Tag Archives: Code for America

The Dallas Divide: A Problem Technology and FirstNet Can’t Fix

I have long been an advocate for using technology to improve government and governing, and in particular for advancing law enforcement.   I’ve been a long-time supporter of building a nationwide public safety wireless broadband network – a network for priority use by first responders for their cell phones, body-worn video, tablet computers and sensors. And we are seeing that network come to fruition in FirstNet.

But there are some problems technology and FirstNet can’t fix.   Specifically, technology can’t repair the divide between law enforcement and the black community, underscored by the events in Dallas, Baton Rouge and Minnesota.

You-Tube-Post-Hour

In fact, technology probably exacerbates those divisions, as smart phone video of officer-involved shootings and use of force goes viral on social media, which itself is another feature of modern society made possible by technologies such as the Internet and the Web.

As an “old white guy” I certainly have no special expertise on police-community relations and how to repair or improve them.   But I can cite some innovations which many communities could adopt:

  • Community-police academies. The Seattle Police Department and many other major urban departments have such training, which helps educate non-law-enforcement people as to how their police and sheriff’s departments operate.   Of course people have to actually sign up for these courses, and then attend them.   And often they are operated at night, at times when people may be busy with family or work.
  • Ride-alongs. Most departments have a ride-along program, where a citizen can ride along with a police officer and see law enforcement “in action”.   Trust me – too often it is fairly boring, but can be punctuated with moments of terror.
  • Police situation simulators. Karen Johnson of the Black Alliance of Thurston County and Austin Jenkins of National Public Radio’s KUOW (University of Washington) put themselves into such a simulator recently.   They faced real-life situations similar to those cops find themselves handling, with some surprising results.
  • Better police training. Ron Sims was the longest-serving Executive (Mayor) of King County (Seattle). He was the Deputy Director of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.  He lives in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Seattle, Mount Baker.  Yet he’s been pulled over, while driving, by cops 8 times.   He’s 68.  He’s African American.  Apparently he’s “driving while black”. How many of you reading this blog posts have been pulled over 8 times?
  • dallas-police-protecting

    A Dallas Police Officer protects Protesters

    Guardian, not warrior, mentality. Sue Rahr, former King County Sheriff and now director of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Center, advocates for this change in culture and attitudes by police agencies and officers.  Certainly the behavior of Dallas Police Officers during the recent sniper attack, putting themselves in harm’s way to protect the Black Lives matter protesters, is the highest exemplar of this change in attitude.

  • Better police training. Many departments, including Seattle Police, are training hard with de-escalation training and crisis intervention programs.   Crisis intervention is phenomenal, as it seeks to have police officers support the mentally ill, homeless and others in crisis by getting them the services they need rather than taking them to jail or a mental health ward.  Seattle Police, in fact, are working with Code for America to develop a new app to make crisis intervention data available to police officers on smart phones and tablet computers.
  • Open up the data. The Obama Administration launched a police data initiative, which 53 cities covering 41 million people have joined.   The open data portal is powered by Socrata, a Seattle technology firm.   Amazingly, the Dallas Police Department has been one of the most forthright in opening up its data, publishing datasets on use of force and officer involved shootings, something most other departments have failed to do.  Code for America publishes a report card on which police departments have released which datasets.   The Police Foundation has pushed departments to go beyond the White House initiative in being transparent in their actions and operations.
  • President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.   This Commission, headed by Charles Ramsey, former Chief of Police in Washington, D.C. and then Philadelphia, made a number of recommendations to improve police-community relations.  I was honored to present some recommendations to the task force which were adopted in its final report.
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The Seattle Seahawks Superbowl Victory Parade, 2014, which cell networks where jammed – one reason we need FirstNet

Technology and FirstNet have significant roles to play as well.  Many of the innovations above rely upon technology such as open data platforms, apps, and training simulations.   Body-worn video, in-car video and similar technologies to record how police operate will build community trust.   FirstNet is extraordinarily important to providing real-time two-way wireless communications for not only police and other first responders, but anyone who responds to public safety issues – transportation, public works, utilities, non-profits like the Red Cross and even teachers who are often “first responders” to incidents in their schools.

All of these innovations are cool and important.  But, ultimately, it is not technology which will bring law enforcement and the black community back into balance.  It is cops getting out of their cars and talking to people in cafes and barber shops and on the streets.    It is one community meeting after another where police officers and commanders show up to hear the real problems facing real people and modify their tactics to help.

We cannot rely on police departments and sheriff’s department for all of our public safety needs.  Keeping the community safe from those who prey upon us is, ultimately, everyone’s responsibility.

Police officers are also citizens, and need to think like citizens, not as warriors.   But also, perhaps every member of our communities needs to become a police officer, or at least put themselves in the shoes of cops.

