Month: April 2015

Re-thinking 911

911 wasn’t an original idea – like our democracy, it drew inspiration from other countries that had already implemented a single emergency number in the 20th century (Britain’s 999 in 1937 and New Zealand’s 111 in 1958).

President Lyndon Johnson’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice issued a report in February 1967 recommending the implementation of a single number for the police. Interestingly enough, it noted AT&T’s information line as an example of an established universal number. Later that year, firefighter Leonard Kershner, who represented the International Association of Firefighters, suggested a single number to reduce response time and reduce fire deaths.

In November, less than a year after the commission’s report, the Federal Communications Commission and AT&T began collaborating on a single nationwide number. Remember that at this time, AT&T was a legal monopoly that was exempted from the Sherman Anti-Trust act by Congress. Accordingly, its control over the phone system made it the necessary party in the implementation of any universal phone number.

AT&T announced 911 as a universal emergency number on January 12, 1968. Interestingly enough, the first 911 system to be fully operational was by Alabama Telephone Company. The president of ATC, Bob Gallagher, decided to beat AT&T to it and had his team set up the first system in Haleyville, Alabama in 35 days.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office granted Patent 3,881,060 to Bell Labs in 1977 for the patent that governs E911. Looking at the the National Emergency Numbers Association website, this is the system that persists today:

The E9-1-1 emergency communications and data system was designed in the 1970’s and has unique limitations as compared to the current application and Internet environment.

Almost 40 years later, why is this the case?

How 911 is regulated, implemented, and funded

To answer this, it’s important to dig into how the 911 system is regulated, implemented and funded.

As was the case in 1967 when the planning for 911 started, the FCC regulates and sets guidelines for 911. It does this under its authority for communications law, regulation and technological innovation.

However, the FCC doesn’t implement 911. That involves an exponentially higher amount of parties. Back in 1967, the main partner the FCC needed to work with was AT&T. Today, in 2015, when Ma Bell has been broken apart and there are many more communications companies with varying types of infrastructure, it takes much more coordination. On top of that, these companies are focused on driving shareholder value by outcompeting the other companies – the communications standards for emergency services aren’t their first priority. It doesn’t help the bottom line.

Beyond the communications companies who route the 911 calls are the dispatchers who receive the call, process it, and dispatch help. Depending on a number of factors, these dispatchers may be part of a county or municipal government and be a part of state and regional organizations. The challenge is that there are a lot of different organizations involved who all have their own implementation priorities and funding constraints. A sad example of these inconsistent priorities is the fact that 98% of cell phones are now capable of texting 911, but less than 2% of dispatch centers are equipped to receive those text messages.

A mix of fees and taxpayer money collected at the local level funds the 911 systems and dispatch operations. The largest source is a monthly fee added onto any new telephone line, wireless or wireline, of roughly $3/month. In 2009, there were over 672 million active phone numbers according to the FCC. Assuming that some landlines have been cannibalized with the rise of mobile, this means that the budget spent on 911 is at least 23 billion dollars ($23,400,000,000).

Put another way, the cost per call for initiating, routing and dispatching is around $90. Additional budgets and fees fund the emergency responders.

The rise of mobile smart phones and problems with it

Cell phones and now smartphones, have brought a slew of new challenges. The first is the fact that the phone no longer has a fixed location. Previously, when phone service was turned on, the address of that phone line was registered in a national database so that dispatchers knew the location of an incident when a call came in. Now, when a phone with an assigned number is capable of being anywhere in the world, that solution no longer holds.

Another issue with cellphones and the deregulation of communications is that the number of different types of handsets has climbed dramatically. A consumer has a lot of choices now. In the day of Ma Bell and 911’s origination, there were fewer types of phones and AT&T had much more control.

One more wrinkle is that software operating systems are further abstracting a carrier’s control over a smartphone’s user experience. Apple set this precedent when they did the exclusive deal with AT&T for the iPhone. When you first set up an iPhone today, the only bloatware you will see are Apple’s own apps – not the carrier’s.

Yet another significant challenge is the fact that smartphones aren’t actually just phones anymore. They are internet-connected, mobile computers that we occasionally use for talking. The principal usage nowadays is via apps and the utility of software-enriched, data-powered experiences. That is where consumer behavior is going and that may actually be public safety’s solace.

