What comes next for technology in Honolulu city government?
That was the main question I hoped to get answered when I sat down with Forest Frizzell, deputy director of the Department of Information Technology, at his Fasi Municipal Building office.
A lead technologist with the public service nonprofit Code For America talked glowingly of Frizzell’s leadership as Honolulu moves toward “Gov 2.0.” My interview with Frizzell came days before three Code For America fellows finished their five-week residences on Oahu.
They’re now back in San Francisco, working with colleagues from around the country to devise solutions to the tech problems vexing municipal governments.
Frizzell, who was instrumental in bringing the fellows to Honolulu and worked closely with them while they were here, said he’s looking for an increase in public engagement. When I walked in, he handed me a list of accomplishments and meetings, and a list of short-term goals and big-picture dream projects. He talked about how government can be a conduit for public service, and how technology can make it easier for citizens to protect and take pride in their neighborhoods.
“Government can’t fix everything for everybody. We just can’t. It’s not that big. We have so many restrictions, there’s just so many things that make it very difficult,” he told me. “Let’s figure out how we build our communities again to start helping each other out when we can.”
Here’s a transcript of the 30-minute interview. It’s been lightly edited for clarity but is otherwise verbatim.
Civil Beat: Is there something on this that you’re really excited about, that you’ve been hoping to do for a while? How does this fit in with Code For America?
Forest Frizzell: If you see down here, on the bottom part, the third one, which is “liberate data.” This is obviously what we’ve been trying to do for a while. Trying to find out what data do we have that’s good, that’s useable, and what do people actually want to see. Things like bike lanes, bike racks, park facilities, events, traffic incidents. We’re looking at that. But where we’re running into problems is it’s easier to put the data out there, it’s harder to build the API, and it doesn’t really help any developers if we don’t have a standard API that they can develop around. So if somebody wanted to build their own app of all the bike racks, it would be a lot easier if it there was a standard API versus if we just put an XLS or CSV file or something like that. That’s what we’re working on.
CB: I’m trying to figure out who’s responsible for what. There may be a developer out there who wants to do something with it. It’s not on them to come up with an API?
FF: It’s on us. Mick, who’s one of our Code For America team, he’s got a lot of experience in writing APIs, so we’re hoping to leverage that to get some of this stuff out. We’ve put all of our financial data up on the Can-Do site
. That’s really cool, but that’s obviously just the first step. We would like to be able to do some things, to make some dashboarding out of it, make it a little easier for people to consume. Because I think the population that can actually understand what all that means is probably a lot smaller. So it’s a first step, but it’s like how do we now make it more user-friendly and allow people to really understand where their money is going?
CB: That’s something that you think is doable in a short-term kind of time frame?
FF: Short, yeah, I think so. We just have to figure out what’s going to be our mechanism for getting that API out there. And that’s the thing we’ve been struggling with for a while. Because we’ve been trying to do this. It’s just hard. Writing an API is really, really difficult. Now there’s some sites out there, like Software as a Service. I know that’s kind of what the state’s looking at doing, so we could maybe go down that road.
CB: When I’m writing, I know what I’m understanding as I write it, and then there’s also what people understand it when they read it. And sometimes there’s a gap between those. So when building APIs or otherwise trying to free up some data, how important is the developer community or the tech community in shaping what you guys do? The goal here is to make it usable for them, so are you getting a lot of feedback?
FF: Definitely that’s what we’ve been trying to find out, is where’s people’s pain points. A lot of it came to finding information on the Web, our website admittedly is not that gerat. The information’s there. It’s really difficult to find it. So if we can maybe grab some of that data and make an API out of it, and let developers create something that they think is more user-friendly, that’s kind of the idea. I have actually a really great example. So we held our Hackathon. Two of the teams that entered the Hackathon used Oahu Transit Services’ real-time transit API. Now their production, they’re ready to go. In fact, one of them is an iPhone app. It’s on the App store right now. It just went up five days ago. It’s called DaBus — D A B U S. It’s really, really cool. Using the GPS in your iPhone, it shows you where all the bus stops are around where you’re at. It shows you the route number, and you can drill down and see where does that bus go? Pretty neat. It also gives an estimate on when the bus arrives.
CB: Now is that based on the schedule or based on where the bus actually is?
