Tag Archives: Chief Geek

– Talk Groups will keep You Safe

Public Safety Radio - Click for more info

Public Safety Radio - click for more

The Truth may make you Free, but it is the Talk Groups which keep you Safe.

What the hell is a “talk group”?
Well, it is not the senior citizens who gather at the corner café or feedstore (are my Iowa roots showing?) to discuss the issues of the day? Nope – talk groups are the fundamental element of a public safety voice radio system.
Seattle has five police precincts.  One of them – West – got really busy at about 2:00 PM today.  A bank robbery occurred at the Bank of America branch in the center of downtown. And the West Precinct “talk group” was filled the voices of dozens of police officers and FBI responding, surrounding the building and searching for the suspect, which they’d caught by 2:30.  (Coincidently, at 2:09 PM, an automobile rescue was dispatched to 7700 16th Ave SW, with eight fire units plus police units dispatched – get more details on the City’s website here).

When police and fire departments first started using radio for dispatch and operations in the 1920s, one radio “frequency” was allocated for each precinct or task, such as the West Police Precinct, or a large-scale medic incident such as the auto rescue.  We all know what a radio frequency is – “tune to KJR 950 on your radio dial” – 950 kilohertz that is, although most folks don’t know the “kilohertz” part (and the geeks reading this can get a better explanation in Wikipedia)  .
Public safety departments were assigned similar frequencies.
Using radio for dispatching and operations is really really useful.  So everyone  tarted using it!   Buses and water utilities and taxis and just about any other operation with a mobile workforce.  And, with the advent of cell phones and then wireless data communications such as those offered by the cell phone companies, or wi-fi, the available frequencies rapidly were allocated.  In dense urban areas like Seattle, virtually every kilohertz of radio spectrum is allocated to something, or reserved by FCC for a future use.
In fact, the transition to digital TV which is occurring on February 19, 2009 (see the explanation here) is all about freeing more frequencies for other uses. The FCC has also taken TV stations 70 to 83 (UHF) off the air to free frequencies.

In Seattle, however, we only have about 28 radio frequencies for all City government uses. Yet we have hundreds of police and firefighters and utility workers and others on the street at any given time.  Plus public safety officers from many other jurisdictions come to Seattle to transport prisoners or attend court.  How can we stretch 28 frequencies to cover all those uses?
The answer: “talk groups”. Plus a bit of technology.

Motorola developed a technology called “trunked radio”.  Essentially no radio frequency is ever used every second of the time.  Even during the bank robbery downtown this afternoon, with dozens of officers listening and talking, there were long gaps between transmissions.  Part of this is good training and “radio discipline” by the cops.  Motorola’s system allows each transmission to use any available frequency, not just one.  In this fashion, dozens or hundreds of “talk groups” (like West Police Precinct) can use the same 28 frequencies, all at the same time, without interference and with plenty of spare capacity. Indeed, during most days, there are over 60,000 individual radio transmissions on the Seattle network, but rarely are more than half the 28 available frequencies in use.

The interesting part: this is 1980s technology!  It is 20 years old!  Indeed, these radio systems are based, in part, on the Motorola 6809 chip, developed 30 years ago in 1978, and also used in wonderful machines like the Tandy “Color Computer”.

Are these systems getting old?  You bet, and they’ll need replacing soon.  But for right now, Seattle’s Public Safety Radio system is up and working 99.999% of the time (that is only minutes of downtime a year), a credit not just to solid technology but good maintenance and fast response to problems by the City’s Comm Shop (part of my Department of Information Techology).

This technology – and talk groups like “West Precinct” – help police officers and firefighters keep Seattle safe.


Filed under radio, Seattle DoIT, Seattle Fire Dept, Seattle Police

– Back to Bicycling

The Chief Geek returns to Bicycling - click to enlarge

The Chief Geek returns to Bicycling - click to enlarge

I’ve previously blogged about my bicycling accident on June 3rd, my hospital experience at Harborview Hospital (aka Seattle Grace Hospital of Grey’s Anatomy fame), recovery and observations about the whole experience including the technology involved.   Today – September 3rd – I bicycled home for the first time since the accident.   New bicycle, new helmet (the old helmet was untouched in the accident), new pack, new stainless steel holding together my shattered right arm.   The arm is about 80% – still can’t lift more than about 10 pounds, still hurts, still doesn’t extend all the way, but on the way to a full recovery in about a year.

