May 23, 2013
Information Technology and Cambridge Municipal Government

May 23, 2013

Councilor Cheung, Members of the Cable TV, Telecommunications and Public Utilities Committee:

I write as a citizen who has been interested and appalled by the City’s inexplicable lack of interest in joining most of the rest of Cambridge in the 2nd decade of the 21st century. I also write as a former IT professional who has been a part of IT assessments, written and developed strategic plans, and has employed Gartner as consultants. I read the Gartner report as an informed citizen, aware of the particular issues of Cambridge and the strengths and weaknesses of the methodology of Gartner has employed.

Gartner gives Cambridge failing grades across a set of metrics with which it assesses IT departments. There is no explaining this away, no special pleadings that should make this acceptable. Gartner talks about this as the “maturity” of an IT organization but “maturity”, in IT terms, is a more polite way of assessing whether an organization knows what it’s doing. Gartner’s assessment comes down to “No, the IT organization does not know what it’s doing as often as one expects.”

Gartner’s answer to this, its strategic plan, is straight out of the enterprise information technology playbook: build a structure of governance to align the IT department with the City’s goals and needs. This is absolutely required and I would urge this Committee and, later, the whole Council, to provide full support to City staff as they implement this recommendation.

Gartner also notes that Cambridge has underinvested in Information Technology. Each time it is mentioned, the Gartner report includes a footnote with the City’s dissent. This indicates, at best, a reluctance to invest in IT as a strategic asset and, at worst, a philosophy of where the primary motivator is cost control. The Council should ensure that the City invests properly in technology.

Gartner, as well, provides a 180-day playbook for implementation of its recommendations. This plan is well-founded and reflects industry best practices. The Council should support its implementation and this committee should schedule a check-in half way through this time period to assess performance.

But Gartner’s recommendations are, as one would expect from them, rather generic. There are two key areas where the Council can serve to sharpen them for Cambridge.

First, the Council should insist that E-Gov Community Representative committee rise to the level of other Cambridge advisory committees. Its meetings should be announced in advance and meeting materials and minutes made available on the web. The operation of this committee should model the best use of technology to increase participation and civic engagement. The committee, like other advisory committees, should expand to include members who have domain-specific expertise in municipal technology. This might include members of Code for America, The Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston of the Harvard Kennedy School, or The Center for Civic Media or the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT, or entrepreneurs associated with the Cambridge Innovation Center.

Second, the Council should move to provide policy guidance to the City and adopt the principles of open data, principles that are the current guiding principles for the Federal government.

While the Gartner report speaks correctly of Information Technology being a strategic asset, information itself is an asset. Cambridge should manage information in a way that promotes openness and interoperability. Doing so will increase operational efficiencies, reduce costs, improve services, support City goals, and increase public access to valuable government information..

Making information resources accessible, discoverable, and usable by the public can help fuel entrepreneurship and innovation. For example, the MBTA made real time bus and subway location data freely available, creating an industry of application development at no cost to the tax or fare payer.

Aligning technology with values is not new to Cambridge. Cambridge is at the forefront of sustainability that, in turn, drives decisions about, for example, what sort of automobile technology to acquire, or how to design, heat and cool a building. Information technology is no different. There are always arrays of choices in implement computer systems, just as there are myriad cars to buy. Choosing an electric or hybrid car is a function of policy and values. Similarly, when it comes to implementing an information system, policy and values should drive an open choice.

For these purposes, “open data” means publicly available data structured in a way that enable the data to be fully discoverable and usable by end users. In general, open data will be

Public. The City should adopt a presumption of openness to the extent permitted by law and subject to privacy, confidentiality, security or other valid restrictions

Accessible. Open data are made available in convenient, modifiable, and open formats that can be retrieved, downloaded, indexed, and searched. Formats should be machine-readable (i.e., data are reasonably structured to allow automated processing). Open data structures do not discriminate against any person or group of persons and should be made available to the widest range of users for the widest range of purposes, often by providing the data in multiple formats for consumption. To the extent permitted by law, these formats should be non-proprietary, publicly available, and no restrictions should be placed upon their use.

Described. Open data are fully described so that consumers of the data have sufficient information to understand their strengths, weaknesses, analytical limitations, security requirements, as well as how to process them.

Reusable. Open data are made available under an open license that places no restriction on redistribution.

Complete. Open data are published in primary forms (i.e., as collected at the source), with the finest possible level of granularity that is practicable and permitted by law and other requirements. Derived or aggregate open data should also be published but must reference the primary data.

Timely. Open data are made available as quickly as necessary to preserve the value of the data. Frequency of release should account for key audiences and downstream needs.

Managed Post-release. A point o f contact must be designated to assist with data use and to respond to complaints about adherence to these open data requirements.

Specifically, a policy like this would require the City to collect or create information in a way that supports downstream information processing and dissemination activities. This includes using machine­ readable and open formats, data standards. It also ensures information stewardship through the use of open licenses and review of information for privacy, confidentiality, security, or other restrictions to release. Additionally, it involves the City building or modernizing information systems in a way that maximizes interoperability and information accessibility, maintains internal and external data asset inventories, enhances information safeguards, and clarifies information management responsibilities.

