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Digital Engagement Starting to Be New Normal in New York City Council and City Hall

BY Miranda Neubauer | Friday, February 21 2014

Google Hangout with Ben Kallos

Newly-elected New York City Council member Ben Kallos' constituent event Thursday afternoon was unusual in several respects: there were some connectivity problems, and the issues discussed ranged from a proposed municipal ID system and the Comcast/Time Warner merger to proprietary software used by the City Council and data analytics.

Kallos hosted a Google Hangout with about ten participants to announce his online constituent services, including SeeClickFix, and to discuss issues of concern to his constituents and the New York City technology community. For the SeeClickFix effort, he is building on an established program run by the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation, which has been using the platform on the island, part of his district along with the Upper East Side, since 2010.

During the hangout, Kallos said he would like to work on negotiating a contract to implement SeeClickFix more broadly in New York City, along with other similar services. He also announced that constituents could contact him via Skype or text to a Google Voice number in addition to attending regular open meetings in his office and throughout his district. He noted that even though there is a perception about the Upper East Side being very wealthy, there are still many residents, especially the more elderly, who may have feature phones but no Internet access.

Kallos isn't the first city political official to make these moves. SeeClickFix has also already been in use by a Brooklyn Community Board and Bronx City Council member Fernando Cabrera, who has also been using texting since 2010.

Kallos also talked about receiving and responding to several constituent requests over social media in connection with the recent snowstorms.

Using the Google Hangout's chat function, participants such as Joe Kerns, co-founder of the start-up and a volunteer with the New York City Code for America brigade betaNYC, and Chris Whong, a data solutions activist at Socrata who is co-captain of betaNY, asked questions about the degree to which information about constituent services prompted by social media and other avenues is available as public data for analysis.

While noting that Queens Council member Jimmy Van Bramer has a made a habit of releasing an overview of his constituent service work, Kallos explained that the challenge with being public about that data is that requests can range from personal issues such as disputes with neighbors to snow removal concerns. "I want to work with you to try and figure out how to parse how many calls are going to 311 and how many are going to council members [while protecting personal information]," Kallos said.

He also noted that City Council staff are reevaluating their internal use of Intranet Quorum, the proprietary Lockheed Martin constituent services platform, and are comparing it with open-source platforms such as CiviCRM.

As techPresident previously reported, Kallos was one of the first Council members to embrace AskThem, the new platform from the Participatory Politics Foundation. He is also putting an emphasis on transparency in his role as chair of the Government Operations Committee, which has its first hearing next Friday.

On Thursday, AskThem sent a message to users in the New York City area to encourage them to sign and share questions to Kallos and Brooklyn Council member Antonio Reynoso about a proposed marine trash transfer site on the Upper East Side and parking improvements so the questions would reach a threshold for a response. The first response on the site came from Council member Brad Lander in response to a question about affordable housing.

Kallos, along with Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, will be speaking this weekend at the start of #CodeAcrossNYC2014, a betaNYC hackathon effort aimed at creating tools for use by community board and City Council members.

Meanwhile, Back at City Hall
These weren't the only notable developments this week on New York City's tech-politics front. Mayor Bill de Blasio has also begun offering details about how he intends to incorporate social media and digital tools into his policies, especially as they relate to transportation issues. The Vision Zero action plan released by his administration on how to prevent traffic fatalities notes the following:

The City’s Vision Zero website will be a clearinghouse of information, educational materials, events and data sets. Available materials will include the Vision Zero benchmark reports and policy updates, education materials for educators and parents, current research and ad campaigns. Across the City’s many social media accounts, the #VisionZero hashtag will be used to collect news from throughout City government and unify the message as each agency update the public on its progress in reducing traffic injuries and fatalities. As with all aspects of Vision Zero, data transparency is a high priority. The website will link to the DOT project performance, TLC industry performance and NYPD crash data, in downloadable formats that are usable by the public.

Access to accessible NYPD crash data has been a top demand of betaNYC and New York City transparency activists.

City and State reported that Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, who appointed a new deputy commissioner for information technology last week, promised that the NYPD's TrafficStat tracking system would be more accessible to different agencies.

On Thursday, de Blasio and the Department of Transportation announced a plan to address potholes. The city's press release notes:

To harness the power of New York City residents and social media, the agency will completely redesign its dispatching, routing and tracking operations to help crews cover more ground, slash paperwork, and ramp up their efficiency. DOT will look to equip crews with secure tablets for one-touch, real-time tracking of work done and for state-of-the-art logistics to get crews from A to B, and every pothole in between. The agency will also explore even more ways to use the collective wisdom of city motorists via social media.

Also this week, de Blasio announced that he had appointed Maya Wiley, a civil rights attorney, as a counsel to the mayor with a focus on income inequality issues and special projects "such as efforts to invest in New York's technology infrastructure and expand broadband access across all five boroughs."

Crain's New York suggested that the de Blasio administration would specifically look at pressuring Verizon to offer more affordable FIOS service.