Taking Advantage of the IP Infrastructure
Please send comments to Bob Frankston
Newton is poised on the brink of a new technological capability. Newton's demographics and its existing infrastructure make it well-poised to take advantage of an opportunity to improve efficiency, enhance services to its citizens, and make Newton an even more desirable place to live in the year 2000 and beyond. While I am an expert in the technologies I speak of (my bio), I have a layman's understanding of city government based on my experience as a resident and on my generic understanding of how large organizations operate. Still, I feel I know enough to suggest a profitable direction for the city to take towards benefiting from the technological environment.
The approach must be pragmatic and take incremental steps to use technology to improve the operation of the schools, publicize city events and address other specific problems. By taking these steps against the larger framework, they can be synergistic, adding value beyond their standalone contribution.
Newton has benefited greatly from its reputation as a premier city for education. As we approach the year 2000 we stand to achieve similar renown and benefits from the effective use of technology. We have the expertise and physical plant. What we need is the awareness and the will to take advantage of of our resources.
The telecommunications infrastructure is undergoing a revolution that has been unleashed by the Internet Protocols. The most visible effect has been a rapid decrease in the costs of communications and in the growth of Internet-based services such as the Web.
These technologies offer the opportunity to greatly enhance life in Newton. We can passively watch as these technologies roll over us, or we can actively embrace them and make the city a more attractive place to live and, at the same time, serve as an example to other cities.
Newton is already being wired for high speed communications by MediaOne and RCN. Bell-Atlantic is also capable of upgrading its wiring. While high-speed connectivity is valuable, it is even more important that we can assume 24x7 (24 hours, 7 days) connectivity. Being continuously connected to the Internet gives us a very different perspective from a "dial-up" user for whom the network is a place to visit only when it is worth the effort and patience.
To see what other cities are doing, you can read the article To see what other cities are doing, you can read the article Selling Cities on the Web.
Focusing on the City and the Web Technologies
My focus is on the city and how it can function better both for internal municipal operations and for services to the citizens. There are already a number of Internet-based publishing efforts such as http://www.townonline.com.
But the Web technologies are, perhaps, more important for the city to use within its boundaries, as an "Intranet," rather than as a means of publishing to the world at large. The term "Intranet" emphasizes the use of these technologies for internal use. The fact that these are the same technologies used to publish information on the Web itself means that efforts applied to understand and use these technologies can be very cost-effective. It makes the city itself work better. And it provides it's citizens with better access to information about services and events as well allowing them to request information and services directly.
Even for a trivial function such as the city phone directory, is there an easy way to maintain and access it? Is it even available online? Do the Aldermen have ready access to the information they need or are they awash in paper? If the census form were filled out online, how much effort would be saved in processing the information while allowing for more effective reporting. There are many such examples. What is exciting about these technologies is that they are allow departments and individuals to create their own services. IT (the Information Technology group) serves to support these activities rather being the bottleneck.
These technologies have brought a fundamental change in the whole approach to information technology. We have gone from a situation where each service required years of planning before deployment (after which were stuck with the results), to a more reactive situation in which systems can be rapidly deployed, integrated and updated as the needs change. This isn't magic! Making effective use of the technology requires understanding and continued support. But the rewards for this investment are very significant.
The key is to treat these technologies as an important fundamental capability rather than as an afterthought. Given staff dedicated to this endeavor, we can then explore how to apply our technology to making the city more efficient and more accessible. And a better place to live.
As these technologies become integrated in the way the city does business, a document that is now done in a word processor and then printed will be directly available online with no additional work. And without having to distribute paper and incur the cost of postage. Memos would normally be published for internal access only and then made available for public access if appropriate and after approval. Paper copies would still be available for those who want them. In fact, they can be printed at any library or even by friends at home. The Web makes paper documents more available by increasing the number of people who can print them.
Beyond the Web
At the simplest level, we can deploy wireless connectivity around the city using currently available technologies. Over time, we can use underlying Internet technologies to provide other services. For example, sending alarm or security messages would cost nothing. Broadcasting meetings or events on the Internet is not subject to the limitations of television channels. And, at least within the city, a telephone line could be free, the number of lines in a household being limited only by the capacity of the network connection.
Exploiting Web Technologies
Let's look at examples of what other cities have done with this technology. (Please send me other examples)"
Additionall, some of the information I would like to see made available on the web includes:
In looking at the current official Newton web site, it appears that information is published as if the home page were a bulletin board. Little thought seems to have been given to overall availability and maintenance of the information. There does not appear to be a pro-active approach to assure that the information is available so that the sites becomes the first place to look, and that information (such as forms) are more than just images.
