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Bloomberg's Final Digital Roadmap Sets Stage for Successor

BY Miranda Neubauer | Monday, October 21 2013

Bloomberg discussing innovation in cities on Oct. 7 (Mayor's Office/Flickr)

New York City officials envision a future where a social media analytics platform, and crowdsourcing, could help provide early warnings of emergencies; where free WiFi could emanate from buildings and street furniture; where public housing residents would have free Internet access; where the "sharing economy" is able to flourish; where New Yorkers could complain to 311 about their Internet service, have a personalized online account to access city services and where developers would have access to more APIS.

These are some of the ideas outlined in a report released by the Bloomberg administration and compiled based on feedback from New Yorkers through listening sessions held in the five boroughs and on social media.

Technology has not been a big focus of the New York City General Election campaign, but buried in this report and the candidates' websites are several specific proposals that hint at what the digital and technology priorities of the next New York City mayor could look like.

The Bloomberg administration's final Digital Roadmap report outlines 40 initiatives that have been underway since Bloomberg established the NYC Digital office in 2011 and named Rachel Haot Chief Digital Officer, in the areas of expanding broadband and WiFi access, expanding technology education, expanding open government efforts, increasing online engagement and stepping up support of the technology industry.

The report claims that the city has achieved 100 percent of the technology goals it set in 2011, but also outlines new potential priorities and challenges for the next administration.

Among the initiatives the report points to as successes include a federally funded program helping to provide discounted broadband access to over 50,000 low-income residents; digital vans offering Internet access to New York City Housing Authority residents, serving over 4,000 people; increased public Wi-Fi in public spaces, and efforts to create more Internet provider choice and to expand the availability of fiber-optic broadband through microtrenching.

In the area of open government and engagement, the report highlights the city's APIs and support of developers, the 26 hackathons the city has organized or participated in, the Code Corps program to prepare digital responses to emergencies post-Hurricane Sandy, the expansion of 311 to mobile and the city's social media presence, the redesign of and the city's open data platform. The report notes that among the top ten most popular datasets are WiFi hotspot locations, 311 Service requests from 2010 to present, subway entrances, a map of parks and electric consumption by Zip Code in 2010.

Anthony Townsend, author of Smart Cities, said he had only had a chance to skim the report, but wrote in an e-mail that "my sense was that there is very little new - it's mostly continuation of existing programs and a victory lap for Rachel [Haot] and Bloomberg."

As part of the process to address future goals and needs, NYC Digital worked with groups like Code for America, Coalition for Queens and others to organize listening sessions across the city, like in the video of this one in Long Island City, Queens, which this reporter attended, and where attendees had opportunities to make their own suggestions.

Looking Ahead
A recurring theme in many of the proposals is how technology could help the city respond to the next emergency situation like Hurricane Sandy.

One overarching proposal is for the city to establish CodeLab, "a small web and mobile development team that is able to quickly prototype and launch new projects, introduce pioneering technology enhancements to the City's platforms and offer support to agency technology initiatives."

Building on the pilot program to offer free WiFi through pay phones, the report suggests using other city-owned infrastructure to deliver free WiFI and creating a unified WiFi sign-on page. "Options can range from buildings to street furniture, and could generate revenue for the City budget via licensing to providers. In other scenarios, the infrastructure can be available at no cost to providers in exchange for free public access and other services," the report says.

In addition, the report suggests that Internet connectivity could become part of the 311 service, allowing residents to submit reports on broadband installation or service concerns related to their landlords or Internet providers.

Addressing issues raised by Hurricane Sandy, the report recommends expanding the city's ability to deploy mobile charging stations and cell service towers, setting up battery-operated transmitters within telecommunications infrastructure to signal when systems are low on power and establishing building guidelines about where to locate generators, fuel pumps and other systems.

The report emphasizes an expansion of open government and engagement capabilities.

One suggestion is to add a "Write" functionality to the city's 311 Content API "meaning that developers can create applications that send data directly to the City channels for processing Service Requests." Eventually, the report notes, users might be able to request the planting of a tree through social media or report a pothole through a blog. The report also proposes to expand the number of city APIs beyond the current six, for example with a payments API making it easier to pay parking tickets, water bills and other transactions, and a restaurant inspection results API that would allow tracking the inspections in real-time. Another recommendation is the implementation of sensors that automatically submit alerts about status changes in city infrastructure, potentially reducing duplicate 311 requests or staff visits about issues such as park benches and streetlights.

