Capital New York Citing City Hall transition, councilman sees open-government opportunity by Miranda Neubauer

Capital New York
Capital New York
Citing City Hall transition, councilman sees open-government opportunity
Miranda Neubauer

Ben Kallos, one of the Council's most active and outspoken members on issues involving data and technology, thinks that open-government advocates have a special opportunity at the moment. 

"When you have a new administration and a new mayor, [any revelation] from the data is somebody else's dirty laundry," he said. "Whatever you find, it's somebody's else problem, not the current mayor's."

On Monday, the Council technology committee, under chair James Vacca, will hold anoversight hearing on New York City's open data portal, with civic technology advocates expected to push for improvements to data quality and accessibility, which has also been a priority of Kallos.

Kallos made his remarks Thursday evening at a Building a Better Democracy with Technology event sponsored by CivicMakers, an initiative dedicated to sparking conversations about innovative forms of government, and the civic software company Accela.

Along with Kallos, the event's panel featured, among others, Mark Headd, Accela's technical evangelist and Philadelphia's former chief digital officer, and Seth Flaxman, co-founder and executive director of Democracy Works'Turbovote, the absentee ballot request and voting reminder service.

Kallos started by calling on audience members to get on their cell phones and mention him on Twitter (he said it was the new way of listening to constituents), before he recounted his constituent and legislative efforts to make government more accessible, often with the help of technology.

Kallos, a Democrat whose district is on the Upper East Side, urged the audience of civic technologists to take advantage of the "progressive" mayor and speaker to push for their priorities.

But he also sdescribed feeling frustrated as he has attempted to get other New York lawmakers understand the significance of the technological improvements he is pushing for.

As the only software developer in the Council, he said, others "looked at me funny" in response to his emphasis on the need for implementing an open application programming interface for Council information, which makes it easy for developers to access and work with data.

"I really had to convince people that this was something that mattered," he said, recalling the local technologists he invited to participate in hearings on Council rules reform.

Though the Council passed the rules reform legislation that would lay the groundwork for such a technology interface, he said the need to continue pushing for implementation prompted him to reach out to other cities such as Boston, Cambridge, Chicago, San Francisco and Washington to form a group called the Free Law Founders to support similar efforts across the country.

Calling it a "conspiracy for transparency, of peer pressure," Kallos said the hope is that the movements in the different cities can influence each other, allowing lawmakers to say, "everybody else is doing that, they're going to do it before we do."

Headd said that government officials lack an incentive to improve government efficiency because their efforts to demonstrate savings might often result in budget cuts. The current lengthy procurement process "is a horrible match for the way technology works," he said, as it changes quickly. "Small agile [developers] can't wait around for several weeks while lawyers deliberate."

Flaxman noted the difficulty of just maintaining a national database of election clerk contact information.

"We spend 30 percent of our energy just on how to tackle our way through these challenges," he said.

Kallos reiterated that in order to be able to have innovative applications for accessing city data, "the key is an open API" as well agreed-upon data standards.

A general challenge, he said, is "lack of courage," and that there is no "reward for being courageous."

In response to his proposed Open FOIL legislation, he said, a news outlet sought to request all his internal communications. The news outlet was given the materials it requested, but then questioned blacked-out references to dates with his wife, an area in which, Kallos said, he was entitled to privacy.

One large technical hurdle he identified, he said, are the difficulties associated with verifying identities, especially in the context of voter registration, to a generation that is used to logging in to websites through Facebook or the Open ID service.

That is an area he is looking to address with new legislation he introduced Wednesday that would require the New York City Board of Election to offer online voter registration.

Kallos said in a statement that while Governor Andrew Cuomo had implemented online registration through the Department of Motor Vehicles in August 2012, that process still requires prospective voters to have DMV identification and other information that paper registration does not require.

In the statement, Kallos also pointed out that states that have allowed online voter registration have saved all their processing fees, with the cost going from 83 cents to three cents per voter in Arizona.

The legislation has ten co-sponsors including the co-chairs of the Progressive Caucus, Councilmen Antonio Reynoso and Donovan Richards, as well as Councilman Brad Lander.

In a hearing chaired by Kallos Thursday regarding separate legislation to strengthen a mandate requiring city agencies to promote voter registration in connection with city services, Henry Berger, special counsel to the mayor, said that moving to electronic processes would make tracking agency registration efforts easier.