I assume that locating information within the city government is not much easier. One must hunt down information by knowing where it is kept, who owns it, or what system it is on. Ideally there are brochures somewhere that have information such as the schedules for parks, services, events and so on. If we shift our thinking from viewing the brochures, for example, as the product to the data itself, we have the basis for providing better access to the services.
Imagine a central city calendar. Views can then be made available on a Parks and Recreation page or, perhaps, a more general query. The school calendar can be enriched by information about recreational services. More important, the tools for adding and updating information can allow those with authority and responsibility to readily update their own information and correct errors.
Such a central database is an ideal. It may not be realistic to expect to unify the information. Perhaps such information is already available in departmental databases. This data can be linked automatically to the web site either by a direct connection or by periodically copying the data from an internal system to a more public one. The exact technique would depend on the specifics of a situation.
There are many sources of data within the city, much of it hidden in local systems. Even though the data itself is maintained in different departments and organizations, the Web standards and protocols provide a basis for coordination and sharing. Thus the side-effects of the effort to coordinate and distribute the data are not only increased availability but the shared understanding of on how to maintain and coordinate data. For example, when we look at the address of a library or school, the information will automatically be updated (as with the zip code change) and will provide a simple link to a map for viewing the location and getting directions (as in ). at http://www.terraserver.com for other ideas and possibilities.)
If one wants to find out about Village Day in Newton Highlands, the information should be readily available. Since it is a local event, the sponsors can choose to publish a description on the city's site or maintain their own with a link. In either case, it would be automatically listed on the city calendar.
This doesn't mean we are are forcing everything into a common format. We are just providing the opportunity to have organizations and departments join in such an effort and thus benefit from timely and accurate information.
These are Here are some simple and perhaps obvious examples. I expect each town department and organization to discover what is useful and possible by experience. This is going to be a process of discovery.
While I expect to see the schools themselves make more effective use of computer technology and the web for education, that's an issue that should be addressed separately. This article focuses focusing on general municipal services and the needs of the parents as citizens.
Other than some student-led efforts, there appears to be no movement in making effective use of the Web by the school department. I see a primary use as providing a connection between the parents and the schools, better communication among the PTA members, between parents and teachers and many ad hoc groups.
When my son was at Mason-Rice, I maintained the PTA database. It was a major advance to reuse the previous year's database as a starting point. But how much better would it be to provide such data centrally as well as making updating easier! Of course, the access to the data would be limited to those with a "need to know", namely parents with students in the same class. The same is true for other sensitive information. A teacher might choose to make class assignments generally available or to restrict access to them.
That still leaves much information about the schools, location, staff and events that can be published.
As the city gains expertise in Web technologies, it can assist the school board and other organizations in making more effective use of them. I expect lots of novelty and discovery. For example, a home-bound student could actually participate in class using off-the-shelf software such as Microsoft's NetMeeting. Given Newton's potential for high-bandwidth connectivity, all of these alternatives are within reach.
The library is already making use of the Web to publish its event list as well as providing access to its catalogs. Of course, this is just a start. Transcripts and video of events can be archived, search resources can be made more accessible, physical books can be delivered (at a fee), subcribers can be notified when a book is available or when there is an event of interest, etc. In fact, the web is the library in a deep sense. But a library that is rethought from basic principles since so much of the current role of the library is based on its physical nature.
City Meetings and Government
I'm glad to see that the dockets and reports are available online. Again, this is just a start. I still can't search them or reach the alderman online.
The various city meetings are broadcast on NewTV and then they disappear. But I have no way of knowing the schedule of such broadcasts. The meetings could be entered on a city calendar, recorded with an inexpensive digital video camera, and then archived for viewing on demand using software that is currently available. See http://www.necnews.com for an example of video being delivered via the web.
Out city has a rich history that should be shared and made accessible to all. Of course one should visit sites such as the Jackson Homestead in person, but wouldn't it be great to have a rich collection of pictures and stories available online. This is of interest not just to Newton, but to the world. After all, we are the home of the Fig Newton and other national treasures.
I appreciate the effort that has gone into Newton's current Web site. Especially given that maintaining it seems to be an additional task for already overloaded library stuff. So it is no surprise that there is plenty of room for improvement. There are lots of simple improvements could be made to the site:
As we shift the focus of the Web from being essentially a bulletin board to a site rich in information publishing (as described above) and a way to communicate with the city (as in filling out forms online or submitting requests) ,the role of the web master becomes more of a full-time IT role. It is an activist role. The webmaster must seek out information and helping make it available online. Documents that are not currently available in machine readable form can be converted to text using OCR (Optical Character Recognition). The role of web master can be a vital one that enhances Newton's ability to make the city more efficient and creative by implementing currently available technology and infrastructure.
