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City Council Hears Testimony on 'Open Data 2.0' Bills


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Council Member James Vacca (right)


At an oversight hearing on Wednesday of the City Council’s Committee on Technology, good government and civic technology experts praised a pair of bills aimed at updating the city’s 2012 open data law, but raised concerns that the proposals could have unforeseen ramifications.

The city’s current law mandates that city agencies publish non-confidential agency data on a public web portal for all New Yorkers to see and easily access. The open data portal is now home to over 1,600 data sets, with hundreds more data sets scheduled to be released in the coming years. The two “Open Data 2.0” proposals, sponsored by Council Member James Vacca, chair of the committee, and supported by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, are intended to bolster open data reporting standards as well as improve certain areas of the current policy. “Access to government information ensures public institutions can be held accountable,” said Vacca, in his opening statement. “In New York City, the importance of public access to data is reflected in both law and practice.” He noted that New York City had been the first municipality in America to pass a law requiring public data be posted online in machine readable formats.

The hearing was a bittersweet occasion for Vacca, who is term-limited and will be leaving the City Council in December after 12 years. It was his final oversight hearing on open data policy, a project he has long championed.

The city’s open data policy is seen as a model not just for the United States, but the entire world, Brewer noted in her opening statement at the hearing. “I just met with elected officials in Spain... And they are looking at our law,” Brewer said. To illustrate one of the uses of open data, Brewer will be joining civic technology group BetaNYC to host a “311 Data Jam” on Saturday, employing the city’s dataset on the 311 helpline. It’s the third such event hosted by BetaNYC, and they will be introducing “BoardStat,” a tool for community boards to analyze visualized 311 data in order to discover community trends.

The bulk of Wednesday’s hearing covered Intro. 1707, which includes provisions requiring reviews of the “Technical Standards Manual,” which is the guideline for how agencies manage and present their datasets every two years, to ensure the datasets remain up to date.

“These standards are designed to make open data more usable to the maximum number of users,” said Albert Webber, director of Open Data for the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT). “We see the TSM as a living document, meant to keep up with advances in technology, data availability, and the passage of local laws that impact data disclosure. An official periodic review of this document would ensure that open data disclosure stays up-to-date, relevant, and true to the most current practices.”

The bill codifies a requirement for city agencies to appoint an “open data coordinator” to ensure agency compliance with the open data law. It also changes the deadline for agencies’ compliance plans from July to September, to avoid conflicting with the city’s budget season. The bill would also require that data analytics on public usage of the data portal be collected and studied.

Criticisms of the legislation stemmed not from opposition to any one plank, but rather from unintended consequences that certain provisions of Intro. 1707 could have in areas such as agency reporting, accountability, and protection of individual privacy.

One provision in the proposal raised eyebrows among good government groups and civic technologists. Noel Hidalgo, executive director of Beta NYC, and John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, pointed out that the bill extends the open data compliance deadline for city agencies from 2018 to 2021, a full nine years after the law went into effect in 2012. Many datasets from numerous city agencies are currently scheduled for release on the current deadline, December 31, 2018.

Kaehny said allowing agencies to hold off on publishing data is akin to a high school student saying they’ll turn in all of their homework on the last day, a promise that can’t be seen as reliable. He made similar comments to Gotham Gazette in July after the city released its annual update to the open data plan. Kaehny referred to the extension to 2021 as a “homework extension” that will never be turned in.

Vacca pressed Webber on these concerns, and Webber insisted that the administration was committed to releasing the data sets on time. “Putting a deadline is always helpful,” he told the Council member. “But no, we do not have concerns that pushing it to 2021 will delay the release of some datasets.” In his testimony, Webber stated that the administration would “like to discuss how to improve the language to ensure that submissions meant to be disclosed by December 31, 2018 will still be held to that deadline.”

Another aspect of Intro. 1707 that received some critique was a provision calling for the collection of data analytics on visitors to the portal. Concerns were raised that recording data on unique visitors to the portal, especially those exploring data that could be construed as sensitive, might violate an individual’s privacy. The language of this provision in the bill was viewed as vague.