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Filed under Code for America, community technology, Law Enforcement, open data, Seattle Police

– The Inception Event (CfA)

click to see moreI guess you can teach an older CTO (me!) new tricks.

I was pleasantly surprised by a Code for America “inception event” on March 17th. The event was the kickoff – really the kickoff of the second half of our “game” (project) to create open source software which will help Seattle and Philadelphia and other cities’ neighborhood leaders … well … “lead”.

Every City and County has neighborhood activists – people who care about their blocks and their communities – and want to improve them. Most often, such activists are “made”, not born. There are many “inception events” which create activists for examples:

  • A child or a senior citizen is struck by a speeding car in a crosswalk.
  • A sex predator moves into the neighborhood.
  • A rash of burglaries occurs in homes on the block.
  • A vacant lot becomes overgrown with weeds and becomes a breeding ground for rats and insects.

Quite often, many people in the neighborhood recognize the problem. Sometimes, someone in the neighborhood recognizes the problem and decides to take action to fix it.

Code for AmericaAn activist is born.

But what do they do next? What action can they really take to change the situation?

Nine times out of ten, they call their local government – their City or sometimes their County. Sometimes it is a call to 911, sometimes to their Mayor or City Council member, sometimes to 311, sometimes they spend time flipping through the blue pages in the phone book (or the modern-day equivalent – an often-hard-to-navigate municipal website) trying to find who to call.

Often the answer they receive – if they get one, especially in these days of government budget deficits and cutbacks in services – sends them from one phone call to another, or maybe directs them to “go to a meeting” of their local blockwatch or community council.

Then our newly minted activist will search online for the meeting of a local community group.  Or maybe they’ll search, usually in vain, for the name of the local blockwatch captain.  Blockwatch captains – community members – are often skittish about publicly releasing their contact information, and understandably so, since blockwatches represent a threat to the local gangs or criminals in the neighborhood.  But finding a blockwatch/community meeting or event can be a dizzying trip through a maze of websites and online calendars or bulletin boards in grocery stores.

Our neighborhood activist, by this time, can be thoroughly frustrated not just with the problem on their block, but with government, community councils, blockwatches and life in general.

How can we in government fix this situation, and help neighborhood activists turn into civic leaders and also help those leaders to be successful?

Code for America - click to see moreFirst, we need to recognize the many people in our cities who have figured this out – have become neighborhood activists, blockwatch captains and civic leaders.  They’ve figured out the “secret sauce” to getting things done.

Next we need to recognize the many government employees – city and county – who really take their jobs seriously.  They want to fix problems and help improve quality of life for residents, but are often stymied by siloed department bureaucracies and simple lack of information – a transportation worker filling a pothole in the street often doesn’t know who to contact about a rat-infested vacant lot, any more than any other citizen.

Finally, government doesn’t have to be involved in the solution to EVERY civic problem.  Quite often citizens working with each other can take action and make their neighborhoods better.

Enter Code for America.

Code for America is a non-profit established by Jen Pahlka, who is also CfA’s Executive Director.  Jen also runs Web/Gov 2.0 events for Techweb, in conjunction with O’Reilly media.   Many of you probably know Tim O’Reilly, a prominent – perhaps THE prominent proponent of the interactive, social web (sometimes called Web 2.0 or Gov 2.0).

Code for America’s premise is simple – citizens and governments face the fundamentally the same issues whether they live in South Beach on Staten Island or San Antonio or Seattle.  Sometimes we can create online applications to help solve those problems.  And if we create them – and we make those applications open source – cities across the United States – perhaps even the world – can take those open source solutions and use them.

Code for America hires “fellows” – usually recent college grads or others with real world experience and a lot of tech savvy – to analyze these problems and write these apps.

This does require money, of course. The City of Seattle (the department I lead – DoIT) pitched in some dollars. But I’m very grateful to Microsoft via Joanne Harrell for contributing $50,000, and to Jack Dangermond of ESRI for chipping in an additional $50,000. Joanne and Microsoft, Jack and ESRI see the potential of this amazing model.

Seattle, Philadelphia and Boston are the launch cities for this ambitious concept.  I’ve previously blogged about what I hoped to get from our Code for America project – see my blog about Citywatch.

In February, the CfA fellows came to our three cities and spent a lot of time with those people I mentioned above – the civic leaders who have “figured out the secret sauce” to getting things done in their neighborhoods – but also the City staff often stymied as well.  They heard about the problems with trying to take action – that civic leaders can’t find each other and have difficulty getting their message out to like-minded activists.  And they heard about the difficulty in finding those meetings of neighborhood blockwatches and community councils and precinct advisory boards – the “meet ups” for neighborhood leaders.

Cue the Code for America “inception event” on March 17th.

