New York CIty Council Member Ben Kallos

Capital New York Council to look elsewhere for constituent engagement technology by Miranda Neubauer

Council to look elsewhere for constituent engagement technology

City Council members hope to improve public engagement with the legislative process through tech, as civic technologists aim to expand and step up their efforts.

Councilman Ben Kallos, chair of the Governmental Operations Committee, said he planned to focus on implementation of the laws requiring online publication of the city's laws and of the City Council technology plan that was part of rules reforms passed last year.

"We've already gotten so much more accomplished in the first year than anyone may have ever expected and I think a lot of the focus in 2015 will be around implementation, beta-testing and learning from our first roll-outs and implementations," Kallos said.

In connection with those efforts, Kallos suggested that the Council could look toward the model of the State Senate's web platform, new tools for engaging with constituents and public-private partnerships incorporating other cities and civic technology groups.

Kallos said he was "not particularly happy" with the current CouncilStat constituent management system, and had spent part of his winter break evaluating other services.

"Ultimately I think we as a city should have one constituent relationship management system that is used by council members, assembly members, senators, the public advocate, the comptroller and the mayor's office so that at all levels of government we are able to better provide services for people out of one system," he said.

Against the backdrop of the Rules Reforms mandate that the City Council speaker develop a technology plan and make legislative information available through a trackable database in machine-readable format, Kallos has been working with the cities of San Francisco, Chicago and civic technology groups as part of the recently formed Free Law Founders coalition to ensure that the technology tools necessary for such a database are available. Chicago is one of the cities that, like New York City, currently uses the Legistar platform offered by the Granicus company.

"In the interim we still have a contract with Legistar ... people can continue to expect us to be using Granicus," Kallos said.

But over this coming year, he said, he hoped to see responses from groups such as the Sunlight Foundation, the Participatory Politics Foundation and the Open Gov Foundation to a challenge he issued this past year along with San Francisco Supervisor Mark Farrell to develop a digital democracy platform that would allow the public to help draft, comment on and review proposed legislation.

"The goal is to support a thriving ecosystem of competing products ... for there to be competition for Granicus," he said. "[And] for anyone who's choosing to compete to all agree to using a similar application processing interface, a similar schema...that whatever you're using, it is interchangeable with everything else throughout the country."

He noted that the Knight Foundation recently awarded a $750,000 grant to the Open Gov Foundation to develop an interactive platform for the public to engage with the lawmaking process, based on its existing Madison and America Decoded projects.

"Ultimately, I'm hoping that New York City is selected as the city that will be receiving this support," he said, though he noted that the free and open-source nature of the project would make it easily adaptable no matter where it is first introduced.

Kallos outlined the vision guiding those plans in a recent submission to the British House of Commons Speaker's Commission on Digital Democracy. Highlighting New York City's plans and accomplishments on the international level is an opportunity for "making sure that the changes we achieve here are also getting exported elsewhere," he said.

The promise of making city laws freely accessible online in an interactive format is "taking it beyond the 9 to 5 of a regular hearing," he said, which is also the effect of webcasting hearings.

"Though many hearings often appear to be sparsely attended, I will often receive tweets from online viewers, not to mention when constituents stop me to review a point made at a recent hearing that they watched last night on television from the comfort of their home," Kallos wrote in his submission.

He also pointed to 311 as a tool "that most New Yorkers take for granted" and called it ""one of the best tools any other country could pick up." He emphasized not only the importance of New Yorkers being able to report issues such as potholes, but also the way that 311 data can provide insights on city needs, problems and concerns.

Kallos also said he hoped to continue to push for ways for technology to improve the elections process, including his proposed legislation for online voter registration.

"Michael Ryan is doing an amazing job as executive director. He is also progressive in terms of the things he'd like to get done," Kallos said.

Kallos also praised Public Advocate Letitia James for becoming a "leader on technology issues" through her advocacy for universal broadband access in connection with proposed Comcast/Time Warner merger and her relaunching in December of the Commission on Public Information and Communication, on which Kallos represents the Council. He noted that another meeting for March had already been scheduled and emphasized the need for COPIC to be funded as a city charter-mandated entity.

Other priorities would be OpenFOIL legislation, the online publication of the City Record, promoting technology use by community boards, improving the usefulness of the Mayor's Management Report and two pieces of legislation encouraging the use of open source software, he said.

At a hearing in December, Kallos, the Mayor's Office of Operations and advocacy groups discussed ways of improving the online presentation of the M.M.R. and making it a more effective way to track city goals and performance. Kallos also noted that a recent report from the Independent Budget Office suggested the city could save $6 million through use of open-source software, with savings eventually growing to $19 million.

Councilman James Vacca, chair of the technology committee, is pursuing efforts with similar goals. He said his first hearing of the year would concern legislation about increasing transparency surrounding filming production permits.

Vacca also said he planned to make a renewed push for his petitioning platform legislation, and work with the administration to address its concerns. In addition, he said he intended to take up legislation that would establish a one-stop shop for online permitting and introduce legislation to implement a 311 dashboard to let users track their complaints.

Going forward, he also said he planned to exercise oversight over administration's new Technology Steering Committee, the Dot NYC top-level domain roll-out and the city's payphone wi-fi project as it unfolds.

"What concerns me when it comes to that is the outer boroughs ... and what type of equity we can expect," he said. "It's going to be something I'm going to have to monitor for the next three years of my term."

He also emphasized the importance of broadening the use of the open data portal by pushing agencies to publish their datasets ahead of the city's deadline, increasing outreach to community boards and educating City Council members themselves about its benefits. After a training with council members and staff last year, Vacca said his office continued to get questions from other staffers. "I think it's starting to be used the way it was envisioned."

The Council's plans will likely receive encouragement civic technology community, as it seeks to expand and step up its involvement with city projects. Civic technology group BetaNYC, which for years now has had regular "hack nights" in Manhattan and Brooklyn, plans to launch new regular events in Queens at the beginning of the year in cooperation with the Coalition for Queens.

"Our goal is to work with as many community groups as possible that can embrace civic technology and embed it in the work that they're doing," said Noel Hidalgo, executive director of BetaNYC. Building on educational elements already in place at the hack nights, BetaNYC plans to formalize a curricular approach with the aim of growing the community of "civic hackers," he said. Echoing an effort by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer to bring technology support to community boards through a CUNY student training program, Hidalgo said the hope is that BetaNYC can showcase the benefits of city data to a broader audience.

"It's not just government—it's community based organizations that have a unique opportunity to use the city's data to make better decisions," he said. "How do business improvement districts use the city's open data portal? ... How do street or block associations to use this data?"

Regarding the administration's technology strategy, he said with the hiring of the hiring DoITT commissioner, the C.T.O. and chief analytics officer, "the foundation is in place."

Several current open technology job listings "are almost exactly the type of people that we want the city to be hiring," he added. "What we're now hoping for, and what we're helping find within our community are the right people to go into the city," he said, new hires that would ideally make it easier to address city data concerns more effectively. "Here are the opportunities to go work for the city and make change from within."

In addition to qualified hires, top priorities are the enactment of an OpenFOIL platform and improved data quality, Hidalgo said. "We have certain agencies that are slowly opening up ... but there are also a number of formats or datasets that we want out there." 

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