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Chicago Sets its Sights on Ultra-Modern Web Site With Enhanced E-Government

CHICAGO, March 12, 2010 – When the City of Chicago has tried its hand at computerized technology of recent, it hasn’t exactly been a hit with citizens.

Those fancy electronic signs on public transit platforms? They tell you everything except the time the next trains will arrive, a la London’s Underground. Those year-old parking meter kiosks that take credit cards? Convenient, perhaps—though they also ushered in an era of quadrupled parking fees.

So when city officials unveiled Chicago’s official new website Friday, they took great pains to emphasize that www.cityofchicago.org would make life simpler for residents, businesses and visitors alike.

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CHICAGO, March 12, 2010 – When the City of Chicago has tried its hand at computerized technology of recent, it hasn’t exactly been a hit with citizens.

Those fancy electronic signs on public transit platforms? They tell you everything except the time the next trains will arrive, a la London’s Underground. Those year-old parking meter kiosks that take credit cards? Convenient, perhaps—though they also ushered in an era of quadrupled parking fees.

So when city officials unveiled Chicago’s official new website Friday, they took great pains to emphasize that www.cityofchicago.org would make life simpler for residents, businesses and visitors alike.

And just in time, too: with more than 1,000,000 visitors a month, the old website at the same address was feeling the strain of outdated design. With online transactions for city services more than doubling in the last three years—to more than 600,000—it also makes good business sense, too. (Case in point: One in five Chicago vehicle stickers were bought online in 2009, up from 8 percent the year before.)

“This is the first updates to the city’s website in nine years,” said city chief information officer Hardik Bhatt at a press conference Friday. “The underlying infrastructure was outdated and couldn’t support the demand. We knew that our job was to use the most up-to-date technology to create a website that is easy for residents to use. It also helps up to tell Chicago’s story around the world in a way that brings visitors, business and jobs.”

City web designers started with a clean slate, looking at the top 10 websites in the country to make a new portal that, as Bhatt put it, would be “fast and convenient. Nothing on here, as you will see, is more than one or two clicks away.” To do achieve that goal, the city spent $1.8 million, financed by information technology bonds.

With more than 3,500 pages of information, cityofchicago.org has some neat features you won’t find on the typical municipal website. It makes use of embedded video, 225 social media tools (including Twitter and Reddit), RSS feeds—and takes advantage of a service called TechLocator to pinpoint WiFi hotspots in the city.

And yes, Mayor Richard M. Daley has his own YouTube channel.

The site sports a sleek welcome page design, framed on a wavy blue background that features the downtown city skyline as seen from Lake Michigan. Under that panoramic shot, an orange horizontal rail allows users to seek out city services, programs and initiatives, or learn more about Chicago government.

To the left, an expanded city services block allows users to “pay for” a bill, or “apply for” a license. Bhatt demonstrated how the drill-down format allows residents to start filling out an application or making a payment in just a few mouse clicks.

For those who prefer searching, the new website has a Google engine embedded in it for quick searches. Quick, that is, if you can get on the site. The city’s wireless network at the Department of Innovation & Technology slowed to a crawl during the press conference, making the site impossible to access on this reporter’s laptop.

But on computer kiosks provided at the press conference, navigation proved smooth and effortless—something that might freak out the typical Chicago resident used to waiting in horrid lines at city departments for half an afternoon.

Residents may also be surprised to learn that the new site comes with a promise of increased government transparency.

Bhatt insisted that the new site will provide, and continue to further facilitate, city documents requested through the Freedom of Information Act, city contract information and other documents that reflect how city money gets spent.

“We’re trying to make city of Chicago information more accessible to residents,” Bhatt said. “But we’re trying to remind everyone that this is a work in progress. There will be glitches, and improvements over the next few months. We want to hear from users. We need to know if we have overlooked anything.”

Public Safety

Lack of People Opting Into Emergency Alerts Poses Problems for Natural Disaster Scenarios

Disaster protocol experts remarked on lessons learned from fire outbreaks in Boulder County, Colorado.

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Photo of Lori Adams of Nokia discussing emergency communications response to Colorado wildfires at Mountain Connect by Drew Clark

KEYSTONE, Colorado, May 26, 2022 – A lack of people opting into local emergency alerts poses a severe challenge for public officials during natural disasters, a panel of experts said Tuesday.

The panel remarked on just how significant the number of people not subscribed to emergency alerts is during a panel on disaster preparedness at the annual Mountain Connect conference.

In Boulder, getting emergency alerts is on an opt-in basis, whereas in other areas, it is opt-in by default.

The specific focus of the panel was on lessons learned from the outbreak of fires in Boulder County, Colorado this past December.

Fires presented challenges for providers

Several challenges of managing a response to the fires were recounted.

Blake Nelson, Comcast’s senior director of construction, stated that some of his company’s underground broadband infrastructure buried at a considerable depth was still melted from the heat of the fires to cause service outages for customers. Thomas Tyler, no stranger to disaster response as Louisiana’s deputy director for broadband and connectivity through several hurricane responses, pointed out that it is quite possible local officials may be skilled in responding to one type of disaster such as a hurricane but not another like a tornado.

