Ellen Perlman was a GOVERNING staff writer and technology columnist.E-mail: email@example.com
How to assemble real ideas in a virtual world
The Web site names swirl around like sand in the Sahara: Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Second Life, Flickr, Wikipedia. Most of us know a little bit about one or two of them; some of us know a lot about -- and even have a password to -- all of them. What they have in common is that they're part of Web 2.0 -- the new generation of Internet applications. And they all are tied into sociability -- the meeting and greeting of people and the sharing and spreading of information. They offer anyone with the fortitude to log on to them entry into a unique and very different world of communication, one that can be literal, figurative and virtual at the same time.
What's that got to do with state and local governments and how managers and employees work together? Plenty. People who learn how to harness wikis and other new tools to the benefit of government, notes Mark Forman, a partner and IT adviser at KPMG, "will be hailed as the next great visionaries." His underlying point: Governments can either play an active role in transforming themselves or wait and let change hit them. Either way, it's coming.
A recent report by Forrester Research made similar predictions for the technology behind three-dimensional Internet tools. Virtual worlds such as Second Life and There.com are becoming valuable work tools for both public- and private-sector organizations. But of all the Web 2.0 innovations, it is wikis that promise to have the most dramatic effect on government.
The wiki world is all about making government more effective by enlarging the idea bank and making it possible to tap into the minds of those all along the job line -- from workers in the field to middle managers to top brass. It's like the old Suggestion Box, only more specific, immediate and rewarding. And more challenging. The adjustments needed in terms of mindset and operations can be huge, even for the chief information officers of government agencies. They have to master the new tools, then persuade their agencies to experiment with the technologies, and then support them as they do.
Many CIOs are uncomfortable with these social networking tools and don't see how they apply to the internal workings of government. That's not surprising. Wiki-enhanced government is in its early stages. The early adapters are just beginning to showcase the possibilities.
The Basic Tool Kit
The wiki world, in this context, refers not to one Web site or program but to the technologies and attitudes that allow mass collaboration, whether that group effort happens through wikis, blogs, listservs, social networks or the avatars of Second Life. Some of the better-known social networking and participatory sites invite people with knowledge and information to share what they know, via a Web site.
The programs do not sit on a government computer. They are in the ether and accessible from wherever an employee happens to be. The technologies, processes and culture are developed by a community of employees who are focused on a particular project or service -- and that community can change and evolve over time. The core of the Internet was developed through this sort of collaboration, through self-organization and participation by interested parties who chose to be involved.
While teenagers and twenty-somethings may lay claim to many of these sites and use them in their daily lives, they nonetheless are tools that can be adapted for use by governments. Just like a text-messaging teenager, states and localities -- and the people who work for them -- have a need to share information and hear from colleagues.
Government managers talk about teamwork, collaboration and sharing ideas. Most of the time, that means setting up in-person meetings or sending around e-mails. Web 2.0 changes all that. Setting up a Facebook page may not be the right electronic venue for a state or local government to communicate within its ranks or with the public -- would you "friend" an irate taxpayer? -- but other tools are proving to be valuable for getting government managers, employees and vendors to work together online and within the immediacy of real time. And this can be done with a healthy degree of privacy. The sites can be closed to outsiders; departments can give project access to specific individuals through invitations and passwords.
These sites are not just a means of taking usual routines -- in-person meetings, conferences, briefings -- and turning them into electronic equivalents. What marks Web 2.0 and makes it potentially transformative is that the tools pull the legs out from under the typical management structure, practically flattening it. A wiki is a collaboratively edited Web page that allows users to edit or add content. Within a government agency, it can be used to allow information to bubble up from all corners, and from people who might never have been invited to attend a meeting but who might have ideas about how to proceed or where to exercise caution -- whether it's on a construction project, the delivery of a service or a means of raising revenue.