It's wonderful that the city is being wired by both MediaOne and RCN and that Bell-Atlantic may even provide data access on their phone wires in the near future. But the city must take the initiative to ensure that there is effective connectivity within the city. There is no assurance of getting an optimal performance connection between a MediaOne customer and an RCN server. We need to assure such performance objectives as part of granting access to the right of way for new wiring.
Ideally, the city should be able to ensure universal connectivity as a basic service. This can be very exciting since technologies such as Internet Telephony (the ability to make phone connections via the Internet rather than via the traditional phone network) are well-understood by computer professionals. The difficulty of providing capacity on the Internet backbone is one of the issues delaying wide deployment of Telephony. But within the city, we can start to take advantage of local capacity. We should be able to support local IP Telephony and, even more to the point, local video capability. I should be able to watch a lacrosse game at Newton North without adjusting to the schedule of NewTV. The students themselves can mount a fixed camera and make the game available live on the Web while also storing it for later viewing. This is very inexpensive technology, even if the video quality is less than perfect.
Another major opportunity the city has is providing wireless access to the Internet. Metricom is a company that has placed transceivers around San Francisco, Seattle and Washington DC. One can travel anywhere in those cities with a Metricom modem and be on the Internet without having to find or pay for a phone line. Metricom's big problem is getting access to the pole-tops to install their equipment. But this shouldn't be a problem for Newton, if the city itself wants to provide such a service. Imagine the possibilities...
There must be a balance between privacy and public access. The ability to access the city site from anywhere in the world is exciting. Why can't I be "connected" to Newton even when traveling. But this ability also raises concerns about privacy and the potential misuse of the access. Thus we do need to have the ability to control access. Just as the library card acts like a key that authorizes borrowing a book from the library we need something like a PIN that can be used by residents when accessing restricted information.
The purpose of controlling access is to allow the use of the web to publish information, such as the addresses of students in a school and restrict access to those who have a right to access this information. Once the information sources have been connected to the web there is essentially no additional cost to providing access to it.
The availability of an effective Internet (IP) infrastructures enables the city to look beyond using the web for publishing data and for access to the Web at large. The IP transport allows for new capabilities. Meter reading, for example, is essentially free since it is just a matter of automatically sending occasional short messages over the Internet. The utilities can also start making rate information available for those who want to optimize their energy usage. Newton can be in the forefront of these efforts simply by making the technology available. What has formerly been difficult or prohibitively expensive can now "just happen".
Making it Happen
The key to making these possibilities come alive is supporting the implementation of this technology and having a staff to develop site and championing its use by the city. Ideally, the staff would be small and complemented by Newton's wealth of local talent and expertise. Of course, there must be sufficient funding and support to ensure a reliable service.
I plan to gather a list of those with the necessary expertise who can help in this project. This is a major advantage Newton has over many other cities. So far, these people have wanted to help but have been frustrated when their efforts are ineffective (even after 15 years of trying in one case) or when they cannot find a responsive ear. We have a great wealth of enthusiasm and expertise to draw on, but need a commitment on the part of the city to follow through.
While the Web technologies are fairly well understood, even if rapidly evolving, we have only started to exploit the underlying technologies. The current Internet still assumes a small number of computers on the net and only one per household. Yet we want to find out the school schedules in the morning in the kitchen, but maybe we want to pay the bills in the den and watch TV in the living room. We are only beginning to realize just how many computers and even simpler devices will eventually be connected to the Internet. (I addressed some of these issues while at Microsoft, and I am continuing to address them as public policy issues. In the meantime, I can help with interim solutions so that we can make effective use of the current Internet (Version 4) working on the next one.)
What I've outlined here is relatively conservative. The goal is to make the city operate more effectively and become a better place to live by taking advantage of technologies that are already well accepted and well understood by many of our residents.
The key is in the commitment. We must have a group with the charter to understand and exploit the available technologies. Its mission would be two-fold: supporting the use of the technology within the city government and supporting the use of the technology to provide services to the citizens. We already have the expensive physical infrastructure in place. The Web technologies work best when they are deployed first and then evolved as experience teaches us. We already have lots we can do; we should start start now and learn with each additional step.