Screenshot of Blake Nelson, Jon Saunders, Wesley Wright and Thomas Tyler (left to right)

The panel also spoke to the challenges of coordination between essential companies and agencies if people do not have personal relationships with those who work at such entities other than their own.

Successful emergency responses to service outages during disaster serve as models for the future, with Nelson stating the internet provider opened up its wireless hotspots to temporarily increase service access and Tyler saying that standing up Starlink satellite internet access helped bring broadband to Louisiana communities only accessible by bridge or boat during their periods of disaster.

Conversation moderator Lori Adams, senior director of broadband policy and funding strategy at Nokia, suggested keeping town servers not in municipal buildings but rather off site and Wesley Wright, partner at law firm Keller and Heckman, recommended the Federal Communications Commission’s practice of developing strong backup options for monitoring service outages.

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Education

Education Executives Tout Artificial Intelligence Benefits for Classroom Learning

Artificial intelligence can help fill in gaps when teacher resources are limited, an event heard.

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Screenshot of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation event

WASHINGTON, May 25, 2022 – Artificial intelligence can help fill in gaps when teacher resources are limited and provide extra help for students who need individualized teaching, experts said at an event hosted by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation on Tuesday.

As policy makers weigh the options for a structure for AI in the classroom, panelists agreed on its benefits for both teachers and students. Michelle Zhou, CEO of AI company Juji Inc., said AI technology in the classroom can be tools and applications like chatbots for real-time questions during class, and post-class questions at home for when the teacher is not available.

Lynda Martin, director of learning strategy for strategic solutions at learning company McGraw Hill, said AI provides the extra help students need, but sometimes are too shy to ask.

When a teacher has a high volume of students, it is difficult to effectively help and connect with each student individually, Martin said. AI gives the teacher crucial information to get to know the student on a more personal level as it transmits the student’s misconceptions and detects areas of need. AI can bring student concerns to the teacher and foster “individualized attention” she added.

Privacy and security concerns

Jeremy Roschelle from Digital Promise, an education non-profit, raise the privacy and security concerns in his cautious support of the idea. He noted that there needs to be more information about who has access to the data and what kinds of data should be used.

Beside bias and ethical issues that AI could pose, Roschelle cautioned about the potential harms AI could present, including misdetecting a child’s behavior, resulting in potential educational setbacks.

To utilize the technology and ensure education outcomes, Sharad Sundararajan, co-founder of learning company Merlyn Minds, touched on the need for AI training. As Merlyn Minds provides digital assistant technology to educators, he noted the company’s focus on training teachers and students on various forms of AI tech to enhance user experience.

There is an “appetite” from schools that are calling for this, said Sundararajan. As policy makers contemplate a strategic vision for AI in the classroom, he added that AI adoption in the classroom around the country will require algorithmic work, company partnerships, and government efforts for the best AI success.

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Education

Closing Digital Divide for Students Requires Community Involvement, Workforce Training, Event Hears

Barriers to closing the divide including awareness of programs, resources and increasing digital literacy.

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Screenshot of Ji Soo Song, broadband advisor at the U.S. Department of Education

WASHINGTON, May 24, 2022 – Experts in education technology said Monday that to close the digital divide for students, the nation must eliminate barriers at the community level, including raising awareness of programs and resources and increasing digital literacy.

“We are hearing from schools and district leaders that it’s not enough to make just broadband available and affordable, although those are critical steps,” said Ji Soo Song, broadband advisor at the U.S. Department of Education, said at an event hosted by trade group SIIA, formerly known as the Software and Information Industry Association. “We also have to make sure that we’re solving for the human barriers that often inhibit adoption.”

Song highlighted four “initial barriers” that students are facing. First, a lack of awareness and understanding of programs and resources. Second, signing up for programs is often confusing regarding eligibility requirements, application status, and installment. Third, there may be a lack of trust between communities and services. Fourth, a lack of digital literacy among students can prevent them from succeeding.

Song said he believes that with the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act, states have an “incredible opportunity to address adoption barriers.”

Workforce shortages still a problem, but funding may help

Rosemary Lahasky, senior director for government affairs at Cengage, a maker of educational content, added that current data suggests that 16 million students lack access to a broadband connection. While this disparity in American homes remained, tech job posts nearly doubled in 2021, but the average number of applicants shrunk by 25 percent.

But panelists said they are hopeful that funding will address these shortages. “Almost every single agency that received funding…received either direct funding for workforce training or were given the flexibility to spend some of their money on workforce training,” said Lahasky of the IIJA, which carves out funding for workforce training.

This money is also, according to Lahasky, funding apprenticeship programs, which have been recommended by many as a solution to workforce shortages.

Student connectivity has been a long-held concern following the COVID-19 pandemic. Students themselves are stepping up to fight against the digital inequity in their schools as technology becomes increasingly essential for success. Texas students organized a panel to discuss internet access in education just last year.

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