Monday, August 08, 2011

Score past, with a score to go

No, this is not about the Pirates.

This is a true story.  When I was getting ready to graduate from college, a couple of friends and I were archiving all our files on a 6250bpi magnetic reel tape we purchased which was just about the only option for such an operation at the time.  Seemed like it made sense to do; what can I say?  One of the files we saved, thinking it might be worth having, was a complete network directory of every IP address then in use.  Seriously, long before dynamic addressing, if you had a computer connected to the Internet you had a name assigned to it and it was still all possible to have a complete index of all connected machines in a concise text file. Sounds like the dark ages now.

When was all this you have to ask? .... well, nevermind, let's just say it was even before the first web page started up, which was exactly 20 years ago Saturday.  As seminal as that was, it was the next spark that expanded the universe of ideas on what the Internet could really do. That spark came right here when 4 CMU students connected a Coke machine to the Internet.  Genius. Followed by folks who connected a coffee maker to the Internet.  People just don't have fun like this any longer.

It all just gets me thinking.    From Chicago the the other day was a great story on the uses of public data by local governments.  Now think about us.  As simply as I can put this: is there anywhere else with a greater mismatch between the technical capacity of folks in town and what we do with that expertise in the community?  To be clear, that critique extends to just about every layer of government we have.  City, county, and state for sure... but think about literally every municipality around and let's not get going on what the many public authorities are not doing with the information they generate, or could generate. It's not a lack of technology that builds these silos we have, but something else. 

I hate to say we then confuse the public with the state of technology in the local public sphere.  So we get exicited last week with nearly front page size news about a new 'app' that folks can use to 'track' bus schedules and related info.  It's great and all that, but the only reason we need to crowdsource bus schedules is because the Port Authority is so far behind at putting out a meaningful (i.e. real-time) GTFS data feed. It's not like they are one of the largest transit agencies in the nation, but others are doing it.  I bet if they just put out the data, if they could that is, then the apps would already be out there. As long as the data remains behind the moat, the crowd can't do much to be value added. So we remain a technology backwater for the most part, but the snippet of movement forward makes it appear as if we are cutting edge.
What constitutes progress often just highlights how far behind we are.

  ... and I hate to pick on the Port Authority for that one example. You could find analogies almost everywhere in the region.


Anonymous Muniworker said...

Municipal budgets are narrowing, so departments cannot effectively recruit or retain innovators. The purse strings are held by non-innovators who have quotas and agendas that have to be addressed. We fail because departments have so few resources for workers, while resources for management never seem to diminish. Just about every municipal department you can name has directors, numerous assistant directors, divisions managers, and so on...but few good workers. When they do get good workers, those people move on as quickly as they can. Until any of that changes, don't expect much progress in the municipal sphere.

Thursday, August 11, 2011 3:00:00 PM  

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