Urgent Matters

Video-game proposal could help FirstNet with LTE decisions

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Can video-game technology help FirstNet determine future public-safety requirements for the nationwide public-safety LTE network? Textron Systems officials believe it can.

We live in a country that operates using the representative democracy model. There’s a very good reason for that—there are more than 315 million people living in the U.S., which makes a direct democracy infeasible. But wouldn’t it be nice if we could weigh in on every legislative matter that is considered at the local, state and federal levels?

A similar thought occurred to project-management firm Textron Systems, which hosted a vendor roundtable a couple of weeks ago in Washington, D.C., that examined the initial work of FirstNet, the entity within the NTIA that is overseeing the effort to design and deploy the first nationwide broadband communications network for first responders that will leverage LTE technology.

Textron believes that NPSTC—which developed the statement of requirements for the network’s launch phase that was submitted to FirstNet in December—and the Public Safety Advisory Committee—which was created to guide FirstNet in the design and implementation of the network—are quality organizations. However, Textron officials believe their perspectives are too narrow to provide FirstNet with the big-picture view it needs to make highly informed decisions.

“There are 60 people on the PSAC, something like that. … is it really fair to ask those 60 people to make the critical decisions about what’s necessary for maybe 20,000 or 30,000 different agencies across the country?” said Paul Hertzberg, Textron’s chief engineer.

To find out what public safety really needs in this network, “we need the guys in the cars to give their opinion,” added Carl Holshouser, the firm’s director of business development.

This brings us back to the premise of this column, which is, how does one go about getting the input of tens of thousands first responders? A survey is out of the question, because it would take too long to gather the information from so many participants and then to crunch the data. Moreover, how the survey is constructed could bias the outcome. Textron had similar thoughts, so they developed a wiki and a video game to do the job. The former already is up and running, while the video game may be ready for launch next month.

“If we had FirstNet’s resources, it would go a lot faster,” Hertzberg joked.

The video game is particularly intriguing, because tens of thousands of first responders can be playing at any given time, which creates an enormous opportunity to generate massive amounts of data for analysis. Users sign in and adopt an avatar, then are immersed in a variety of first-responder scenarios in which they are presented with various communications options.

“The video game—particularly if we can get 10,000, 20,000 or 100,000 people playing—will allow us to record all of that input, and then we’ll be able to automatically parse out all of the features that are used most often,” Hertzberg said.

Hertzberg said that the more information that FirstNet has at its disposal the better, because decisions made in the design stage can have a disproportionately profound impact on the network’s cost and operation.

“If you get off on the wrong foot—if you get the requirements wrong, or if assumptions are made about things that have to be done that, at the end of the day, didn’t need to be done—you don’t find out about that until most of the cost of the system already has been committed,” Hertzberg said.

That’s a bad time to find out.

“That’s because it’s too late to change it,” Hertzberg said. “It’s either too hard to change it at that point in time, or if you do change it, the costs will be astronomical.”

Of course, Textron isn’t doing all of this solely because they have a soft spot for public safety; rather, they’re hoping to impress FirstNet with their ingenuity and initiative enough to be give a project-management role of some sort, a point the Holshouser readily acknowledged.

“We’re betting on the come,” he said.

I have conflicting thoughts on all of this. On the one hand, NPSTC and the PSAC may be small in number, but they are huge in terms of intelligence and experience. I certainly would be comfortable with any recommendations that they would provide to FirstNet.

On the other hand, I’ve always believed that you can’t have too much information when you’re trying to make an informed decision, especially when the stakes are high. We live in the “Big Data” era, and if Textron’s wiki and video game can gather and analyze an enormous amount of data efficiently and quickly enough, why wouldn’t FirstNet give them a chance to do so? Knowledge is today’s currency, and this might be a chance for FirstNet to enrich its knowledge base.

Discuss this Blog Entry 1

Fragile Swan (not verified)
on Feb 22, 2013

You state that the United States is a, "representative democracy," but it's actually a, "constitutional republic".

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