Thank you Harborview, Dr. Roberts, Aaron the Physical Therapist, the crew of Fire Station 36, and modern medical science!

P.S.  The new bike has disc brakes.

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Filed under bicycling

– Keeping up with the Gateses

A Fox keeps up with the Gateses

A Fox keeps up with the Gateses

Internet Explorer Version 8 Beta is released! So proclaim the headlines over the past 10 days on the Internet ether and in the tech trade rags and e-mail magazines (e-zines). You know what we use at the City of Seattle? IE Version 6. I personally think IE V7, with tabbed browsing, is the best thing since the invention of the first browser. I use it all the time(along with Firefox) at home. But at work in downtown Seattle, I’m an IE 6 user because that is the standard. The one I’ve set for the government.
Does anyone care about Microsoft Vista? Oh sure, if you buy a new computer for home or personal use, you get Vista as the operating system. Because you don’t have any choice! And you probably don’t care, as long as it works. But if you are a large corporation, Windows XP rules. Indeed, those corporations, including the City of Seattle, will receive a computer with Vista installed, wipe the hard drive, and install Windows XP. And XP works fine for us.

Office 2007 has been on the market since, well, before 2007. Yet at the City, the most advanced users use Office 2003. Most users use Office XP (aka 2002) or Office 2000. In fact, there are still those who long for Word Perfect. Even the most skilled power users probably use 1% of the commands and functions of Word. Office 2007 does change the format of documents, making them more interoperable with documents on the web and other document formats. But that’s a feature few corporate users care about at this time.
Why the heck can’t the City of Seattle keep up with the Gateses? Why are we (and, frankly, almost all other large Corporations) so far behind? Is this another case of sluggish bureaucratic inertia?

Actually, computer systems today are all “ecosystems”. Very few pieces of software stand on their own, independently of others.
For a specific example at the City of Seattle, we use PeopleSoft Government Financials Version 8.8, one of the very latest versions of a financial management system. But PeopleSoft has engineered it to use IE V6 as an interface for most users, to work under Windows XP, and to download data into spreadsheets in Office 2003 or earlier formats. PeopleSoft certifies that it will support these versions, but not newer versions, until they exhaustively test them. We – the City – cannot upgrade to a newer version of any software without losing PeopleSoft’s support.

Microsoft is a little better, at least for its own applications. It extensively tests software so that Microsoft XP works with Microsoft Exchange works with Microsoft Office works with Microsoft fill-in-the-blank. This testing makes it easier on corporate IT folks (and sells more software in the meantime).
At the City of Seattle, we complicate this a bit by using some non-Microsoft software such as Novell’s GroupWise for e-mail and Novell’s NetWare to save and print files. So we have to test those ourselves with new Microsoft software.

Even more complicated than this, any particular user’s computer will have dozens and dozens of different applications running on it. Not just Windows XP, Internet Explorer and Office, but also our GroupWise e-mail system, maybe the financial management system or the utility customer information system and perhaps Microsoft Visio, Adobe Photoshop, Virtual Private Networking, McAfee anti-virus and many more. Changing any one of the pieces of software – and especially core software such as Office, IE and Windows itself – could break any of the other applications. And then the employee can’t do their job.
To complicate this even further, each one of the City of Seattle’s 11,000+ desktop and laptop computers can have different applications from every other computer! Things are not this bad, of course – the computers installed in police vehicles are pretty standard, for example. But certainly computers in offices will vary from cubicle to cubicle.

These complex systems are now necessary to do the work of City government.

But it also makes it hard to keep up the latest versions emerging from the Gateses.


Filed under Microsoft

– A National CTO?

Which is the National CTO?

Which is the National CTO?

