Like many of Vince Gray’s appointments, Office of the Chief Technology Officer veteran Rob Mancini was made interim director when the last guy got dumped, and then given the job for real. Also typical of Gray hires: A deliberate, don’t-rush-into-anything style. Still, he’s presiding over one of the city’s most exciting developments in the form of a 100-Gigabit fiber optic network now being laid around town, and has a few other projects up his sleeve. In the latest installment of conversations with agency directors, I caught up with Mancini yesterday to talk about apps that catch robbers, mesh that helps terrorists, and why Comcast and Verizon need to be treated nicely. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
How’d you get this job?
Although I wasn’t seeking it out, I think a couple people dropped my name and said ‘hey, if you need someone for 31 days, Rob has been at the agency for eight years, give it to him for 31 days and he’ll take good care of you. And that’s what I thought I was getting into. I’ll walk down the hall, I’ll build the infrastructure, and I’ll go to war for whoever they bring in. And in that time period, I wasn’t particularly looking for the job, and then they asked me, well aren’t you interested? And I said, I kind of am, but you only asked me for 31 days. So that’s how it happened.
Is there anything that Mayor Gray asked you to do?
Do a good job, treat your people well, and take good care of the city. Some of the things I said that I think he liked were, it’s time to focus on getting it right, taking the time to do it right, and being responsible. I have poured a ton of my time into financial discipline for this agency. Because in the past, part of what I think gave OCTO kind of a shady reputation is that finances weren’t as carefully managed as perhaps they could have been. There has never, ever, been this much financial discipline at OCTO. And I don’t think you can get much more of it. It’s not all done yet, but we are going to mind the store, we’re not screwing around with it, because this is the peoples’ money. And I’m not saying people screwed around with it, but I don’t know that they cared enough to really do everything they could to do it right. Because every $100,000 we save could feed somebody or save somebody’s job across the city for public safety.
And you know what Lydia, we are a public safety agency. You don’t have public safety without OCTO. And that drives me, really drives me. I want to make public safety right. Because when the chips are down, they’re looking to us for communications, and for technical solutions, and we’d better be up for it.
We’re doing a lot with next generation 911. Let’s say you see a crime going on outside your window, and you had that device in your hand. What if you could point that device at the crime in progress, click on an app that I gave you, have it triangulate the closest police cruiser, stick it on their screen, and get them there within about 5 seconds? Wouldn’t you like to live in a city that could do that? We’ve got the network to do it, we’ve got the GIS talent to do it, why aren’t we doing it? Well, we are. That’s what next generation 911 is all about, immediate intelligence.
When you came in, were there any ways in which you were changing direction from the last director?
Yeah, I have made some changes. And that was part of the discussion with Mayor Gray: What would you do and why? And part of it is that OCTO needs care and feeding. We need an internally focused CTO for a while. In the first 18 months, I have to go to war on the inefficiencies that we have and the discipline that we need. Ever since Vivek [Kundra] left, we’ve sort of drifted on what are we going to do. We have some systemic issues. For me, it’s about a few things. The agency needs to scale and take the rest of the city’s IT, and be able to grow the IT that we have. We need to finish our internal disciplines in order to do that. You can’t build with a weak foundation. We had a weak foundation.
What can District residents expect to see from OCTO in the near future?
I’m doing two things there. I’m after a couple of applications that are public-facing, that are for the public and for tourists. There should be an easy way to get through this city, for a tourist to get in here and out of here. There should be ways of telling them where they are, what ward they’re in, what sights they could see, what restaurants they might hit what shopping is near them, and maybe even give them a turn-by-turn guide to what they see. That is a public benefit, it has a positive economic value, and it’s a citizen benefit. It would be great to give it to them, and hopefully on a nearby District free wifi hotspot. It would be on any mobile device, and there wouldn’t be any cost associated with it.
As I came on board, I realized we had a group working on a lot of broadband-related issues, when we had all this ARRA money on broadband. And we had, again, groups who weren’t working together, because they weren’t assembled as a unit, and they weren’t told to work together. So I got all the ARRA money, around broadband, and put ‘em into one group, created a team called the Digital Inclusion Initiative, for going out into the community and driving broadband adoption. We called it the Digital Inclusion Initiative I think because “digital divide” is kind of a dated term.
There’s other contact points I’ve had with bloggers, ANCs, and others in the community who are broadband minded, rather than have them wonder why we’re doing some of the things that we’re doing, because they might not be as clear as we are on what the laws require of us, we’re having dialogue with them. We know you want to give free broadband, but there are some other issues we have to deal with as a municipality. There are laws. We can’t just let you mesh everything and stick it against a government network, because there are security issues. What about our partners in telecom, like Comcast and Verizon? If we’re giving away free broadband to everyone, what are we doing to development in the city, what are we doing to our partners? So I’m engaging people to talk about this, and that’s never been done before.
Can you explain what would be bad about allowing mesh networks to expand?
A mesh network is an interconnected set of networks. And to the extent that you enable the same kind of security on each of those access points, you can identify a particular user if you have to, perhaps for PATRIOT Act requirements, or for homeland security reasons. You wouldn’t want to give rise to a network where there was terrorist activity being conducted that you couldn’t trace. And that is what some of the folks in the terrorist community look for, because their activities can’t be tracked. It’s not that we want to be Big Brother for anybody, that’s not our business. But we have an obligation to provide that data. If you want to mesh, come talk to us, we’ll show you how to do it. But please don’t take this and run and mesh it, because if we see that, we have to do something about it.
What are you going to prioritize as you roll out wifi hotspots?
