Posts Tagged ‘Boston’

Sensors lead to burst of tech creativity in government

Thursday, March 7th, 2013

Human and mechanical sensors are creating excitement in offices of government IT executives

LAS VEGAS — Here at an IBM conference, City of Boston CIO Bill Oates was telling the audience how citizens are using apps to improve city operations. But it was one of Boston’s latest apps, called Street Bump, that got the interest of one attendee, Gary Gilot, an engineer who heads the public works board in South Bend, Ind.

Information collected by the new app, which uses a smartphone’s accelerometer to record road conditions and send the data to public works workers, has already helped utilities to do a better job at making manhole covers even with the road, Oates said.

Street Bump will be the subject of a citywide publicity campaign this summer in an effort to attract more users, he added.

Gilot was struck by the app’s use of crowdsourcing to assess Boston roads.

South Bend has taken different approaches to same problem.

It once had a half-dozen city supervisors spend six weeks each year driving every street in the city and rating them using a standard road condition measures. It’s latest effort was to hire a vendor to drive all South Bend streets and produce digital video for an analysis of pavement conditions.

But after hearing Oates explain how the Street Bump data was producing “big data” about road conditions by people who launched the app in their cars, Gilot had an admiring smile.

“We are behind them by a bunch,” said Gilot, who sees Boston’s app as a possible alternative to costly road surveys.

“I love the idea of the future — that you can avoid the expense by crowdsourcing,” said Gilot.

South Bend is not behind in the trend of using sensors to improve other operations.

For instance, the city has worked with IBM to create a wireless sensor system that detects changes in the sewer flow, and alerts the city to any problems detected. The system, which includes automated valves that can respond to issues, has reduced overflows and backups, said Gilot.

Improving municipal operations is a major theme at the IBM conference. The company’s Smarter Planet initiative combines sensors, asset management, big data, mobile and cloud services into systems for managing government operations.

Boston and South Bend share in the use of sensors, one human-based and the other mechanical. The adoption of sensors, mobile apps and otherwise, appears to be leading to a burst of creativity in state and local governments.

Boston’s chief vehicle for connecting with residents is its Citizens Connect app. The city will release version 4.0 this summer, with changes that will make it easier for city workers to connect directly with residents.

Citizens Connect allows residents to report issues that need government action. Those issues might be a broken street light, trash, graffiti. The reports are public.

Oates said the app encourages participation. To find out why people used the app, the city asked app users why they didn’t call the city about maintenance issues in the pre-app days.

The response, said Oates, was this: “When we call the city we feel like we’re complaining, but when we use this (the app), we feel like we’re helping.”

In discussing Street Bump, he says it’s entirely possible that analysis of the data may lead to new sources of information. Similarly, Gilot said the sewer data collection was making it possible to determine what “normal” was.

“You really don’t know what’s normal until have you have this kind of modeling,” said Gilot.

The changes in Citizens Connect 4.0 will help personalize the connections that city residents make with government.

For instance, today a citizen sends in a pothole repair request and the city fills the pothole. With the update, the worker will be able to take a picture of the completed work and send it back to constituent who sent the request.

The person who drew attention to the maintenance problem will be informed that “the case is closed, and here’s a picture and this is who did it for me,” said Oates.

The citizen will be able to respond with a “great job” acknowledgement, although Oats realizes negative feedback is also possible. “We think it puts pressure on the quality of the service delivery,” he said.

Boston gets about 20% of its maintenance “quality of life” requests via the app.

Boston’s effort is the forerunner of a Massachusetts state-wide initiative called Commonwealth Connect that was announced in December.

This state-wide app is being built by SeeClickFix, a startup whose app is already used in many cities and towns. The app is free. The firm offers a “premium dashboard” used by municipalities. It also has a free Web-based tool that is used by smaller towns, said Zack Beatty, head of media and content partnerships for the New Haven, Conn.-based firm.

Beatty said the app will be deployed in more than 50 Massachusetts communities, its first state-led deployment.

SeeClickFix uses cloud-based services to host its app, something South Bend is doing as well for a sewer sensor system as well to manage its IBM system.

Authorizing an in-house deployment would have required an authorization for hardware, said Gilot. From a budgeting perspective, it was easier to move money from other accounts for cloud-based services. In any event, running IT equipment is not the city’s core competence.

