Mayor Ed Murray introduces Dwight Dively and Martha Choe as his transition team co-chairs. Credit: Matt Fikse-Verkerk
Washington state has an extraordinarily robust tech community, anchored not only by big companies like Microsoft and Amazon, but by the University of Washington and an active start-up scene. Yet our city’s engagement with that tech community – and the technology used by government itself – are inadequate and falling behind other major worldwide centers of technology.
Here’s how mayor-elect Ed Murray can create a government that uses technology to facilitate citizen involvement and provide efficient effective services.
1. Appoint a Chief Innovation Officer. The Mayor needs an ambassador to the technology community with several specific duties: 1. Engaging the Seattle tech community in City Hall policy debates, 2. Promoting economic development in the Seattle area and 3. Kindling an entrepreneurial spirit within government. The CInO could also harness innovative products and services being developed in Seattle (Socrata’s GovStat performance measurement product, for example) to improve government. Boston and Philadelphia’s Mayor’s Offices of New Urban Mechanics and San Francisco’s Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation provide great models for what this position could be.
2. Join eCityGov.net. Thirty-six cities, fire districts, libraries and other members around Seattle are a part of eCityGov.net, a set of collaborative websites that let users apply for building permits, bid on government contracts, explore parks/recreation opportunities and more. Seattle is not yet one of them. Mayor Murray should direct the city to join the coalition, which will send a signal to suburban mayors and city councils that Seattle wants to cooperate on a regional basis. Added bonus: Once these regional technology systems are connected, services such as permitting, recreation and joint procurement (which reduces the cost of buying stuff) will be improved.
3. 24/7 311. Everyone knows you call 911 in case of an emergency, but what if you just need to report a missed garbage pickup, an electrical outage or a dead animal in the street? In over 60 major cities nationwide (Seattle included), that number is 311. Here though, that line is only staffed from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on city business days – a far cry from the all-hours services employed by many other cities. Now that district-based City Council elections have passed, citizens will increasingly be calling council members to report problems. By implementing a 24/7 311 program, the city will significantly improve citizen services, keep council members sane and drive implementation across the rest of the region through eCityGov and King County government.
4. Mobilize everything. More than half of U.S. mobile phones are smartphones and over 30 percent of the adult population uses tablet computers. And yet, the City of Seattle’s website still isn’t optimized for mobile devices. The city has gotten a slow but decent start with find it fix it, an app that lets residents ID necessary repairs on local streets, and Seattle Travelers, which connects smartphone users with traffic cameras on major streets. Next up, it needs to make its entire website and all online services available on smartphones and tablets. And how about a single regional app that allows citizens across King County to report problems, like Massachusetts’ Commonwealth Connect, which works in over 40 cities and throughout the state.
5. Start Fastfwd Seattle. Philadelphia just launched an urban innovation refinery they call Fastfwd, which integrates entrepreneurs into government to create fast, innovative solutions to perplexing public safety and social issues. Instituted by Murray, this is exactly the sort of business-government-education initiative that constituents could love and which could rapidly change government for the better.
6. Harness the Internet of Things. Networked sensors and microchips have proliferated in our daily lives. With them comes the opportunity for more efficiency. LA has linked all 4,500 of its traffic signals together to ease congestion. San Francisco has done the same with parking spaces. Seattle could interconnect all of its traffic signals, sensors and parking spaces into an intelligent transportation system. It could also create utility smartgrids that use microchips in electric, water and gas meters, to monitor use minute-by-minute. Smartgrids would allow the City to turn on, monitor and shut off their utilities remotely, and allow for more exact outage detection and faster repair. Homeowners could even use smart meters to track individual appliances and faucets to reduce waste and monitor energy use, shutting off home appliances they inadvertently leave on.
7. Aim for zero-energy neighborhoods. Austin, Texas and some other cities are encouraging, new homes and buildings to use solar and wind panels to generate power through innovative energy/building codes and grant programs. Clean energy generated by homes beyond their personal use is purchased by the electric utility and put back into the grid. Most of Seattle’s electricity already comes from clean, hydroelectric sources, but additional power generated in homes and buildings would allow Seattle City Light to sell excess power to other states, generating additional income for the utility and reducing carbon emissions nationwide.
8. Fiber-up. Mayor Murray could take several actions to improve the speed and lower the cost of Internet in Seattle. The easiest would be to reduce regulations on CenturyLink, which currently make it difficult and complicated for the ISP to extend its fiber network deeper into neighborhoods. This single action would improve speeds and give home and business owners two competing sources for Internet service. The city should also support Gigabit Squared’s plans for fiber-to-the-premise and encourage the use of new wireless technologies like 4G LTE to bring even more competition to the marketplace.
9. Commit to an open, transparent government. One of President Obama’s first actions as president was declaring his intention to create an open, collaborative, participatory government. Now federal websites like data.gov (powered by a Seattle tech company Socrata) include more than 400,000 datasets. Businesses are using this data to improve their marketing and residents are using it to keep tabs on what’s happening in their neighborhoods (like new building permits, crime, and hazards). Seattle’s data.seattle.gov on the other hand still lacks information about employee salaries, complete business licenses, calls to the customer service bureau, and more. New York City (by ordinance), Louisville, San Francisco and even Oakland have all declared their commitments to putting all city-owned data on their public websites, unless restricted by law or privacy concerns. For Mayor Murray, issuing such an executive order would be a quick win.
10. Embrace the Cloud. Seattle, like many other cities, still spends tens of millions of dollars and many years buying and storing city software for things like records and financial management and utility customer service in the city’s own data centers. Large tech companies like Microsoft and Amazon though, now provide faster and cheaper cloud services, securely designed for government use. Indeed, Amazon recently won a $600 million bid to operate a cloud data service for the CIA and Microsoft has a secure “government cloud” specifically aimed at the needs of cities, counties and states. The city should embrace these alternatives whenever possible.
Our incoming mayor is no tech guru, but by taking a few simple and decisive actions at the beginning of his term, Murray has a chance to turn the City of Seattle into a national leader in government technology. Mayor Tom Menino of Boston and Mayor Ed Lee of San Francisco both spent twenty plus years in government and did it. There’s no reason Ed Murray can’t join their ranks.
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