The report proposes the establishment of a single ID and personalized dashboard for residents to interact with city services such as 311, pay their parking tickets, apply for permits and get locally relevant alerts and information. "The personalized dashboard has the potential to completely transform the user experience of engaging with New York City government by making that interaction as seamless, rewarding and efficient as possible," the report adds. "In order to achieve this, 311 can explore implementing an internal Customer Relationship Management platform, bringing together all agency services and transactions with the user as their focal point."

With regards to the city's growing technology industry, the report proposes to explore ways to welcome the "sharing economy" while ensuring accordance with the law and the safety and health of New York City residents. To that end, the report recommends the establishment of an advisory council comprised of "sharing economy representatives" and city officials "to help explore and shape a constructive path for industry growth."

The Last Two Weeks of #NYC2013

The second New York City mayoral debate takes place Tuesday, but so far, with the exception of some of the topics brought up during Democrat Bill De Blasio's Reddit AMA, digital and technology subjects have not been a major part of the general election mayoral campaign, with Election Day a little over two weeks way. Most of the major ads and the first TV debate between De Blasio and Republican Joe Lhota have focused on the larger subjects of affordable housing, public safety, taxes, charter schools and early childhood education.

On his website, leading candidate De Blasio outlines his plans for a "Progressive Vision for a Thriving New York City Tech Industry," including the creation of a two year STEM program and tech scholarship at CUNY, the expansion of economic development hubs such as the Brooklyn Tech Triangle, better coordination of the city's workforce development and job placement programs, increasing the number of Career and Technical Education programs in high schools, the establishment of a $100 million NYC Innovation Equity Fund to invest in promising tech firms that meet criteria for benefiting their communities, expanding support for the tech campus projects and emphasizing the need for immigration reform.

In a section on improving government, he calls for reforming the Freedom of Information Law, including establishing "a unified online source to file, process and track all FOIL requests" and posting "online information that is most-frequently sought by FOIL request," and expanding participatory budgeting. In the section on Jobs, he vows that he will work to ensure that "affordable, high-speed fiber Internet reaches all New York City households within five years."

In his policy book, Lhota proposes a tech campus in every borough, establishing free online community college programs, supporting incentives for co-working and incubator spaces in every borough, and removing the city's General Corporation Tax, which he says hinders the growth of start-ups.

One candidate who also might bring more technology discussion to the debates is technology entrepreneur Jack Hidary, an independent candidate. Though he has run some online and TV ads, he wrote in an e-mail to supporters Friday that "despite our requests, the polling firms have not included us in their polls. And without being in the polls, we cannot enter the debates."

In the e-mail, he pointed to media coverage of his campaign in Forbes and WNYC, and noted that he had delivered a keynote panel on "The State of NYC Tech" at TechWeek.

In a New York Times article published Saturday, Hidary says that "What's fascinating about this election right now is that there's really a vacuum in terms of core, concrete ideas. That's the vacuum we intend to fill."

He has published many of his policy ideas on his website, emphasizing education, support for small businesses, public safety, budget management, immigration advocacy, support for seniors, environmental initiatives, investment in arts and culture, ending the euthanization of animals and modernizing the transportation system, and has created a whiteboard videos about his education plan and economic plan.

According to the Times, his campaign has spent $150,000 on TV and online advertising. In addition, according to the article, he has the support of a Super Pac called New Yorkers United, which has spent $101,500 for a poll.

Kathryn Wylde, the president of the Partnership for New York City, told the New York Times that Hidary received an enthusiastic reception when he spoke to tech entrepreneurs and venture capitalists at an event hosted by the group. "He was their favorite of all the mayoral candidates in terms of somebody who understood their industry and their interests and who would pursue Bloomberg's effort to make the city the center of innovation," she said. "He was single-focused, and they responded," but, she added in the article, "It's unclear that he has a good understanding of what else is required to be mayor."

Meanwhile, New York City's emphasis on technology education will get some high profile attention later this week when President Obama on Friday visits the Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH) in Brooklyn, which he mentioned in the State of the Union.