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Seattle Mayor Ed Murray speaks at an Amazon facility. (GeekWire Photo / Jacob Demmitt)

[Editor’s note: Bill Schrier is the former chief technology officer for the City of Seattle, working under the administrations of Mayor Greg Nickels and Mayor Mike McGinn. Schrier now works for FirstNet, an agency of the United States Department of Commerce, which is building a nationwide wireless network for priority use by first responders.]

With the now wide-open election for mayor, the City of Seattle again has a chance to fully embrace the source of its economic prosperity: the booming high-tech community.

Seattle won’t do that by getting a tech leader as its next mayor, as GeekWire has reported.

But that next mayor must seek out Seattle’s technology companies and tech communities to form the alliances so urgently needed by the city to address chronic problems like homelessness and transportation.

Here are some ideas for the mayoral candidates:

Cloud computing

The two largest cloud computing companies in the world are headquartered in the Seattle area: Microsoft and Amazon. Each offers an amazing array of products and services supporting business and government operations. They operate multiple data centers in diverse locations across the nation, protecting data from disasters like earthquakes, power outages, and terrorism. With the cloud, anyone can, in just a few minutes, create an application or buy the power of dozens of servers and massive storage, all without owning a single piece of hardware. Yet the City of Seattle still operates its own data centers full of taxpayer-owned equipment, struggling to adequately maintain that equipment and back up the public’s critical information.

To be sure, the city is slowly embracing the cloud. The Seattle Police Department has awarded a contract to Axon, formerly Taser, for body-worn video cameras with storage in Axon’s, hosted by Microsoft. Axon’s software development team is in downtown Seattle. Seattle is also slowly implementing cloud-based Accela software for its building permits and other permitting systems. Seattle Police are using Tableau software, a company based in the Fremont neighborhood, for its crime dashboards and use-of-force data, an application created by Accenture. And Seattle has used International-District-based Socrata to host Data.Seattle.Gov, its open data portal, since 2009.

(Bigstock Photo)

But many other systems remain in the city’s own physical data centers: enterprise financial management; utility billing systems; a petabyte of police dashcam video dating back to 2009; police and fire computer-aided dispatch; police records management systems; and more.

The city should rapidly convert as many systems and as much storage as possible to Amazon and Microsoft cloud services.

Voice control

(Bill Schrier Illustration)

Amazon’s Echo, with its Alexa voice service, is spreading as fast as wildfire, with over 10 million devices shipped. More than 12,000 “skills” or Alexa applications exist, allowing people to do everything from play music to build lists to rapidly get information, simply by asking for it.

This week, Amazon announced that its Echo devices with Alexa will be able to make voice calls to other Alexa-devices or apps. Amazon will probably expand that to calling cell phones and wired phones, giving a whole new Amazon-unique meaning to the term “landline.” Soon, “Alexa, call 911” could be a reality. This might significantly improve public safety for those with disabilities, children, and the elderly, while presenting new challenges for the city’s 911 centers.

The City of Seattle could become the premier government user of Alexa and its voice services. Every city service could have an Alexa “skill” so citizens could simply ask their Echo about recycling, obtain their electric and water usage, pay their city bills, search for laws and City Council hearings, see the status of a permit or a parking ticket and do almost everything else done by a voice call or on the city’s website today — simply by asking Alexa.

In addition, the city’s call centers could use technology such as chatbots and text messaging to improve services, following the lead of private retailers, banks and others like Alaska Airlines’ “Ask Jenn.”

Other companies with a significant Seattle-area presence — Google and Microsoft — are developing voice services. Right in downtown Seattle, Axon is using artificial intelligence and voice services to develop a new law enforcement records management system (RMS). This RMS will allow police officers and others to essentially dictate reports to their body-worn video cameras while investigating crime scenes, rather than typing them at computers in precinct stations. Voice control should also allow police officers, firefighters, utility and transportation crews, and others to hear and respond to their dispatch and public safety incidents without the need to look down at a computer screen.

The best way to get more cops on the street, engaging the community, is to get them out from behind their computers typing reports.

Public safety and 911

Today, when anyone needs urgent help, they call 911. And that’s it — make a voice phone call. Everyone with a smartphone has a camera which can take photos and videos of incidents and can text message. Yet no 911 center can receive images or videos, and very few (not Seattle) can receive text messages. The city needs to rapidly adopt “Next Generation 9-1-1” technology to perform these functions.