Source:  computerworld.com

U.S. government warns of hack threat to network gear

Tuesday, January 29th, 2013

The Department of Homeland Security urged computer users on Tuesday to disable a common networking technology feature, after researchers warned that hackers could exploit flaws to gain access to tens of millions of vulnerable devices.

The U.S. government’s Computer Emergency Readiness Team, on its website, advised consumers and businesses to disable a feature known as Universal Plug and Play or UPnP, and some other related features that make devices from computers to printers accessible over the open Internet.

UPnP, a communications protocol, is designed to let networks identify and communicate with equipment, reducing the amount of work it takes to set up networks. Dave Marcus, chief architect of advanced research and threat intelligence with Intel’s McAfee unit, said hackers would have a “field day” once the vulnerability in network devices is exposed.

“Historically, these are amongst the last to be updated and protected properly which makes them a gold mine for potential abuse and exploitation,” said Marcus, who advises government agencies and corporations on protections against sophisticated attacks.

Disabling UPnP once networks have already been set up, will have little impact on the operation of the devices.

The new security bugs were initially brought to the attention of the government by computer security company Rapid7, in Boston, which released a report on the problem on Tuesday. The company said it discovered between 40 million and 50 million devices that were vulnerable to attack due to three separate sets of problems that the firm’s researchers have identified with the UPnP standard.

The flaws could allow hackers to access confidential files, steal passwords, take full control over PCs as well as remotely access devices such as webcams, printers and security systems, according to Rapid7.

Rapid7 has alerted electronics makers about the problem through the CERT Coordination Center, a group at the Carnegie Mellon Software Engineering Institute that helps researchers report vulnerabilities to affected companies.

“This is the most pervasive bug I’ve ever seen,” said HD Moore, chief technology officer for Rapid7. He discussed the research with Reuters late on Monday.

CERT in turn has tried to contact the more than 200 companies whose products Rapid7 have identified as being vulnerable to attack, including Belkin, D-Link, Cisco Systems Inc’s Linksys division and Netgear.

Linksys said it is aware of the problem. “We recommend Linksys customers visit our website to understand if their home router is affected, and learn how to disable UPnP through the user interface to avoid being impacted,” Linksys said in a statement.

Belkin, D-Link and Netgear did not respond to requests for comment.

Chris Wysopal, chief technology officer of security software firm Veracode, said he believed that publication of Rapid7’s findings would draw widespread attention to the still emerging area of UPnP security, prompting other security researchers to search for more bugs in UPnP.

“This definitely falls into the scary category,” said Wysopal, who reviewed Rapid7’s findings ahead of their publication. “There is going to be a lot more research on this. And the follow-on research could be a lot scarier.”

Andres Andreu, chief architect at networking security company Bayshore Networks said they expect an increase in cybercrime as hackers begin to figure out ways to take advantage of the newly identified vulnerabilities.

“Simple targets such as home routers now become targets of greater interest,” he said.

TAKING CONTROL

Moore said that there were bugs in most of the devices that Rapid7 tested and that device manufacturers will need to release software updates to remedy the problems.

He said that was unlikely to happen quickly.

In the meantime, he advised computer users to quickly use a free tool released by Rapid7 to identify vulnerable gear, then disable the UPnP functionality in that equipment.

Moore said hackers have not widely exploited the UPnP vulnerabilities to launch attacks, but both Moore and Wysopal expected they may start to do so after the findings are publicized.

Still, Moore said he decided to disclose the flaws in a bid to pressure equipment makers to fix the bugs and generally pay more attention to security.

People who own devices with UPnP enabled may not be aware of it because new routers, printers, media servers, Web cameras, storage drives and “smart” or Web-connected TVs are often shipped with that functionality turned on by default.

“You can’t stay silent about something like this,” he said. “These devices seem to have had the same level of core security for decades. Nobody seems to really care about them.”

Veracode’s Wysopal said that some hackers have likely already exploited the flaws to launch attacks, but in relatively small numbers, choosing victims one at a time.

“If they are going after executives and government officials, then they will probably look for their home networks and exploit this vulnerability,” he said.

Rapid7 has released a tool to help identify those devices on its website.

Source:  Reuters