A local school district loses its federal funding money over teacher behavior. A group of D.C. residents sue to block a homeless shelter in their neighborhood. And a Republican activist in Montgomery County successfully petitions to get term limits on the ballot—but a legal challenge looms.
Guest Host: Brendan Greeley
Can local governments use the web to improve the quality of life in local neighborhoods? From agency apps to interactive maps, D.C. is at the forefront of a national movement to harness technology to deliver services to residents and keep track of performance. But a deep digital divide continues to persist across communities in the city. We talk with the District’s Chief Technology Officer about innovation and technology in local government.
- Bryan Sivak Chief Technology Officer, Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO), District of Columbia
MR. BRENDAN GREELEYFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your community with the world. I'm Brendan Greeley, sitting in for Kojo. Coming up this hour, the District of Columbia generates terabytes of information every year, and a terabyte is more information than any of us can possibly comprehend. Most of it resides firmly behind the government firewall, but the city is beginning to make some of that data available to the public. More than 400 streams of data on crime, health, permits, interactive maps that are now all accessible online.
MR. BRENDAN GREELEYBut when a city opens itself up, who controls the data? The city is marked by a stark digital divide. One corner of the city has near universal access to broadband, another has rates below 40 percent. Bryan Sivak gets to commission fun new computer applications, but he also has to solve the city's rather mundane access problems. He is the chief technology officer of the District of Columbia. Bryan, welcome.
MR. BRYAN SIVAKThank you very much.
GREELEYTim O'Reilly is a computing thinker who coined the phrase "open source" that some of us might be familiar with. But he has a new buzzword, which is "government as a platform." And I wonder whether some of that wasn't actually inspired by the work that had already been done in D.C. opening itself up. Do you believe that government can be a platform?
SIVAKAbsolutely, I mean, the analogy that Tim actually uses quite frequently is the one of the GPS satellites that the U.S. put into space, I believe, in the '70s and eventually opened up to developers and to the public to access that data. And he uses that as the example of a government platform, that the technology is provided for by the government, that anybody can tap into and build applications on top of. So I think that that's a great example. We actually, you know, I think have extended that quite a bit with things like our Open311 platform, the API that we have put out there, a lot of other things that we're to use from.
GREELEYLet's stop for just a second. We have words like API...
GREELEY...that are flying around that you and I may be familiar with. But just to make clear, when we talk about a platform, there is data that the city owns. This is incidents of crime, incidents of permits being issued, and it's possible, in fact, to structure those so that they can flow into an application that you might have access to, either on your computer or a handheld device.
SIVAKThat's right. That's exactly right.
GREELEYOkay, good. Just so we have precision in terms here. And when you call -- when you say an API, what I think is interesting about that is that it is a computing term. It's something that programmers are very familiar with. And to hear an appointed member of a city government use a phrase like or an acronym like API, that's extraordinary. There's also a culture shift happening as well.
SIVAKThere's a potential truth to that. I mean, I'm personally a big geek at heart. All right, you know, I've been tearing down computers and building applications since I was eight years old.
SIVAKYou know, so I'm passionate about this kind of stuff. My degree is in computer science. I started off as a programmer. You know, all that kind of stuff...
SIVAKBut we have to be aware of what these concepts mean and how they're implemented in everyday utilization.
GREELEYPlease. Well, let's start with API.
SIVAKSure. So API stands for application programming interface. What it basically means is that we provide a set of mechanisms for any developer out there to hook into a service that we provide -- a platform if you will. And our 311 system is a perfect example of that. So as you and many of the listeners out there probably know, when you dial 311 on your phone, you're connected to our mayoral contact center where you can report any issue that you have, whether it's a pothole or tree limb down or you need some service somewhere, you need a question answered, whatever it might be.
SIVAKWhat we've done is -- and when --- I should say, when that call-taker answers that question, they input your information and your request into a system that we have, a backend system. Now, what we've done is actually taken that system and provided access to it via this application programming interface, that now, anyone out there in the world can write an application for a computer, for an iPhone, for a BlackBerry, and connect directly into that system.
SIVAKSo, for example, today you can go to -- you can be parking at a -- in a parking spot here in the District. You find that that meter is broken. Pull out your iPhone and open up any one of a number of applications that have used this application programming interface, such as SeeClickFix or CitySource, and take a picture of that parking meter, submit it to our 311 system. Get a service request number back immediately, and that goes through the system and its appropriate channels.
GREELEYSo you're not just complaining about a problem? You're actually entering the problem into a queue to be fixed?
SIVAKThat's exactly right.
GREELEYAnd this is very reminiscent of the way tech culture works. Do you think that cities are actually borrowing from the way firms handle tech problems?
SIVAKAbsolutely, and I think one of the things that we're seeing with cities -- and this is a conversation I have with my colleagues on the local level, on the state level and on the federal level nearly every week -- we're all developing the same stuff, right? We're all building the same applications, whether it's a, you know, fairly simple geo code or something to actually take addresses and map them to a physical spot on Earth or a more complex system such as a Medicaid Management Information System which can cost upwards of $100 million to implement.
