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NYC Mayoral Candidates Outline Post-Bloomberg Tech Agendas

BY Miranda Neubauer | Thursday, August 15 2013

Screenshot of WABC debate

Four leading candidates for New York City, who already are using technology to reach out to voters, recently outlined their technology policy priorities in interview sessions hosted by the New York Tech Meetup* at ThoughtWorks headquarters in late July, emphasizing the importance of education, accessibility, transparency, infrastructure, partnerships with the technology community and affordability. The videos of these sessions were posted late Monday; Meetup executive director Jessica Lawrence said that the interviews are continuing and more videos will be posted soon.

Christine Quinn
City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, running in the Democratic primary, highlighted the challenge of affordable housing which she says is a big concern for the CEOs of companies from all backgrounds, and the need to improve education through an emphasis on literacy and offering tablets instead of textbooks. She emphasized the importance of complementing the Roosevelt Island technology campus with the Brooklyn Tech Triangle and partnerships with CUNY and groups like Coalition for Queens.

In addition to the Department of Information Technology & Telecommunications, Quinn said she would have a CIO or CTO in the mayor's office to ensure that technology is a priority across all agencies, to help work on breaking down "silos," and to reach out to the technology community.

She pointed to several city government challenges where she said the technology community could help come up with solutions. She noted her recent experience spending a night in a New York City Housing Authority apartment, and noted that the agency had not received a complaint about mold in the bathroom. "Why do we have a system where we can't track what NYCHA maintenance is? .. Why don't we have a system that actually can give us some sense of how much we have to expand the staffing for what period of time to get us out of the backlog?" In another area, she mentioned difficulties in obtaining a list of the full-day Pre-K seats run the by the DOE and those run by non-profits. "What we need also with that information is a way to track the children that get born in New York City," she said, to help plan the need for school seats. Technologists could also help with providing services to the veterans' community, especially addressing challenges in finding, contacting and connecting with veterans, she said.

Quinn noted that the City Council had partnered with Kickstarter to promote job growth in low-income communities, and said she would look to do more such partnerships from the mayoral office.

"We're really still in a real estate EDC mindset," she said. "One of the things I want to do is break open EDC to the 21st century economies that are going to diversify New York." She also said she would be interested in learning about and addressing the regulation challenges facing the technology industry in addition to those facing traditional businesses, noting a recent discussion she participated in with AirBnB regarding Albany regulations.

In response to one question, Quinn said she did not think increased use of technology would lead to a reduction in public service workers. "Are there ways we can automate that can help us, absolutely, are there ways we can automate that might end up with fewer people in X position which means we can move those people to other positions that only people can do, yes."

Quinn said she would set up a broadband commission and get feedback from the technology community on ways to improve connectivity such as through changes to franchise agreements or the city charter.

William Thompson
Former Comptroller William Thompson, running in the Democratic primary, said he planned to make New York City "the most connected city in the world." Citing the examples of Kansas City and Seoul, he emphasized the need to invest in technological infrastructure . "As mayor, I'll view access to high-speed, affordable Internet just like we view access to water and electricity." He said he would offer tax-credits to companies to business that offer accessibility to low-cost broadband service, particularly in low income communities and also try to address that issue through city contracts.

He also criticized the spending on technology contracts under the Bloomberg administration. Thompson said he would establish a position of Deputy Mayor for Innovation and Technology. Currently, he said, each agency deals with technology contracts in its own silo. The new deputy mayor position would "oversee the planning and execution of large, complex and cross-agency projects, and establish a more fair and competitive contracting process that incorporates smaller companies, startups and minority and women-owned businesses." The deputy mayor would also set up advisory groups to help bring in outside insight from the technology community to help look for creative solutions in policing and other areas. He suggested that technology policy under the Bloomberg administration functioned too much like an economic development corporation that "makes its own decisions and is responsible to nobody."

Thompson said he would offer $25,000 incentives for STEM, start-up and tech empowerment zones, with at least one in each borough close to accessible transportation, and offer tax abatements to help promote more workplace and campus settings for entrepreneurs.

Citing the example of the Pathways In Technology Early College High School in Brooklyn, he emphasized the importance of expanding STEM training in public schools and community colleges. He also suggested digitizing school and building plans to improve accuracy in the event of an emergency situation.

