TechPresident [Op-Ed] The Future of Open Government in New York City by Noel Hidalgo

TechPresident
TechPresident
[Op-Ed] The Future of Open Government in New York City
Noel Hidalgo
09/13/2013

Since 2008, we have seen several governments elect executives who have favorable opinions toward innovation in government. What if that wasn’t the case? What if you had a thriving open government / civic tech community and somehow a new chief executive or legislative body did not want to continue its predecessors' investment?

In 2011, Washington DC’s mayoral turnover severed a long line of innovative and public-to-gov collaborative programs - notably, Apps for Democracy and DC’s Open Data Catalog. Last fall, many wondered what would happen to future federal open government initiatives if the presidency changed hands. After the November 2012 elections, the same consternation entered my head. What if the next mayor of New York City did not care about the technology community, open government, and the future of a digital city?

At the end of last year, the implementation of NYC’s open data law was getting underway with good speed, but questions loomed on the horizon. Would city administrators really unlock all of the city’s data before the end of this administration? Would the next mayor of New York be as supportive of open government and civic tech? Would the next mayor appoint a chief analytics officer, a chief digital officer, and continue sustained innovation throughout City Hall?

Why do we need to question the future of NYC’s open government?

The last four years of Mayor Bloomberg's administration have been unbelievable. From explosive growth in open data, to apps and public design competitions, to hackathons, to new institutions of technology, and expanding internet access in parks, public housing, and fiber to the home, NYC has been on the way to becoming a digital city.

All of this was outlined in NYC Digital’s “Roadmap to a Digital City” with neatly framed and accomplishable deadlines, before the current Bloomberg Administration sails off into the sunset. The passage of NYC’s open data law, Local Law 11 of 2012, set out future ports of harbor for the next administration to aim for. So why my worry?

Back in 1989, a group of activists helped re-write NYC’s City Charter to create the role of the Public Advocate and a far less well publicized body called COPIC, the Commission on Public Information and Communication. The Public Advocate was given oversight over the City’s “information” and made chair of COPIC. 

COPIC was absolutely revolutionary at its creation. Its charter is to "review all city information policies, including but not limited to, policies regarding public access to city produced or maintained information, particularly, computerized information; (ii) the quality, structure, and costs to the public of such information; (iii) agency compliance with the various notice, comment, and hearing provisions of the charter and other laws applicable to city agencies; and (iv) the usefulness and availability of city documents, reports, and publications.”

Since then, COPIC, which is required by the City Charter to meet once a year, has met irregularly. The current Public Advocate held ONE meeting in his four years in office.  This irregularity led to discussions that turned into the creation of the City’s open data law.

One of the outputs of COPIC and the first Public Advocate was the nation’s first public data directory, in April of 1993. Sadly, the document was never updated until Mayor Bloomberg launched NYC BigApps. But at least initially with BigApps, New Yorkers did not get the same depth and scope as that initial public directory. This too became a foundational item that spurred discussion that created the nation’s best open data law.

Coming back to 2013, the current currents seemed to be taking us forward, but nothing seemed permanent. On primary election day, New Yorkers were forced to cast ballots on machines that were first used before the United States Freedom of Information Act passed (read 1967). The City’s Board of Elections has stated that more than 40,000 paper ballots were cast.

Despite these events, hopeful winds are blowing. On Tuesday, a set of candidates were selected who have proven support for open government and open data. It is clear that the next NYC administration will embrace innovation.

What happened to the sponsors of NYC open data law?

 Looking back at City’s Open Data Law sponsors, 15 of the 23 sponsors won nominations for their re-election or won a nomination to a more powerful position.

The Law’s primary advocate, Gale A. Brewer, won the Democratic nomination to the Manhattan Borough President’s office, outlined three issues as her priorities: Technology, Food, and Housing. Should she win the general election, her office will directly control resources to the City’s Community Boards, who oversee land use policy. Under her purview, she would push to make Manhattan one of the most “wired” boroughs and give Community Boards tools to better understand their neighborhoods. In her campaign, she singled out avid support for the NYC Transparency Working Group’s work and Code for America’s work.