SIVAKBut every jurisdiction is working on things like this. And so we're looking at ways now of how we can actually share some of these developments. And I think this is one of the big differences between public sector and private sector. We're not competitive with another jurisdiction. In fact, we should be partnering. We should be sharing these things.
GREELEYMm-hmm. We're taking your calls in a very mundane and ancient way. We're going to pick up the phone and talk to you at 1-800-433-8850. One of the fascinating things about D.C. is that it's been at the forefront of this movement, which also says that you've had some experience with opening up government data. What we've been talking about so far today is government receiving data from citizens, citizens reporting things and having that not just be a complaint on a telephone call but an actual part of the solution. In addition to that, there's a lot of information that governments control and can open up to be used. And sometimes the conclusions that are reached with that data aren't necessarily conclusions that the government itself that opened them up would find pleasing. So D.C. has more experience with this than any other city. What are the practical lessons that we've learned so far?
SIVAKI think most importantly, don't be afraid to open data up. While you point out that we might not be pleased, if you will, with the results that people find through analyzing the data, I would actually argue that that's not true. We welcome that feedback. If something is pointed out that the data shows that we haven't seen, or we haven't been able to identify or analyze, that's great. It's more information for us to help adjust business processes, to help make everything that we do, the services that we provide, the products that we provide to the citizens, that much more efficient. So I welcome that analysis. I think -- and everybody in the administration really looks forward to that as well.
GREELEYIs there an example of data that you've released where you've gotten analysis that has actually improved a process? This has been happening for about two years now.
SIVAKActually we've been doing this since 2004-2005. We were the first jurisdiction out there to actually release data in any form.
GREELEYAnd I have to say this is being studied all over the world. It is -- D.C. is actually on the forefront. That's not just a cliché we're saying here in the studio because we happen to be in D.C. This is something that I've written about for The Economist, and everyone I've talked to in Australia, in New Zealand, in the U.K., they're all looking to D.C. as a model for this. So be proud, District.
SIVAKYeah, actually I can echo that. Almost every conversation I have with somebody in this field usually starts off by saying something like, "Oh, well, you guys know about this. You're D.C. You've done this before."
GREELEYWell, so -- but what is a process that you've done that, where you've released data and as a result it actually improved city government?
SIVAKSo here's a great example. I love this example. There are rental units all across the city. We require, as a city, rental units to be licensed with the city or at least registered with the city for two reasons. Number one, because those rental units are part of a big database that we use in case of some kind of a natural disaster and things like that where we could house -- we know where we can house people.
SIVAKAnother reason is because there's actually a tax associated with having a rental unit in the city for obvious, you know, obvious reasons. Because of that latter fact, it seems that there are many landlords who actually don't go through the process of registering those properties with the city. Now, interestingly in this day and age, most of these rental properties are published online -- Craigslist, Washington Post, you know, you name it -- for rent in the city.
GREELEYThis is a private process that's already happening.
SIVAKThat's right. So it's a fairly simple matter to match those two data sets together and identify which ones of those rental properties are actually not registered with the city. So it's just a great example of how when we publish data, that data can be used to help both residents and...
GREELEYSo this is something that you're actually doing now?
GREELEYAnd have you gotten any comments about this from residents?
SIVAKNo, not really.
GREELEYWe're picking up the phone here at 1-800-433-8850. This is "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" on WAMU 88.5. I'm Brendan Greeley, sitting in for Kojo. There's a question at a national level as well. D.C. is doing this on a state level, opening up its data. The Obama administration, which actually has very close ties in this arena to the experiments that started in D.C. five years ago, is also opening up federal data.
GREELEYAnd I think the questions at the federal level are very similar to questions at the state level. Most significantly, who decides what's valuable data? Data information from a government can be empowering to citizens, but it's also a way for government to control its own image. So what's the best way for a government, department by department, to decide what's the data that needs to be released? What's data that's better kept private?
SIVAKSo we actually take a very broad view of this. I mean, this administration, historically, has been very focused on transparency and openness from a general perspective. And to that end, we actually have clauses that we put into contracts that we sign with vendors and things like that that say any data that an application generates must be housed in our citywide data warehouse. So we sort of take that broad stroke first and say any data that we generate should be published.
GREELEYThe default is that it's open.
SIVAKExactly right. Now, there are certain cases where we don't want to publish data for reasons of privacy -- for example, if it violates HIPAA statutes and things like that, but we -- and we take that very, very seriously. But by default, we really do default to openness.
GREELEYAnd this is distinct from the policy at the federal level?
