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Civic Hackers Call on de Blasio to Fill Technology Vacancies

BY Miranda Neubauer | Thursday, April 24 2014

New York City technology advocates on Wednesday called on the de Blasio administration to fill vacancies in top technology policy positions, expressing some frustration at the lack of a leadership team to implement a cohesive technology strategy for the city.

"Four months into the de Blasio administration, the City is missing a suite of leaders who steward technology, data, and a progressive vision," Noel Hidalgo, co-founder and executive director of betaNYC, New York City's Code for America brigade, said in testimony before the City Council's technology committee. He noted that open positions include the Chief Information Officer at Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT), the Chief Analytics Officer at the Mayor's Office of Data Analytics (MODA), the Chief Digital Officer at NYC Digital, and the Executive Director at the NYC Technology Development Corporation.

Former Chief Analytics Officer under Bloomberg, Michael Flowers, was appointed the first Urban Science Fellow at NYU's Center for Urban Science and Progress. Rachel Haot, Chief Digital Officer, took the position of deputy secretary for technology for the State of New York under Governor Andrew Cuomo, where she joined Director of Open NY Andrew Nicklin, formerly director of Research and Development at DoITT. (New York State is currently asking for feedback on its technology strategy on Tumblr and Twitter and through a feedback form.)

"This leadership gap affects all agencies. We need coordination across each agency. The City needs Chief Information Officers (CIOs) and Chief Technology Officers (CTOs) who can properly value internal and external data collaboration," Hidalgo said.

Committee Chair City Council member James Vacca said in the hearing that he was concerned about the vacancies as well. "I think the time has come to move on these things, and we're going to prod," he said.

In his testimony, Hidalgo noted that the U.S. federal government had recently launched the new internal government IT program 18F, modeled after the U.K.'s Government Digital Services, with a focus on basic user design and interaction principles. "Several of us have gone to the mayor's office and said it would be great if we had a similar department ... if the city could take its technology resources, hire from the best talents that we have here in this digital city and really start to improve our infrastructure," he said. "We can do this here in New York, but we need some leadership, we need to staff and hire not only MODA but also some digital teams that can build proper interfaces, and then we need to have conversations with the constituents."

In his testimony, Hidalgo also pointed to several additional areas in need of improvement, noting that many maps or datasets are not available through easily accessible interfaces. "The City’s Rat Information Portal (RIP) contains unified rat inspection data under a complicated / frustrating map interface. I cannot find this merged data on the City’s open data portal," he said. He also recalled how a member of the city's betaNYC community had difficulty locating accurating data on a child care centers, prompting other community members to come together to scrape that data to create a useable map. "Sadly, this is just a snapshot of data and needs a partnership with HMH to keep this map alive," he said. "We need the City’s open data law to be expanded and enforced. This year, we ask the City Council to update the open data law to ensure that these curated datasets are accessible to the general public."

Vaca noted that while the public may have access to technology or data, "the way it is laid out is very confusing to them ... if you had difficulty finding things on the health department website, just think what the average person goes through."

Hidalgo echoed that concern, noting that while NYC Digital had undertaken a wide-ranging project to reinvent, "when we go to agency by agency websites, the Department of Consumer Affairs is an excellent example, you get information overload," he said. "Each agency should be engaged with the general public to find out how to lower the barriers to get access to that information, how to simplify it, how to streamline it, and have a constant conversation." betaNYC and the Civic Service initiative can help guide agencies through that process, Hidalgo emphasized. "A lot of these websites have just had more and more lego pieces attached to them and so it can be very complicated to navigate those websites, and if we're going to maximize our dollar in technology, we need to evaluate each one of these websites..."

Vacca suggested that advocacy groups could help rate agency websites, giving them grades in the same way as New York City restaurants. Hidalgo noted that a census from the Open Knowledge Foundation examining the state of open data in U.S. cities could serve as a starting point.

Other civic advocates such as Reinvent Albany Staff Attorney Dominic Mauro and Dara Adams, account executive at SAS Institute, also expressed concerns about staffing levels at the Mayor's Office of Data Analytics and the importance of doing more to publish data that is of interest to and accessible to the larger public.