Similarly, with a computer-based simulated environment such as Second Life, employees involved in a project or service can move through a virtual model of reality and communicate with each other. Second Life and other virtual worlds also hold possibility as an alternative to conference calls: They create a more immersive, interactive experience. "For people who are geographically distributed," says Erika Driver, a principal analyst at Forrester Research, "virtual worlds give them the potential to feel like they're together." Avatars can sit around a virtual conference table while talking and gesticulating, watching presentations such as videos, and collaborating on documents. And, because attendance is virtual and from the comfort of a visitor's own computer, the virtual conference dramatically reduces travel costs. Experts predict that meetings in virtual worlds will be to today's phone and Web conferences what a sleek 24-speed racing bike is to a one-speed, banana-seat model.
Virtual worlds also provide a comparatively inexpensive and safe way to hold training exercises, especially for first responders. Police officers, medics, fire fighters and other emergency personnel can use them to practice on complex equipment or in hazardous environments. Virtual worlds already have been set up and used for emergency preparedness in the I-95 corridor in the Boston area.
Some obstacles still exist to widespread use of virtual worlds. The technology works best on computers that are faster and more powerful than the usual government model.
That said, a Second Life "island" or a wiki that is customized for use by a government agency can provide instantaneous information, and can speed up an agency's ability to advance projects. It's a little like trying to solve the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle. The clues demand a diversity of knowledge. If that puzzle were online and open to 30 people with different types of expertise -- people who could simultaneously fill in the squares on their individual computers from wherever they are -- the puzzle would be solved in minutes rather than hours or days.
Information technology departments that shut their eyes to the potential of the new collaboration tools could lose ground. These tools may seem foreign or scary to long-time and older employees -- and to those who are not technologically savvy. And the tools are likely to cause discomfort as they are deployed. But departments that have tapped into the wiki world are finding that the sharing capabilities enhance the way governments get their business done and are well worth the effort it takes to introduce people to them.
The Google Gap
"The future is here," says science fiction writer William Gibson. "It's just not evenly distributed yet." That's a line to which Jack Pond, chief information officer in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, can bear witness. He has experienced first hand the disconnect many people have with Web 2.0 tools. On the one hand, he says, managers of government agencies are familiar with Google, Yahoo and Wikipedia and may even use them. But take the concepts behind these leading-edge products and suggest they be applied to a program at, say, the Department of Motor Vehicles, and the response from agency managers is less than positive. "You're treated," Pond says, "like a Martian."
It takes a certain mindset to be a first adapter of the Web 2.0 tools. Governments that have begun working in the wiki world tend to have IT officials or employees who see value in collaborative technologies. The culture where they work is one where there's an eagerness to learn how new technologies can increase the agency's efficiency and responsiveness.
Even if they have not read "Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything," by Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams, they understand the "powerful" new model the book describes. It is one that is "based on community, collaboration and self-organization rather than on hierarchy and control." The authors talk about employees who are "trapped deep within organizational bureaucracies where the boss told them what to do." Their input and insights are rarely sought.
What the wiki way does is give those buried employees seats at the virtual table. It opens the discussion to those willing to contribute. Good ideas can come from anyone within the organization. The low-level person in administrative services might never be asked to attend a project meeting. But if given access to a sharing Web site, he or she has a way to contribute to the conversation -- and possibly the outcome of a project.
Who knows the best way to arrive at answers to government problems? According to Isaac Asimov, the most exciting phrase in science is not Eureka -- as in "I've found the answer" -- but "That's funny...," as in, there are some interesting possiblities here. And when someone scrawls "that's funny," on a wiki page, it could easily lead to, "You know, I was thinking the same thing" from someone else. At which point two or more minds are looking into why it's funny and where that leads.
Simply put, wikis and other tools are a way to get to a solution with more brain power working on the case. But the wiki mindset can thrive only in an environment open to collaboration. Which is a potential obstacle. "If you have one person who does not want this to succeed," Pond says, "he can be an impediment."
A government has to be "culturally ready" to work in a wiki world. That was the case in Montgomery County. Technology people divided themselves into small groups and started exploring how to turn the Pennsylvania county's court records into an online system -- even before they had the technological tools to make it happen. In governments with a less adventurous mindset, shifting to such a method might call into question the whole structured approach of government business. Officials would tend to resist if the wiki culture threatened to unravel the network and power base they have spent years developing.
