Citizensourcing smarter government in New York City

Deputy mayor Steven Goldsmith on crowdsourcing and data.

NYC 311 map“Even the biggest cities have small towns buried within them.” When Steven B. Johnson made that observation in his Wired article on what 311 calls can tell us about New York City, he referred to an unexpected connection that Mayor Bloomberg made with a former colleague in a city call center. As Gov 2.0 goes local, the neighborhoods of New York City will be a prime place to watch this year.

Similar connections and reconnections, made intentionally or serendipitously through social networks, phones and in-person meetings, are part of the warp and weft of the fabric of civil society in every major city in the United States. When it comes to big cities, few have the energy and dynamism of Gotham, with its ceaseless activity, millions of citizens and global heft in the financial, media, fashion and entertainment industries.

Whether cities like New York can evolve to embrace more collaborative government isn’t entirely a matter of choice, given grim budget pressures and citizens demanding better services. In the face of those challenges, the NYC mayor’s office is choosing to pursue an enlightened strategy: using modern technology and the collective wisdom of citizens to find better ways of getting things done. In an interview last month, Steven Goldsmith, the deputy mayor of New York City, talked with me about open government, crowdsourcing, data and much more.

“I was involved in e-government decades ago,” said Goldsmith, the former mayor of Indianapolis. “E-government tools that feel really well constructed do make it easier for citizens.” The opportunities that technology affords government today go beyond traditional e-government, however, as Goldsmith explained. He suggested thinking of it in terms of version numbers:

  • 0.5 is putting information online.
  • 1.0 is an electronic way to fill out a form.
  • 1.5 is providing citizens with ways to complain to government about an issue.
  • 2.0 is creating platforms for citizens to collaborate around information to improve outcomes.

Gov 2.0 makes all of those things “necessary but insufficient,” said Goldsmith. It’s “when collaboration around information enhances the quality of decision making on the behalf of citizens.”

One area where New York City government is exploring that kind of collaboration is in rulemaking. “We’re working on opening up the process for comments to individuals and even small businesses that feel their voices are not heard, focusing on rulemaking transparency and crowdsourcing tools,” he said.

Outreach is critical, given that many small business owners won’t know about new online resources or platforms. “I remember when, in an in-person meeting, a small business owner complained about a new regulation,” said Goldsmith. “I asked him what he or his colleagues had contributed during rulemaking process. He stared at me blankly. That was the first hint that digital outreach and crowdsourcing had a long way to go.”

Putting open data to work

In some ways, thinking about government this way follows the five-star system that Tim Berners-Lee has defined for open government data. New York City has a government data repository, the NYC DataMine, that Berners-Lee might rate reasonably high on that scale, given that data sets are posted in raw form machine readable data, including in XLS, XML, CSV, and RSS formats.

“Our call center received 100,000 calls an hour during the snowstorm [last year],” said Goldsmith. “We’re working to convert a large number of those to text, and then convert to personalized outbound messaging. We have an advantage over smaller cities, given the huge volume of calls. We’re looking at all of the ways that we can use that data.”

Goldsmith said that New York City has been moving toward making more useful public data available, including 311, geocoding, performance and regulatory data. Recently, New York launched an online 311 service request map. The city is also working to grow its community of civic entrepreneurs and developers. “We have a Big Apps program, and it’s successful,” said Goldsmith. As this post went live, the second version of New York City’s civic application contest, NYC Big Apps, was open to public voting.

One way to gauge that success is in a recent development: one of the winners of the first iteration of the contest, MyCityWay, now is a growing company: it recently landed $5 million in funding and a partnership with BMW. The location-based technology startup provides citizens with information about public transportation, parking and entertainment.

As Justin Houk suggests at Programmable Web, in many ways the NYC BigApps 2.0 competition might be one of the first “second generation” apps contests. Houk’s key insight, reflected in Mark Headd’s view of application contests, is that that these efforts can help to catalyze more benefits than just free apps. Application contests can unlock innovation not only by stimulating app creation but by establishing a community of public servants, designers, librarians and civic developers who can work together on making open government data more useful in the future.

Closing the loop between transparency and accountability will be an important focus for NYC and every government that’s opening its data. “We have a transparency initiative, which is on its way,” said Goldsmith. “What we don’t have is a transparency effort to make it better. We need better ways of organizing information and data that makes it easy for the public to discover ways to improve their way of life.”

One way that discovery can happen now will be through the use of QR or “quick response” codes. On Feb. 22, Mayor Bloomberg and Department of Buildings Commissioner Limandri introduced the use of QR codes on all future NYC construction permits. “QR codes help us add context and dynamic info to NYC’s physical environment,” wrote Rachel Sterne, New York City’s first chief digital officer on her Tumblr. The city government is now considering other ways that QR codes could be used in NYC.

NYC QR code
An example of the QR codes (upper right corner) now featured on New York City’s construction permits. More information is available at Fast Company.

Lessons from the Snowpocalypse

In 2010, New York City was hit by an unexpectedly heavy winter storm that buried the Big Apple under a blanket of snow. Many streets were left unplowed for days. Ambulances couldn’t get through to emergencies. And while Newark mayor Cory Booker earned national attention for his heavy use of social media to listen and engage with citizens affected by the snowfall, New York City government came under withering scrutiny from its famously critical citizens. In the wake of the first snowstorm, the Mayor’s office changed its digital strategy in a number of ways.

“We knew some of the issues already, in terms of people who can’t shovel or elderly who can’t get out,” said Goldsmith. “We need to be able to hold drivers accountable in snow emergencies. We’re working on a large number of linkages between all of those issues and technology. We’re also looking at the use of social media in minority populations. We have a long way to go with exclusivity, particularly for people who aren’t conversant with the tools.”

By the time a second major snowstorm rolled in, the Mayor’s Office had set up a number of digital initiatives that created platforms for citizens to give feedback to city government. (In Boston and other cities, that activity can be described as “citizensourcing,” where citizens are co-creators of solutions to community problems.)

“Between the first and second big snowstorms, we organized a number of solutions that involved crowdsourcing,” said Goldsmith. “We launched a snow website with real-time information connected to it. We created a citizen-facing blog to report issues. We set up a Flickr feed where citizens could post pictures about unplowed streets. Because plowing reporting wasn’t entirely accurate, we encouraged citizens to send in information. We used citizens as the eyes and ears of this performance monitoring process.”

Running a civic surplus in NYC

The philosophy where a city works to increase transparency, participation and collaboration with its citizens now has a name that has gained increasing prominence over the past few years: open government. Collaboration and participation are key aspects of “We government” and open government, where a “civic surplus” of citizens’ passion, expertise and patriotism is put to work fixing their own communities.

“The underlying premise here is that life is complicated,” said Goldsmith. “Government is particularly difficult. The hierarchical structure where ‘government knows what’s best for you’ is outdated. Co-creation and collaboration are the models for this century. Digital tools can dramatically improve the exchange of information and improve the quality of services. Public employees can dramatically improve this exchange, whether it’s in idea markets organized by vertical topics or horizontally across agencies. Those devices are some of the best examples where citizens collaborating with government work together for better outcomes.”

These efforts are going to receive a cynical response from New Yorkers unless they see actual results, not soaring rhetoric or shiny technologies. This is, after all, the city where corruption persists long after Boss Tweed held sway. At this moment in New York’s history, however, there’s a willingness to approach governance differently in the Mayor’s office that’s worth observing closely.

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