“Pageviews, great,” said Sumana Harihareswara, a programmer from Astoria who testified at the hearing. “Numbers of pageviews, great. Unique users? I don’t want to be identified uniquely in a public place for having looked up a certain piece of data. So number of unique users is perhaps what this ought to say.”

Those who testified otherwise generally praised the proposed biannual review of the TSM, the change in the annual compliance deadline from July to September, and codifying into law the agency requirement of an open data coordinator.

The bill also saw some critique for what it lacked, such as a “private right of action,” the ability of the public to sue agencies failing to perform their duties. Kaehny noted that the only course of action without the private right of action is to “name and shame” agencies considered to be “laggard” in regards to their dataset releases. According to Kaehny, open data is one of the few pieces of legislation in New York City that does not include a private right of action, making it highly unusual, especially for such a major city law.

Brewer echoed the call for a private right of action, emphasizing that future administrations may not be as committed to transparency. “I believe we must provide a private right-of-action to protect the New York City municipal open data apparatus from a future administration that does not wish to operate it in good faith as the current and previous administrations have done,” she said. She cited the Trump administration’s moves immediately post-inauguration to delete data that had been posted online under the previous administration; there is no federal law that establishes similar data protections as New York City’s policy.

Kaehny claimed that even naming and shaming is a difficult task, given that agency compliance with the law is not compiled in a single spreadsheet on the portal but rather in four separate spreadsheets. Compiling all relevant information about published and unpublished datasets into one spreadsheet was one of Reinvent Albany’s key recommendations to the committee. “What we’re seeing is fog when it comes to understanding exactly how well agencies are doing,” Kaehny said.

The administration also had suggestions for improving the bill. Echoing testimony from the advocates, DoITT’s Webber expressed dismay at the law’s lack of any licensing requirements for the data, hoping that “permissive licenses,” licenses with few, if any, redistributive restrictions, could be added to the program.

“Our mission to encourage public engagement with open data in the long term makes the ability to license very important,” Webber said. “Structured properly, licenses could allow us to formally make the city’s datasets free and open for public use in perpetuity, codifying our existing practice and ensuring that New Yorkers have access to open data for the long haul.”

Also under consideration at the hearing was Intro. 1528, an amendment to an existing open data law that would require agencies that process Freedom of Information Law requests involving non-confidential data to report and publish the names of the public datasets, rather than simply the metrics of the datasets. The measure received overall support from those testifying before the committee.

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by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

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Experts Analyze Mayor De Blasio's Jobs Plan


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Mayor de Blasio and Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)


An expert panel convened at The New School on Wednesday by the Center for An Urban Future delved into Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to create 100,000 “good-paying” jobs in the next ten years, discussing the challenges of growing the city’s economy while ensuring that New Yorkers are its beneficiaries.

The mayor’s “New York Works” plan, unveiled in June, envisions targeted city investments in booming or burgeoning industries such as cybersecurity, life sciences, virtual reality, tech, culture, freight, and manufacturing to create 10,000 jobs each year that pay at least $50,000 a year, promoting the middle class and reducing income inequality in the city. Some have questioned the less-than-ambitious goal -- the city has created on average about 90,000 jobs each year in the last decade -- while others have raised concerns that the new jobs may not be sufficiently well-paying in a city that is increasingly unaffordable for many. The panel of experts explored those issues, and the related economic factors that they agreed were necessary to facilitate and maximize the impact of the job creation plan.

Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development Alicia Glen kicked off the event with the administration’s pitch for its ten-year plan. She pointed to the city’s record-high employment rates and job growth -- employment is at 4.4 million jobs, unemployment is at 4 percent this year and the private sector has grown overall by 9 percent under this administration -- and laid out the strategies for creating quality jobs through city actions. Notably, the 100,000 target only accounts for jobs created directly through city intervention, and doesn't include employment that may be created as a secondary result.

“It’s really important to remember there’s a short game here and a long game and we have to play both of them,” she said, touting the administration’s first-term achievements as contributors to a stronger economy including universal pre-kindergarten, improvements in educational achievement, record-low crimes and the building of affordable housing, among other factors.