SIVAKWell, I think they're changing the policy at the federal level. You know, with the new administration, everybody remembers President Obama's first executive memorandum, which, you know, basically stated data openness and transparency should be a key component of his administration. It's a huge deal for them, and, you know, as you know -- I'm sure many of the listeners do -- they have published, you know, hundreds of thousands of data sets already from every agency that the federal government is comprised of.
GREELEYSo how do you make sure that as they -- as an administration publishes data that -- God forbid if there's a change in administration -- that the bureaucracy underneath of it continues to publish that data after somebody for whom data transparency is important is left off? It seems like there's a continuity issue here.
SIVAKTo an extent, possibly, but I do also think that once you've started down that road, it's sort of impossible to, you know, sort of put the cat back in the bag -- if that's the right expression, or the genie back in the bottle, I guess. But the, you know, we -- a great example of that actually is something that we've done recently. Earlier this year, we launched this application called TrackDC, which is really the world's first Web-based application that will show in real time operating details of the agencies that comprise the city government.
SIVAKYou know, so you can look at any agency in the city government to see what they're spending, you know, what their recent news is, you know, all of the different things that make up what that agency actually is all about. I think because we put that out, it would be impossible to take that back. You know, it sort of would be moving backwards in a way, and I don't think that any future administration really would want to go down that path.
GREELEYBryan Sivak is with us in the studio. He is the chief technology officer for Washington D.C. He is setting a kind of transparency trap for all future administrations. Once you've opened it up, it's impossible to close it back down. We're picking up the phone here at 1-800-433-8850. It's "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" on WAMU 88.5. I'm Brendan Greeley from The Economist, sitting in for Kojo. We'll be back in a second.
GREELEYWelcome back. I'm Brendan Greeley, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. We're talking with Bryan Sivak. He's the chief technology officer of Washington D.C. He's part of a larger process that is opening up government data so that citizens can write and use applications that will either save money, we hope, or just improve their lives. We're going to go to the phones. We have a call from Andrew in Silver Spring. Andrew, you're on the air.
ANDREWHey, good afternoon, Brendan and Bryan, right?
ANDREWHello. Yes, Brendan. There are three things. One, you know, everything that makes money about your concepts and how it relates to our world -- that, I agree with -- in empowerment that comes from information. However, I feel like you're leaving out two things. And that would be A, you know, in The Washington Post recently, they had a big weekly debut about the whole thing about how the NSA and the National Security and Homeland Security Agencies really have not been able to do what they want and, furthermore, is not publicly scrutinized. Okay, that's one. The other thing is I have not heard any mention of the notion or the concept of Big Brother. And as you -- in your position, I'd be interested in hearing what your concept and view of what a Big Brother is, is.
GREELEYI just want to make clear that it's Bryan Sivak here in the studio who is the potential Big Brother, and not Brendan Greeley, who's sitting in...
ANDREWYeah. Yeah, then I get it wrong.
GREELEY...for Kojo Nnamdi. But Bryan, take it.
SIVAKI think, you know, privacy is of tantamount importance, and that's something that we can't ever forget. You know, the -- as we progress towards openness and transparency as it relates to government operations, we really have to be careful to make sure that personal information and that data and details that we might have on the citizens and the residents that live in D.C. is completely protected from any of those -- from putting anything out there. And I sort of mentioned that earlier. When we talk about data being published as -- even though we default towards publishing data, we really do make sure that everything that could be protected or should be protected is -- HIPAA data, you know, anything like that -- really is kept very tightly under wraps.
GREELEYWhat is the process for that, because there has been a problem? L.A. recently allowed data on teacher performance to be published. I'm sure you're familiar with this. And that's a real privacy issue, and it's also a city governance issue because it's entirely possible that that data impedes the progress of actually just helping teachers become better.
SIVAKRight. These are, I would argue, very thorny legal issues that we do need to wrangle with. There is a great argument as I know Chancellor Rhee was discussing on this on the show last week, that by publishing this information, we're giving parents and students and educators much more information on the objective rankings and qualities of the people...
SIVAK...that are teaching them. But we really do have to balance that very carefully with privacy concerns, and context is hugely important.
SIVAKWe need to make sure that any data that we put out there is contextually understood and explained.
GREELEYYou've talked about principles so far, but what's an actual process by which when a new data stream is suggested to you, you would go through vetting that for privacy, for example?
SIVAKWell, we're the technology agency, so our job is really to provide infrastructure, to provide the support, to provide the mechanisms and the tools for putting the stuff out there, to come up with new ideas and things like that. When it comes to an individual data stream or set of data, we actually rely on the agency, the business, if you will...
SIVAK...to help us vet that for legal sufficiency for privacy constraints and things like that. And then we actually do sign physically a data sharing agreement with that agency. So by signing that agreement, we have actually gone through all of the steps in the workflow that are necessary to ensure that we kind of checked all those boxes in the right way.
GREELEYDoesn't this introduce a conflict of interest on the agency level? Because agencies are responsible for their own survival, just like mayors are, and they're unlikely to suggest that data be released that doesn't reflect well on them.
