case, that’s permitting and utilities, emergency management and firefighting, entertainment (Seattle Center, parks) and policing, transportation and land use – all the products and services of the City government of Seattle.

And, as CIO, you are deeply involved in technology, which is full of innovation and constant change as IT moves ever forward.  And the CIO gets to marry the two, bringing the wonders of technology to the business of governing. 

Leaders change everywhere, and often suddenly.  Companies are bought and sold.  Non-profits expand and contract.  Businesses are born and die.  But only in government are your leaders elected, and do you get to watch the fascinating process of political campaigns, the ebb and flow of debates and public forums, the expose’ of news stories and endless mudslinging and chanting of blogs and newspapers and websites.  I have to admit that the vigorous debate and entertainment value of the political process is a significant portion the compensation I receive as Chief Technology Officer in Seattle. 

As Seattle’s CTO/CIO, I’ve not been one who believes technology and politics are separate.  I do NOT believe technology is “above” or “outside” politics.  As a private citizen, outside my job and away from my official duties, I’ve been involved in that political process.  I’ve engaged with candidates for many different offices, exploring a bit of their philosophies about the intersections of politics and governing and technology. 

The march of day-to-day business of Seattle’s City government and the use of technology in government will continue unchanged through this transition between Mayors.  The e-mail will keep flowing, the Seattle Channel will keep broadcasting.  The customer service systems will churn out utility bills and the financial management systems will process receipts and payments and general ledger entries.  We’ll continue stringing fiber optic cable and expanding the intelligent transportation system.  The service desk will answer calls for tech help and there will be dial tone when employees pick up their telephone sets.  The IVR (interactive voice response) will still process phone calls for help from constituents and the website www.seattle.gov will continue to expand and grow with services and information.  

If anything, our challenge continues to be the $72.5 million dollar general fund budget deficit.  Our water and electric utilities face financial challenges as great as the generally funded departments.  The Department of Information Technology will be smaller next year in both budget and staffing.  In developing that budget, I’ve tried to preserve core services plus a little staffing and funding for harnessing the ever-changing landscape of technology for the City’s use. 

Leadership – political leadership from Mayors and Governors and Presidents – does make a difference.  From a technology perspective, we are seeing that in Washington DC today, with a massive thrust towards transparency and accountability via the Internet and web.  We have a President who embraces change by using a BlackBerry and pushing his government to use Web 2.0 tools, blogs and online policy forums.

 Very recently, Seattle City Council member Bruce Harrell, who chairs the Energy and Technology Committee, laid out a vision for embracing similar change in Seattle.   In Seattle, our website www.seattle.gov has twice won “top municipal web portal” (2001, 2006), our municipal TV channel 21 has twice received top honors for municipal television programming for a City our size (2007, 2008) and regularly receives Emmy awards.  We’ve embraced blogs, with an announcement this week of CityLink, multiple blogs on City department sites, linked together into a blog roll-up.  We have police and fire and other departments tweeting the latest news.   We are on the verge of municipal broadband (Mayor Nickels was NATOA’s Broadband 2008 Broadband Hero of the Year).   We have mashups showing Fire 911 calls, transportation traveler’s information and My Neighborhood Map.   We are wrapping up a ten-year, $20 million replacement of Law-Safety-Justice technology systems which has and brought new computer-aided-dispatch systems, computers and cameras to police and fire vehicles, and an integrated police-law-court system.   This year we will finish a wholesale upgrade of the entire City government to Microsoft’s Office 2007, Active Directory and the latest version of Exchange/Outlook.  There are many other accomplishments I could mention.   They are the direct result of having smart city employees, good managers, and enlightened leadership in our departments.

But these investments are also the result of having a City Council and a Mayor who see the value of technology and support its application to the business of government.   It does make a difference who is elected.   Those who want to see government more efficient and effective, and who want to apply technology to improve government, and to make it more accountable and transparent, need to be involved in the political process of electing leaders who will make that happen. 

In Seattle, over the next 50 days, that’s what I’ll be doing.

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