Barack Obama states he will appoint the nation’s first Chief Technology Officer (CTO) . And, indeed, his own campaign even has (had?) its own CTO (see CIO-dot-com).  Blogger Robert Scoble recently listed (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) the “A list” of names for the National CTO job.

Vint Cerf (as quoted by Ed Cone in his blog on CIO Insight) worries about “centralizing” technology or technology policy in the Federal government. He correctly points out that a “technology czar” would have about the same level of success as previous administration’s “energy” and “drug” and “fill-in-the-blank” czars.

But what would a “national CTO” actually DO?

Obama’s campaign website lists a potential set of duties. These include:

  • More transparency in government – presumably this means the federal government. Chief Geek comment: Yes!
  • Development of an interoperable wireless network for first responders. Chief Geek comment: Oh Gawd no. There are so many different groups and bureaucracies trying to do this now, vying for attention and dollars, that we’ve created a mini-first-responder-industrial complex.
  • Sharing of best technology practices between government agencies. Chief Geek comment: Well, maybe. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) of the Bush Adminstration is already and consistently scoring agencies on their management, and specifically the use of electronic government (see the latest scorecard here )

As CTO (aka Chief Geek) for the City of Seattle, I do have an opinion about this (surprise!) .

The City of Seattle does not have a CIO.  To some extent, the title “CTO” instead of CIO is an historical anomaly dating from the time the position was created by the Seattle City Council in the mid-1990s. But I also head a department (Information Technology or DoIT) which largely manages infrastructure. Applications are supported by the individual departments who conduct the business of City government (providing water, electricity, transportation, policing, parks, fire and emergency medical service, etc.).  As CTO, my office provides oversight and standards for the use of technology in City government, but I only directly manage about 215 of the 600 or so IT employees in the government.

In the Fedgov, not even the technology infrastructure of the government can be centralized under a CTO. The Fedgov is just too large and diverse.

I’ve previously written that government generally should not be on the bleeding edge of technology – we should take technologies pioneered and honed by the private sector, and apply them to the business of governing. In the Fedgov this is also true, with the exception of the military and homeland security, who have unique duties which will stretch the envelope of technology in new and different ways from the private sector.

So what would a national CTO actually DO? I suggest:

  • Make that blob of the Fedgov more transparent. Absolutely.
  • Find technologies and best practices for using technologies pioneered in the private sector and imfuse them into Federal agencies. I’ve previously listed a number of ideas about the use of Web 2.0 tech, for a specific set of examples, in government.
  • Push the OMB Scorecard further and deeper with aspects of technology other than “e-gov”. The best way to push agencies to cooperate and interoperate is to score their performance. We do that with project management at the City of Seattle, and it works wonders.
  • Where possible, demand, direct and lead Federal agencies to cooperate and consolidate – share web services, share infrastructure, consolidate data centers and so forth.

In terms of national (non-federal-government) leadership by this Federal CTO position, I’m a little more cautious and skeptical. I like Vint Cerf’s idea about an information technology advisory committee (PITAC). But, in general, I’d say the robust set of private technology companies (led by Seattle’s own Microsoft), the University community and the open source Internet community are doing just fine in national and worldwide technology leadership. 

We do have a number of Federal agencies which appropriately regulate or support technology, for example the FCC, the Federal Trade Commission, National Science Foundation and, of course (famously) DARPA.  Most of these agencies could be improved in an administration more technologically enlightened than the present one.

But we don’t really need a federal technology “czar” to “help”.

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Filed under egovernment, Fedgov, government, government operations

– Fossils and Technology

a Stone Rose

a Stone Rose

I’ve spent the last couple of days in Republic, Washington, a small, isolated town in Northern Washington State. Republic has a population of less than a thousand people, and is surrounded by many miles of forest and prairie and mountains and ranchland in virtually every direction. The nearest big cities are Tonasket (pop. 1013) to the West and Kettle Falls (pop. 1527) to the East, 40 and 30 miles distant, respectively.

My wife and I come here to dig fossils at the Stonerose site, one of the few fossil sites where public digging is encouraged.

