NYC Mayoral Candidates Promise Disruption, SimCity and Hackathons at Gracie Mansion
BY Miranda Neubauer | Friday, August 30 2013
Frontrunning Democratic mayoral contender Bill De Blasio likened his ideas to the "disruptive" nature of technology in a recent interview with the New York Tech Meetup*, emphasizing the importance of transparency, grassroots organizing and engagement in the democratic process, invoking the examples of Barack Obama and Howard Dean. Dean endorsed De Blasio this week.
In late August, De Blasio, Republican Candidate Joe Lhota and Independence Party candidate Adolfo Carrion continued a series of video discussion sessions with the mayoral candidates that were organized by the Tech Meetup and hosted by ThoughtWorks.
Bill de Blasio
In his session, De Blasio praised Mayor Michael Bloomberg for embracing the technology sector and spear-heading the Roosevelt Island technology campus plan. But he criticized how the issue of high-speed Internet access had been handled during the Bloomberg years.
"That was old thinking and old government at its worst," he said. "Verizon got a franchise and then did not provide what it was committed to providing to make sure that people all over the city in every kind of neighborhood got the access they deserve. Well effectively, the city government gave a monopoly, and then didn't enforce the rules."
De Blasio said he wanted to move away from a corporate model of governance to a more inclusive and innovative approach. For example, he said, he wanted to double the number contracts going to smaller, start-up technology firms and use city subsidy money, lines of credit and equity funds to benefit minority and women-owned businesses in the tech sector and businesses that are looking for opportunities in the outer boroughs. Praising the evolution of the tech sector in Brooklyn, he suggested it could serve as a model for other parts of the city and emphasized his affordable housing plan as an important way of achieving those goals.
De Blasio, currently Public Advocate, pointed to his office's work in setting up the online Worst Landlords and the New York City Housing Authority repairs watchlists and said they succeeded in "organizing tenants to fight for their own rights." As techPresident recently reported, his office worked with New York City firm Albatross Digital to implement those tools. As mayor, he said he hoped to expand on those projects, noting that over 300 buildings had gotten heat, hot water and health and safety repairs because the watchlist made violations of the law public.
Looking beyond the Roosevelt Island Cornell/Technion campus, De Blasio outlined how he wanted to cut subsidies to larger companies and spend more to benefit CUNY by establishing a two-year degree in STEM and offering more financial aid.
As mayor, he said he wanted to work to create a stronger connection between public schools and the technology and other business sectors to create more opportunities for mentorships and internships.
Beyond his plan to raise taxes to support early childhood education, De Blasio said he believed a quarter billion dollars of tax payer money a year "is being misused in terms of large corporate subsidies" and said he would intend to "reprogram" that money to benefit small businesses and CUNY. "I've heard people in this community say that with some quick action the effect of more folks getting financial aid and some new programming being provided at CUNY could be felt in just a few years and might have a bigger impact in many ways than the Applied Sciences Center in terms of just the number of people reached and employed."
De Blasio praised the work of New York City's Chief Digital Officer Rachel Haot, but said that as mayor he would have a deputy mayor focused on the growth of the city's tech community. In addition to his affordable housing plan, De Blasio said he would continue Bloomberg's efforts to improve the immigrant experience to make the city attractive to technology employees.
Asked how he intended to support the technology community as it faced numerous regulatory challenges on the federal level, De Blasio pointed to his experience working under Andrew Cuomo as the HUD Secretary and as campaign manager for Hillary Clinton's first Senate campaign, and said he would be a forceful advocate in Washington for New York City interests. "The mayor of New York City is one of the leaders of urban America," he said. "Some of the changes needed would benefit cities all over the country...I would borrow from Mayor Bloomberg's efforts on gun control...but I have a more economic frame...I'm concerned about getting the federal government back into the mass transit and affordable housing business where it was for a half-century and should be and can be again."