Other Open Data Law sponsors who won on NYC’s Primary Night 2013 were Vincent J. Gentile, Letitia James, Brad S. Lander, Annabel Palma, Daniel Dromm, Daniel R. Garodnick, Diana Reyna, Darlene Mealy, Stephen T. Levin, Fernando Cabrera, Jumaane D. Williams, James G. Van Bramer, Ydanis A. Rodriguez, and Bill de Blasio, the Public Advocate.

The Mayoral race

The race for the future Mayor of New York will be most interesting. Both leading candidates have histories of advocating for more digital participatory systems. Bill de Blasio, as Public Advocate, launched several notable Open Government initiatives under his Transparency and Accountability section of his website. (Watch Bill de Blasio’s New York Tech Meetup interview.)

Joseph J. Lhota, who won the Republican nomination to run for the Mayor of New York is former Chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. While at the MTA, he extended Jay Walder’s pioneering open data and transparency work. (Watch Joseph J. Lhota’s New York Tech Meetup interview.)

The Comptroller and Public Advocate Races

While John Liu, the current City Comptroller, lost his bid for the Democratic Nomination for the Mayor, his work has set a precedent for the next Comptroller. Under Liu’s watch, the City digitized the City’s Checkbook and gave it to us on an open source platform and with an API.

Scott M. Stringer is the Democratic nominee for City Comptroller and the current Manhattan Borough President. Early in the year, the Manhattan Borough President’s office hosted a one day conference on the “Start-up City.” The Start-Up City report details five key recommendations to Grow NYC’s Entrepreneurial Ecosystem for all. Most of the report focuses on how to use technology and digital communities for development.

While the Democratic Party’s Public Advocate nomination has yet to be settled, the top two candidates, Daniel Squadron and Letitia James, have substantial track records in fighting for increased Government transparency. As a Council Member, Letitia James sponsored the City’s Open Data Law’s introduction.

The City Council

The most important part of last night election resides within the City Council. Eleven of the 23 sponsors of the City’s Open Data Law were nominated to run again. The rest were term-limited out of the City Council. Their replacements were forced to deal with an unprecedented turnover across all levels of the NYC electorate. To effectively communicate within an over saturated media market, candidates took to social media unlike any NYC election before.

There was one NYC candidate who stood out amongst the rest, Ben Kallos. Ben Kallos’ is not your normal City Council Candidate. He was endorsed by Craig Newmark and Richard M. Stallman, among others. For the last few years, Kallos has been running a Drupal based website, asking the public for their ideas.

Kallos is also one of first 50 people who joined BetaNYC when it was called “Open Government NYC.” Since then, he has been a vocal member for open government and a dedicated open source developer. As a member of the Brigade and on the campaign trail, Ben spoke openly about his ideas for Open Government.

The Future

In eight weeks, New York City will vote again and calibrate its sextants for a new century. The old Soviet area voting machines will be replaced with their “just-as-faulty” 21st century counterparts. Within that time, BetaNYC, NYC’s Code for America brigade, will survey general election candidates and report back on the future of NYC’s Open Government. Additionally, BetaNYC will launch its Digital Road Map for the next administration.

Nationally, other Code for America’s Brigades are starting to question their candidates on their Open Government and Open Data positions. For example, Open Twin Cities is currently distributing its own questionnaire. If you have an Open Data questionnaire, tweet it at us -@BetaNYC with #CfABrigade.

[Notes: Daniel Squadron and Letitia James will be in a runoff election for the Democratic nomination for Public Advocate. At the time of writing, Bill de Blasio was leading the democratic nomination ballot counts, but had yet to be certified the winner. If de Blasio does not receive more than 40% of the vote, William Thompson and Bill de Blasio will have a runoff election for the Democratic nomination for Mayor.]

Noel Hidalgo is the NYC Program Manager for Code for America and co-founder of BetaNYC. Full disclosure:  He contributed money to Letitia James’ and Ben Kallos’ campaign; he donated time and money to Antonio Reynoso’s campaign.