The openness of the app ecosystem as well as the relative similarity between the two dominant mobile platforms, iOS and Android, means there is an opportunity to circumvent many challenges. The stores of Google Play and the App Store are accessed by hundreds of millions of people every month. Only two versions of a software service need to be created to reach the vast majority of them and dramatically enhance their smartphone experience.

Apps, and the mobile operating systems, are a new opportunity to provide a better emergency communications system for the USA in the 21st century. While the idea of an app that serves as a new emergency communications channel sounds flippant, five years ago people would have said the same thing for one used to coordinate transportation.

What’s needed

The emergency communications system of the future needs to be designed for our new world of connectivity. This is a world where video can be instantly transmitted and where someone has a fully digitized real profile. That system needs to be able to take this information, route it to the best help, and make it actionable for responders. On top of that, it has to do this all in a secure way that preserves privacy.

Adoption is going to be quite a challenge as ‘9-1-1’ has been the standard for over 40 years. In today’s app-centric world, the keypad is no longer the primary interface and the need for dialing ‘9-1-1’ is antiquated. Changing the habits and behaviors of millions of people is going to be hard. A proven way to bring a new service to market is to focus on providing significant value for a specific set of people whose needs aren’t adequately met and then expanding from there.

It’s clear that the need is there. Sixty-five percent of mobile 911 calls in Silicon Valley have no location information. Seventy percent of 911 calls coming from cell phones. The FCC estimates that more than 10,000 American lives would be saved every year if this improves. That’s twice the amount of all Americans that have died since 2003 in the Iraq War.

It’s a big challenge and it’s what the future needs.

Can government deliver happiness?

Photo: White House

Photo: White House

Within the context of digital government and civic engagement, we focus much of our efforts around concepts like open data, open source, analytics, technical frameworks and user experience, but rarely, if ever, do we discuss proactively delivering happiness to citizens.

Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness framework is probably the most well-known and ambitious, and other countries have followed suit in various iterations, including Dubai, who launched a “Happiness Index” in 2014. However, perhaps because concepts around mindfulness and joy in the business context are just beginning to emerge as mainstream, we’ve yet to see this trend within the context of government, especially here in America.

Much like the open data and open source conversations that were meaningfully started more than five years ago and just now starting to come to fruition, I believe this aspect of civic innovation is something that will begin to evolve and grow sooner than later, especially as science continues to prove the value of mindfulness in the context of business.

On a recent trip to Las Vegas, I visited parts of chief executive officer Tony Hsieh’s “Downtown Project,” and began diving a little deeper into his work, including the company, Delivering Happiness, that emerged out of the inspiration by the tour for his book, “Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose.”

Lately, I’ve been thinking more about the concept of civic mindfulness, including how service providers (public and private) can and should go beyond the standard service delivery model and be more proactive around creating an experience that leaves citizens excited and even more happy.

Can citizens ever hope to see a Can government really deliver happiness and, if so, what is a framework for doing so?

I asked Delivering Happiness CEO and Co-founder Jenn Lim to share her thoughts.

What is the inspiration behind “delivering happiness?”

Originally, the intention was to put out a book to share how happiness can be a profitable business model for companies of any size/industry. After our book launch and bus tour, we observed a tipping point — a global demand for happiness filled with amazing stories of people/companies/communities (PCC) making changes after prioritizing (scientific) happiness. Because of this, we decided to evolve it into its own company — today, we help PCCs create sustainable culture change, with happiness.

What is “delivering happiness” in a business context, specifically as it relates to government?

It is about creating a culture and environment that is aligned and unified through a foundation of core values lived in action, led by a vision or higher purpose and fueled with frameworks of happiness and positivity.

We call these the DH culture elements and together they create trust, clarity, alignment, and excellence in a business / government context. They directly result in the outcomes that a global leader, like the Prime Minister of Dubai, is passionate about. Outcomes like excellence in innovation, global unity and a shift in consciousness towards positivity and love.

[The PM of Dubai actually uses the word “love” as 1 of his 3 tenets on his 3 finger salute]

How would government measure happiness?

