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In New York, Open Government Visions Come Down to Nuts and Bolts

BY Miranda Neubauer | Friday, June 13 2014

New York City Council Legistar System

Currently, it is not possible for New Yorkers to easily sign up to track updates on City Council meetings and legislative activities. But in fact, there could be an easy fix for the problem that could help transform how members of the public engage with their government. That is what emerged from a #PDF14 workshop that illustrated how the realization of visions for open government in New York often comes down to wonky nuts and bolts issues related to government web platforms, procurement and access to open data.

City Council member Ben Kallos, chair of the Government Operations Committee, hosted the session together with Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer in the spirit of "bringing government to the people." Also in the name of transparency, he arranged for a recording of the session.

The Technology Constituency

Kallos explained how the recently passed rules reform legislation that requires that City Council legislative and discretionary data be available online and in a machine-readable format was a first crucial important step in making New York City government more accessible. But he emphasized that much work was still necessary to counter the impression that realizing the goal of a City Council platform with an Open API and Google Alert-type notifications about council meetings and legislative meetings would be too much work and too expensive.

Those alerts sound like just a minor additional tool, but Kallos and Brewer emphasized how their ability to successfully push for legislation that improves technology and open government depends on the technology community being part of the process, especially since many other lawmakers don't appreciate why those issues are important.

"To be honest with you, people have no clue what these [technology] bills are except about five members of the City Council so they need to hear from you that it makes sense," said Brewer, a former member of the City Council who initiated the council's technology committee and chaired the operations committee. "There is no constituency for technology...there's no demand side. That's my experience -- we're the demand side. It's very small," she said.

"It means paying attention to the hearing schedule and making sure that when you see the bills that matter to you that you come out for the hearings....and demand the changes in the legislation that you want to see," said Kallos.

He emphasized that it was important to illustrate to elected officials how the fact that the city is "stuck" in contracts with large vendors that offer proprietary software which does not allow for changes is unrealized potential for greater citizen interaction.

But it turned out that the representative for one of the City Council's vendors was actually in the audience, in this case Dan Melton, Deputy CTO of government technology company Granicus, which manages Legistar, the platform the City Council uses to manage its meeting and hearing schedule and to record the introduction and passage of legislation.

"We actually have the ability for notifications by keyword, RSS and other feeds currently available to all clients at Granicus that use Legistar. New York asked us to turn it off over 10 years ago. We can turn it on in 5 seconds and everyone here will have access to that [like many other cities]," Melton, also a former Code for America CTO, told the participants of the session. "We just need the Clerk of NYC to ask for that..." Melton added that Granicus is working on updating the platform interface implemented in New York more than a dozen years ago, but that one difficulty was that New York City's system was installed behind a firewall preventing access to updates to a new version that would incorporate APIs and cloud-based applications. Kallos immediately sought to figure out who the right contact person would be to switch on those functions. "Sometimes between the council member and the vendor can be an entire bureaucracy...we went through every single bill that had ever been introduced in the City Council and we literally had a team of interns copying and pasting because we couldn't get a Granicus export without having to write a scraper," he said.

For John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany and co-chair of the New York City Transparency Working Group, who was in the audience, the session illustrated how PDF's founding idea of the "intersection between technology and politics," has evolved to the point where "technology is permeating everything -- public policy, politics, governance...and so the idea that here's a community of technologists that exists apart I think is a wrong conceit."

Kallos said he hoped to make the Open Government session a recurring part of PDF, and in the future even host a full City Council hearing as part of the conference. At a keynote speech at Friday's San Francisco Media Lab Legal Hackathon, Kallos joined City Council member Brad Lander and San Francisco Supervisor Mark Farrell appearing by hang-out to call on civic hackers to create a free and open source democracy platform for legislatures by next year that would allow for drafting legislation, commenting on legislation and making it available through an API, such as Participatory Politics Foundations' plan to adopt the open-source legislation platform Councilmatic in New York City.

At the PDF workshop, Kallos stressed that he purposefully conducts all his office business outside of what he considers the locked-down City Council platform. "Literally we're hosting my government office off of my own server."

Coding Technology into Law and Local Government

Kallos is also building on the New York open government legacy that BetaNYC co-founder Noel Hidalgo outlined in his main hall talk by introducing several pieces of legislation, many of which are not only on his website, but also open to comment on GitHub and the OpenGov Foundation's Madison Platform.

Those proposals include the Free and Open Source Software Act, mandating that city contracts have a preference for non-proprietary software, the Civic Commons Act, calling on New York City to collaborate with other cities in purchasing non-proprietary software through a common platform, mapping transparency legislation, legislation requiring electric notices about local government, the "Public Online Information Act", requiring the online publication of public government documents, a law requiring the online publication of the City Record and legislation establishing a tracker of Freedom of Information Law requests.

