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Digital divide needs to be addressed, says city's first Chief Innovation and Technology officer

Adel Ebeid almost thought he was undergoing a form of frat-boy initiation, when during his first week on the job as the City of Philadelphia’s first Chief Innovation Officer, the region was rocked by an earthquake and then Hurricane Irene. As it turned out, the naturally occurring forces served to uncover details about the city’s technology.

“It was an excellent exercise in immediately getting to know who’s who and understand how, in a state of crisis, the city communicates and the flow of vital information,” says Ebeid, 47. “I couldn’t have asked for a better Philly 101.”

Ebeid, who previously served as head of IT for the State of New Jersey since 2006, was hired in mid-August thanks in part to a heavy courtship from Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter. On Aug. 22, Nutter signed an executive order establishing the Office of Innovation and Technology, which replaces the former Division of Technology headed by Allen Franks.

Ebeid says the goal is to rebrand the office (and IT culture) as an enabler and catalyst for helping city agencies improve their operations so they're better able to provide services to city residents and businesses. That's part of Nutter's vision that motivated Ebeid to come to Philly.

“We are ambassadors for how to take IT to the next level,” says the Egyptian native, who moved to the U.S. when he was 10 years old. “Sometimes you gain power by giving up power.”

For an innovation agenda to thrive, Ebeid says the city needs to understand obstacles to internet and broadband penetration. Ebeid says the latest figures he has seen reveal a whopping 41 percent of the city does not have internet access.

"That's quite high for the fifth-largest urban city in the country,” says Ebeid. "I can't figure if it’s an adoption, access or affordability issue, or a combination of all three."

Fortunately, there are already initiatives in place to help narrow the city's digital divide.

Just last week, Nutter was on hand during a press event introducing Internet Essentials, an ambitious, Comcast-led program for comprehensive broadband adoption that will provide families in Philadelphia with children who are eligible for free school lunches with low-cost Internet service, affordable computers and digital literacy training.

Ebeid is also excited about the city’s Freedom Rings partnership that brings together grassroots organizations, government and universities to establish 77 public computer centers, provide hands-on training to 15,000 residents, distribute 5,000 computers to public housing residents and generate 5,000 new broadband household subscribers and 50 small-business subscribers.

"Andrew Buss from my staff has done an excellent job managing this project and I plan to do everything i can to support him and his staff bring the project to a successful completion," he says.

Last Wednesday it was announced that Philadelphia was again selected as a partner for next year’s Code For America program, which unleashes the power of talented developers, designers and product managers on a city for a year to help create more open, participatory and efficient city government.

Ebeid says that in order for already underway projects, like PhillyStat or 311, to advance to the next level, the city’s IT infrastructure needs to be stabilized and secured. Last week, as reported in Technically Philly, Ebeid called for a 30-45 day moratorium on any new technologies within the city’s IT framework to "allow time to establish the appropriate management processes so that the City’s IT infrastructure can grow in a structured fashion but, more importantly, build the staffing capacity needed to sustain it for the long term."

Says Ebeid: "Very little can be achieved unless we have a stable infrastructure foundation in place. I didn’t count on that being my first priority but it now has my complete undivided attention until my staff can regain their confidence."

Source: Adel Ebeid, City of Philadelphia Office of Innovation and Technology
Writer: Joe Petrucci
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