SIVAKIt depends on, I think, the agency director that you're -- and particularly...
SIVAK...that you're talking about. One of the things that -- you know, I came from the private sector about a year ago.
SIVAKAnd this is my first stint in the public sector.
GREELEYWelcome. You must be having a great time.
SIVAKHonestly, I'm having a blast. This is the best job I've ever had. And one of the things that has blown me away is the quality of the individual that is -- that makes up this government. The people in my agency are some of the best that I have ever worked with, some of the most dedicated, passionate people, and that goes for the agency directors as well. And I think that when you get people of that caliber that are confident in the things that they're doing, know their subject matter, you know, really are truly trying to make things better. They are absolutely open to the possibilities of what can happen when they make this data public.
SIVAKSo I think that's one of the reasons that we've been able to sort of forge ahead on this path before other jurisdictions really because we have these forward-thinking people that are running these agencies and that make up these agencies and say, you know what? If we put this data out there, even if it might reflect negatively on us for a certain perspective, we can use that feedback to make it better.
GREELEYLast year, the Obama administration did something unprecedented, which is that it released the data of the visitor logs to the White House. Sort of -- it was an interesting step because it was lauded by transparency activists all over the country. And I wonder sometimes whether anybody who begins releasing data doesn't have kind of a Gorbachev problem, which is that the first person to open up the system is the first person to get caught. And there was some discussion afterwards of, you know, people dutifully went through the data and discovered that people with suspicious-sounding names had visited the White House. And he got a little burned by that.
GREELEYHow do you go about -- we've talked about setting a transparency trap for administrations 10 years down the line -- how do you go about being the first administration to release data and running the risk that it's not going to reflect well on you?
SIVAKWell, I think your example of the White House releasing the visitor data is a great one. Yeah, they released the visitor data. It came out. There were some questionable visits by various people.
SIVAKThat was dutifully noticed by the citizenry and the press, yet, you know, it sort of expanded and then died, you know. The data is still out there. They're still releasing that information. Perhaps they've used it internally to become more aware of, you know, exactly who is visiting them and what the purpose of those visits are. I mean, that's a question for people inside the White House. But I think that's a perfect example of, you know, maybe in the political eye, they did get a little quote, unquote "burn." But at the end of the day, it's a net positive, and I think everybody moves on in a positive fashion from that.
GREELEYYou're listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," WAMU 88.5. We are picking up the phones at 1-800-433-8850. What data do you think that the city of D.C. should be releasing? What data do you want kept within the city's vaults? I wonder whether -- there's also a danger with releasing government information, that there is a fine line between information and propaganda. The Obama administration -- again, and I don't want to make you responsible for things that the federal government has done.
GREELEYI'm sort of asking a broader question, which is that they have a site that details everything that has been spent so far as part of the administration's effort to change the economy. And they're calling it recovery.gov. And there's a reason why it's called recovery.gov. It's not called doubledip.gov. So where is the difference between -- when do you draw the line between data and propaganda?
SIVAKWell, you know, I think if you look at any individual data set sort of on its own without a specific context to it, you can really look at any of these things from a perspective of not propaganda but just information. Recovery.gov is a great example. The website itself might have a title that suggests something propaganda-ish. But when you look at the actual data, the things that are being reported are really what we want to know. Is the money being spent in a way that makes sense? Are jobs being created? That's the whole purpose of the stimulus spending.
SIVAKAnd, you know, as a recipient of federal grants, we happily contribute to the system so that people can actually see that this grant money that we're receiving is being spent in the right way and that it's having the appropriate effect, or maybe the non-appropriate effect, as the case may be. And that -- in which case, we can look at those programs and say, how do we do this differently so that it does have the appropriate effect?
GREELEYI noticed that the D.C. government makes available money -- details of its budget, which is alone, if not unique, rare. That's been the hardest information to get out of the U.S. Treasury, out of the British Treasury. All of these states and cities -- they're doing a great job of opening up data -- are really holding on tight to financial data. But the Holy Grail, or so I've heard from some data activists, is not budget data but actual spend data.
GREELEYSo not what the government thinks it's going to spend but what actually leaves the coffers. So is that something that you see on the horizon? Do you think that that's possible for citizens to watch what gets spent and not just what gets planned?
SIVAKWe're actively working on it actually. It turns out that that problem is complex for a couple of reasons.
SIVAKMainly because -- and going back to something I said earlier -- it really is context dependent. There are certain relatively complex accounting mechanisms that are used in any large organization, whether it's private sector or public sector, that require pretty deep understanding of how, you know, monies are accrued or spent, to really understand what budget data and spending data actually mean. So for example...
SIVAK...if we just released everything and didn't really provide that context or explanation or expertise, you might say, wait a minute, you know, this agency looks like it's spending, you know, far more than its actual budget...
SIVAK...when, in fact, it's actually just the accounting rules that, you know, GAAP principles that are applied that actually make it seem that way.