The sticking point for government is that in a true wiki world, traditional management is turned upside down. When everything is funneled through a project manager, as is typical, people don't have an opportunity to self-select what aspect of the project they'd like to work on. They are assigned tasks. But people handed a responsibility -- especially if it's something they don't particularly understand or like -- often don't do it well. Government officials who accept that self-selection is a benefit, may turn to Web 2.0 tools to give their departments an edge.
It's not just a feel-good concept. It has implications for the future work force. Young workers, who have grown up with the Internet, are entering the government ranks. They're used to peer-to-peer communication, up-to-the-minute information online and the immediacy of mobile text messaging. They are hooked on social networking sites, such as Facebook and MySpace. They will be looking for a similar experience in the workplace.
The driving force behind these new tools is that information can come from anywhere and help everyone. It may not be precise. It may not be something a manager can plan for. But it happens. And that's the potential and promise of the wiki world.
A Pennsylvania county puts its IT projects to the wiki test.
"The whole Wikipedia-Google generation is coming past us like gangbusters," says Jack Pond, the chief information officer for Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. His aim is to keep up -- to adapt his county and its agencies to new Web technologies. So far, that's meant an online system where employees can share ideas and thoughts on IT projects while they're being built. But the system -- a wiki-based approach -- is not just for the IT staff. It's also for employees throughout the enterprise who will use the new technology in their jobs and for the vendors who are developing it and will tinker with it once it's in place.
The desire to collaborate with all stakeholders started four years ago, when Pond arrived on the job. He inherited four major projects, one of which was to implement an ERP system. Many a CIO and project manager have built ERP systems, turned them on and then cowered while complaints rained down on them.
To avoid the usual fallout, Pond tried what he calls the agile approach: The IT department delivered functionality one bit at a time. That gave users, IT employees and vendors a chance to work together to fix and improve things as each bit went into place. Bottom line: The ERP project came in under budget and in less than the allotted time.
Now Pond is moving his agile approach to the wiki world. It is currently being used to great effect as the region around Montgomery County develops its Law Enforcement Justice Information-Sharing System, or LEJIS. The idea behind LEJIS was to develop a home for court documents that would be accessible to various arms of the court system. In assembling LEJIS, the need for online collaboration was clear: Five county CIOs and multiple district attorney office IT directors are actively working on the project, and the vendor's personnel are stationed in offices that are spread out over five cities in three states. Moreover, district attorneys who will be using the new system work out of offices all across the state, and 24 police departments in various locations are expected to post incidents on it.
Although everyone was collaborating before a wiki was set up, the wiki made it easier for people to share what they knew and what they were experiencing. In its earliest incarnation, the wiki was for the technical team to communicate about requirements. Now, there are pages for other users, including a page for the police departments to give feedback.
Since most of the county's police officers weren't savvy about wikis when the program was set up, they were offered orientation and training. Still, they didn't head in droves to participate. To encourage their participation, Pond showed up at one of their meetings at the Norristown Fire Academy and projected on the wall a larger-than-life version of the wiki. He brought up a new entry that showed which police departments were live and connected to the incident-reporting system. That piqued the interest of officers who hadn't yet taken the time to explore the system. Now, they could see what their stake was in the new system and how the collaborative tool could help them keep up its progress.
Wiki collaboration doesn't necessarily end when a project is up and running. Users now have a place to share requests and complaints about how well a new IT system is working and what more they'd like out of it in the future. They do this via software called Bugzilla, a free "bug-tracking" system that allows people to track outstanding bugs they've discovered in a product.
Bugzilla can put vendors and users on the same electronic page. Montgomery County previously used a spreadsheet approach. People identified an issue and wrote a description of it. Next to that went the steps that had to be taken to cure the ill and the name of the person responsible for taking those steps. It was updated each week and discussed at a status meeting.
But waiting a week for a status meeting created a lag time between when the problem was discovered and when it was addressed. It could take days or weeks after finding it to fix the problem. In the wiki world, someone can enter a description of a problem and technicians can be assigned to fix it immediately.
