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« Florida Plans Free Highway-Fi | Main | Boston Proposes Non-Profit Ownership of a City-Wide Network »

July 31, 2006

Tireless Wireless Advocate Neff May Leave Phila. Job

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that the city's CIO will exit her position: Dianah Neff has been one of the leading lights in promoting municipally authorized metropolitan-scale networks--note my careful phrasing--and whether or not individuals or companies agree with the concept or her approach, she's been out there swinging with data. Wireless Philadelphia, the non-profit that handshakes with the city on one hand and a private contractor on the other, managed to obtain several significant bids in the earliest process for a city of that scale.

The paper reports some controversy about her administration, including a billing system that cost $18m and doesn't work, but doesn't note other successes. My local county has, at times, spent tens of millions in failed billing or human resource computer upgrades, and it seems to demonstrate more that these complex systems are often hard to manage, and conform to the general performance seen by most IT publications in surveys: big projects spiral out of scale or fail too often. I would have liked to see her department's overall budget, and a small discussion of projects gone right, assuming that she didn't work on two projects for her entire tenure.

The report also indirectly criticizes Neff's frequent travel based on three incidents in her office. But it notes that it's put Phila. on the map worldwide. I don't think I have ever heard so many references to Phila. in the nearly two years since Wireless Philadelphia was conceived as in the previous decades of my life, except, perhaps, to note the Liberty Bell or the Continental Congress. (Man, is the building those men met in small.)

Neff was a good interview, which is one reason for her frequent appearances in the press, because she could talk big picture issues about poverty and training, walk the tech talk on how everything would work together, and run the numbers.

I imagine that good-government rules would prevent her from joining a muni-Fi firm that she had done business with for 12 or 18 months, but there are other fish out there in the sea.

1 Comment

"big projects spiral out of scale or fail too often."

Wireless Philadelphia is a 20 million dollar project. If she can't manage the Oracle project - how can she be expected to manage Wireless Philadelphia.

"The report also indirectly criticizes Neff's frequent travel based on three incidents in her office."

The article states Neff attended 26 conference in 18 months. There are state ethics questions involved in three international trips paid for indirectly by companies who will financially gain from Wireless Philadelphia - Earthlink and Tropos.

"it notes that it's put Phila. on the map worldwide"

A city official who also benefited from the ethically challenged international travel was quoted as saying Wireless Philadelphia has put Philadelphia on the map.

Inc. magagazine interview Tropos recently - who acknowlege that without Wireless Philadelphia, their company would not be on the map.

[Editor's note: Again, I'd have to ask what the overall size of her department is. If it's $500m and there was one bad project, that's a shame, but it's $100m, and this was a significant fraction, then it's a problem.

Wireless Philadelphia is estimated at under $15m by EarthLink, which will manage the project and bear all the costs. Wireless Philadelphia will receive various funds from EarthLink for digital divide and other programs, so it won't be a $20m project that Phila. is managing. Further, it's never been clear to me that Wireless Philadelphia will be a project of the CIO, or even that the city will ultimately control it as they currently do.

I'm not sure you quite understand what it's like to go to that many conferences in that period of time. Unlike, say, paid political junkets in which officials are taken off to golf in Scotland, conference trips of the kind that Neff was involved in, as I understand the various trips she took, involved lots of flying, lots of meetings, lots of speaking, all of which put Philadelphia as a city out first and foremost in front of business and technology leaders worldwide.

Now, you could argue her role should have been to stay close, and we'll see how the ethics complaints play out. That's fine. But I don't think you should underestimate how much publicity Phila. has gotten out of this.

The electric utility in Tacoma, Wash., was widely ridiculed for building a fiber-optic service in the late 1990s as a reaction to what they saw as the coming electrical deregulation that would require them to be in more lines of business and be more efficient. They were laughed out because the city had fundamental problems of employment, aging infrastructure, crime, downtown abandonment, and perceptions of being a poor second to Seattle.

In 2006, Tacoma is now hailed as a great place to live, has hundreds of new businesses that relocated there, many of which state that it was because they could get great and inexpensive Internet connectivity coupled with reasonable rent and places their employees could afford to live. Downtown is revitalized. Crime is way down. The place is quite transformed.

Having seen this, I am bullish on Philadelphia, and thus not as critical as many of the fact that the CIO told audiences totaling tens of thousands about how great Phila. would become, and reached readers of tens of millions of newspapers and print publications with a similar messages.

It would be good to note here that a Boston official involved in an open document format that challenged Microsoft's hegemony also faced ethics investigations for what was called excessive travel. Ultimately, he was found to be authorized for the trips, and he left city government. Microsoft has recently said they'll support that open format in a limited way. I wouldn't suppose any incumbent forces that Neff has challenged are involved in pushing ethics investigations, right? Because these incumbents have no influence in government...

If an ethics investigation or quality audits show Neff at fault, you'll read that here, too, of course.--gf]