Tag Archives: cloud computing

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

– PITS Computing

Fads - click to see larger image

Non-Computing Fads

There are fads and trends in information technology, just like in the world of clothing or hairstyles. One of the latest fads is pie-in-the-sky computing (PITS), otherwise as “cloud computing” or software-as-a-service – SAAS (pronounced as in “sassy”).

But I’ll call it pie-in-the-sky (PITS) computing, just to be different and even a bit contrary.

PITS computing is only the latest in a long line of sea-changes in IT. Electronic data processing (EDP – now there’s an old term) was the very first of these trends, appearing on the scene in the 1950s and 1960s. EDP was a world of punch cards and paper tape. EDP was the era of “glass house” data centers and a computer “priesthood”. Computers were far too expensive and esoteric for normal human beings to comprehend or touch. So there was a “priesthood” of specially anointed and trained computer specialists whose job was the programming, care and feeding of the electronic monsters.

But the development of computing technology continued relentlessly. Along came mainframe computing (green-screen). personal computing, local-area-network computing, client-server computing and Internet or web computing.

Each one of these phases was driven by some significant technological advance. The development of microchips and the Intel 8088 processor, for example, drove the personal computing trend. (Thank you Intel and IBM!) The development of Ethernet standards drove networking which allowed individual computers to talk to each other.

And then computing, of course, became part of the mainstream culture. Any human being in a developed country knows “windows” doesn’t refer to that wonderful device for seeing through walls, the “glass window”, but rather the portal into the world of computers, an operating system developed and marketed by Microsoft. And almost no one thinks of the “web” as a home for spiders or the “net” as a tool for catching fish or butterflies.

In this context, PITS is the latest fad in computing and technology. PITS is driven by the appearance of more-or-less ubiquitous and reliable high speed networking. Networks today, thanks to fiber optic cable, the router/switch revolution (thank you Cisco) and advances in wireless (wi-fi and 3G telecomm networks), are virtually everywhere. Or at least everywhere where human beings live and companies and governments do significant business.

And these networks are reliable. The wired networks almost never go down, although the signal can get weak or strange with wireless. In my house for example, our Wi-Fi network connected to a wired DSL Internet connection has 105 megabits per second of throughput. Yet my commercial telecomm provided cell phone only works at a certain specific spot in the kitchen in front of the microwave!

Most enterprises now operate with giant central servers which store data and applications. At the City of Seattle, for example, we have computer aided dispatch systems which reside on central servers at a “highly secret” police department location. The police data resides there, but cops on the street can access criminal records and license plate information which reside not only in Seattle but also on the other side of the nation or even on another continent.

Our water utility manages pumps and valves and dams and reservoirs across the entire county and up into the Cascade mountains. City Light, our electrical utility, manages an electrical grid which spans the entire state of Washington.

We all routinely use the web to find information and read the news. But we also increasingly use it to store spreadsheets or photos or documents on our own websites or using servers such as Google apps. Microsoft is embracing the trend, with its Office 2010 now available “for free” in a PITS cloud.

So if Microsoft Office can be in a “cloud” somewhere on the Internet, why can’t our payroll system or e-mail system or financial management system be halfway across the State in a data center in Grant County, Washington (next to giant hydroelectric dams to supply the power) or even halfway across the United States, well outside the Seattle earthquake disaster zone?

Of course the applications and data can be almost anywhere. In the past, I’ve been skeptical of PITS / cloud computing because I didn’t trust the networks to stay up in a disaster, and I was concerned about the security of information stored in a non-descript data center in a distant location outside my personal control.

But with today’s reliable networks, the network is not the issue. And major companies like Microsoft or Amazon or Google handle the management and security better than most governments or small businesses. Furthermore, as demonstrated by the World Trade Center disaster, the data could actually reside in multiple different locations around the nation, increasing our ability to withstand a disaster like that 8.0 magnitude earthquake.

It will be a while before we in government embrace PITS, because the loss of control is a big cultural change for governments and many large companies to swallow. Just like people were concerned when their data moved off their desktop computers to a server, and servers moved out of the closet on the same floor to a centralized computer center in the government complex, so it will take us some time to embrace having those computers in an unnamed nondescript but super-secure location, possibly right next to the bunker where Vice-President Dick Cheney hung out after September 11th.

But embrace it we will.

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