At one point in the LEJIS project, a vendor complained to a police chief about feeling exposed because the system's problems were posted for all to see. The police chief responded that the best way not to have technical problems posted was to fix them right away. The wiki, says Pond, "became a leverage tool."
A California hospital taps Second Life for a fly-by tour of its building plan.
"Hello and welcome to the hospital of the future." That's the simple greeting a stylish avatar in thick, black-rimmed glasses and a chunky up-do offers at the beginning of a virtual tour of a facility. It may be a Second Life simulation -- and visitors may be able to fly through the air or high-jump over corridors during their virtual visit -- but it's a tour of a real hospital that's under construction and set to open in San Diego County in 2011. Here's something else that's real: The brick-and-mortar building is being built by Palomar Pomerado Health, California's largest public health district, and is being funded by the largest health care-related bond package in California's history.
Opening a virtual model within Second Life is a cutting-edge way to give the public a look at what $850 million will buy. But more important, hospital personnel who will work there have a chance to visit the space and figure out how it will work for them. Second Life provides a relatively easy and inexpensive way for employees to think through questions about workflow, equipment placement and other work-related elements.
While Palomar Pomerado Health is an early adopter of this virtual-reality technology as a management tool, the exercise may provide a glimpse of what's to come for state and local governments. One possibility is the way the tool enables innovation. "Organizations that want to transform themselves," says Orlando Portale, the chief innovation officer for Palomar Pomerado, "can use Second Life to visualize these new concepts."
Some of the cutting-edge medical technology the hospital may incorporate into the facility is on view for test runs. "They've thrown out all of the hospital designs of the past," says Mike Haymaker, who works for Cisco, the company that's partnering with Palomar Pomerado to produce the hospital's technology. "They're looking at IT and medical technology as a forethought, not as an afterthought."
Here's how it works: When visitors arrive at the site, the avatar who acts as hostess flashes on a screen in a driveway filled with swaying greenery. A voice-over gives an overview of the hospital's features. Meanwhile, high-definition images of the campus flash across the screen.
After a few instructions, the virtual visitor walks -- or flies -- to the entrance of the hospital, where, if the visitor is entering as a patient, he is given an RFID bracelet and informed that he will be having his gallbladder removed today. He then moves through the hospital and follows instructions for where to go and who to see in which room.
The exercise is a test run for RFID bracelets. In the real Palomar West, the plan is to use them to guide patients through the hospital. The patient would walk up to a blank screen and hear it say, "Hello, Mr. X, please turn left and follow the hall to room 328, where Dr. Y will prep you for your procedure."
There are other new technologies being explored. Doctors interact with patients through computer screens in their rooms. Advanced robotics simplify surgery. Meanwhile, the setting and decor are luxurious and comforting. "The first thing you notice," Portale says, "is that it really doesn't look like a traditional hospital -- it looks like a five-star hotel." The patient rooms, however, are "acuity-adaptable." That is, they are designed so that patients don't have to move when their condition changes. Instead of transferring a patient to intensive care, for instance, the hospital will be able to transform a patient's room into an intensive care unit.
The new building plan also does away with nursing stations. Nurses are distributed more evenly throughout the hospital so that they can be closer to patients' rooms.
Palomar Pomerado Health hopes to use the virtual hospital to gain a competitive advantage in the fierce fight for qualified nurses. In a very tight market for nurses, the new hospital has the ability to demonstrate its features to nurses around the country and get them excited and comfortable about the prospect of working in a state-of-the-art environment.
The hospital plans to use its Second Life model as a virtual career fair not just for nurses but also for others seeking employment. They can enter the site as an avatar, tour the facility and gather to ask questions of hospital representatives. "They'll be able to see all of the technologies that are going to make their lives a whole lot better," Portale says. "Everything that we're designing is to reduce stress on the patients and also the staff."
The virtual hospital is already taking on a life of its own. A few weeks ago, Portale stumbled upon a Second Life meeting of avatars in his virtual hospital. It was a group of Duke University nursing students' avatars. They had gathered there for a class discussion about the virtual-life experience.