SIVAKAt the end of the year, everything accrues nicely, and it all works out. So I think there are two things that we're struggling with. One is that, you know, way of actually releasing it in a publicly understandable fashion -- and the context again is the critical piece -- and then secondly, we are actually in a process right now of upgrading the District's main financial accounting system. It's currently on a mainframe-based application that's been around for quite some time, which makes it somewhat difficult to get the data out of. So this new system that we're putting in place, which should be live at the end of next year, will make it much, much easier to actually get the data out of and then be able to make that public.
GREELEYYou can e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We've got two e-mails here. One of them is something I think you'll enjoy. From D.C resident Caroline, "If Mr. Sivak was part of the thinking behind setting up the website this past winter to track the progress of the D.C. snowplows following a record-setting snowfall, I wish to commend him. In fact, I was surprised this website didn't get more publicity at the time. I find it to be very helpful to know which roads had been plowed and salted before heading out." Before you thank her for that, somebody else took you to the woodshed. Bill writes, "I have used the GIS real property system in the past, and I bookmarked it. When I've gone back to the bookmark to show people, I get an error. Does the website change? And more specifically, how can I use the GIS system to find the properties owned by a particular landlord?" It would be good if you would explain just briefly what the GIS system is again before you answer the question.
SIVAKSure. And those are two great e-mails because they actually both interact with the same concepts of GIS or geographical information systems. In addition to being a geek at heart, I'm also a kind of a map geek at heart. I love geography. I love maps and all that kind of stuff. And one of the things that I was very pleasantly surprised to find is that in addition to all the other great stuff that D.C. has going on, technology-wise, we have one of the most advanced GIS programs in the world. You know, it's really amazing what our guys have been able to do over the past few years and really stand up and act as a leader to the rest of the world. First, let me address the snowplow e-mail. That was great -- it was a great website, a huge success. There was a lot of great information generated from that.
SIVAKFor those of you out there who don't know what this was, basically, during the major snow events of this past winter, we have sensors -- repeaters actually, GPS trackers -- on the snowplows themselves which will actually tell us where a snowplow is, where, you know, sort of what trajectory it's heading in and then whether the plow's up or down, whether it's sanding the roads or salting the roads or not. And we displayed that in real time on a live map. So you can see in your neighborhood where the plows are going, where they've been. We're actually upgrading that system for this coming snow season. And we're going to do some pilots of interesting things.
SIVAKOne of the problems with that was that with the massive amounts of snow we got, even if a plow cleared a road or went across the road, you weren't really sure if it got all the snow off, right? And in many cases, it didn't. There was a couple of inches of slush left on just because there was so much snow. So one of the things we're actually experimenting with for this one winter is putting those sensors on the tracks as well as cameras so that we can actually, in real time, see what the condition of the road is as the plow is going over it. And this is going to help us both internally to deploy plows and crews and things like that to the right locations that need it, but will also help residents in a great way because they'll be able to actually see the conditions of the roads in real time without having to leave their house.
SIVAKSo it's a really cool idea. Going to Bill's question about the real property website, I'm not sure exactly what URL you're actually trying to hit. A couple of things I will say, number one, we have been in the process over the last several months of completely redoing the dc.gov website. So we've just launched the main homepage under the new look and feel on a new content management system. We've been doing sort of a rolling agency by agency basis to, you know, get the older sites onto the newer platform. And the OCTO website, my agency's website, was one of the ones that we rolled over a couple of months ago. So it's possible that that link might have been broken during that transition.
SIVAKOr it's possible that the system that you're trying to access -- the bookmark that you have saved, Bill, is a old bookmark. If you go on to the octo.dc.gov website, on to the left-hand side, there's a link for maps. If you click on that, you'll be able to get to the D.C. atlas in any number of different GIS applications that we actually do publish to the Web. You should be able to find what you need. If not, feel free to e-mail me. We'll see what we can do.
GREELEYYou're listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," on the WAMU 88.5. I'm Brendan Greeley from The Economist, sitting in for Kojo. You can reach us at 1-800-433-8850. We're going to go to Chuck in Virginia. Chuck, you're on the air.
CHUCKHowdy, my name is Chuck. I'm a university area commissioner in Columbus, Ohio. I'm on my way back to Columbus, actually. I was -- I had a question for Mr. Sivak. I was wondering if you had any advice on how technology supplements on local governments, especially through small cities like Columbus. For example, I'm considering creating an SMS text messaging system to counteract normalization of the risk for street sweeping in Columbus, Ohio. And I was just hoping if you got ramble on that, you know, how do you use technology to improve city government?
GREELEYThanks to Chuck passing through. Bryan?