FF: It’s both. It’s taking the static schedule and taking where the bus actually is. It’s accurate, at best, about seven minutes right now. We’re working with Google because they have a standard real-time transit API. So we’re able to match Google up with OTS, and they’re working to work with Google and make that standard.
CB: I know on the iPhone, if you get driving directions, it takes into account traffic. And there’s got to be some kind of …
FF: I don’t know how they’re doing that. I don’t know. That’s kind of what’s happening with this. There’s another, a Web app in the phone that has Web, you can pull it up, and that’s www.allb.us, so All Bus. And that one is pretty neat. It does the same thing. Every bus stop has a number, unless someone’s vandalized it, but it should have a number, and you can plug in that bus stop number, and it’ll pop up what routes are on it. And you can do the same thing, you can drill down and see where it goes. It’s really, really cool stuff. So that happened by the developer community. They have this sense of usability and design, and so they’re just taking this city data and they’ve created something with it. So that’s what we want to try to do with some of this data. And that’s why we’ve been out trying to ask people what would they like to see? What would help them? It’s a process, for sure, because the thing is it’s hard for us to guess. We don’t really know. It really is hard for us to try and figure out, well, what do people want to see.
CB: Has the 311 app been used?
FF: It’s being used, and unfortunately, and I’m kinda bummed out about it, it’s been abused. Our No. 1 complaint on the 311 site right now is abandoned vehicles, so I did a follow-up meeting with the staff that handled that. They’ve been out, busting their butts going out and checking out on all these vehicles that have been coming through the 311 site. Almost all of them are current, the safety check’s current, it’s in a legal parking spot. They think it’s parking disputes. We’re in a very congested city, and they’re using this app for that. So, it’s kind of frustrating, because it’s very difficult to get a government to release stuff like this. It’s out there, and people aren’t using it responsibly. So I think what I would like to try to do is some PSAs or something to get people to understand how to use it more responsibly. But, people on the other hand have been good with the street lights. We added a thing on there that said when you submit a street light, include the number, because every street light pole also has a number. People have started to do that, so now when it comes in, it’s much easier for the crews to go out and figure out which one it is. So it’s definitely being used. I think once Code For America goes back and I recapture a little bit of my time, I’m going to go through and see if there’s a few more report types we can add, just to keep that moving and see what the agencies would like to see.
CB: What could this mean? I think the bus stuff is cool, and I know I’ve heard discussion about a safe bike route. I’m wondering, this park app and the Honolulu portal, I’m curious what those could be.
FF: The park app, I think, could be really neat. We actually have a great park system in Hawaii. We have a ton of parks. They are doing a lot of events and classes and all kinds of stuff going on. And I think a lot of people don’t know about them. So, right now, the way that they do it is very static. They’ll print out their agendas, and it goes up on a bulletin board, and I think it’s great for the people who already know, that are using the park, but there’s a whole list of people who maybe don’t know all these great things that are going on. Like the zoo has those concerts, and the botanical gardens have these free concerts in the summer. They’re amazing! Go and take your family to this free concert, Hawaiian music, you’re not sitting in traffic. We want to get more people involved and engaged in that. If we can figure out a way to do a push mechanism or make it easier for people to come to some kind of mobile or Web app, and kind of find this stuff out, that’s really neat. But the other thing that I would like to do is to raise awareness for the parks, and see if we can get people to be a little bit more involved in helping us keep the park usable for everybody. There was an article yesterday about the comfort stations, and this is something that we’re battling every single week. People will go in and steal the couplings, the plumbing. It happens all the time. At any time, we have a number of comfort stations that aren’t usable because people have gone in and stolen the stuff. It’s terrible. So the 1 percent of the people are ruining it for the 99 percent. We have budget issues, we’re understaffed, we have all these things already stacked against us. Now we have to go out and try to figure out how to keep up with bad guys stealing things out of a park bathroom. It is terrible. Maybe if we can get people a little more tuned in to their neighborhood park, they can help us kind of keep an eye on things, and take a little bit more of a leadership role in their community. For me, that’s where all this drives. If we can get people more involved in their community, more engaged in their park system, more thoughtful of this art that we have and all these kind of things. More engagement, more engagement, more engagement. Let’s take some pride. … There’s a plaything there (at Old Stadium Park). Well, some people decided to ride their skateboards down the slide and broke the slide. $10,000 just for the slide, not counting the labor. Ten grand. And you’ve got to fly it in from the mainland. There’s all these things. People with families are upset. Fix the park. Ten grand doesn’t seem like a lot of money, but it is. It starts to add up as people are abusing these things. Maybe if we could get folks a little bit more tuned in.
