Making Inspector Gadget a Reality: Public Safety and the Internet of Things

When the TV series “Inspector Gadget” originally aired in 1983, I seriously doubt the creators ever thought the concept could be implemented in reality. The Internet of Things, combined with the soon-to-be-deployed Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN), could change all of that. For you millenials that may not remember the series (or the 1999 movie starring Matthew Broderick), Inspector Gadget is a cyborg detective that can prompt different, kooky devices on/in his body by saying “Go Go Gadget….”. The devices vary from helicopter blades or extra hands that eject from his hat, to super-long robotic arms, to multipurpose tool-fingers, to jet-powered rollerblades; Inspector Gadget seemingly had a solution to just about any predicament he got himself into. He also had a really cool “gadget mobile” car that he could talk to and that could even drive itself.

Although the title character was a little bit of a dunce and the jokes were usually made at his expense, the concept that law enforcement could voice-prompt various devices on their person or vehicle would be a transformative and powerful evolution of public safety capabilities. Imagine if an officer on a high-speed chase could voice-prompt dispatch or request a read out of traffic patterns up ahead. Imagine if a SWAT team could voice-prompt a heads-up display that showed the blueprint of a building, or a heat-map identifying potential bad guys. On top of that, imagine if a responder’s weapon could “talk” to her other devices, such as a body-worn camera, “smart clothing” with bio-sensors, her radio, or CAD console. The potential increase in situational awareness is almost incomprehensible and the possibilities are endless.

The Internet of Things, as buzz-wordy as it may be, is coming (or is it already here?); first responders could reap major benefits if public safety requirements are baked into the development of such technologies early on. IOT inherently requires Internet access and a data network, which public safety does not have today. FirstNet is working hard to create the capability, though, and this type of “personal area networking” is already on the minds of public safety communications thought-leaders.

Of course, this kind of technology can also be dangerous. If it’s online, it can likely be hacked into, which presents serious vulnerabilities and perhaps untenable risks.

Nonetheless, applying the muscle of the Internet of Things to situational awareness for our nation’s response community is a powerful notion.


Inspector Gadget via Las Provincias


Guide to the Internet of Things

Building the Next Gen Government Program

Next Gen is a big buzzword in the government right now. As with any buzzword, it’s been overused and misused but fundamentally it signifies the pressures and changes that technology is creating for federal programs and agencies. The terms are familiar: cloud computing, ubiquitous mobility, big data, social media, open data, etc. These trends are reshaping industries, the way we live, and the way government programs and agencies plan and operate. Citizens and stakeholders expect more transparency, more data, and better results. A Next Gen strategy is a way to tell the story about where your program or agency is going and how it is keeping pace with technology and the times. Based on our work with federal leaders navigating this process, we have four recommendations as you undertake your effort: Know your buzzwords and how they affect you. As mentioned above, the rise of cloud computing, social media, big data, and other technologies is reshaping the playing field for government. It’s critical that leaders understand those trends and drivers and adapt their strategies accordingly. Start by considering what those large globals trends are. Next think about how those trends and drivers are impacting your stakeholders and customers, and finally how those impacts should or are shaping your agency or program.You are working from the outside in and from the global down to the internal. This exercise will help you understand the trends and drivers shaping your world is essential to building a Next Gen strategy.

For instance, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) recently announced a partnership with Google to provide grade crossing information (open data) in its Google Maps application. Almost everyone has a smart phone (ubiquitous mobility) and the vast majority of them have Google Maps (geospatial information) installed on them (the program will also include Apple’s mapping app, Garmin, TomTom, and other mapping providers). Drivers are increasingly relying on Google Maps and its competitors to navigate as they drive. Now, with the Apple Watch, we could increasingly see people navigate with these apps as they walk, run, and cycle.

The trends of open data, ubiquitous mobility, and geospatial information are allowing people to navigate more efficiently and have created the expectation that the information provided will be useful and comprehensive. FRA recognized these trends and their effects and went to where its stakeholders were-Google-to increase the impact it could have on safety.

Take advantage of the Kickstarter effect. Government agencies have seen the definition of who a stakeholder, customer, or partner is change over time. As budgets have flattened, industry has become more of a partner to be influenced rather than just a service provider. As open data has proved more useful, the definitions of customer and stakeholder have expanded. To the extent possible, these groups need to have a voice in the formation of your strategy. I call it the Kickstarter effect. Engaging with your stakeholders from the beginning creates momentum for your process and its result and it keeps you honest. Just as fundraising on Kickstarter can build momentum for the product you are making. Of course, government leaders need to be sensitive to the requirements of the Paperwork Reduction Act and the Federal Advisory Commission Act, but engaging with these stakeholders is critical. Consider using wikis or other collaborative tools like Ideascale to facilitate the process and create a record of what you’ve discussed and accomplished.

For example, the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) within the Department of Commerce has been charged with developing a national broadband network for public safety. The end customers will be fire fighters, emergency medical workers, and police among others. In planning for the network, FirstNet has spent extensive time crisscrossing the states and localities that will form its customer base. This effort will not only help inform how the network is built but also creates momentum with its customers for the network once it is established.

When it comes time to make decisions, it helps to have some criteria. As you go through your process to develop a Next Gen strategy, you will inevitably need to make some choices. In fact I believe that if you haven’t made any choices in the process, you haven’t developed a real strategy. Resources and effort are finite and spreading them thinly across too many initiatives or projects leads to poor results. However, making choices arbitrarily will hurt your efforts to keep partners and stakeholders on board. The solution is to develop decision criteria as part of your collaborative process. Make it clear what factors will guide decision making, get feedback on them, and make sure all the participants understand what they are. Then you have traceability in your decision making that makes whatever choices you make easier to defend.

For example, the National Science Foundation (NSF) makes all its funding decisions based on two key criteria: intellectual merit and broader impact. They’ve built an entire methodology around those criteria with a great deal of success. With those simple criteria NSF can show impact and provide traceability and justification for any funding decisions.

Shout it from the mountaintop: There’s no point in developing a Next Gen strategy if know one knows about it. While taking advantage of the Kickstarter effect will help, you need to focus time and resources on communicating your vision and progress as you implement. Stakeholder attention is fickle and if you don’t consistently make your voice heard, their attention will soon wander to other things. At Corner Alliance, we like to build communications strategies as the vision is being created and not after.

You’ll also need to communicate that message across a number of different platforms. More traditional media and outreach through conferences is still effective. However, as the example of FRA with Google Maps indicates, you need to go to where your customers, users, and stakeholders are be it Instagram, Twitter, Periscope, or LinkedIn. Get to know each of these platforms and what they can do for government. Make them your friends and your reach will be increased dramatically.

For example, in 2014, the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate (DHS S&T) developed a set of visionary goals to help guide its work going forward. It backed that new vision with a series of outreach initiatives including an interactive National Conversation on Homeland Security Technology, a social media campaign, and many traditional communications channels. That multi-channel effort help S&T reach new audiences and is spurring new innovation.

Today’s government leader needs to articulate a strategy that accounts for the trends shaping her environment, enlists the efforts of stakeholders and partners, provides accountability for investments, and meets customers and users where they go to seek information. How is your agency or program meeting this challenge?