SIVAKThat's a -- it's a broader question. You know, I -- technology -- one of the beautiful things about technology is that it really impacts every aspect of a city's operations. And I'm a big believer in the fact that technology can be used as a lever, a giant lever, to try to make things more efficient to help processes become smoother, to increase the benefit that -- of the services that we actually offer. So I think in general, technology is something that really -- especially these days with decreased budgets and, you know, decreased revenues -- that we really want to focus on to make sure that we're looking at all the different ways that technology can be used to help us do things better. Your example of an SMS notification service is a great one. And there are free and open source technologies out there that can be stood up very, very quickly to do exactly that. We try to take advantage of as much of that as we can within the district government in order to leverage some of those efficiencies of scale.
GREELEYI wonder whether this is an -- also almost a conservative argument for state level in city level actions. Is there things that states and cities are doing together that don't need any federal intervention?
GREELEYListen to Bryan Sivak on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Brendan Greeley from The Economist, sitting in for Kojo. You can call us at 1-800-433-8850. We're going to take a break in a second. When we come back, we're going to talk about D.C.'s digital divide with Mr. Sivak. He's the chief technology officer in D.C. Some neighborhoods have amazing broadband access. Some neighborhoods have very little. And that's a key part of his job, is trying to close that gap. WAMU 88.5.
GREELEYWelcome back. I'm Brendan Greeley, sitting in on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." We're in the studio with Bryan Sivak, D.C.'s chief technology officer, talking about a number of things. Among them, the digital divide. The federal government released a broadband plan for the entire country earlier this spring. I have to be careful here because my paper has taken a pretty sharp line on that plan. But there was a -- there were a lot of interesting studies that came out as part of it, which concluded that we don't really know why people don't adopt broadband. Sometimes it's available, and they don't have money for a computer. Sometimes it's available, they have money for a computer, and they don't understand how it's going to improve their lives. Sometimes it's available but very expensive, and sometimes it's not available at all. How would you describe the sort of -- the map of digital access in D.C.?
SIVAKSo all of the issues that you just mentioned are absolutely valid here in the District. With the exception of the availability question, relatively high-speed broadband is available across the city. If you think about it, you know, Comcast Cable, for example, goes pretty much everywhere. And you can get broadband services over that if you'd like.
GREELEYI'm going to get into the weeds here a little bit. What speed do you define broadband?
SIVAKI would say -- I mean, my personal opinion would be probably two megs per second or higher. I think that that's very low. And one of the things that we're really focusing on is how do we provide very high-speed broadband services to the residents of D.C. -- residents and businesses of D.C. When I'd say very high speed, I mean 100 megabits per second or faster all the way up...
GREELEYThis is just to give listeners a sense of what this is. 100 megabits is faster than any conceivable application that we can think of right now. And about four megabits -- Bryan is shaking head. We'll let him answer in a second. Four megabits is about -- is how the national broadband plan defines broadband access. And that's about enough to watch a YouTube video. Please go ahead.
SIVAKI was shaking my head to the 'any conceivable application that we can think of' because I can think of a few applications even right now that would require that much bandwidth. But, you know, one of the things that I think is interesting is that as time goes on and as applications get more bandwidth-hungry, I mean, just think about HD -- think about 3D video, right? That 3D HD video that we're going to want to be streaming through our internet connections any day now, right, that's going to take up a lot of bandwidth and it's going to require, you know, pretty significant amounts of bandwidth simply because we're going to also be doing multiple things simultaneously while that TV is playing.
SIVAKSo, you know, the -- I think if you said five years ago that 5 MB per second was, you know, outrageous, look at what, you know, look at where we are now. I think this is just Moore's law in effect. So, you know, I actually think that even with the high-speed connections that we have now wirelessly, as many people know, CLEAR is now available with WiMAX technology all across D.C. Even that is going to prove to be too limiting in the relatively near future. The only thing that we have today technology-wise that really is (word?) is five. And I would love to see a gigabit fiber connection in every home and business across the District of Columbia.
GREELEYAnd that's hard to do. I know that Verizon has thus far avoided laying fiber in the city, and that's a very important issue because in America, we, for the most part, rely on corporations to provide us with our broadband access. And if a corporation decides it's not interested in this market, then we have a problem with fiber.
SIVAKYeah, so Verizon is actually laying FIOS here in D.C.
GREELEYIt is now.
SIVAKYeah, they've started rolling it out. I believe they started at the end of last year.
SIVAKAnd they have, according to the conversations I've had with them, a five year plan to kind of cover the city. But, you know, and this is in discussions that I'll have with them, I mean, they have to be economically incented to actually, to put fiber everywhere.
SIVAKAnd when you think about -- you know, you touched briefly before on the adoption issues. D.C. has some very interesting statistics around adoption. In the northwest parts of the city, you know, the sort of better offer is we have adoption rates of well over 90 percent of high-speed broadband. South and east of the river though, we're seeing adoption rates of 36 to 40 percent. And it's that gap that causes such a huge problem. This is the digital divide and very specifically laid out.
GREELEYAnd it's not an accident that that digital divide breaks down right along very clear, well-known, socioeconomic lines. This is true all over America as well.