Republican candidate Joe Lhota, former chairman and CEO of the MTA and deputy mayor under Rudolph Giuliani, noted in his remarks that he had played a key role in the first implementation of nyc.gov when the domain was purchased and the implementation of the city e-mail system.
As mayor, Lhota said he wanted to build on Bloomberg's embrace of the technology sector and education by continuing to diversify the economy as the established businesses of investment banking and law face decline.
He said he would support eliminating the General Corporate Tax, a tax on capital, which he said is preventing entrepreneurs from starting businesses. "I guarantee you that if you eliminate that alternative GCT tax,.... more and more businesses will start here in New York and more people will be employed," he said.
Lhota emphasized that there was a great need for better technology in government. "God forbid you have to walk into a police precinct tonight. It looks just like you see in a movie or a television show. It's a big wooden desk, probably mahogany, with a sergeant behind the desk, there's a police officer behind the desk, and there's a civilian behind the desk, and in front of that civilian, is an IBM Correcting Selectric, because they still do their police reports in triplicate using carbon paper and using a typewriter," he said. "It's really unfortunate. It's so bad that just about six months ago, the Bloomberg administration put out a request for proposals for typewriter repair services."
He also noted that New York City contractors are required to go to the Buildings Department once a year and "waste a whole day getting your license renewed," while the New York State DMV allows online license updates. Making technology more effective could help reduce the size of the city government, Lhota said, noting that 40 percent of city workers will be retiring over the next four to five years. "The question needs to be asked: do we need to replace all of them? Can we replace one for every two?"
Even though 311 celebrated its 10th anniversary this year, he said, "It's a telephone call center system, there's nothing innovative about a call center system." While New Yorkers can send in text messages, he said that Chicago did a better job of communicating with citizens using smartphones and other technology.
"Transparency means different things to different people, to me, it's enhanced communication," he said. As an example, he said he wanted to communicate to New Yorkers more effectively the constitutional and legal bases for the Stop & Frisk program and also provide more data to improve understanding of the program.
Lhota called himself a "data driven person," noting that he had "sat at the table" when the NYPD crime tracking system CompStat was created. "The value of CompStat is not just the numbers, it's how it can transform a city," he said, noting how it can inform how and where police officers are deployed and pointing out that crime is down 93 percent in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville since 1994.
Asked why the city government still faces so many technological challenges in spite of Bloomberg's technologist background, Lhota said many New York City workers have the attitude that "we've never done it that way before." "That's exactly what drives me crazy about our government and why I like the idea that so many people are going to retire," he said, noting that it is now 30 years since Mayor Ed Koch was able to hire many city workers after coming out of the financial crisis. Lhota said that the Buildings Department's long licensing process is due to the union being unwilling to make changes. "We're going to have to work with the unions to make these changes," he said. "They are afraid of technology, they are literally afraid of it."
He said problems with the implementation of the new 911 system and the CityTime payroll system resulted from the mayor and City Hall letting agency heads determine their implementation. "I think it needs to be more centralized. I think IT needs to be centralized with a better function," he said. As mayor, he said he one of his first tasks would be to evaluate which agencies are using technology well and to analyze the work of the CIOs of those agencies, and be able to rank which agencies are making the best use of technology and match up that ranking with the most effective CIOs. He pointed to the Department of Finance as currently being technologically most advanced with all its work processes computerized and online.
Lhota pointed to his experience at the MTA helping to bring Wi-Fi connectivity to subway platforms, though he said there were security and terrorism related risks to having it in the tunnels. "One of the things I noticed the year I was at the MTA is that the Millennial generation absolutely refuses to get on the bus," he said, which prompted the agency to begin the process of bringing WiFi connectivity to the buses. He said he wanted to work to increase fiber connections underground, increase connectivity in parks and New York City Housing Authority buildings.