But she recognized that industry trends such as automation and globalisation are increasingly impacting the middle class and that the city would have to actively intervene to stem job losses and promote growth in specific sectors “where specific government intervention in either space or talent or certain kinds of incentive structures, we believe, are actually necessary for them to reach their true potential. So this is on top of any organic growth that would happen without our interventions.”

She also noted that the administration has leveraged its land use and regulatory powers to encourage economic development. Referring to comprehensive land use changes passed in East Midtown, Far Rockaway and East New York, she said, “All of these neighborhood rezoning plans are not just about housing, it’s also about creating opportunity for smart job growth and many of those will have very interesting overlaps with this plan.”

After Glen spoke, she quickly departed and a five-member panel comprising real estate insiders and urban policy experts, and one City Council member, took the stage.

Panel moderator Winston Fisher, a partner at real estate firm Fisher Brothers and co-chair of the NYC Regional Economic Development Council, posed the central question. “If the economy is doing so well...do we need a strategy for good jobs?” he asked. “Why do we need this and how do we even measure this?”

“Absolutely we need it,” said Jonathan Bowles, executive director of the Center for an Urban Future. “This is the big economic development question today.” Bowles noted that projections show seven out of the ten occupations that will create the most jobs in the next ten years will be in low-wage sectors, and the other three in high-wage fields. “It’s not just that we need more jobs, we need more good-paying jobs that are accessible for a broad range of New Yorkers because so few of the new jobs are in that middle range that are accessible to people without a college degree.”

There was general praise for the administration's jobs plan but certain concerns among the members of the panel about whether it targets the right population, whether job growth will directly benefit the city’s residents, and whether it adequately accounts for the overarching factors that affect the economy and income inequality at large.

City Council Member Dan Garodnick, chair of the economic development committee, questioned whether the administration was being sufficiently ambitious in aiming for 100,000 jobs. “I do think we need to be asking the question, is that the right number? Is it aspirational enough?”

But panellist Seth Pinsky, executive vice president at RXR, a real estate firm, and former president of the NYC Economic Development Corporation, said the problem was not the number of jobs. His “quibble” about the plan was that it does not explicitly address the need to bring jobs to those who require them most, particularly New Yorkers without an advanced education.

“The problem is not creating jobs, it’s who’s getting the jobs,” Pinsky said, noting that the unemployment rate for those without a high school degree is three times that of those with a master’s degree or higher. That was, for him, the biggest challenge for the city, noting that the administration would need to figure out how to “creatively” educate those without a formal education and also establish a robust safety net for those who are likely to never catch up in education and job skills in increasingly automated industries. “This is a problem that’s bigger than New York City, it’s a problem that cities and countries all over the world are dealing with,” he said.

Kevin Ryan, an entrepreneur and founder of companies including MongoDB, Zola, Workframe and NoMad Health, echoed that uncertainty. Although the high school graduation rate in the city hit an all-time high of 79.4 percent last year, Ryan was pessimistic about the job prospects of the more than 20 percent who don’t receive diplomas. He also pointed to the city’s lack of affordable housing and abysmal transit infrastructure as factors that negatively impact the economy.

Marlene Cintron, president of the Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation, stressed that jobs created should meet the needs of residents of communities and also the needs of current and prospective employers. Chiefly, she said, it was necessary to ensure that “our students, our New York City residents get the first bite of this New York City apple…Economic development and jobs start at the cradle, we need a healthy child, we need a great excellent education system, we need affordable education...to ensure our kids get the first crack at the apple.”

One of the more pressing issues, repeated often by different panellists, was the need to enhance affordability to complement increased wages among lower- and middle-wage job holders.

Pinsky emphasized the role real estate could play, by increasing housing density to create more affordability. And, if the city were to invest heavily in transit infrastructure and connectivity across the boroughs, he said, it would relieve stress on the housing market and automatically lead to more affordable housing units farther from the city center. He also pointed out that, since the economy is not organically creating middle-wage jobs, the city should take an aggressive approach to incentivise companies to create those jobs through subsidies, similar to the way the de Blasio administration has approached affordable housing.

