Editorial: City government calls for tech support - Technical.ly Philly

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May 5, 2009 11:30 am

Editorial: City government calls for tech support

Can a collection of Philadelphia's tech leaders hold accountable the Nutter administration to the promise of a more tech friendly city?
City Hall from Broad Street

City Hall from Broad Street

This editorial was written by reporter Christopher Wink with the shared endorsement of reporters Sean Blanda and Brian Kirk.

Here’s a test.

Just how innovative and influential, forward-thinking yet practical is the technology community in Philadelphia? Because you’re being challenged.

We’re still reeling from a presentation that Allan Frank, the city’s chief information officer, gave at a meeting of Refresh Philly Monday night.

The Nutter administration is investing $100 million during the next four years into city technology, including a complete overhaul of Phila.gov, as he told 75 mostly professional, tech-savvy 30 and 40-somethings in a modern, white-walled conference room on the 45th floor of the Comcast Center yesterday.

allanfrank

Allan Frank, city CIO

How best to do it, he isn’t sure, admitted the former corporate careerist with a beard that could double for Wolf Blitzer’s. So, the next step, he said, could be a meeting with five or 10 members of Philadelphia’s tech community whom he’d like to bring suggestions for the future of the city’s technology infrastructure.

But, it was less a detailed plan than an open invitation. So will the vanguard of our tech community do something about it?

“It is incredible I found this group,” Frank said last night of the six-month old Refresh Philly. Why not make him realize just how powerful Refresh and all the other parts of our community can be?

Because he came to Refresh, we implore leaders like Roz Duffy, whom we’ve interviewed, and others to coalesce such a small group, reflective as it can be of the community.

It’s worth creating a real dialogue because Frank’s heady suggestions of a city with high-tech enterprise zones and complete broadband coverage were as grandiose as they are indefinite. Indeed his lofty hypotheticals seemed impractical without hard details.

But, gosh, we sure like the sounds of them, and, to be fair, Frank made clear that most of what he addressed was nothing more than dream-sourcing.

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He should be commended for answering frankly — with no’s — to many audience questions directed at the city’s level of planning, even when they seemed to come from listeners unknowing of the vagaries of local government.

His request for direction and interest from the disparate factions of tech seems dangerously broad. His August federal stimulus deadline is for broadband only, but plans in Philadelphia seem to linger, fade and die, especially without explicit deadlines. Keep in mind that his big boss Michael Nutter seeks reelection in 2011 and will have to start much earlier if the economy continues to cannibalize city services.

So, does Frank just want broad ideas for a better functioning Phila.gov, or ways to span the digital divide or does he want to fight for technology that cuts bureaucratic waste — like supporting paperless government legislation and creating more user-friendly methods for paying parking tickets, requesting permits and other reasons people go into the city’s Municipal Services building and never come out. Maybe he wants less, or more?

We must keep in mind that the city is much bigger and more diverse — racially, socioeconomically, even politically — than the tech community. There are Internet stars in North Philadelphia, but in neighborhoods along North Broad Street and in West Philadelphia, the working class communities of South Philly and the Northeast are unlikely to have laptops or iPhones, to be on Twitter or using e-commerce.

The future of our city — how it is seen, how it treats us and how we interact with it — must be inclusive and fair-minded, but mindful of the future.

Can our community of innovators follow through to create sensible, responsible and possible steps — targeted, prioritized and agreed upon as necessary — and ship them to Frank?

What should the plan look like? Can a collection of Philadelphia’s tech leaders appoint five to hold Frank and the Nutter administration to the promise of a more tech friendly city?

So often technology communities speak of how rarely those in real power give them an ear. Here is one. This is a time for our community to shine.

“Philadelphia has a heck of an inferiority complex sometimes,” said Frank, who grew up in Allentown and has been in the Philly region since 1977. “But all it takes are passionate people and we can make anything.”

Who are those passionate people who will carry a sensible and possible message of innovation from our tech community to city government?

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