SIVAKAbsolutely, absolutely. And this is one of the things in my agency. It's one of our big mission statements, is to bridge this digital divide. And I'm almost evangelical in the belief that if we can bridge this digital divide in D.C., we will fundamentally change the fabric of society here. It's really access to information that changes, you know, how people do things and can really help us achieve a lot of our national priorities on a much more defined and local scale.
GREELEYI would agree, but what's the structure for actually making sure that happens?
SIVAKIt's a great question. We are in the process right now of putting together the District's first digital divide strategy document, which we're hoping to release before the end of September. What this is going to do is lay out sort of a multi-year strategy for us to address, really the three main pillars of broadband -- or of the digital divide that we sort of touched on before. So one is actual infrastructure and access to high-speed broadband, number two is education. You know, what can I do with this thing? How is it useful for me?
SIVAKAnd then number three is actually equipment. You know, how can we...
SIVAK...get computers and smart phones and things like that into the hands of people that need it the most? How we do that is a phenomenal question, and this is something that we're really looking hard at right now.
GREELEYLet's stick with step one, which is just the access...
GREELEY...just, you know -- regardless of education and regardless of the cost of computers, which are not insignificant -- both of those are very real hurdles. What is the plan to somehow make sure that there is fiber optic cable or some sort of affordable broadband in all areas of the city?
SIVAKSo something that not too many people know about is that the district government owns and operates a fiber network here in the city. We have about 309 miles of underground and aerial fiber that currently connects government buildings, schools, police stations, fire stations, libraries, community centers, et cetera.
GREELEYAnd again, just to clarify, fiber is incredibly fast internet access.
SIVAKSo the initial goal of that is to sort of create a government network that we could manage, especially in times of crisis. And I -- and this really was born out of the events of 9/11. When the networks just basically completely went down, we were at the mercy of the commercial carriers, et cetera. Now what we have is one of the most advanced networks I've ever seen. And this is an amazing asset for the district government if we choose to use it to provide infrastructure to individuals and businesses within the city.
SIVAKNow, that's tricky because we have private sector companies that also are operating in that arena. We really don't want to step on their toes. I mean, they're, you know, they're in business. We want them to remain in business. They're doing good things. So we want that to keep happening. So we're looking at ways of partnering with these guys in order to make that happen in an interesting fashion. Now, one of the things that we've recently accomplished, and this is -- I can't stress enough how amazing this is. We've recently won $17.4 million from the federal government as part of the stimulus program.
GREELEYYou might be able to read it on recovery.org -- .gov.
SIVAKI actually will. But we've won this money to actually build what we're calling a public access ring of fiber...
SIVAK...around the cities, initially focusing on wards 5, 7 and 8 -- and this is a little bit technical -- but basically what this is going to allow us to do is to build this infrastructure that literally anyone can connect to, right? So, for example, let's say today Verizon offers their internet package for a certain price. I'm just going to make something above -- top of my head. Let's say it's $30 a month, right?
GREELEYOh, it's so much more than that. I'd pay for it. But, please, continue.
SIVAKI'm just -- I'm making up numbers. But what we are hopefully going to be able to do by building this public access infrastructure is provide the sort of backbone or backhaul to Verizon or to any other player out there at a wholesale cost, a much, much lower cost.
GREELEYSo again we're getting, technically, in the weeds, but I think what you're saying is very interesting. Just to clarify, backhaul is high-speed access to the rest of the network of the internet. So you have access to backhaul, which then sends you out to reading websites, Russia, or whatever it is you want to do on the web -- on the Internet.
SIVAKThat's right. And what we're basically doing is creating what they call middle mile infrastructure. Just to define that, basically the middle mile infrastructure is what connects the internet in general to what is called the last mile...
SIVAK...which connects middle mile to actual houses, businesses, that kind of thing.
SIVAKSo what we're really talking about here is building, with this grant money, middle mile infrastructure that anybody can connect to. This prevents the TELCOs, and actually anybody who wants to start something up, from paying for that infrastructure cost. And all they really have to worry about is that last mile piece of connection.
GREELEYHow is that cooperation going to work? Because, so far, these kinds of backbone projects have been tried in a number of different states, and it's proven very difficult to get the incumbent telecoms to cooperate with municipal backbone. They see it as competition. So I'm wondering what you say that you're looking for a partnership with the private companies and if you can figure out how that works, good on you. How do you actually get companies to cooperate with municipal backhaul?
SIVAKSo several ways, if you look at the broadband providers that exist out there today that are wireless broadband -- so, you know, you've got Sprint and you've got T-Mobile and those guys -- they currently pay private sector companies for backhaul from their radio towers. That's very expensive for them. If we can provide it much, much cheaper, what they can then do is turn around and provide a much less expensive service to the people out there that need it, right? So they're definitely interested in doing this.