In the past, I’ve always been comfortable with Republic’s relative lack of modern technology. Cell phones don’t work here, an Internet connection is non-existent, few (if any) local businesses have a website. On one trip, a few years ago, my pager started to buzz and beep madly – but only as we were driving away – and we were 40 miles away – between Kettle Falls and Colville!

This trip there was free wi-fi in our hotel room. I had five bars on my Sprint BlackBerry. Not only cell phone calls but e-mail flowed freely to the device, even in our motel room in the basement of the Prospector Inn. Technology has come to Republic.

The fossils are still here, just as they’ve been for the last 48 million years.

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Filed under BlackBerry, fossils, history of technology, wi-fi

– Everything Important is “Local”

West Seattle Blog

West Seattle Blog

Tip O’Neill, late and former speaker of the U. S. House of Representatives, famously said “All politics is local”. He meant, of course, that no politician was ever elected or re-elected unless they listened to their local constituency and “delivered the goods” – that is, adequately reflected their voters’ views, opinions and needs*. Even if you are running for governor or President, you still need “feet on the street” in local neighborhoods to carry your message and translate it for voters – real people – neighborhood-by-neighborhood, block-by-block**.

Two relatively recent technology innovations underscore that more than “politics” is local: so are news, information, and government in general. And by “local”, here’s what I mean: certainly events like the Iraq war and the downturn in the economy are important and newsworthy and worthy of politician’s attention. But ordinary people don’t feel they have control over such monumental events. They feel they can control what happens in their neighborhood or on their block – building permits, helping the elderly, crime, condition of streets, what moves into their neighborhood (e.g. jails or halfway houses). Yet, while the Iraq war (or Georgian War) or the national housing slump grab the headlines, ordinary people often don’t have access to information about what is happening in their very own neighborhood – right down the block.

Here are a couple of developments which are, however, changing this paradigm:

The first development is the impending death of the paper newspaper. (Gosh I hope I’m wrong here, as I love getting ink on my fingers as I get information into my brain). Or rather than “death”, I mean the probable replacement of the paper-paper by the online-paper, the blog, and the Web.

The West Seattle Blog is a premier example of this. For almost a hundred years, the weekly West Seattle Herald has been the paper-paper for our neighborhood of about 40,000 people. Recently, the Blog is stealing the readers. Why? Because anyone can (and does) contribute news and information to the Blog. Sometimes the Blog reflects a bit of the ambulance-chasing and sensational-crime-reporting found in TV news or the paper-paper. But it also posts a ton of “come to the festival” and “photos of the parade” and “little league team wins” stories about neighborhoods. And Editor Tracy Record posts it almost immediately – morning, noon and night. It is timely, has a lot more information than the paper-paper (because it exists in cyberspace), and – more importantly – it is local – news about your neighborhood and even your block.

The Seattle Times – circulation 210,000 – and other urban newspapers face similar issues – see article here.

A second development is “Everyblock“. This is a fascinating mashup of publicly-available information. Information customized to within a few blocks of your home! In Seattle, at seattle.everyblock.com you can see 911 calls to the fire department, building permits and even restaurant inspections (I’ll never order from that Chinese food place five blocks from my house again!). In Chicago, where information on crimes is publicly available, you can even see a compendium of specific crimes committed in your neighborhood. The ultimate police blotter! “My Neighborhood Map” on the City of Seattle’s website has some similar information set up on a map.

Now, suddenly, the ordinary citizen has a ton of news and information available about their neighborhood and even their block. They can contribute to it (just ask Tracy Record) and will have better tools to shape their individual and neighborhood future.

Gives a whole new, and still developing, meaning to “all politics is local”, doesn’t it?

* Although sometimes a politician must also be a leader – taking people into the future – to where the nation or community must go, even if a majority of people don’t want to go there, e.g. the civil rights movement.
**These folks are called Precinct Committee Officers or PCOs, and they are elected officials themselves – at the most basic or lowest level of jurisdiction – elected for each party in each precinct.


Filed under blog, newspaper, Uncategorized, web 2.0

– 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