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The Web site Seattle doesn’t have that cost Nickels his job

Bus Plow
Originally uploaded by AdonisPhotos

Many will say that Seattle’s incumbent mayor Greg Nickels failed to make it through the city’s primary and into the fall general election because of snow.

As much fun as we had playing on the streets, Capitol Hill also got tired of slipping on sidewalks. And some dangerous stuff happened.

But the weather wasn’t really the problem. The problem was information. Seattle was hit with a situation that required systems of communication and information distribution that it did not have. The city’s dying newspapers couldn’t keep up and City Hall’s various departments were too busy trying to dig out from underneath the snow and ice to turn to their antiquated systems of information distribution. They couldn’t connect information to the neighborhoods and streets where it was needed. The County’s Metro bus system fared no better despite its established Web site. There was no planned information core to power Seattle. And so it slipped on the icy sidewalks and tried to make the best of it.

But the best wasn’t good enough for the mayor to keep his job.

The lesson for the surviving candidates Joe Mallahan and Mike McGinn is not to buy more snow plows. These candidates need to form data and information policies for their administrations and promise to lead the city to invest in its communication core. Look at what San Francisco has created in and start there. Create a role for a data czar in the city. Hire a city ‘editor in chief’ to work with professional, community and citizen media. Yes, it will be a local news and information gatherer’s dream. But it will also be the answer to helping citizens make the best choices and understand their environment. When we have information, sites like CHS can help make sense of it and keep life moving.

The sidewalks will get icy and the streets will be blocked with snow, again. The city will face moments of chaos. Make a plan to combat confusion. That plan should start with information.

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20 thoughts on “The Web site Seattle doesn’t have that cost Nickels his job

  1. McGinn’s been using information technology effectively for years, so I’m sure this will be a priority in his administration. At Great City and the 2008 Parks Levy campaign, they really did a lot.

    This stuff is really key. Seattle also needs to make sure that more homes have affordable high-speed access, too.

  2. You are so right, the thing that failed us was not our lack of snow removal but the lack of information. It is ridiculous that in the 21st century Seattle has no center of information.

    McGinn seems the more likely candidate to focus on something like this. One of the main points of his platform during the primary was that of a city wide broadband municipality. He understands the need for information and communications and how crucial these things are to making Seattle competitive in the 21st.

  3. Given the influence of our monopolistic neighbor to the east, implementation of such a project would require extra vigilance to ensure that data are provided using open standards via a Web site that doesn’t cater to bugs in Internet Explorer or require a bunch of proprietary plug-ins be installed in the user’s browser. Microsoft would likely want to be involved, but regardless of any altruistic intentions they might have, I doubt their ability to focus on doing something in a manner best suited to creating a public good and not to trapping more computer users in their web of bad UI, network security as an afterthought, and forced upgrades.

  4. I don’t think good intensions or a website would change careless lack of common sense. I thought it was toilets,or million dollar accommodations for drunks, or no hygiene or hope for homeless. or saying but not fulfilling things like no more $ 35,000 dollar bottled water bills from city employees. and hows the dump your trash on the street, no dumpsters doing ? I guess a scapegoat or a website is all a city needs.

  5. You lost me when you got on your open source soap box…

    Are you about open source or getting the public the information they need.

    Open source isn’t always the answer.

  6. I agree with this point about the main issue being not about management per se but rather information and communication. Things happened too slowly in the snow storm and one of the biggest problems was that even if they had figured out a plan to clear the streets, they needed a better way to communicate that to the public in a timely manner.

    I think McGinn is the candidate who’s actually in touch with the city and what goes on here, and can help devise and implement some changes for more effective communication, as well as better transparency for city government. He’s also been campaigning, as others mentioned above, on improving our technology infrastructure, which I think would help both underserved communities as well as the business community. Mallahan on the other hand… does he even know what the city’s departments are? (And I don’t hear T-Mobile claiming to be the best network or anything).

  7. Part of this is true, but the bigger story is the need for better communication, not for snow every 100 years, BUT, for any big time emergency situations.

    So you really think we are prepared for the quake, hurricane blows and freaky flooding? We are are not, tons of hot air and gear and some training. Chaos would ensue just as it did in New Orleans.

    The communication net suggested is a GREAT idea, for many reasons. The least is freakish snow every 100 years.

    (If they has kept the buses running on three north-south streets, no matter what, that alone would have helped. People were running out of food, let alone jobs or recreation)

  8. Someone wrote but did not sign his or her name to:
    “Are you about open source or getting the public the information they need.”

    I’m “about” neither. I hope that any public information provided to the public using public funds will be provided in a manner that allows the public to use that information however we see fit without being required to give money to one or more private businesses in the process. Achieving that goal will require use of open standards over proprietary alternatives. Our municipal government staff may not understand this, and I think it’s important that we inform them of it so that they can make informed decisions based on more than the advice given to them by entities whose motivations are stockholder profits, not the utility of this public information.

    Microsoft presumably has a lot of influence in this city, and the company has been working against adoption of open standards for years. That’s a perfectly sensible thing to do when your profits depend on it and you’re guided by profit motive, not by the greater good. And it’s perfectly sensible for those of us who are familiar with the world of computer technology outside of Redmond to anticipate some need to fend off Microsoft’s FUD tactics when it comes to building public information infrastructure.