Thompson also proposes a letter grade system for telecom and Internet service providers, similar to the restaurant grading system, to inform about cost, speed, up and down time, access and wait time for repairs in every New York zip code, which he said will help promote competition and transparency. He also said he would launch a New York City Technology fellows program, modeled after the Obama administration's presidential innovation fellows program. Members of the public could earn "digital badges" offered by city universities through free massive open online courses focused on language and financial literacy.

Highlighting his plan to reduce Department of Buildings bureaucracy to make it easier to install fiber-networks and solar panels, he emphasized the need to grow beyond the city's reliance on the finance, insurance and real estate industry.

John Liu
Current Comptroller John Liu, running in the Democratic Primary, emphasized his work to implement the open-source Checkbook NYC platform that allows the public to access detailed New York City financial contract information.

"I'll be the first to admit that the Internet traffic to the Comptroller's website [is] not all that heavy," he said. "But once we launched Checkbook NYC that did wonders for our traffic volume." Building on town hall meetings his office held on topics like audits, he said one next step would be to use technology to hold virtual town halls.

He also noted the importance of the electrical grid, telecommunication and transportation as part of a reliable infrastructure. "We are not a wireless city...Not a day goes by where my calls do not get dropped, and meanwhile just a number of months ago, I was in Seoul, Korea, and everything was connected. Everything. We're not anywhere close to some global cities who really are our rivals of today's 21st century economy." He said he would be more stringent in pressuring big telecom companies and monopoly franchises to uphold their agreements, citing the current dispute between Time Warner Cable and CBS.

In addition to making sure that students are exposed to technology at an early age, he said he would work to make sure that all students in middle school have access to free WiFi and improve Internet access to schools. He criticized the Bloomberg administration's handling of technology projects and contracts, especially its hiring of consultants, and vowed to draw lessons from projects that he claimed had been unsuccessful , such as a wireless network called NYCWiN. He said his priorities for improving online access to and transparency for agencies would be the Department of Education, the Department of Buildings and the Economic Development Corporation.

Jack Hidary
First-time independent candidate Jack Hidary, running for the November general election, emphasized his own technology credentials and entrepreneurial and public service background. "I was a real geek growing up," Hidary said, noting that he went to computer camp at an early age and sent his first e-mail in 1982. He emphasized his experience growing companies and platforms that allowed "techies" to share and develop code like Java, such as Gamelan, and acquiring Dice.com, which he said is now the top job board for the tech industry.

"When you look at our industry, the number one need right now ... is the need for more human capital," he said. "We've got to focus on a radical, audacious, transformation of education." He said that most schools right now use an 18th century education system focused on textbooks and exams, while companies are looking for problem solving, teamwork and communication skills. He praised the East Side Community High School, the Academy of Software Engineering, the Brooklyn School of Inquiry and the Soundview Academy for putting an emphasis on technology, filmmaking and an entrepreneurial mindset. While he praised the Bloomberg administration's emphasis on accountability, he said it is now important to focus on the student experience and foster creativity and expand those alternative approaches to more schools. He also emphasized the importance of building on the higher education technology projects set in motion by Mayor Bloomberg and expanding adult technology education bootcamps throughout the five boroughs.

To make New York City more attractive to entrepreneurs, he said he would reach out to his Silicon Valley connections to encourage more companies to open New York offices and invite students from engineering schools from around the world. He also said he would work to promote the opening of new tech company offices in less high-profile areas of the city that have affordable housing and good transportation, and improve connectivity. "Key to my plan is making sure we're most wired city in the nation to enable those companies to come and plug in," he said, citing the example of Kansas City.

"311 might be considered the only innovation in the past 20 years in government," Hidary said, as he emphasized the need for better citizen and government connectivity. "Every person should have a unique ID and log-in to New York City. That should be a comprehensive thing both for individuals and companies," he said. "When you have to deal with the Department of Buildings, you should be able to track everything electronically." In addition, he suggested replacing the parking munimeters with phones. He also emphasized the importance of government facilitating services offered by private companies, such as Nextdoor.com.

Highlighting the importance of advocating for immigration reform, Hidary said his technology background and Washington D.C. experience would make him a good advocate for that issue on the federal level. He noted that he had worked as a field operator for the Obama campaign in Florida and Pennsylvania, and was known in the administration and on the Hill.