In turn, police and fire dispatch centers need to send such information — along with mug shots, video clips, and other relevant data — to police, firefighters, paramedics, utility, and transportation crews — who all operate on the street. But such responders have no priority on existing cell networks. My 7-year-old granddaughter with her iPad has the same priority as a cop or firefighter on today’s commercial wireless carriers.

In 2012, Congress authorized the creation of a separate network operated by the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) which can be used by consumers and businesses, where first responders would have priority. In March 2017, FirstNet awarded a competitive contract to AT&T to deploy the network, which will be operational in Seattle in October.

The city should issue smartphones to its responders (most police officers and firefighters do not have them today) and should rapidly adopt FirstNet to give its responders the tools, technology, and priority they need to keep citizens safe. Indeed, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s 2014 commission investigating the SR 530 (Oso) landslide recommended doing just that — adopting FirstNet.

[Full Disclosure: During my time as City of Seattle as chief technology officer, I became involved with FirstNet and now work for the agency.]

Smart cities

(Graphic provided by FirstNet, an agency of the Federal Department of Commerce)

In the past, cities have deployed traffic cameras and some sensors in the street to manage traffic. Such sensors and control devices are becoming much less expensive. “Smart cities” adopt such technologies to manage their infrastructure and services. While Seattle has done some work in this field, partnering with the University of Washington, the city is still behind leading-edge cities such as Singapore, Barcelona, San Francisco and Chicago.

Columbus, Ohio, is leveraging $140 million, including $10 million from Paul Allen’s Vulcan, Inc., to revolutionize its transportation systems with a specific goal of getting more low-income and single-parent families to healthcare. Chicago has launched its “Array of Things” network of sensors and has over 30,000 networked video cameras to help manage traffic, air quality, and improve public safety.

Seattle is a nationwide leader in protecting privacy for all this collected data; Seattle City Light is implementing smart grid technologies to better manage its electrical network; and Seattle Transportation just implemented — in the Mercer corridor only — adaptive traffic signaling.

But much more work remains to be done with traffic, school and pedestrian safety, water and wastewater management, smart buildings, street lighting, public WiFi, air quality, kiosks, fire protection and more before Seattle really becomes a smart city.

Homelessness and social services

(Graphic provided by Ride Along App and Katherine Nammacher)

While Mayor Murray has been successful with many initiatives, Seattle’s chronic homelessness problem seems intractable. Police officers often encounter people in crisis. Those people may be homeless, but they also may have mental health issues, chronic drug or alcohol problems, and issues such as PTSD. In most cases, these individuals do not need to go to jail or a mental hospital.

SPD has been a leader in crisis intervention, training every one of its officers in techniques to deal with such situations, which happen more than a thousand times a month. Often, however, officers encounter the same individual again and again. One initiative launched at the department last year was a crisis intervention application, now known as RideAlong. The app holds a plan for such individuals showing their behaviors, de-escalation techniques, and how officers can contact their support network of social services professionals and relatives.

But this app is only used by Seattle’s police, when paramedics, social workers and many other city and county employees also encounter and support such individuals. Homeless shelters and the availability of beds are not in the app. Breaking down the silos between organizations to share information and improve outcomes for those in crisis (while respecting privacy) is one role technology can play.

Traffic cones in the road

There are, indeed, obstacles on the road to improving the city’s use of technology by partnering with the local tech community. Contracting laws can restrict innovation, although the City’s Contracting Services office has been diligent in finding ways to work with small businesses and technology companies. And the City Council can give preference to companies which have a large city or regional workforce. The City’s labor agreements require negotiation of any modern technology which impacts the workforce, such as the loss of jobs by electric meter readers when wireless technology is implemented. History has shown, however, that such jobs are often replaced with better-paying positions.

Looking ahead

Mayor Murray pushed the City government forward through wise use of technology. His present chief technology officer, Michael Mattmiller, has been key to these successes. Examples include the city’s leadership on privacy, digital inclusion, technology consolidation, and improving broadband by allowing CenturyLink to deploy a fast fiber network and compete with Comcast.

That said, technology has advanced rapidly just in the past five years. Better collaboration with the region’s technology companies, expanding use of cloud services and storage, implementing new apps for public safety, deploying smart city technologies and sharing data between departments and with other governments are all opportunities for the next mayor.

But will any potential candidate be smart enough — tech savvy enough — to do that?

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