CB: Aside from the hurdles with the data and the API and things like that, in an ideal world where the technology did what you wanted it to do, what could technology do to prevent people from riding a skateboard down the slide or stealing stuff out of the park bathroom? How do you use technology to get people engaged?
FF: It makes it easier. In Hawaii, we have a pretty high adoption of cell phone use and smart phone use. We’re well above the national average. Almost everybody you know probably has a Facebook account or a Twitter account, and they’re probably checking into it at least once a day. Maybe even more. So if it’s that easy to check into Facebook, could it be that easy to check into your park? If you’re going to walk your dog, maybe you’re just going to pay closer attention to that park, knowing that you’ve adopted it. I’ve adopted this thing, I’ve adopted this comfort station because I use this park on a regular basis and I want to make sure it’s open for everybody. Do I see people milling around? Or have I noticed an uptick in graffiti? Then maybe, let’s pay a little closer attention. Now, a lot of this stuff happens at two in the morning, three in the morning, when a lot of us are sleeping. But I also had this thought, that maybe people who are restaurant workers or work a swing shift or a night shift, who come home at different times. Maybe in their consciousness, “I’m going to come home, maybe I can do a drive around my park, and just keep an eye out, and if I see some kind of suspicious activity, I can call. Just more aware of what’s happening around in my community.” Just this bigger picture of my little nuclear existence, but I actually have this whole community around me. I have parks and I have schools and I have all these things that are happening, that affects everybody, not just me. I think that can happen with technology because you can make it easier. Another thing that we’re looking at is Adopt a Tsunami Siren. Not everyone is going to be home near their siren at 11:45 when they test it, but maybe they are home. It’s just this consciousness of the siren’s in this area, we are having people vandalizing the sirens. Why would you vandalize a tsunami siren? But it happens. … It’s awful. As a society, is that where we’ve gotten to? I think that it’s the equalizer. If you think about the neighborhood watch system, the way that it’s set up now, it’s very old school. You get on a phone, you call somebody, you kind of come up with this time when you’re all going to hui up and walk around your neighborhood. Well, nobody has time for that. Everyone’s busy. They’re working two jobs. But what if you could do that through technology. What if you had a portal where you could say, “Alright, I’m available at this time, let’s meet up.” You take out that whole other step of having to dial and get a voicemail and do all these kinds of things. Then you could reach out to those people that work the swing shift, that are restaurant workers, that work a nigh shift and come home at different times. It would be so much easier that way to find someone in your neighborhood that has that off schedule. If you’re going to go for your jog or your walk anyway, well go do it with this thought of, “I’m going to keep an eye on this. This is my neighborhood. I have pride in my neighborhood.” It’s pie-in-the-sky, but I think as a society we have to start thinking about these things. People are really disenfranchised not only with government, I think it’s with everything they see on TV. “My voice doesn’t count.” In Hawaii, we have the worst voter turnout in the country. “It doesn’t matter what I think, it doesn’t matter what I say, I am just going to do my own thing and worry about myself.” We’ve got to figure out how to change that.
CB: One of the things when I spoke with Jen Pahlka from Code For America, she talked about how you brought up this Adopt a Hydrant, and repurposing it for tsunami sirens and I guess keeping an eye on if they have batteries and if they’re working. Is there a gamified component to it? Like you’re the mayor of your hydrant?
FF:* I think how it works with Adopt a Hydrant, you name the hydrant, and then if you’ve cleaned it, then you do a check-in, and so long as you’ve done the check-ins, your name for the hydrant stays. It’s just something silly like that. Obviously the sirens are fenced off. I guess maybe if you just said, “Yeah, I looked at it. I walked by. I did a visual inspection.” So there is that talk of how do you game-ify this stuff and make it fun. We’ve been throwing around ideas on how to do that as well. We haven’t come up with anything yet, but I think you’re right. You’ve nailed it. How do you make it, like a Foursquare checkin, I’m the mayor and sometimes there’s these specials and stuff like that. Definitely, that’s kind of the next step of all this.