This was an amazing eight hours.

First, all the fellows assigned to Seattle, Philly and Boston got together with Code for America staff and our Cities technology folks, including me.  The fellows had already brainstormed several potential applications to solve our community activism problems.

Dan Melton, CfA’s Chief Technology Officer, took the whole group through an exercise to develop the concepts for four potential apps, and determine our overall level of interest in them.  People stood on their feet throughout this exercise. If we were wildly enthusiastic about an idea, we stood to the far right of the room.  If we were “meh” (ambivalent) about it, we stood at the left side.

Then Dan asked us why we were enthusiastic – or not.  In the process, we also further developed the ideas – added functions or features or discarded them.

Next, we voted on the ideas and came up with the top two.

In the afternoon, we went through a deeper dive to develop each application further.  This reminded me a lot of doing a work breakdown structure for a project.  We looked at potential users of the application (our civic leaders) and what they would find useful.  We considered which features would be essential for the first version, and which ones could wait until later versions. We talked a little about what apps presently perform the function, because we don’t want to re-invent an app which already exists.

I worked on the “engagement toolkit” project. As we developed it, it turned into a simple web-based application which a neighborhood activist could use to describe their particular issue or passion.  It would include a “splash page” which simply describes the issue or idea.  But it could also include flyers or doorhangers to solicit others to the “cause”. It might include e-mail list capability or an online map describing the issue.  And it could include simple project management tools – checklists or timelines – to help move the issue forward.

Most importantly, the engagement toolkit would allow neighborhood activists to mobilize their friends and neighbors to the cause.  Working together, they might solve certain problems without any help from their city or county government. They might also be able to find similar groups across a city – or even across the nation – who have already solved their particular problem, and adapt the same solution.

Over the next few months the Code for America staff and fellows will develop this concept into an online application.  They’ll test it out with the civic leaders they’ve already identified in Seattle and Philly.  And in August or September we’ll roll it out and starting using it.

With a little luck, we can marry the “inception event” at Code for America, combined with “inception events” which create budding civic leaders, to create new, online, tools to improve our blocks, our neighborhoods, our communities, and our America as a nation.

From the ground … up.

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Filed under Code for America, community technology, social media

– Citywatch

Block Watch - click to see moreThis past Tuesday night, there were 1,219 parties in the street all around Seattle. Kids, hot dogs, drinks, cops and firefighters and neighbors everywhere. It was part of the National Night Out. And it was, perhaps, one of the last in Seattle, as the City may cut the jobs of six or seven crime coordinators responsible for the Blockwatch program.

Blockwatch programs are a widespread form of civic engagement. And they’ve morphed over the years adopting technology to become more effective. Now the combination of the Great Recession, the Great Budget Crisis and the explosion of social media such as Facebook, they are likely to morph again into a new and cool form of civic engagement, if we can maintain the thin blue line of civilians who run the programs.

Blockwatches, often called neighborhood watches, are a staple of many communities across the United States. I talked to Terrie Johnston, a crime prevention coordinator and 30 year employee in the Seattle Police Department, and she gave me some history of Blockwatches in the Seattle PD. This history is typical of Blockwatches across the nation and Canada.

Often a Blockwatch starts around a particular incident in a neighborhood. Sometimes it is a series of burglaries, or perhaps a drive-by shooting, or an incident near a school. One or more people in a neighborhood get concerned enough to call the local police precinct or Seattle Crime Prevention. The crime prevention coordinator sets up a meeting with the neighbors, discusses the incident and related crimes, and gives the neighbors hints, tips and advice on how to be watchful and protect each other.

Amazingly, Terrie says, it is young families with children who often initiate the Blockwatch or get involved to protect their families. I say “amazingly” because it is this demographic – young people who have kids and very busy lives, often with two jobs – who are hard to get involved in public meetings with City officials. Not so with the Blockwatch!

From this beginning, Blockwatches progress in a variety of ways. Many become social groups as well as crime prevention tools. In my neighborhood we have an e-mail list, we get together for a Christmas party, we even watched the Presidential debates of 2008.
In most Seattle neighborhoods, the Blockwatches also organize themselves into a SNAP (Seattle Neighborhoods Actively Prepare) team. Seattle will have a major earthquake in the future. Such a quake – perhaps at 8 or even 9 on the Richter scale – will mean many neighborhoods may be isolated and have to survive on their own for many days. Neighbors need caches of food and water, need to know first aid and light search and rescue. Neighbors need to help each other.

There are probably a thousand active blockwatches in Seattle, but the Seattle Police crime coordinators have a list of 4000 blockwatch contacts.
The crime coordinators actively stay in touch with their Blockwatch contacts. Originally this contact was by conducting meetings and handing out fliers or maps of recent crimes. While they still attend meetings, make phone calls and hand out paper, the coordinators have also adapted technology. By far the most common method of contact now is e-mail, and they’ll email hints and tips or alerts to their Blockwatch Captains and contacts.