Some of it will be location, where we want to drive broadband adoption. Let’s say in Ward 8, if we were to put a few wifi hotspots in business areas, maybe it would be easier for people to open a café or a diner. I can’t tell you there’s a grand strategy, we’re studying it right now.
But the other piece is, whose business am I treading on if I bring wifi to certain parts of the city? And if I’m asking the telecom companies to be my partner in the CAN, it would be kind of an insult to ask them to come in and pay for 10 gigabits worth of through-put, only for me to hang ten free wifi hotspots right where they’re putting it.
In what way are you partnering with Comcast and Verizon?
If we offer low cost, high speed middle mile infrastructure that you can take from one section of the city, and fan out into an area of the city that you don’t serve today, and do it a lot less expensively than what it would cost you to build it, you can grow your customer base if you are a Comcast or Verizon. And ideally, you know what would really be nice? I’m not going to say this is gonna happen, but it sure would be nice if people offered triple-play services for 29 bucks, or 39 bucks, instead of 99 bucks.
But remember, if we don’t treat folks like partners as we’re asking them to join the CAN, if we pop up too much that erodes the market we’re trying to seed, then we undo ourselves. We’ve got to be careful there.
I thought part of the idea for the DC-CAN was that small businesses would be able to help build out the last mile to consumers, not just Comcast and Verizon.
Yes, we’ve had a lot of interest from the smaller providers, but I have to tell you I don’t know who’s signed up.
What I’d heard was that DC-CAN doesn’t offer any cheaper backhaul than the commercial providers.
Really. I’ll look into that. That’s disappointing to hear. That shouldn’t be the case.
Does OCTO have a way of ensuring that Comcast and Verizon actually offer their services at a reduced rate, if you let them build off your fiber network?
That’s the rub, Lydia. How much control can you exert over them if you’re giving them a certain price. At this point, the only thing I think we should be comfortable doing is as you discuss what agreement you’re going to have, is get them to commit, publicly, to what they’re going to offer for lower cost services. If they don’t, we have some options to provide some level of…not necessarily a sanction, but a way to motivate them to pass those savings on. We should just come to the table to agree, ‘we really need you in this area, be the partner that we have envisioned, that the Obama administration envisioned you would be.’ And if you can’t do it, tell us why. Sometimes the vendors who come in and help us establish a market share also see us as a rival, and I want to be fair and reasonable.
So nothing’s been hammered out.
I don’t think we have a contract yet. But we know the players, and they know us. We do partner with them in other areas. We give them plenty of business.
What about the consumer side—getting people to actually use the internet in their homes?
OK, where there are really two prongs there. We’ve got to drive more technical education into the schools. We have a role to play. The big payoff there: There are folks in industry that would be happy to help me, that would be happy to come in and provide solutions to the schools at either nothing or for a nominal fee. Different ways of having teachers run the classroom, offer homework, do grading. But it all depends on the networks we pass through there, we’re using DC-NET. And to the extent that we can marry that with folks in the community offering high speed broadband to folks at affordable prices, then you’ve got an opportunity to marry what we want to do in the school with what Johnny can use when he gets home.
That’s not just the Comcasts and the Verizons. It’s the Microsofts, the CISCOS, and the Googles, consortiums that care about education and want to come in and make a difference.
When you look around the country, what are other cities doing that you’d like to see happen here?
They’re doing a little more with the Code for America stuff. That’s something Bryan [Sivak] wanted to do, and I think we’re going to get into, maybe by the end of this year. Open source code participation, code sharing. That’s something I really like.
The other side of that is I think we’ve promised the local incubation groups out there who want to start business in the city, we have failed as an agency to help them. I have met with some of the folks at Livingsocial, I know a lot of folks in that community, they’re waiting for me to wake up and help them a little bit, now that I’ve got my first year of focusing on what I needed to focus on. I’ve got some plans in that area that I’m working on with Mr. [Victor] Hoskins. We can and we should get involved with some of that stuff.
What would that look like?
It could be finding specific services we could offer incubators, it could be embedding some of our folks within some of their work areas, some public areas that we could perhaps stand up to help drive folks into the city, give them some place to assemble. Let sparks fly, let additional co-innovation happen. There’s no shortage of tech innovators in this city who want to do something positive for the government. They’re all over the place. Shame on us if we don’t take advantage of it.
Will we ever have an open source competition like what New York City had?
We did Apps for Democracy, and it was nice and everything, but wouldn’t it be nice if we could do something better and bigger. Why don’t we do something more lasting? Let’s find ways to continually partner, and not once in a while get some app out of the space, let’s demonstrate that we don’t just want to take we want to have a mutually beneficial relationship, where we’re helping you to create a good business atmosphere, you’re helping us innovate, maybe we can share some tools so that you can give us something back and we can pay you for it. And that I think is the next step beyond Apps for Democracy or Big Apps. Nice to do it, but how about creating an environment where you have a lot more of it and it’s regular and it’s steady.
Your bio still says that you are going to move to D.C. from Maryland. Has that happened yet?
Within three weeks of my confirmation, I had a place to live, but all of my residency paper work had yet to have been filed, and I had to wait until 2012 because I was going to lose a ton of money doing it.
So where are you living?
I am in Dupont Circle.
Mac or PC?
Oh man. I am actually both. I go way back with the Mac. I’ve done a lot more with the PC operating systems than anything. So in my house, I have six PCs and four Macs. I never fell into the “you gotta be Mac or PC.” So you see the Mac on my desk. Day to day, every day, I use my Mac to do my job. But I’m not a Mac snob or a PC snob. I’m an operating system junkie, I’ll admit. I like Ubuntu, I like lots of flavors of Linux. I was on the very first version of Linux back in 1992. So operating systems are kind of a hobby. But I’m a Mac guy, probably, more than a PC guy.