Like any business, governments are looking to measure happiness through key indicators at the individual (ME), family / company (WE) and National (Community) levels. Measurable key indicators include: 

  • heath/wellbeing
  • engagement/productivity
  • collaboration/innovation
  • service/levels of excellence
  • unity / alignment to higher purpose
  • Positivity markers: Levels of Trust, Creativity, Growth

How are governments exploring and/or deploying happiness into their business practices? If a city, state or federal agency wants to begin factoring in happiness as part of their delivery model, how should they get started?

Happiness is much more than a word. It is an ethos and continuous deepening in Alignment with others and elevation in Consciousness.

Progressive governments and businesses recognize that individuals, teams, communities and countries all want to learn, grow, evolve and thrive / flourish.
To that end, they are deploying “happiness” in their practices by:

  1. Clearly articulating a powerful shared vision and higher purpose
  2. Developing deeply defined shared values
  3. Aligning peoples minds, hearts and souls to these (values, vision, higher purpose)
  4. Inspiring and cultivating the day to day actions and behaviors that bring this alignment to life
  5. Motivating and celebrating (recognition) people’s CHOICES towards these aligned actions and behaviors

How can governments who want to delivery happiness contact you to learn more

They can email me directly ( with questions or check out:

New video roundtable series: ‘Transforming Government IT’

Photo: U.S. Navy / Gary Nichols

Photo: U.S. Navy / Gary Nichols

A new roundtable series focused on “Transforming Government IT” will bring together leaders in both the public and private sectors from Washington, D.C., to Silicon Valley, to discuss how the federal government can reinvent its approach to technology.

The first roundtable, “Loving Both Innovation and Security,” will be held this Tuesday, April 28, starting at 10:30 a.m. PT (1:30 p.m. ET). The focus will be on how cybersecurity can be used to accelerate innovation in the federal government workforce and keep pace with the private sector.

Future discussions include “Security in an Open World of Free Software,” “Continuous Monitoring to Trust the Cloud” and “A Lean Plan for Security & Compliance.”

The series is a collaboration between Agile Government Leadership, CivicActions and Reinventors Network. Similar series from Reinventors Network have tackled nuclear security, universities and Hollywood.

Register here for the first event.

Inside Palo Alto’s new Civic Technology Center

Palo Alto Civic Technology Center

Last week, I met with Palo Alto Chief Information Officer Jonathan Reichental to get a tour of the city’s new Civic Technology Center, an open space inside city hall that centralizes the 30-person information technology staff, call and data centers into one working area.

There are shared standing desks, meeting rooms with colorful, Google-esque furniture and large touch-screen monitors. A common area table serves as a co-working space for guests or city staff that need support or training. I worked there for about an hour, and the guest wifi is extremely fast.

Reichental also showed me around the data center, including the old and new, and ongoing plans to decrease real estate used to house servers. The Palo Alto staff has been working to migrate much of its operations to the cloud under Reichental’s watch.

The call center services approximately 10,000 calls from city employees.

Reichental, always congenial, was excited about the progress that has been in the works for more than a year. The new office maximizes much of the floor plan without feeling overly-cramped and gives the formerly-staid space a clean, modern feel much like you find at any technology startup.


Palo Alto Civic Technology Center

Palo Alto Civic Technology Center

Palo Alto Civic Technology Center

Palo Alto Civic Technology Center

Palo Alto Civic Technology Center

Palo Alto Civic Technology Center

Palo Alto Civic Technology Center

Palo Alto Civic Technology Center

Palo Alto Civic Technology Center

Thoughts on the new



The General Services Administration announced a new re-design of, the official website for the Federal Acquisition Regulations.

Here are my thoughts and observations:

Redirects don’t work. One of the first issues you typically address on a site redesign is the 301 redirect meaning that if a link name has changed, you redirect it to a corresponding new page. That way when someone searches or clicks on an old link, they are redirected to a new page.

As you can see, this is not the case for the old FAR URL,



It’s open source. Don’t quote me on this, but I believe the original was developed in Microsoft’s Active Server Pages. The new site is built on the open source content management system Drupal which, of course, is a positive direction towards federal government open source adoption.