A virtual model -- as opposed to the cardboard mock-up or architectural drawings most new projects provide -- is not without costs. Purchasing the space on Second Life cost the public health district a modest $1,695, but design costs tacked on an additional $135,000.
There's also the issue of user error. To avoid problems, virtual Palomar West made a couple of smart choices at the outset. First, it put up a YouTube video of the hospital that provides an easy way to see the hospital without logging in to Second Life -- so those who don't want to try it can still get a feel for the new hospital. The video already has been viewed 3,500 times. Second, the virtual hospital was designed with easy access for non-Second Life regulars in mind. The Web site, virtualpalomarwest.org, allows a visitor to download Second Life and be transported directly to the hospital. Then, basic navigational instructions are provided to launch visitors. While the initial experience can be frustrating, Generation Y has been taking to it quickly. "They just get into the hospital and start flying around," Portale says, "even if they've never used Second Life before."
In the Bay Area, wikis go live to tackle a transit problem.
It started out simply enough. Frustrated transit riders in the San Francisco Bay Area were chatting online about the mishmash of maps that delineate the various transportation systems in the region; about how difficult it is to switch from a transit system in one county to a connecting system in the next, because the schedules don't mesh or because it's hard to read two completely different types of schedules and make any sense of them.
The grumbling ricocheted around in the ether until someone had a bright idea: Why not put transit-agency staff and public officials, transit riders and business people, and technology experts in a room and let them hash out ideas for making these systems work better together? Transit people usually don't get to sit down with technology experts without paying for their services. This was their opportunity.
The opportunity was called Transit Camp -- a two-day conference, held in Palo Alto in February, to pull together ideas about how to fix what was broken in inter-county, inter-city transit. Transit enthusiasts got about 100 people from the public and private sectors to show up to brainstorm. The focus was on finding a user-friendly way for riders to navigate between and among two dozen transit systems.
In the wiki world, camps are the new style of conference. They are ad hoc and user-generated, put on by and for participants. There are no conference planners to put together an agenda of sessions. People interested in a particular issue -- alerted by e-mail or word of mouth -- just show up at the camp. On the fly, attendees discuss problems and demonstrate possible solutions. On a big board, people write down what they plan to talk about, and others sign up to listen.
Somehow, these free-form gatherings sort themselves out. It is the wiki culture gone live. Instead of a lot of people contributing individually to, say, a Facebook site, a crowd of interested people get together in person and contribute thoughts and ideas.
Chris Peeples, president of the board of directors of the Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District, says he was bowled over by the "total culture clash" at the Palo Alto camp. There were leaders from the traditional and conservative transit world hanging out with the sneaker-clad crowd of techies.
He also found it energizing. In one session, for instance, a presenter demonstrated how quickly a Web site on transit could be set up. Within minutes of creating the site, four people in the room logged on to their computers and sent comments to the site. It far exceeded, says Peeples, "the speed and responsiveness I'm used to in government."
The camp was a far cry from the usual public meeting where officials speak to and hear from constituents -- enduring slings, arrows and the airing of grievances. But in transit camp, no one is in charge of the meeting. Everyone's there to help find answers, not ask someone else to fix things. Transit camp was billed as a "solutions playground" and attendees were warned by a sign there, "If u have complaints, you need to provide solutions."
The first-ever transit camp was held in Toronto last year, followed by a second in Vancouver. Tara Hunt, the co-founder of Citizen Agency, learned of the Canadian camps and thought, "Wow, this is brilliant." She was intrigued by the idea of applying to government an agile, scrappy conference model that fast-moving technology organizations employ for their benefit.
The Palo Alto event was startling and refreshing to Terry Nagel, a city councilwoman in Burlingame. She was struck by the DIY -- do it yourself -- attitudes of everyone on the scene. The greatest value of transit camp for her was learning about a new model for solving community problems and getting grassroots input.
Yoriko Kishimoto, a Palo Alto councilwoman, also attended and was impressed by a group of attendees who were there with a mission: to get people out of their cars and onto bikes or buses. As she sees it, those are exactly the people who should be involved in transit. Only 3 percent of Santa Clara County residents use the transit system to commute. More, however, might hop on buses if they could know precisely when the bus was going to arrive, and how many minutes they have before racing to the next bus or train.
