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Enthusiasm and Challenges for Making NYC Local Government More Tech-Friendly

BY Miranda Neubauer | Friday, February 28 2014

Gale Brewer, Noel Hidalgo and Ben Kallos at Code Across NYC (Twitter via @ppolitics)

Last weekend, around one hundred members of New York City's civic hacker community came together to help develop tools that would be useful for City Council and local Community Board members as part of Code Across NYC, organized by Code for America brigade betaNYC. As part of the event, open government advocates Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and City Council member Ben Kallos discussed their transparency advocacy. With input from five Community Board members and New York City officials, the weekend program resulted in the creation of 20 projects, of which 12 were submitted for five awards.

But even with all the enthusiasm, many challenges remain to making technology more accessible to local government, as participants and subsequent City Council hearings this week indicated.

One of the attendees representing a community board was Shane Snipes, who was formerly CTO for the Environmental Defense Fund and is now a sustainability and technology consultant for companies such as Microsoft, Intel and HP. He is a member of Community Board 9 in Manhattan, which covers Upper West Side neighborhoods including Morningside Heights and Hamilton Heights, and, like all New York City Community Boards, provides input on land use and liquor license issues.

"I loved the event," Snipes said, but he added that he "thinks there needs to be a lot more outreach directly to community boards" and that it was necessary "to literally blast them every time there is some kind of meeting so it gets into their awareness. I talk about it in Community Board 9, but my guess is most community boards don't hear anything about this whole idea of developing userfriendly tools...."

Snipes gave feedback to the developers who worked on a winning project in the category of best City Council/Community Board app. The tool was a prototype for an e-mail application that would let local officials get e-mail updates on 311 data on issues such as housing complaints.

Margo Kulkarni, a freelance programmer who worked on the tool with five others, explained that the tool accessed heating and plumbing complaints that were still open after three months and could provide alerts on that data to officials who signed up. Kulkarni, who noted this was her first hackathon, said a challenge was finding a balance between having an ambitious idea and creating a practical tool, so "you're creating something that isn't just neat to look at, but is also useful to the target audience."

A NYC 311 city official pointed out that the data on housing could be most interesting, given that many complaints are not resolved in a reasonable amount of time, Kulkarni said. That realization also informed a focus on usability rather than statistics or a "neat app with visualization."

She said she expected to continue work on the application at upcoming betaNYC hacknights, and to get more feedback on the accuracy of the metrics, whether to represent the data as a visualization versus as statistics and raw numbers, and incorporating other data sources, before presenting the prototype to community boards. Kulkarni said she came up with the idea for the application from an acquaintance who worked on a similar tool for a nonprofit which provided basic information that had "high information value" for its audience.

"What I saw as a community board partner was that I'm constantly talking about these technological tools but there's nothing good or easily useable for them or that [they are not able to] see that this applies directly to these ten agenda items regarding property or zoning things that they are trying to accomplish," Snipes said. He said he wished there had been a sample community board agenda at the hackathon and more community board officials present to discuss the kinds of information members have difficulty accessing and how it relates to agenda items.

"Most community boards don't use anything other than e-mail and the tools that they do use they don't use well because they're not really designed for anything other than the year 2000 ... before social, before networks were designed really," he said. He emphasized that he would like to see community boards adopt tools such as Unison or Yammer to enable ongoing discussion around agenda items and make meetings more accessible to members of the public who don't have time to attend meetings and provide input. "Most of the things that I've seen as far as secretary notes go are a month or two old." Rather than being in an "old-style discussion board format," those platforms have more of a modern social stream or newsfeed format.

"Ideally, one of the community boards needs to step up [to pioneer adoption of more modern tools]," Snipes said. He said he intended to start discussions with his own community board, but also hoped for leadership from Brewer and the City Council to spur more widespread adoption.

"What I loved about the whole process was that it brought together these people who were really excited about digesting this new open data and making it accessible, so the excitement on that side was all there," Snipes said. If there had been more community board officials at the event, " they could have interacted with the coders to give them more insight into how this really plugs into their decision making." With the groups he did give feedback to, "they went back with a better understanding of how a decision maker would want to use it."