Audience. There’s probably not much you can do to avoid the alphabet soup of federal government acronyms, but the site doesn’t make it helpful for those new to federal procurement. There are a few helpful videos, but it doesn’t do anything to make the FAR appear more accessible. It’s very link-heavy without access to entry-level information or smooth transition to extended resources.

Not mobile-friendly. I can’t tell if the code is buggy or if it’s just not responsive at all, but it doesn’t adapt at all on my phone or browser. There appears to be a horizontal scroll bug, so I assume that is the problem.

Search could be better. To me, this is the most important aspect of a FAR website, and this is where it falls short. While there is now a downloadable HTML version (which, in its current form, isn’t very useful), there still isn’t a seamless way to search and view text in the FAR. Even the font-resizing tool doesn’t resize the actual FAR text.

Frames. Perhaps the primary reason for the limited user-friendliness is that the FAR pages are simply a frame-based version of the old FAR website, which used to be at I’m frankly surprised that this was an acceptable solution to making a better tool.

I wouldn’t call this a re-design of, but more of a new template and technology. The core mission of the site, making the actual FAR more accessible, still has a long way to go.

Re-thinking the homepage


Starting with its homepage, the White House is moving to a more mobile-friendly design and is asking for feedback, so last night I created a quick comp of elements I thought were appropriate for a White House homepage without making it contain too much information and compiled some thoughts (see below).

See my comp:

From a post this week announcing the update and what is the beginning of more to come:

Last night, we released the first-ever responsive White House homepage. Here’s what that means: The landing page now displays content in a consistent way, no matter which device you’re using — desktop, laptop, mobile phone, or tablet. This also means that we’re helping you find the most relevant content as quickly as possible.

This is a landmark change in a series of improvements to our online platforms to make them more accessible, user-friendly, and in line with modern best practices. And this is just the first phase in revamping the White House homepage. We will continue to iterate on the design and features, rolling out enhancements along the way.

In general, this in an excellent improvement. As we learned with the launch of the new, the most-trafficked federal .gov websites aren’t mobile-friendly, so it’s great to see the White House beginning to take this more seriously.

Here are my thoughts and feedback:

Make it about the people. I chose the best photo I could find of people at the White House accentuating “The People’s House,” so that immediately it’s about “the people” and not just the president. I know most politicians (especially mayors) like to see their faces on their websites, but I imagine POTUS would be okay with this unconventional approach at this point in his career.

Watch. Video is powerful and the “West Wing Week” segments are accessible and do a great job of giving those who aren’t interested in the intricacies of policy or long speeches a glimpse into what’s happening at the White House.

Engage. This is an important element that should be given more real estate, as well as friendlier, inviting visual cues to submit or sign a petition. As I’ve mentioned before, I’d work on re-branding “We the People” to focus more on interacting with the executive branch and less on “petitioning” it.

Meet the team. Making it more about the team and less about the C-suite would start to move it away from a political feel and resonate more with those of us who work in teams or want to see Washington feel more like they are. I don’t have it here, but I’d add more of the faces behind the White House and rotate them so it’s not just management.

Connect. Providing subscribe and social elements as prominent features in a universal footer could drive higher engagement after the visit. I can’t imagine a lot of people visiting the site regularly, so making “Connect” prominent is a great way to meet citizens where they are on a daily basis.

Today at the White House. While I don’t have it in the comp, I’d include a section that highlights all of the ways citizens can engage with the White House, including the president’s and links to live video or Twitter chats with administration staff.

Call to action. There are other elements I’d include below the hero unit, such as a limited number of icons links to the most requested services (tours, contact, jobs, etc.).

General feedback. On the new, I’d remove the all-caps usage and re-think the navigation. While I don’t have anything on my comp, it should be much more simple that what’s provided here.

Footer. The current footer should be re-considered and simplified to focus more on what users want from the White House and less about appeasing every cabinet secretary or political operative. I don’t have it in my comp and haven’t given it much thought, but throwing all of those links into the footer like that makes it looks like an obligatory afterthought. Personally, I turn to the footer when I can’t find what I’m looking for.

Check out my comp at and let me know what you think. gets an official GitHub repo, feedback loop


For those unsatisfied with the recent re-launch and would like to submit public feedback, there’s now an official GitHub repo for that.

