Digital Philadelphia: what it is, where it's going and why you need to get involved - Technical.ly Philly

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Mar. 8, 2011 11:00 am

Digital Philadelphia: what it is, where it’s going and why you need to get involved

Two years ago this May, the City’s Digital Philadelphia initiative bore public birth. Some movement has been made and details secured, but what can we expect to come? In front of 75 people at a Refresh Philly gathering in May 2009, then City of Philadelphia Chief Information Officer Allan Frank introduced an IT overhaul plan […]

Two years ago this May, the City’s Digital Philadelphia initiative bore public birth. Some movement has been made and details secured, but what can we expect to come?

In front of 75 people at a Refresh Philly gathering in May 2009, then City of Philadelphia Chief Information Officer Allan Frank introduced an IT overhaul plan that would receive unprecedented city funding. The specifics were fuzzy then, but that summer Mayor Nutter signed an executive order that put Frank in charge of every piece of IT in the city’s gaze and there were growing budget plans, including the six-year $120 million IT capital budget authorized that year.

“My goal is for Philadelphia to be ground zero for the road map of moving an industrial city to the knowledge economy,” Frank told Technically Philly before leaving office.

What was meant to follow the incomplete Wireless Philadelphia initiative, became a platform on which Frank could fawn over the biggest and boldest plans. Those plans became the foundation of his legacy, the public face of on-going internal IT upgrade needs. By November 2010, weeks before his announced resignation, during public appearances Frank had his Digital Philadelphia pitch down pat, in three neat categories:

  1. OpenAccessPhilly (Citizen Engagement) — While this topic responds broadly to interaction with Philadelphians, this has focused squarely on the release of data. Last July Frank expressed concern about city IT needs that held back data releases,  so private efforts, including projects by Technically Philly, Code for America and other as yet un-detailed projects, have moved forward on the subject.
  2. PhillyConnects (Digital Inclusion) — This is likely the most successful of the three initiatives, and something Frank highlighted as something he took pride in. To start, the Division of Technology worked with various outside parties to bring in federal broadband stimulus money, including $6.4 million for public computer centers. As part of the city’s Freedom Rings program, hundreds of additional computer were refurbished for under-served Philadelphians. This has been the only issue of the three about which Nutter has made regular mention.
  3. Gigabit City (Business Development) — While other initiatives around the development of tech-focused business with city input have been conceived, most have stalled, most notably the  Google-inspired Gigabit Philly turned Gigabit City initiative meant to empower ideas for building new innovation business hubs. Frank did suggest the quiet December 2009 city acquisition of shuttered Wireless Philadelphia infrastructure could help fuel these and other plans. Additionally, current interim city CTO Tommy Jones listed rebuilding Phila.gov as a major priority of his, with a focus on business utility.

So what now?

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Impact has been had with PhillyConnects and wrinkles of movement — albeit with major volunteer, private support — are beginning to show in regards to OpenAccessPhilly, but the Gigabit City portion is noticeably dead — for now.

More than rebuilding Phila.gov, current interim CTO Jones says his top two priorities are about as important as they are unlikely to thrill: improve internal city IT ‘customer service’ and improve and stabilize the city network.

So while Digital Philadelphia was all about the big picture, in truth, city officials say much of the money and staff capacity at the Division of Technology still has to be focused on the basics.

Of that $120 million billed-as-unprecedented city IT budget, the first portion, $25 million, flows this year. What hasn’t already come will be in DOT’s coffers by May, but as Frank told Technically Philly before leaving, much of that is dedicated to replacing more than 1,000 city switches,  the mechanisms that move information across the city’s major network.

“With the capital that we had last year, I bought [major commercial] switches, bought hundreds of them, and now we’ll buy more,” Frank told Technically Philly in late January while still in office. “The cost of turning on the network is going up by a factor of two to three. You were running 1.3 megabits, now we’re going up to a minimum of 10 megabits [of network capacity]. The ability to increase the speed of the network has to go up when we can afford the higher bandwidth.”

The plan he was recommending to Jones was to not finalize that full switch conversion before July 1 — the start of a new budget cycle — but there was real concern about budget impact from Frank. Switches affecting public safety communication were the first priority, Frank said, and the police department had theirs turned over last spring.

“Our goal is to have, let’s just say, most, if not all, the switches replaced for, well, our goal was June 30, end of the fiscal year. We’re also implementing electronic medical records across the city — all health centers and the prisons — so in implementing electronic medical records which is state of the art [we need to do them second]. So police first, second is upgrading these facilities so that [electronic medical records] can work. The next will be fire and other public safety and then we’re moving to just kind of department by department, including City Hall,” Frank said. “My gut feeling is we’re probably 30 to 40 percent of the way there.”

Increasing the city’s network bandwidth would come next, hence the July 1 goal, Frank said.

Frank and Jones have always made clear that, like any city agency, they have to be able to manage multiple priorities. More specifically, Jones told Technically Philly that Digital Philadelphia remains as important to him as it did to Frank.

“The plans in place now aren’t just Allan’s plans, they are our plans,” said Jones. “Ninety-eight percent of what is there, I was a part of and agree with.”

For his part, Frank has remained obstinate in his interest to stay involved now that he’s out of government and about the need to get other stakeholders on board.

“This Digital Philadelphia plan is not going away. I can now make a bigger impact as a business leader on the outside who knows city government much better,” Frank said. “I also know now how much more we have to work with outside partners.”

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Christopher Wink

Christopher Wink is a Cofounder, Chief Executive Officer and Publisher of Technical.ly, the local technology news network. In that capacity, he is a co-organizer of Philly Tech Week, Baltimore Innovation Week, Delaware Innovation Week and other events that bring smart people together. Previously, Wink worked for a homeless advocacy nonprofit and was a freelance reporter for a variety of publications. He writes regularly about news innovation and best business practices on his personal blog here and curates a personal monthly newsletter of ideas and links here. The bicycle commuter loves cities, urban politics and squabbling about neighborhood boundaries.

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