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Inside New York City's Digital City Hall

BY Nick Judd | Tuesday, February 15 2011

New Yorkers may soon be able to send complaints via text message, the city's commissioner of the city Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, Carole Post, said at a Social Media Week event on Friday.

SMS is "on the horizon" for New York City's 311 service, she said during a panel presentation with city Economic Development Corporation President Seth Pinsky and the city's new chief digital officer, Rachel Sterne.

When Post focused on complaints, Pinsky quickly interjected: "Complaints, inquiries, or compliments."

The crowd in the room, an audience of about 200 in an event space below ground level at the Paley Center for Media in midtown Manhattan, laughed appreciatively.

The city officials spoke at a panel titled "Open Government and The Transformation of New York City's Digital Environment," which was a bit of an ambitious ring to give to an event which, more than anything else, seemed an opportunity for the trio to introduce the city's initial stabs at public participation online as well-intentioned even if the bureaucracy does not fully understand the world they're getting themselves into.

Playing off a misstep by the moderator, who mistakenly said that Sterne has been with the city for three years — it's been three weeks — Post repeatedly said she wished Sterne had been there that long. For her part, Sterne described a community of social media managers inside government teaching themselves more technical skills, like programming, and indicated that part of her job would be identifying and connecting people like them inside government.

"We're getting there," Post said in answer to a question about crowdsourcing. "We're there in some respects. It's a place where we need to go and where we will go."

She said that initial pilot projects were in the works in the city, first to crowdsource ideas internally. The city is also on the roster to get an iteration of the "Give a Minute" campaign, a collaboration with the non-profit CEOs for Cities that will deliver a platform for New Yorkers to submit ideas to the city. The New York implementation is different from implementations in other cities in that it allows citizens to form groups around one another's ideas, which are viewed on a map. The basic principle is the same, however: The project works because principals inside the city's power structure make a commitment to read and respond to a selection of the ideas, which will all be tied to a central theme.

Post and Pinsky also double-teamed the city's single best showing in the open-government realm, the New York City DataMine, a central portal for machine-readable data made available to the public. The city's second annual contest for apps built on top of that data, the BigApps contest, is well under way. Pinsky described the argument, familiar to techPresident readers, that applications built on government data can be an economic boon. He also described the EDC's efforts to foster the technology community in New York City, including its collaboration on an incubator space, General Assembly.

Pinsky also mentioned reforms to the way the Industrial Development Agency, an arm of the EDC that procures tax-exempt bond financing for some major projects in the city, handles and releases its own data. IDA meetings — which are in many cases a first glance at how the city proposes to use public financing for neighborhood-altering projects that promise substantial benefit to private developers and thus, by all rights, should be less opaque — are now broadcast live over the Internet, for example. The EDC also releases more data about projects that are up for consideration — although they are still released as machine-unfriendly PDFs — and has started up email lists for people interested in getting the data.

Oh, and they have a tumblr.

If all of this seems light on input from Sterne, who is probably the city's newest C-level employee, that's because it kind of was. She's been there three weeks and her first responsibility is to take three months to compile a report on what the city is doing already, with initiatives like the ones that Pinsky's and Post's staffs are working on.

How she does that from the Office of Media an Entertainment, where she draws a six-figure and has a C-level title despite managing no staff, is not clear to many. Because she's young (27), has no real public sector experience and comes from a private enterprise, GroundReport, that was not particularly financially successful, she took lots of flak when she was hired.

In her remarks, Sterne reiterated her role as she's already described it: Coordinate the city's social media efforts, improve the "customer experience" for New Yorkers interacting with their local government online, and reach out to "startups, or large technology companies, or developers" looking to build on city data or partner with government. Besides backing General Assembly, the city also supports a sort of think-tank/do-tank/academia collaboration around digital media.

"In the first three weeks, it's been amazing to see the innovation that is happening," Sterne said, "to see the social media managers who are teaching themself how to code and teaching themselves new languages."

And despite her critics, Sterne is well-connected in the New York City technology scene, where "fail fast" is a mantra and there's no disgrace to be had in trying something that didn't work so long as you make fixes and try again. Personal Democracy Forum's founder, Andrew Rasiej, has also been a vocal supporter of hers.

Sterne's report should be due sometime in March.