SIVAKI think -- and this is a personal belief -- but I actually think that what we'll see in the future is a lot of these TELCOs shift away from being infrastructure players and more to being service providers, content providers, things like that. The government has absolutely no interest in providing content, right, and providing value-added services over the infrastructure, other than the things that the government actually does. I want to make it really easy for you to visit the DMV online, but I'm not going to provide you television, right? But what we could do is provide that infrastructure that would allow a content provider such as AT&T or Verizon or Comcast or whoever actually put value-added information over that pipe and get something interesting, new, competitive differentiated to the consumer at the end of the day.
GREELEYThis is a really tricky negotiation with existing telecoms. And if you can figure it out, like I said, good on you, because it's stymied governments in the past. We're going to take a call from Jennifer in Bethesda. Jennifer, you're on the air.
JENNIFERHi. Thanks for taking my call. So I am a citizen of the District of Columbia. And it seems to me that there is a simple answer to the digital divide issue that would benefit everybody, which is just to provide, like, free Wi-Fi, provided by the city, which I know some cities like Culver City are doing. And it seems to me that it's not really the government's job to protect the interest of businesses like Comcast. I mean, I personally, you know, don't really care if we put them out of business, like, I just don't really think that's the government's concern. So I'll take my answer off the air. Thanks.
GREELEYThank you, Jennifer.
SIVAKSo I won't address the last part because that's a very tricky issue although, you know, I think that, you know, we have to work together with the private sector. There's no question about that. But I do want to talk about free Wi-Fi because we are doing a lot of interesting stuff around that here in the District. So currently every spot that our fiber touches -- this is network that we built -- is actually a public Wi-Fi hotspot with the SSID. The ID that you would connect to is either D.C. Free Wi-Fi or D.C. Wi-Fi. We also have several outdoor Wi-Fi hotspots in sort of public areas. Eastern Market is one of them. If you've ever been to Eastern Market and fire up an iPhone or BlackBerry, something like that, you'll see D.C. Free Wi-Fi, and that's provided by the District of Columbia.
SIVAKThis is something that we're looking at ways to expand, you know, in public places. Actually, one thing that we haven't really talked too much about yet -- we're waiting to sort of launch this in a big scale -- but I'll talk about it here for the first public appearance of it. We have actually, through partnerships with a number of different federal institutions, actually lit up the National Mall with Wi-Fi, and people have been using it now for a couple of months. It's very quietly launched, but I'm -- you know, this to me is a huge thing, right. The nation's premier green spaces, you know, now Wi-Fi enabled thanks to the District government. And, you know, people have been using it pretty significantly since we launched it. So you heard it here first, but it's something that we have, you know -- it took us a while to, you know, get the negotiations all right with the federal institutions. But it exists now, and this is just, you know, another example of how we can put this out there and make some of these things happen.
GREELEYYou heard it here first. Why play Frisbee on the National Mall when you can pull out an iPhone and wirelessly stream "The Kojo Nnamdi Show?" This is "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Brendan Greeley from The Economist, sitting in for Kojo. I wonder about the issue in D.C. of anchor institutions. You have -- part of D.C.'s plan for access is to improve the speed of internet connections at libraries and schools.
GREELEYAnd anchor institutions all over America are very stressed right now by internet access. And it seems like the problem is more complicated than just providing what technologists call a FatPipe -- a real good point of access to the internet. At a library, you have to train librarians to train people to use computers. You have to buy and maintain computers. And something that librarians are complaining about all over America is the fact that they're -- what was the library is now becoming a public computer access point, and people who used to be librarians are becoming IT technicians. And I don't want to say anything bad about IT technicians, but that's probably not what people want the library science school to do. So how do you make sure, as you expand access to anchor institutions, that they're also prepared?
SIVAKWell, you know, I think if you talk to the director of the D.C. Public Library, she would -- Ginnie Cooper, a phenomenal woman -- but if you talk to her about this issue in particular, I think you'd actually hear from her that librarians need to change with the times, just like any other institution or organization. And in D.C. in particular, especially with the digital divide issues that we have here, libraries are a huge cornerstone in our ability to access this information.
SIVAKSo, you know, through federal grants, we've been able to actually provide more and more computers in public areas. We've been able to train people. We've been able to put them through classes which -- and this is one of my favorite ones, we put them -- we put people who -- we allow people who are economically disadvantaged to apply for a program where they're able to take a six-month class to learn how to use computers and the internet. At the end of that class, when they graduate, we will give them a free computer and free six months of broadband access. So, you know, we're actually working on ways to achieve this stuff in a very, very interesting fashion.
GREELEYFree computers, Wi-Fi on the Mall, better snowplows -- this is what technology is bringing to you, Washington, D.C., through the office of the chief technology officer headed by Bryan Sivak, who's here in the studio with us. Thank you, Bryan.
GREELEYI'm Brendan Greeley, sitting in for Kojo in "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." It's WAMU 88.5. Thanks for listening.
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