While code source of the current website isn’t available at the repo, it’s a great first step in that the federal government has created a formal channel for aggregating input from external stakeholders.

View the current issues and comments or add your own.

(HT @kaitlinbdevine)

How federal agencies can use a little funk to get moving on citizen engagement

(Photo: Official White House/Chuck Kennedy)

(Photo: Official White House/Chuck Kennedy)

The most brilliant viral video of the week is of First Lady Michelle Obama dancing to “Uptown Funk” to promote the fifth anniversary of her childhood obesity “Let’s Move” campaign, and it’s a great opportunity for federal agencies to both support this initiative and promote engagement around their respective citizen services.

While agencies may not get the viral traction FLOTUS does, here’s how you can leverage this immediate opportunity to promote your services and put a a human face on government:

  • Video your version of “Uptown Funk.” Ellen and FLOTUS show you how it’s done here.
  • Post the video to YouTube.
  • Highlight and include call to action links to the most important services your agency provides.
  • Post within the next week to leverage momentum.

Ideas for specific agencies:

I could go on, but you federal government social media managers get the point.

While unconventional, it’s a great opportunity to show personality as well as tap into the power of pop culture and video to highlight your civic relevance.

If you think I’m crazy, ask NASA.

How to not be the next


Rightfully so, there’s somewhat of a backlash to the newly re-designed that launched today.

The site has never really lived up to its potential, but hopefully this will begin to change now that it has moved beyond past issues and could get support from 18F and U.S. Digital Services.

NextGov has a short historical overview of the vendor issues related to its storied past, FierceGovernmentIT’s Molly Bernhart Walker has a great post with respect to the release’s impact on businesses who rely on the service as part of their core offerings, as does Washington Free Beacon’s Elizabeth Harrington related to the impact on transparency.

Regardless of the vendor drama and complexity around delivering data specific to USAspending, here is a simple formula for any government working on the release of a new public-facing website:

  • Data first, design second. Regardless of what the site looks like, the data should be publicly accessible via an application programming interface or bulk download. Every government website that launches from here on out should have a data strategy and execution plan before a web design and development one, and this includes a legal understanding that no vendor can ever claim ownership of government data.
  • Open the analytics. It’s important for everyone (internal and external stakeholders) to have access to the same information to understand how well a site is performing and have visibility into current user behavior. This aids in the next point.
  • Get public feedback. Getting feedback based on expert opinion, whether it’s on the particular subject matter of the website or general digital strategy, a public request for information is essential. Per the above point, it’s important for everyone to have access to the analytics to help drive feedback, as well as realize when that feedback is right or wrong.
  • Go into beta. It’s unclear to me why this is rarely done, but having a beta version of the website allows for a softer launch that takes into account early feedback and is a foundation for the next two points. You’re not going to deal with a major public outcry if it took four weeks to build something and are constantly iterating over the days, weeks and months after the initial launch.
  • Get public feedback on the beta. Most government agencies launch public betas but fail to publicly display or respond to feedback so that others can see and comment. Using GitHub issues is a great way to do this, because those comments can be easily baked into the next point.
  • Make changes based on analytics and public feedback. This eliminates internal decisions to include unnecessary features, like homepage sliders or photos of the mayor in the header, and instead focus on real user needs.
  • Make the source code publicly-available at all times. I can’t believe we’re still having this conversation, but code developed for government purposes should be accessible, commentable and contributable at all times.
  • Provide a public roadmap. A roadmap allows the public to have insight into what is currently being developed or considered for development. This shouldn’t be overthought, but more of insight into the focus for the next four weeks. This lets those not directly involved understand what they can expect in the next release without being surprised by a radically new design.
  • Regularly and publicly document updates. Blogging what’s been done and why is important in effectively communicating new changes. GOV.UK does a great job of this. Currently, we see this in the form of nothing or an obscure accepted pull request or code push on GitHub. Never underestimate the importance of the narrative.

The history behind is an interesting anecdote on building a complex, data-focused website. The previous vendor-related drama and data complexity make it somewhat unique, but by no means should it or any other government website be hindered by a simple, iterative approach for introducing a new citizen-focused, public-facing digital service.