Overdue Convenience of the Day: City Hall as Food Truck

Great story in American City & County and also the Atlantic  about Boston taking an old idea and using it in a new way.  Even in a time when it seems everyone has a phone that can get on the Internet to government websites, the reality is that many people can’t operate this way – some never and almost everyone at least part of the time.

So this City Hall on the go is a nice alternative.

© 2013 Norman Jacknis


Who Needs To Pay Attention To The Internet of Things?

There’s an increasing drum beat of news about the “Internet of Things”.   There’s even an acronym for it – IoT.   

IoT refers to the increasing number of devices on the Internet that report the status and location of physical things.  This covers everything from the location of your smart phone to where a package might be to the condition of your pulse to the condition of a highway.   (That’s why it is also sometimes referred to as the Internet of Everything.)

All this data has also led to people talking about “Big Data” and the need for analytical software to make sense of it all.

Less often noted is that things connected to the Internet can communicate with each other.  We’ve only begun to think about the practical and fundamental issues this phenomenon will raise.  

On a practical level, this machine-to-machine communications needs to be managed by people not through on-off switches or gauges, but through policies that can be operated at the same speed as the machines – not at the slow speed of human awareness and decision making.

The benefits can be striking.  For example, a bridge whose sensors are detecting potential cracks in load-bearing columns can ask the street light to turn red to stop traffic and also tell the police dispatch system to get a couple of police cars out to redirect that traffic.

Of course, the complexity of a global system that connects all these devices is mind boggling.  This global system has the potential for unpredictable and perhaps disastrous behavior.

That alone should get the attention of public leaders.

Now, most of the advertising and news from technology companies has focused on how corporations can use the Internet of Things.  Surely they can.  Just think of any company that ships things and needs to know the condition of the shipped items and there locations.

Companies are usually responsible for their own office and manufacturing space.  Even including shipments or goods, any individual company has to worry about at most millions of square feet.

However, governments are uniquely responsible for what goes on in a particular territory, which can be many tens, hundreds, thousands or even millions of square miles.  Eventually, all this territory will be covered by sensors, which will greatly outnumber everything else on the Internet. 

By the way, the Internet of Things is not something way off in the future.  Today, the number of physical devices connected to the Internet is already six times the number of people on the Internet, even though there are two billion of those people.  By 2020, just a few years away, there will be 50 billion connected devices.

It’s time for government leaders to start focusing on IoT as a policy concern and as a tool for managing their infrastructure and territory.

© 2013 Norman Jacknis


What Did People Think Of Old Technologies When They Were New?

As Mark Twain said: “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme."  But I’ve observed before that it seems we lose our sense of history when thinking about new technology.  

A good corrective is a 25-year old classic book by University of Pennsylvania Professor Carolyn Marvin.  Its title is "When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking About Electronic Communications In The Late Nineteenth Century” and it recalls the days when the telegraph, telephone, even electric lights, were the exciting new technologies.

(Although this post if focused on one aspect, the book as a whole provides a broad-ranging historical view of the interplay of communications technologies and society.)

Here are some excerpts that sound a lot like what we hear now about the Internet, social media, texting, etc.

Concerns About Privacy

She notes how people were worried that “intimate family secrets would be displayed to the world” and ask “How would family members keep personal information to themselves?”

Concerns About Family Breakdown

Harper’s in 1893 felt that “Public amusements increase in splendor and frequency, but private joys grow rare and difficult, and even the capacity for them seems to be withering.”

The Web Brings The World To You

From an 1889 article in the Electrical Review: “the time will come when so far as seeing objects are concerned, one can make a tour of Europe without going out of his own house.”

The Non-Stop News Cycle From Everywhere

From an editor of another magazine: “things [news events] are done in a dozen hours, and in another dozen men are talking … of these great events, not only in Paris and Berlin, but in the mosques of Cairo, … in the shops of Sydney … and at the same instant of time every human heart is quivering with shock of these great events…  All corners of the earth are joined, kindled, fused.”

Attitudes Of Some Executives Of The Phone Company

She notes that the Bell Company wasn’t really interested in widespread adoption, but preferred “a limited service at high prices”.

Piracy And Hacking

The magazine, Electrical Review, complained: “The telephone is apparently looked upon as a public convenience, and quite often in smaller cities a single telephone is expected to answer for an entire block”.

Technological Utopianism, Often Attributed To Internet Leaders

She quotes from the Scientific American in 1880 about how the telephone will lead to: “nothing less than a new organization of society – a state of things in which every individual, however secluded, will have at call every other individual”

How The Global Network Leads To Peace And Freedom

She quotes Nicolas Tesla in 1904 about how wireless (radio) communications can be: “efficient in enlightening the masses, particularly in still uncivilized countries”.  And his earlier statement: “It is by abolishing all the barriers which separate nations and countries that civilization is best furthered.”

What lessons about new technologies would you draw from the old?  How will people think about today’s new technologies a hundred years from now?

© 2013 Norman Jacknis


Gamification In The Public Sector?

Over the holidays, the New York Times had a story titled “All the World’s a Game, and Business Is a Player” (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/24/technology/all-the-worlds-a-game-and-business-is-a-player.html)

Many of us are familiar with computer games.  If not a passion of ourselves as adults, the passion for games is observable among youth.  

The article is not about shooting adventure games, but instead what are called “serious games”.  In various ways, we’ve seen the private sector use gamification.  But the question here is: do even these serious games have a role in the public sector?

The interest in games is based on the observation that people are much more engaged, more motivated and learn quicker in game situations than in more traditional bureaucratic environments.  So there have been game designers and others who have tried to apply these “game mechanics” to the public sector.

Actually, this is not new.  The Annual Games for Change conference has been around since 2004.  At the conference last June, there was even a Federal government caucus.

In 2011, Jane McGonigal, one of the leaders of this movement, wrote the successful book, “Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make us Better and How they Can Change the World

But there has been increasing attention to the possibilities, even in the public sector.  The newspaper article mentions games for everything from reducing energy waste to the Israeli Defense Forces.  

In my own work, I have advised a big state government that was interested in the use of gamification to change the environment and re-motivate its work force.  

I’ve also been involved in a strategy to better engage customers of city transit services through gamification.  This provides two additional benefits: it establishes a relationship with riders who before were anonymous and motivates the more social of those riders to help build a community of riders who can help improve the overall urban experience.

There are clearly limits to the use of gamification and it is fairly easy to think of situations where even “serious” games would be considered inappropriate.  But there is much potential in these ideas that have not yet been realized.  

If these are to be used in valuable ways to achieve public goals, then public officials need to take the lead on this movement, rather than watch while this movement gets built without them.

Please pass along examples of such games you’ve observed in practice or your ideas of where games could be used in the public sector.

© 2013 Norman Jacknis