The most active Captains themselves will suggest alerts and updates – for example alerting neighbors to a Memorial Day observance at a military cemetery which included gunshots – a 21 gun salute. Every precinct has a blog and web page for crime prevention.

Crime Mapping on Seattle.govJust within the last year the City of Seattle and Seattle Police have developed a whole series of new online tools to improve the effectiveness of crime prevention. There’s now an online tool which allows residents to map almost all the crimes in their neighborhood (domestic violence and a few others are excluded). The map also allows people to actually download and view the actual redacted police report for many of these crimes. Just last week mapping of Police 911 calls debuted on the website, added to the mapping of Seattle Fire 911 calls which has been available for 6 years or more. Also last week a new crime reporting function was added to the Seattle.gov web, so residents can file reports online for minor crimes such as thefts under $500 or car prowls or similar incidents where they don’t need to talk to a police officer.

Seattle departments – including Police, Fire and others, have adapted twitter to rapidly inform residents of incidents as they occur. The Seattle website also includes a series of fifteen interlinked blogs called CityLink. On the Police blog, called spdblotter.seattle.gov, more detail is given on crimes and other incidents which the Police also tweet .

There are many organizations which operate in every neighborhood. Besides Blockwatches, there are district councils, and arts organizations and community development groups, not to mention an active set of privately operated neighborhood blogs which have, in many ways, taken over the functions formerly performed by community newspapers. The City has an index of all these resources on its website, Neighborhoods on the Net.

I think Blockwatches may morph in two ways in the future – first expanding their function and also changing their method of communication to use social media.

In terms of function, traditionally some Blockwatches have morphed from crime prevention to community engagement. They actively advocate for cleaning up derelict properties, eliminating graffiti, calming traffic (adding speed bumps or traffic circles) and of course caring for each other, e.g. checking in on the elderly or disabled.

But the City hasn’t always adopted the power of the Blockwatch movement for other forms of civic engagement. Many City departments go to neighborhoods and hold public meetings to gain input on zoning changes or neighborhood plan updates or changing the configuration of an arterial street to add turning lanes or bike lanes. But those meetings tend to be “one shot” deals or tend to use or create new e-mailing lists. Rarely do the other departments take advantage of the existing power of the organized Blockwatches. And often the City doesn’t actually give feedback to neighborhoods about how their input was used.

In these days of constrained resources, Blockwatches can and should morph from just crime prevention, to community involvement groups – “Citywatches”.

To do this, municipal governments need to find ways to adapt social media to Blockwatches and community engagement.

Facebook has taken the Internet by storm, with over half-a-billion users. It seems to be a natural new way for Blockwatches to post news, communicate and interact both internally, with other Blockwatches and with police departments and other City functions.

But Facebook as a company doesn’t “play nice” with government or other companies, in that it is hard for governments to save Facebook entries and comments, thereby complying with State records retention laws and FOIA laws. Furthermore, it is hard – if not impossible – to create a set of “blockwatch neighbors” separate and distinct from other groups and friends, and keep that group private, only sharing selected updates with other groups or the municipal government.

Facebook’s great advantage for this purpose is that so many people use it – they don’t have to learn or adopt some new tool. Other social media tools also hold promise for the future of Blockwatches and Citywatches. These include, perhaps, Wiki’s for sharing information about neighborhoods, Ideascale or Uservoice tools such as Ideas For Seattle to generate and rank ideas on certain topics, and Twitter.

A common problem – especially with Twitter and Blogs and Facebook – is easily capturing and harvesting comments or tweets so the Blockwatch captain or appropriate City department can adequately respond. Smartphone applications are already used by governments for JAPA (just another pothole application) feedback, but haven’t been widely used in public meetings, e.g. making comments and what is being said or voting during public meetings, which can improve the level of involvement among the audience. Certainly many governments are afraid of being overwhelmed by input which underscores the need for tools or software to harvest and consolidate responses.

Seattle has asked Code for America, the new non-profit founded by Tim O’Reilly, for help in developing a solution to improving Blockwatches via such social media tools, and thereby helping them to evolve into new platforms for civic action and engagement. With some luck, such a solution can be developed and used by many local governments across the nation.

Finally, I will admit and lament that personal interaction among neighbors has declined. The many time pressures on families mean we have less time to simply talk to our neighbors. But all these new smartphone, social media, technology tools can help improve that interaction.
Fundamentally, however they only supplement the face-to-face Blockwatch meeting which builds community and trust, so neighbors truly care about and watch out for each other.

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Filed under 911, Seattle Fire Dept, Seattle Police