The solution to standardizing the system map proved elusive. Although computer "geeks" could create user-friendly formats for transit schedules, they would need transit schedule information. And therein lies the rub. Transit agencies are hesitant to release that information, fearing outsiders will do something "radical" with the data.
When Peeples came back from transit camp, he asked the Alameda-Contra Costa Transit staff to do a report on whether it's possible to push the schedule information safely outside the agency. The staff had several serious concerns. Still, Peeples wants to hear "formally and officially" from the chief technology officer whether the transit agency might take the necessary steps to make major schedule improvements available for the site the tech whizzes might create.
The report likely will take six weeks, and Peeples understands that public agencies have to think things through. "When you run 22-ton vehicles up and down streets every day," he says, "you want to be pretty careful how you do things."
But he's also hoping that what he learned at transit camp was not for naught and that those technology wizards working with the public sector can give the Bay Area's transit systems a rider-friendly boost.
A Michigan county uses a wiki to keep caseworkers up to date.
When Donna Sabourin looked at the results of an annual performance-review survey of mental health caseworkers in Washtenaw County, Michigan, she was shocked. The vast majority of her caseworkers -- Sabourin is head of the community mental health department for the county -- were telling her they didn't have the resources they needed to do their jobs. This, despite all the gear -- pagers, cell phones, laptops -- with which they were armed.
A workgroup was formed to figure out what the problems were and how they could be solved. At one of the first meetings, John Schippers, a caseworker supervisor with an interest in Web 2.0 technologies, took out his laptop and demonstrated a mock-up of a wiki. He showed the workgroup how a Washtenaw County Human Services wiki could be used to gather information -- find out what resources the mental health workers were missing and then put that information on the site.
Take the problem of forms. Caseworkers had to fill out a variety of them for various clients but it was almost impossible to find the form they needed. Usually, they had to search through a bin of more than 100 unalphabetized forms and hope that the one they needed was in stock and current. The wiki could not only gather information about the form problem, it also could be the solution. Since the county's mental health department put its wiki in place, the forms have been available electronically on the site. All a caseworker has to do is make a quick search within the wiki for the most recent version of the form. It will then pop up and be available for electronic fill-in.
Another issue the wiki is solving has to do with lists of outside resources -- where to get furniture for a homeless person's new apartment; where to get affordable eyeglasses for a legally blind person. "Every caseworker keeps their own mental lists of the issues that they've dealt with," Schippers says. "Some have really long lists because they've been around a long time." The Human Services wiki allows for the pooling of everyone's lists and a means to keep them up to date. The wiki lists replace the old resource guides that were issued fairly regularly by the department but which were out of date almost the day after they were printed. "With the wiki," says Steve Wiland, clinical practices administrator, "the end users have a vested interest to keep it up to date and accurate." In the past, the department had considered storing this type of information on a shared drive, but it didn't have the resources for a database manager. With the wiki, the whole department shares responsibility for managing the information.
New technologies are rarely greeted with the enthusiastic welcome the wiki has received in the Department of Community Mental Health. Newly minted wiki evangelists pass out key chains at meetings that say, "I Go Wacky for the Wiki." Some 90 people are using the wiki each day -- about one-third of the staff. "I'll add it to the wiki" has become a theme in staff meetings, with unforeseen uses being discovered every week. The department recently discovered, for example, that posting training materials in the wiki provides an easy way for newcomers as well as experienced people to brush up on techniques.
The trick for Washtenaw going forward will be to manage the wiki in the face of all its newfound uses. Finding the right balance between control and flexibility is critical for any governmental organization as it experiments with wikis. For example, the department hopes to include a database of information from its 211 hotline for people seeking community services or volunteer opportunities. That would extend its usefulness far outside the department but might require additional management. And the 211 project is not the only reason to open the wiki to the wider community. Extending access to a local nonprofit organization that helps with housing problems, for example, could facilitate the sharing of useful information.