CB: It’s interesting that government is taking this kind of role, because the stuff you’re talking about isn’t always a government function. If we’re talking about having people engaged in their community, this could be a civic club or a neighborhood group, but it’s not always government. So I’m wondering why it’s important that government be involved in this kind of community organizing effort?
FF: The way that I like to think of it is we actually have this captive audience. People do pay attention to what government is doing. We’re this huge entity, whereas maybe the small civic group, they try and launch something like this, who are those guys? I don’t know who they are. But everyone knows who the City and County of Honolulu is. Like us or not, everybody knows who we are. So I think it’s much easier to get that captive audience. For the longest time, government was always, in my opinion, has always been “I kind of want to hide the ball, and I kind of want to stay behind the scenes,” but that doesn’t make sense. If you want to effect change, this is the way to do it. Everybody has to come through here. While maybe on one hand, you don’t agree with what we’re doing or you’re upset because it takes a long time to get a permit, and on the other hand, while you’re waiting in line to get that permit, hey there’s free Wi-fi downstairs and maybe we’ve turned you on to using Nixle, and now you’ve got these alerts and you learn about TheBus app, and you’re like, “Hey, actually I could take TheBus down here, I don’t have to drive.” That’s why I think it’s great. It’s a lot easier to get people to pay attention to you when you’re the government.
CB: The (Code For America) fellows are wrapping up here. So they’re going to go back and they’re going to work on some of these solutions and huddle with their colleagues. What’s a measure of success? If I come back to you in three months or six months or a year and say “OK, how did it go, in hindsight?” There was obviously a cost associated with it, so was it worth that investment? Did we see improvement or change or at least a shift in mindset? How do you measure success for something like this?
FF: For me, if we can come away with something that’s usable, and we can solve some kind of community problem. We might not do this park thing, because it might not work out, but if it is this park thing, and people start using the park more, and using the services and attending the classes, then that would be successful to me. Or if we launched the Art app, and people are out and they use it, and they take their families and they go on a walk and check out all the different art, because there’s some pretty neat stuff. If slowly we can get people to be a little bit more engaged in what’s going on, that would be success for me.
CB: Are there things that you think are important? From the government’s perspective, from your perpective, are there things people should understand about the Code For America process or just technology in a broader sense?
FF: I would just like to press upon them that it’s not every day that you have a government that’s willing to take these steps and really reach out to the public and really try to work with them, with seeing where their pain points are and what they would like to see improved. I feel like I work really hard trying to take advantage of the time that I have being here in my position. I feel so blessed to be in this position, and I really want to leave this place better than I found it. Because I’m not going to be here forever, I’m just a temp, and I’ll be out on the street at some point. But the time was really right, with the work that (Department of Information Technology Director) Gordon (Bruce) had done to fix IT in government. It was just kind of this perfect storm. He was finished with that, and then I came in, and we have this great system underneath us. Now let’s figure out how do we share this with the rest of our state, or I guess our county. Things like the Unconferenz and CityCamp and these types of things, I would wish that people would be a little more involved because we are listening. It’s funny because we were talking about it after CityCamp. There’s 950,000 people in the county of Honolulu. A hundred and fifty people showed up for CityCamp. Same thing with Unconferenz. There was about a hundred people at Unconferenz. It would be perfect if 100,000 people showed up and wanted to talk about this thing, either physically or virtually. How do we get people motivated, outside of the 150 that show up for these things, because if you look at the faces at Unconferenz and the faces at CityCamp, lots of similar faces. How do we energize to want to be part of this? This is what I try to get across: Government can’t fix everything for everybody. We just can’t. It’s not that big. We have so many restrictions, there’s just so many things that make it very difficult. Let’s figure out how we build our communities again to start helping each other out when we can. Maybe instead of trying to wait for city government to try to fix something, maybe you can work with your neighbor to fix it together. That’s how it used to be. It used to be like that, with our parents. Over so many odd years, we’ve kind of become the society where we like to complain a lot, but we don’t like to do anything, we don’t like to get off our couch. But it’s not that difficult. And actually, once you get off the couch, it’s pretty fun. It’s fun to be a part of this. I had a great time at Unconferenz. I had a great time at CityCamp. I hate to sound so preachy, but that’s where I’d like this kind of movement to go, and I think you’re seeing that in some of the more progressive cities.