Lhota noted the outcry over recent comments in which Mayor Bloomberg suggested "fingerprinting" NYCHA residents for security reasons. "He just used the wrong words...It's not fingerprinting, it's palm printing," Lhota said, recalling his own experience with the technology for I.D. purposes when visiting the doctor at NYU Medical Center. "Unfortunately he used the term fingerprinting, which has a criminal connotation to it." He added that all city buildings should have the capability to see who is at the door before buzzing someone in.
Lhota said he would continue the work of the NYC Digital Office and build on his experience at the MTA making data available to the technology community for the development of applications. "One of the things I want to do which is different and I wish I had the time at the MTA...I would love to create a SimCity for the city budget," he said. "You want to have transparency on the city budget? Why don't you all play with me on how we can balance the budget in the out years. Where are we prioritizing our money? Where is it going? Why is it going there? And to start thinking about what we can do both on the revenue side and on the expense side broken down by agency and number of employees."
Lhota, who earlier also said his campaign was using "interesting" technology to win the Republican primary, said he carried an iPhone, an iPad and a BlackBerry to use the PIN function to communicate with his wife and daughter.
Independence Party Candidate Adolfo Carrion, a former Bronx Borough President and Director of the White House Office of Urban Affairs under President Obama, emphasized his urban planning background and his vision of a "smart city." He said he wanted to look to the technology sector for inspiration on how to deliver city services to citizens in a user friendly way "in the palm of their hand" and use technology to bridge the disconnect between government and citizens, especially in light of low voter turnout. .
"Imagine that Adolfo Carrion is in Gracie Mansion and he invites you over for a hackathon," he said. "And he says folks, we've got a menu of challenges, let's start with how do we deal with a universal system for ensuring that you can use your one card to go from a ferry to a bus, to the subway, to the airport ... you guys will go to work on that."
He said he wanted to make the pipes, wires and supply chains of the city smarter and more effective by, for example, using technology to signify which trash cans are full to enable a more efficient pick-up. "I see a day where we have wired hard infrastructure that says to us: There is a water pipe about to burst on 7th Avenue and thirty-something street, it's this old, it has a pressure point that is about to crack, it'll happen in two weeks, let's get a team out there and avoid the disruption to traffic, the disruption to the economy and just imagine that multiplied many times over," he said.
Carrion said he wanted to apply the best practices learned from charter and magnet schools to other public schools, with an emphasis on more authority for principals and more technology in classrooms. "We disallow technology in the classroom now, it's the way that kids discover the world, we're actually going backwards instead of forwards in our education process," he said, adding that teachers should also be able to use more technology.
Carrion said he was a big supporter of government transparency, emphasizing that he would have an "Open NYC" policy.
He pointed to his experience as Bronx Borough President where he said he faced opposition to change from workers, corporations and politicians over plans to remake the Yankee Stadium area. The project, he noted, required action from then-Governor George Pataki, the New York legislature, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the City Council. In challenging the conventional wisdom in being able to implement the wide ranging plan, Carrion said, "we hacked away at the conventional notions, the fears, and we did it through having conversations with folks on the ground." As mayor, he said he would put an emphasis on traditional town halls but also virtual feedback opportunities for citizens.
He said he would make it a priority to give parents "palm of the hand" access to their children's school records, create an NYC pass to allow New Yorkers to take the subway, ferry or pay their parking fees and make it more efficient to submit and get responses to city complaints.
Earlier this month, the New York Tech Meetup posted video interviews with candidates Christine Quinn, Bill Thompson, John Liu and Jack Hidary.
Quinn, a formerly leading candidate who has faced trouble in the polls in the week, has also been making technology policy a key part of her campaign beyond her NYTM discussion, announcing her endorsement by Sheryl Sandberg, outlining a plan to spur technology investment in Long Island City, Queens and announcing a plan to create one all-girls STEM-focused middle school in each of the five boroughs.
*Disclosure: PDM co-founder Andrew Rasiej is the volunteer chairman of the NY Tech Meetup board.