Three of those laws were already under consideration at a hearing Monday, only weeks after introduction, "a breakneck speed when it comes to legislation," Kallos noted. There were other unusual aspects of the hearing as well. Kallos encouraged members of the news media to testify about their concerns regarding the Open FOIL Portal. Kallos also called on those giving testimony to submit their written remarks electronically, in order to post them on his site outside the closed Council system, and suggested that the I.D. cards testifiers have to fill out ought to include Twitter handles.

At the hearing, Maya Wiley, Counselor to Mayor Bill de Blasio, unveiled a City Hall FOIL tracker, which she called a "first step" in reforming New York City's FOIL process, and suggested transparency improvements ahead. "Before the end of the year, we plan to unveil new, fully-searchable tools to dramatically expand public access to government documents."

But she also expressed timeline, privacy and implementation concerns especially regarding the specifications of the OpenFOIL legislation, and the number of requests for a document that would automatically necessitate its addition to the city's Open Data portal. As Public Advocate, de Blasio published a report calling for an overhaul of the FOIL process.

A new report from Reinvent Albany estimates that the centralized system, such as an open source platform used by Oakland, could save the city $13 million a year and reduce response times. In his testimony, Kaehny emphasized the importance of a "One Strike You're In" policy under which just one request would be enough to add a document to a queue for Open Data portal publication, stressed that the same privacy protections would apply and said legislation was necessary to set a timeline for implementation.

Rachel Fauss, policy and research manager for Citizens Union, said in her testimony that the platform "would put New York City at the forefront nationally," with the only similar known examples on the local level being Oakland and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

The potential ground-level impact was evident in the testimony from Paula Segal, executive director of 596 Acres, a group that has been using online tools to promote community land access, as she recounted the hurdles she faced in using FOIL to request information from the Parks Department about properties in the Bronx set to become a park.

The Challenge of Procurement

But the one issue underlying many of the open government priorities that was a common refrain in the City Council hearing, the PDF#14 workshop and a panel discussion held the day before was the challenge of government technology procurement.

At the hearing, Wiley noted that while the initial FOIL platform was built in-house by City Hall technology staff, expanding it to other agencies would raise procurement concerns.

During the PDF#14 session, Brewer stated that "the whole procurement process is just wrong for technology" with many barriers to entry for start-ups, and heard from members of the audience about their own experiences.

Joel Natividad, CEO & Co-founder of the start-up Ontodia, said when the company tried to respond to an RFP, they weren't able to fulfill a requirement to have millions of dollars in insurance. He suggested that agencies open up smaller IT projects that don't require an RFP to local technologists.

Art Chang, a member of the Campaign Finance Board and founder of Tipping Point Partners, described how the mobile NYC Votes app created through a pro-bono public-private partnership will be available to other cities, candidates or organizations through a public license established by the Open Source Elections Technology Foundation after overcoming licensing and legal issues.

Wednesday night before #PDF14, Kaehny from Reinvent Albany moderated a panel discussion on Open Source Democracy at New York Law School featuring among others Greg Miller, co-founder of the OSET Foundation, Doug Kellner, co-chair of the New York State Board of Elections, and Seth Flaxman, co-founder of Democracy Works, creator of TurboVote. Earlier, Miller presented OSET's Votestream project, which aims to provide a modern technology framework to help officials publish election results in an accessible format.

"The number one challenge in [modernizing] election systems is getting the funding to do it," Kellner said. "Governor Cuomo is the first in the last two decades to really understand that, putting forward the funding for two key projects, allowing online voter registration through the DMV...and funding the upcoming update of the campaign finance disclosure system.

"Because governments don't have money to spend on this technology, venture capitalists don't invest in companies that build new technology for them," said Flaxman. "I think that's one of the things Greg and I are both trying to do to break the cycle is being non-profit tech-startups, where we are trying to build technology that is affordable for government, because there actually is demand there."

Miller, who emphasized that the two nonprofits "have no political appointees and are non-partisan," said due to the barriers to entry caused by procurement regulations, "Citizens are using 21st Century technology to talk to a government who uses 20th century technology to respond with 19th century processes."

When Kellner said the state sees working with localities to post election results in an open and usable format as a priority, he faced pointed questions about why the state could not release the data underlying the PDFs the state does release. "Why not post the spreadsheet?" "Just give us the data!" But he did say he would follow up on how New York might be able to integrate with an OSET project like Votestream. "Greg seems to have a software solution that might not be so difficult to implement."