In order to advance this discussion, I’ve taken the Federal Open Data Policy (http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/omb/memoranda/2013/m-13-13.pdf) and adapted it for Cambridge.

Signed,

Saul Tannenbaum, 16 Cottage St.

cc: Interim City Clerk Donna Lopez

May 23, 2013

Open Data Policy - Managing Information as an Asset

This policy will apply to all new information collection, creation, and system development efforts as well as major modernization projects that update or redesign existing information systems and apply to management of all datasets used in the City’s information systems. City departments are also encouraged to improve the discoverability and usability of existing datasets by making them “open” using the methods outlined in this policy, prioritizing those that have already been released to the public or otherwise considered high-value or high-demand.

I.Collect or create information in a way that supports downstream information processing and dissemination activities

City departments must consider, at each stage of the information life cycle, the effects of decisions and actions on other stages of the life cycle. Accordingly, to the extent permitted by law, departments must design new information collection and creation efforts so that the information collected or created supports downstream interoperability between information systems and dissemination of information to the public, as appropriate, without the need for costly retrofitting. This includes consideration and consultation of key target audiences for the information when determining format, frequency of update, and other information management decisions. Specifically, departments must incorporate the following requirements into future information collection and creation efforts:

A.Use machine-readable and open formats for information as it is collected or created. While information should be collected electronically by default, machine-readable and open formats must be used in conjunction with both electronic and telephone or paper-based information collection effot1s. Additionally, in consultation with the best practices and to the extent permitted by law, agencies should prioritize the use of open formats that are non­proprietary, publicly available, and that place no restrictions upon their use.

B.Use data standards. The City must use standards for information as it is collected or created in order to promote data interoperability and openness.

C.Ensure information stewardship through the use of open licenses. Departments must apply open licenses, to information as it is collected or created so that if data are made public there are no restrictions on copying, publishing, distributing, transmitting, adapting, or otherwise using the information for non-commercial or for commercial purposes

II.Build information systems to support interoperability and information accessibility.

Through their acquisition and technology management processes, agencies must build or modernize information systems in a way that maximizes interoperability and information accessibility, to the extent practicable and permitted by law. The City must exercise forethought when architecting, building, or substantially modifying an information system to facilitate public distribution, where appropriate. In addition, the City CIO must validate that the following minimum requirements have been incorporated into acquisition planning documents and technical design for all new information systems and those preparing for modernization, as appropriate:

A.The system design must be scalable, flexible, and facilitate extraction of data in multiple formats and for a range of uses as internal and external needs change, including potential uses not accounted for in the original design. In general, this will involve the use of standards and specifications in the system design that promote industry best practices for information sharing, and separation of data from the application layer to maximize data reuse opportunities and incorporation of future application or technology capabilities

B.All data outputs associated with the system must meet the requirements described above and be accounted for in a data inventory

C.Data schema and dictionaries have been documented and shared with internal partners and the public, as applicable.

III.Strengthen data management and release practices.

To ensure that agency data assets are managed and maintained throughout their life cycle, the City must adopt effective data asset portfolio management approaches. The City must review and, where appropriate, revise existing policies and procedures to strengthen their data management and release practices to ensure consistency with these requirements and take the following actions:

A.Create and maintain an enterprise data inventory

B.Create and maintain a public data listing

C.Create a process to engage with customers to help facilitate and prioritize data release

D.Communicate the strategic value of open data to internal stakeholders and the public

E.Ensure that data released to the public are open, and that a point of contact is designated to assist open data use and to respond to complaints about adherence to open data requirements

F.Engage entrepreneurs and innovators in the private and nonprofit sectors to encourage and facilitate the use of agency data to build applications and services

IV.Ensure the privacy of residents or anyone who has business with the City. Te City must:

A.Collect or create only that information necessary for the proper performance of City functions and which has practical utility

B.Limit the collection or creation of information which identifies individuals to that which is legally authorized and necessary for the proper performance of City functions

C.Limit the sharing of information that identifies individuals or contains proprietary information to that which is legally authorized, and impose appropriate conditions on use where a continuing obligation to ensure the confidentiality of the information exists

D.Ensure that information is protected commensurate with the risk and magnitude of the harm that would result from the loss, misuse, or unauthorized access to or modification of such information

May 21, 2013
What do you propose we do about all the people who want to live in Cambridge?

There’s really only one question you need to ask people to understand whether they’re serious about Cambridge’s future or are posturing for reasons best known to themselves:

What do you propose to do about all the people who want to live in Cambridge?
It’s really a multiple choice question with 4 possible answers:
  1. nothing
  2. repel them at our borders
  3. convince them to live elsewhere
  4. build, to the best of our ability, to accommodate them

Read More

February 21, 2012
Who says Harvard doesn’t have a sense of humor?
Alum William Falik gave Harvard $100,000 and said that, with his name, all he’s ever been able to get named for him was a restroom. Then Dean Elena Kagan took him up on it and, in the shiny new Wasserstein building up on the 2nd floor, is the Falik Mens Room.

