World café, committee hearing answers tech criticism for city
After a sparsely attended 9 a.m. Wednesday budget hearing focused attention on the city’s information technology issues, and what some see as its complacency and failings in the area of technological progress and safety, a planned “world café” on the issue — the city’s first — was announced the next day.
“The objective of the IT World Café is to engage the public in discussion about information technology, gain valuable input and use the input to help shape the city’s technology priorities and plans for the future,” said the city’s public information officer, Ini Tomeu, in a Thursday press release.
She outlined some of the city’s recent tech efforts, including the launch of the iReport mobile reporting application, which enables users to report such things as potholes, graffiti and defective streetlights online or from an Apple or Android device; implementation of the MyPD public safety mobile application for the same devices; updated designs for the websites of the city (including language translation), library, police and Public Works Department; and launching of the Cambridge Alert Network to advise subscribers of city emergencies and other important information via phone, text or e-mail.
Upcoming technological initiatives include online application and payment of Inspectional Services permits; new websites for the Cambridge Arts Council, Human Services and Water departments; and changes to websites that make them work better on smartphones, Tomeu said. This month should also see more social media capabilities for the city’s site, allowing residents to link to sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Note: The budget hearing was televised and can be streamed online here. Cambridge Day was not present. This post includes information taken from the live reporting of various responsible people who were on the scene, most of which is attributed to them and links back to the original statements.
And City Manager Robert W. Healy vowed additional investment in tech early in 2013, a trend of slight increases seen in department budgets over the past few years. In the 2011 fiscal year, the department’s budget was $3.6 million, rising to a projected $3.7 million in fiscal 2012 and proposed at $4 million in the coming fiscal year.
But these accomplishments and promises didn’t satisfy councillors or the four residents who attended the hearing, many of whom were (perhaps predictably, for people pushing the city on tech) tweeting for others to follow. One tweeter, and the only speaker during public comment, was occasional CCTV blogger Saul Tannenbaum, who testified to his experiences with city software that allowed residents to report where they found potholes but lacked the geolocation programming to actually find the potholes. Describing this amateurish programming, which passed city muster and was paid for, brought laughs from tech professionals who heard about it, Tannenbaum said.
Tannenbaum also prepared his own assessment of the city’s accomplishments in the area and linked to it for all to read.
The assessment? That the city’s approach to tech was “dysfunctional” — and that it engendered no confidence that the tech department’s deputy director carried a Windows laptop-tablet hybrid. (Resident Joe Aiello, another attendee and tweeter, quipped that the budget talk “makes it sound like we are all using AOL dial-up for city system. It’s not that far off.”) Tannenbaum also noted that the City Council had no questions for the city’s chief information officer, “Which is the right thing, since the real issue has risen to why there’s no accountability,” he said.
“This is the same speech Robert Healy has given about IT for the last couple of years,” Tannenbaum observed, to which Aiello added: “It sounds like he just wants to brush all this IT talk to the side and just send it to a ‘study.’ It’s pretty damn sad.”
But councillors did weigh in on tech issues, with Minka vanBeuzekom pushing to go paperless for municipal business and Leland Cheung citing holes in the tech department’s budget proposal, saying it could do better in a city that hosted Google and Microsoft, among other giants of the industry. “I am embarrassed by the state of our technology,” Cheung said.
And Marjorie Decker, who runs the budget process for the council, announces a committee hearing on the state of the city’s technology, which recent council candidate Charles Marquardt called a “great idea.”
It wasn’t all negative, though.
“Cambridge has a number of examples of tech-oriented departments that do a fine job,” Tannenbaum said, citing the police and fire departments. “Cambridge police deserve great credit for data-driven policy and outcome-oriented effectiveness measurement. And the Cambridge Office of Tourism has a better understanding of the pace of change in technology than the IT department demonstrates, and if the department used technology as well as the Cambridge Police uses technology, there’d be great progress in the city.”
The world café on information technology is planned for 6 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday at Cambridge Rindge & Latin School’s Pearl K. Wise Library, 459 Broadway.