    “You lost me when you got on your open source soap box.”

    There was no soapboxing intended, but since you mentioned it: Free software is defined by more than availability of source code. It includes the freedom to run a program for any purpose, the freedom to study how the program works & to make it do what you wish, the freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor, and the freedom to improve the program & release your improvements to the public so that the whole community benefits. Free software is part of our public body of knowledge. It is important to our free society, and we’d be well off to see that our government embraces it to the degree that it is feasible for them to do so.

    If our city is to follow San Francisco’s lead and Justin’s suggestion, I hope that we’ll see information provided in, for example, plain text and standard XML dialects rather than Word docs and Excel spreadsheets, described and indexed on Web pages that comply to the HTML spec and work well with any modern, standards-compliant Web browser. Any use of proprietary solutions in a public system like that which we are discussing should be well-justified through a transparent system of evaluation of available alternatives.

  9. To be clear, I agree that Seattle should have a first rate IT infrastructure, no question.

    But snow? Am I the only one who thinks it’s insane to spend a whole bunch of money on a problem that happens every 30 years and at worst means we can’t get into work for a few days? That’s our most pressing issue? Really?

    Compared to problems like our lackluster public school system, transporation, homelessness, and violent crime, snow is very much a NON-PROBLEM for Seattle.

  10. I moved here in 2006. It snowed several times that winter. Seattle shut down each time. Seattleites told me that this was amazing; it NEVER snows.

    Then in 2007, it snowed several times. Seattle shut down each time. Seattleites told me that this was amazing; it NEVER snows.

    Then in 2008, it snowed a LOT several times. Seattle shut down each time. Seattleites told me that this was amazing; it NEVER snows.

    In 2009 or 2010, whenever the next mayor takes office, I really hope we have a mayor that understands the truth that eludes Seattleites: IT SNOWS HERE.

  11. Sean, lack of ability to report information during the snowstorm was just one symptom of what is presented here as a problem. I don’t read this as a suggestion that we put a bunch of effort into dealing with one-in-ten-years snowstorms, but into making public data more accessible to the public.

  12. namely the REALLY BIG earthquake that will hit us, sooner or later. Power, phones, water, the internet (gasp, horror) will presumably all be out for days to weeks.

    The emergency preparedness people try and persuade us to be self-reliant for 3 days but will admit (if pressed) that, after the “big one”, it will take way longer than that for meaningful help to get to us!

    Modern technology has its place, but we also need old-fashioned lists on paper, and camping supplies in the basement. [One of my fears is the lack of storage space for emergency supplies in all the townhouses around here].

  13. Jason, since I’ve lived in Seattle, we’ve averaged about 1 or 2 snow days per year, and on 75% of those days, anyone with any winter driving sense could make it to work just fine if they wanted (most people don’t). I don’t think that justifies a massive transfer of funds away from schools, law enforcement, human services, and transportation towards the purchase of snow removal equipment.

    Phil, as I tried to make clear, I fully support a first class city data center. But IT improvements have little to do with snow, nor would they have decreased the confusion surrounding things like bus schedules, given that bus drivers were winging it based on what they saw in the field with status of buses changing from one minute to the next.

  14. Many literalists in the audience. He didn’t write that city should build a snow site. Also some dramatists in the audience. In all but the biggest quakes, there will be power and Internet and there will be people who want to know what is happening.

  15. Thanks for calling rational people who have been following the quake problem for many years drama queens, but, the one we fear has nothing to do with drama but a massive movement of plates poised to do just that….. when is the mystery.

    The last one was just approaching real danger when the tremors at their worst stopped.

    The big ONE is not snow. Many winters, Seattle has NO snow. And when it does snow, it melts by noon or lasts for for a couple of days AT MOST. In the mountain states or north they would call it a dusting.

    This city is now 70 million short in its budgets, and that amount is increasing as tax revenue declines. Money for massive snow removal, yikes, there is no way. Money for food banks, you bet, that must be spent.

    Nice exchange of ideas, need to keep it less personal, maybe.

  16. Times this pm confirms that Senator Ed Murray is considering a write in campaign for mayor … Just Another Surprise, what a campaign slogan.

    Watch out Mc Ginn and Mallahan.

  17. Sean, we’re not talking about “IT infrastructure” or data centers. We’re talking about making public information that is presently siloed on publicly-funded computers available to the public via the Internet.

    Bus drivers may have been winging it based on what they saw in the field with status of buses changing from one minute to the next, but equipment on those buses was tracking the effects of those drivers’ on-the-spot decisions and reporting it back to Metro, where it mostly disappeared. If that information was published for the public to use as we see fit, then at least we would have had the opportunity to do something useful with it. You think a bunch of snowed-in computer geeks couldn’t have gotten that information out one way or another? Now consider what the situation will be like in a few years when nearly everyone on the street has a little wirelessly-networked computer in his pocket that knows how to do more than place and receive telephone calls.

    It’s time to make Seattle’s public data available to the public.