Who says Harvard doesn’t have a sense of humor?

Alum William Falik gave Harvard $100,000 and said that, with his name, all he’s ever been able to get named for him was a restroom. Then Dean Elena Kagan took him up on it and, in the shiny new Wasserstein building up on the 2nd floor, is the Falik Mens Room.

January 31, 2012
Cambridge Information Technology Department Unable to Answer Basic Questions about its iReport App

Eight days ago, as part of preparing an NeighborMedia article on the iReport and MyPD apps, I asked Mary Hart, Chief Information Officer of the City of Cambridge some basic questions about the the app:

  • What’s the reaction been to the Cambridge iReport app?
  • What marketing has the city done to make citizens aware of
    the app? 
  • How many times has it been downloaded?
  • How many problems have been reported through it?
  • How has the app improved the delivery of city services?
  • Has the app decreased departments response time to problem reports? If so, by how much?
  • How much did this app cost the city?
  • Does the City own the source code to the app?
  • Are there plans to open up the API to allow other developers to find ways to add value?
  • You’ve recently added the reporting of unshoveled sidewalks to the app. What are your future plans for additional functionality?

If you walked through Kendall Square, knocked on the door of some mobile app startup company, and asked these questions, you’d get immediate answers. Someone would be living and breathing these numbers because they define the success of the effort.

In Cambridge, one of the core defenses of the management of the city is that its finances have been managed well. But, when it comes to the Information Technology budget, how would you know? Last year’s budget failed the basic test of informing the public of how its money is being spent. And public promises to open up IT planning have yet to be realized.

Not all of Cambridge is like this. The Police Department answered my (easier) questions in less than an hour and followed up to make sure I had what I needed.

I spend a lot of time in technology circles and they are astonished that Cambridge, home to MiT and Harvard, the birthplace of Facebook, with Microsoft and Google a major presence, does such a poor job with its own technology. We shouldn’t be astonished as the story is consistent and as plain as day.

January 30, 2012
"We don't need a business improvement district; we need a resident improvement district"

An interesting article from today’s New York Times about the effort to create a Business Improvement District in SOHO, NY. Central Square would be lucky to have some of the SOHO’s problems - too many tourists, too much retail - but the core concern, the aggregation of power and influence that would come with a BID, is something to consider when one thinks about changes to the Square.

January 29, 2012
Seen at the corner of Harvard and Prospect Streets, Cambridge MA.
So, how do you report this sort of thing?
The Cambridge iReport App doesn’t do Traffic and Parking signals, only potholes, rats, unshoveled sidewalks and missed trash pickups.
The Department of Traffic, Parking and Transportation (when did they add “Transportation”?) web site doesn’t list an email address. It does have some very specific online forms for reporting issues with traffic signs, traffic lights, and the like. And a general web form for reporting issues with the web site.
So I used that.
I really expect that the city I live in would be better than this.

Seen at the corner of Harvard and Prospect Streets, Cambridge MA.

So, how do you report this sort of thing?

The Cambridge iReport App doesn’t do Traffic and Parking signals, only potholes, rats, unshoveled sidewalks and missed trash pickups.

The Department of Traffic, Parking and Transportation (when did they add “Transportation”?) web site doesn’t list an email address. It does have some very specific online forms for reporting issues with traffic signs, traffic lights, and the like. And a general web form for reporting issues with the web site.

So I used that.

I really expect that the city I live in would be better than this.

January 20, 2012
Harvard Library Staff have a really bad week

Harvard Library staff have had a really bad week. And when the official clarification is that not all library staff will have to reapply for their jobs, you’re really not in a very good place at all.

 Cambridge - Harvard Square: Harvard University - Widener Libary

January 14, 2012
Irony.

Irony.

3:17pm  |   URL: http://tmblr.co/Z29gGwEmHU3G
  
Filed under: cambridge cambridgema 
January 11, 2012
After all the debate about Cambridge’s sign ordinance, all the concern about how, if adopted, it would ruin the Cambridge skyline, the talk about how one man, who didn’t want a Microsoft sign on the building in which he is tenant, and how he single handedly funded the signature drive that forced the City Council to reconsider, look what we have in Kendall Square, on a different building overlooking the Longfellow Bridge…
Yes, it’s a Microsoft sign.
Microsoft: well played.
Cambridge political process: you be the judge.
Phillip Ragon: probably looking up the meaning of pyrrhic victory.

After all the debate about Cambridge’s sign ordinance, all the concern about how, if adopted, it would ruin the Cambridge skyline, the talk about how one man, who didn’t want a Microsoft sign on the building in which he is tenant, and how he single handedly funded the signature drive that forced the City Council to reconsider, look what we have in Kendall Square, on a different building overlooking the Longfellow Bridge…

Yes, it’s a Microsoft sign.

Microsoft: well played.

Cambridge political process: you be the judge.

Phillip Ragon: probably looking up the meaning of pyrrhic victory.

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