New York CIty Council Member Ben Kallos

Fortune Tech A Proposed Law Aims to Make City Services as Easy as Ordering Takeout by Barb Darrow

A Proposed Law Aims to Make City Services as Easy as Ordering Takeout

Imagine if interacting with government agencies was as easy as calling an Uber car or using Seamless to order dinner. That's what New York City councilor Ben Kallos hopes to do with a bill he has proposed to the city council.

Put simply, he hopes the legislation would "app-enable" government resources. So if you want to register to vote, apply for benefits, or report a pothole, you will be able to do that via an app. Currently, residents typically interact with New York City departments via snail mail, telephone, or in person. Some, but not all, governmental agencies have web sites. The goal of this law would be make sure there will be apps to fill those voids.

In technology terms, the bill calls for open application programming interfaces, typically known as APIs, for government services. An API acts as a conduit between different software applications and data sources. In one analogy, a restaurant server acts as the API between a customer ordering food and the kitchen preparing that order. The server makes sure the diner's order is conveyed (hopefully accurately) to the food preparers and then brings the order back to the diner.

The availability of open or published APIs lets a software developer cobble together different mini-services already available—like meshing Google (GOOG, +0.63%) Maps with Twilio (TWLO, +0.96%) (to add SMS text messaging) along with other capabilities—to make something useful. APIs, in short, let developers use other apps as building blocks for their own applications.

If enacted, the bill would mean people "won't have to deal with the bureaucracy and red tape of government," argued Kallos, a Democratic councilman who represents Midtown East, the Upper East Side, East Harlem, and Roosevelt Island. "Government gets a lot wrong, and a lot of that comes from having to shove pieces of paper around," he said, explaining that automating all that paper pushing could eliminate or lessen the chances of error.

Kallos said it's all about making government services and public data more easily accessible to constituents. One example already in place: New York City's 311 phone line for reporting non-emergency situations. Under this new law, all new services would include an API that would let people submit requests directly to the city, without having to spend a ton of time on hold and without having to enter their information over and over again, as can often be the case now.

Just across the Hudson River, Jersey City, N.J., which already has an open data law to ease constituent access to public data, is reportedly working on something similar. The idea is that the private sector can do a better job developing apps than strapped city personnel.

Any time people enter data into a computer system, there will be concerns both about the privacy and security of that data—and who will have access to it going forward. Kallos acknowledged those concerns, but said they can be addressed with strong, well-crafted APIs. Millions of people already file their taxes electronically, so secure data transmission can be accomplished.

Jonathan Reichenthal, chief information officer for the city of Palo Alto, Calif., said he saw a lot to like in this bill, but cautioned that by opening up the API, the city also opens the door for third-party apps, some of which may not be so great.

"Imagine if I give out a full API to Palo Alto 311 so anyone could build their own version. Suddenly, someone else is defining the City experience...not the Mayor or city administrator," Reichenthal said.

The next step for the proposed New York bill is a hearing before the full city council. If 34 out of 51 councilors approve it, it will be sent on to Mayor Bill De Blasio for his signature. While it is late in the session, Kallos is optimistic about its prospects.


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