"My campaign is a start-up," Hidary said. "We went from zero to 70 people in three weeks." Noting his hiring of Joe Trippi, Hidary said his campaign planned to "reach millions of New Yorkers in the next six to eight weeks" using a hybrid online/offline approach, with staff from the Bloomberg and Obama administration. Looking towards a possible future administration, he highlighted his "kitchen cabinet" with regard to education, including John Katzman, founder of the Princeton Review and Noodle Education, Nitzan Pelman, executive director at NextDoor and founding executive director at Citizen Schools, and Mark Federman, principal of East Side Community High. "The current candidates out there, mainly career politicians, they've had their chance, they've had their opportunity to fix things, change things... and that has not happened. I'm not a career politician."

Meanwhile, Bloomberg Administration is Still At It
Many of the topics discussed echo issues being raised in listening sessions the NYC Digital office has been hosting throughout the five boroughs as the office works on a new edition of the city's Digital Roadmap. On Tuesday, one such listening session took place in Long Island City, Queens in cooperation with Code for America and Coalition for Queens. At the event, Chief Digital Officer Rachel Haot emphasized how Mayor Michael Bloomberg had been able to draw on his background as a technologist and entrepreneur to promote innovation within city government.

Rachel Haot in Queens (David Yang/Coalition for Queens via NYC Digital Tumblr)

Areas of success she pointed to included WiFi being available in public parks through partnerships with technology companies and through several payphones. A federal stimulus program, the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, had helped bring broadband to community centers serving low-income residents and over 20,000 6th graders. She also noted the NYC Digital Vans, mobile computer labs that offer technology access to residents of Housing Authority homes and promote their services through Twitter.

She noted how the first city hackathon had influenced templates for the relaunch of nyc.gov, which is set to go live later this fall, and highlighted how 311 had expanded to respond to queries on Twitter and through text messages. Haot also emphasized the role technology had played in city's response to Hurricane Sandy, from making data available about evacuation zones, significantly growing the city's social media and YouTube following and engagement, and leading to the establishment of the Code Corps response team.

She also pointed out how the city maintained a map of technology companies, highlighting those that are hiring, partnering with some to offer summer jobs to young people, and offered training to traditional businesses on how to establish a digital presence. She also noted that the imminent launch of .NYC top-level domain, the first one for a city in the country.

Later in breakout sessions, attendees came up with their own suggestions in the areas of access, education, open government, engagement, infrastructure and industry. Suggestions included increased outreach to multilingual and diverse communities, spreading awareness of open data to beyond the tech population, a personal New York City account for everything from moving addresses to CitiBike data, a repository of apps to deploy in emergency situations, publishing FOIL requests, removing barriers to incorporate technology in schools, mobile power units during emergencies and expediting franchise processes.

Bill DeBlasio on the Rise?
Another approach comes from Public Advocate Bill DeBlasio, who is also a mayoral candidate, leading one of the most recent polls of the candidates in the Democratic primary. In order to highlight the backlog of repair requests at the Housing Authority, his office obtained data on thousands of repair requests from the NYCHA through freedom of information requests. To visualize and map the data, the Public Advocate partnered with New York technology firm Albatross Digital. That company had also worked three years ago on the creation of a map and watchlist of the worst landlords based on number of violations, now one of the most heavily used online resources the Public Advocate offers, according to a press release.

The new tool is built using MapBox, which is based on the open-source OpenStreetMap, Kevin Herman, a partner at Albatross Digital explained. He praised the Public Advocate's office for its understanding of technology and willingness to seek outside suggestions on how best to share and visualize such data. "Representing that many people within one website was a fun challenge," Herman said, noting the 400,000 people in NYCHA housing. "[The Public Advocate's office] was able to deal with the housing authority, [and get the data] ready to be put into Google Fusion, to manipulate and display correctly for us to work with, with everything accurate and clean."

While the original landlord list used Google Maps, Herman said the now available Mapbox tools offer a prettier interface, make it easier to use custom javascript, and offer filters and charts. He said there are plans to create a new version of the landlord map using those new tools. "Staring at those numbers can be intimidating, if you see a map, these are the outstanding repairs, showing one building with a big orange number, it's pretty clear there is a problem there," Herman said. "[With the slumlords map] not only has it got people talking about it, slumlords did what they could to get off it, it's not just a PR campaign, it's actually effective."

*Full disclosure: PDM publisher Andrew Rasiej is also the volunteer chairman of the NY Tech Meetup.