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Bloomberg's "Connected City": E-govt Instead of We.Gov

BY Micah L. Sifry | Friday, October 2 2009

Yesterday, New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg announced his "Connected City" initiative, rolling out a series of programs aimed at transforming how New Yorkers interact with and get services from city government. Building on his administration’s valuable 311 program, he promised to make government more accessible by translating city websites into six languages, distributing more information via Twitter (follow @311nyc) and social networking sites, enabling users to fine-tune their usage of NYC.gov around their personal information needs, and creating a free iPhone application allowing people to submit quality-of-life complaints to 311 directly from their phone.

Speaking at the IBM SmarterCities Forum in Manhattan, he declared:

Every day, new technological innovations help make information flow faster, systems work better and our lives a little easier. But often, when it comes to adopting new technology, governments lag behind the private sector and even the casual consumer because they are unwilling or unable to try something new and change the way things have always been done. That’s small-minded thinking. In serving the public, government should constantly be looking for new and better ways to provide information and services. The creation of 311 was a major advancement in that effort, but we never stop looking for ways to improve. The programs of the Connected City Initiative represent the latest steps we’re taking to employ technology to serve New Yorkers better.

Unfortunately, the Mayor's vision is still based on an outdated understanding of government-as-vending-machine (we put money in as taxpayers, they deliver services) rather than a platform (we are enabled by government to connect people together around identifying problems and solutions and acting together in small and big ways). [h/t to Tim O'Reilly for this analogy.]

It's the difference between thinking about the web to deliver e-government vs We.gov. Instead of using the web to enable city residents to connect to each other as they choose around relevant interests and city data relating to those interests, this plan keeps city agencies at the center of the communications hub (or bottleneck) and offers just a few new services to city residents.

Don't get me wrong. There's plenty of good stuff in Bloomberg's plan. For example, it's great that vital public information is going to be made available in more languages, for example. But if New York's leaders weren't still working from a vending-machine mindset, they'd realize that in the platform model, hundreds of civic-minded volunteers could easily be enlisted to rapidly help translate the city's websites into dozens of languages, not just the top six promised. (See this great video from the Extraordinaries, and the Dotsub site in general, for examples of how this could be done.)

Take Bloomberg's description of “MyNYC.gov,” a new web feature that will enable users of the city's NYC.gov hub to create their own customized version based on their needs and preferences. "MyNYC.gov will feature an optional, customized dashboard for quick and centralized access to information relevant to the user, with contact information automatically populating forms," says City Hall's press release. To be sure, that will make some people’s browsing experience more efficient, but it still reinforces their dependence on the city as information provider.

In eseence, they're still treating NYC.gov like a digital storefront: citizens can look in the window, or even knock on the door and get some information from the nice attendant at the desk. But we can't see what that person sees on her computer screen when she digs into 311 databases, or connect to other people like us with similar interests, the way we all do when we use social networking sites like Facebook or MySpace.

Instead of launching just one iPhone app, why not put all 311 data--which New Yorkers already own--directly onto the web so that people with good ideas could make many useful mobile apps? This could not only enhance how New Yorkers access and use city services, but enable innovators to create new kinds of services themselves. Washington, DC has already done this, and reaped millions of dollars in benefits.

Yes, Bloomberg is taking a step in the right direction with his "Big Apps" contest, and he mentioned it yesterday: “We don’t know what we’ll get from it, but you have to find out. There a lot of smart people out there. You create a competition and you go for it,” he said in a press conference after his speech. But here again, public information is being controlled and dribbled out carefully, rather than shared in full.

One intriguing idea buried in the Mayor's plan is a call to develop neighborhood “wikis” – collaborative websites whose content can be edited by users – “to share ideas for how technology could be leveraged to solve everyday problems faced by New Yorkers living and working in different communities across the five boroughs.”

This idea at least acknowledges something we New Yorkers already know--that we have the ability to connect to each other using tools like email, blogs and wikis to do all sorts of things, including strengthen our neighborhoods. But if this proposal was hooked directly into a much more robust vision of MyNYC.gov, one that immediately starts allowing neighbors to opt in to access and share information with each other on a common, citywide public website, then Mike Bloomberg would be a lot further to claiming to be the Mayor of a truly connected New York.

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