While officials sometimes may "hide behind their tech innocence," Snipes said, for the most part many of them are familiar with social networks to stay in touch with their younger relatives and regularly use e-mail. The biggest challenge, is "awareness that the tools are there," since community boards often end up "operating as their own little universe," he said. "People are intimidated by the technology that exists and need to have it laid out to them in very simple terms but even in that simplicity they could still easily understand what's possible."

Other winning projects included a property tax explorer, a constituent services management tool called Tammany, a crowdsourced gamified city clean up app, a tool to help community boards visualize disaster resilience plans, an application to improve the high school selection process and an application to help New Yorkers find parks and recreation facilities.

Over the next several weeks and months, betaNYC plans to focus on a full-scale membership program and project development to plan a series of BetaTalks to "demystify our community to Council members and Community Boards" while engaging in one-on-one meetings with them in the meantime, according to Noel Hidalgo, co-founder of betaNYC. The next hack night is this coming Wednesday, which will also function as a "birthday party" for New York City's open data law.

Meanwhile, Back at City Council

Some of the challenges to making community boards more open were also reflected in several New York City Council hearings this past week.

The first Technology Committee hearing under the chairmanship of Bronx City Council member James Vacca on Monday considered legislation that would require community boards to webcast their meetings, as legislation previously passed last year mandates for all public city government meetings.

Community board members testifying generally supported the idea of greater transparency, but had concerns about limited funding and practical issues about the accessibility to the necessary technology in varying meeting places.

At one point Brooklyn City Council member David Greenfield invoked the live video blogging during Occupy Wall Street to make the point "that there must be a way to do it that...if we got the technology and the money, we certainly could get it done."

Robert Loscalzo, a filmmaker, said at the hearing that he has experience recording video at community board meetings. "I think that turning community boards into producers and camera people and audio technicians is not the way to go," he said. "New York City is the media capital of the world, we've got a pool of people that are prepared and equipped to do that work, and they would be willing to do that if there was a budget available," he went on to say, while also emphasizing the importance of having microphones in place during such filming as he wondered how much of an investment the city would be willing to make. "Is it an iPhone video that's just mounted up with Velcro on the wall in the same place every time or is some better effort going to be made to actually create a situation not as extravagant as you have in this room, but that at least would deliver some quality?"

He also pointed out that "if the idea here is to provide greater transparency concerning community boards, why not start by requiring them to maintain websites and to post all the documents before and after meetings, and all the testimony that comes in that goes into a black hole that we never see, perhaps even transcripts of meetings."

Another hearing on Monday touched on greater accessibility of the City Council, including a more accessible website as is outlined in rules reform proposals backed by many Council members. BetaNYC along with NYPIRG, Reinvent Albany, and the Participatory Politics Foundation were among the groups emphasizing the need in their testimony for the Council to embrace technology, with calls to institute a Council CIO and for the underlying data from the Council's Legistar system to be made available in machine readable format.

Rules Committee chair Brad Lander, a Council member from Brooklyn, saw overlap between the panel of technology advocates and the testimony from a panel of other groups, including the New York Civil Liberties Union. "The other thing we don't do is make it at all easy to find out [information], at least NYCLU knows how to work the Council website and find out when the civil rights related hearings are, but it's not possible currently for a regular New Yorker to say let me know when there are hearings on these issues that I care about in any way," he said. In something of a first, the committee had put out a call for feedback on a special web page ahead of the hearing.

BetaNYC also submitted testimony to a hearing on Mayor Bill de Blasio's proposal to prevent traffic deaths, emphasizing the need for accessible, machine-readable and frequently updated crash data.

The Government Operations Committee, chaired by Council member Kallos, is holding a hearing Friday afternoon on a critical report by the Department of Investigations on the Board of Elections that could also touch on recommendations from the Presidential Committee on Election Administration.