Cintron repeatedly emphasized the need for affordable education, which she suggested could be implemented through the CUNY and SUNY systems by New York State, building on the recent Excelsior program that provides tuition-free college for families making $100,000 a year or less. Ryan added that creating a more affordable city, through infrastructure and housing, would also discourage companies from outsourcing jobs and would draw more qualified workers to the city.

Pinsky, Bowles and Garodnick also touched on the broader economic conditions that are necessary to promote job creation. Noting Pinsky’s argument about workforce development, Bowles said the mayor’s plan would need to incorporate jobs training and skill building to create a “talent pipeline” across diverse sectors. And he said that it was impossible to tell which job sector would grow the fastest. “We do know that New York has this amazing opportunity to scale up our small businesses,” he said, emphasizing that that could create more middle-wage jobs with benefits.

Pinsky agreed that certain sectors were ripe for growth, but he said it was a mistake for the city to focus too heavily on them. “People in government often think that they’re chasing the next big thing when, in fact, what they’re chasing is the last big thing,” he said. “We’re much better off trying to create the conditions for all sectors to thrive and then to let the marketplace sort through which are the ones that actually should be here and which are the ones that have a less logical connection to a specific place like New York.”

Reiterating that point, Garodnick said, “The plan makes only passing reference to those general conditions which are necessary for businesses to be successful in New York.” He said the city needed to account for the “fundamentals” that affect economic activity, be it the ongoing subway crisis or traffic congestion. “Until we’re adequately dealing with those, we’re gonna have challenges,” he said. He did praise the administration for including land use policy in the jobs plan, but was disappointed with inadequate steps taken to relieve burdens on small businesses. In particular, he called for reforming the commercial rent tax that is levied on businesses below 96th Street in Manhattan. “We can’t ignore some of these other issues that the city can actually act on right now,” he said.

Bowles agreed that the city should foster an “ecosystem” to strengthen small businesses and put resources into modernizing infrastructure, which would naturally create jobs as well.

The de Blasio administration is well aware that achieving its goals will require an organic approach that meets the needs of the economy as it develops and changes. Deputy Mayor Glen noted as much on Wednesday. “This is a ten-year plan,” she said. “I can’t say in year eight or nine where every single job is going to be. That would be an unrealistic expectation. So we have to be nimble, we have to be thoughtful. We have to adapt in real-time to changes in technology, to changes in capital markets, to changes in political and regional realities.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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At the City Council, Better Gender Balance Among Chiefs of Staff


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Council Member Mark Levine & his Chief of Staff, Aya Keefe (photo: Levine's office)


The New York City Council, a 51-member body, currently includes only 13 women, down from 18 in 2009, and that number is likely to soon fall to 12 when the next Council is seated in January, if this year’s elections continue as expected. There has been widespread recent attention given to the City Council gender imbalance, in part because the Council’s Women’s Caucus released a report on the subject, and there are efforts underway to improve female representation in the Council through future elections.

But, at one level at least, the Council is faring much better in gender balance. Of the 50 sitting Council members, 24 have women serving as their chiefs of staff, the highest ranking aide, buoying hopes among members, aides, and advocates that these positions can serve to further the political careers of numerous qualified and experienced women in city government. For men and women alike, being a top aide to a City Council member is often a path to elected office, as evidence by the victory in last Tuesday’s primary election by Diana Ayala, the former deputy chief of staff to outgoing City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who is term-limited.

Ayala, seen as an underdog against sitting Assemblymember Robert Rodriguez, secured a narrow victory in the primary, with Mark-Viverito’s help, and is expected to easily win the general election in November.

Chiefs of staff play vital roles in Council members’ offices, overseeing their legislative headquarters near City Hall and their local district offices where staffers provide constituent services. It’a role that involves liaising with other Council members’ staff, advocates, and others, and can require a working knowledge of priorities and policy proposals of nearly the entire Council. Most significantly, it can serve as a foundation for political careers. Many Council staffers, particularly chiefs of staff, go on to run for elected office, often to fill seats left vacant when their bosses are either term-limited or leave office for other reasons.

“As the saying goes, ‘If you wanna get something done, ask a woman to do it,’” said Council Member Laurie Cumbo, who is co-chair of the Council’s Women’s Caucus and whose chief of staff is a woman, in a phone interview from a restaurant. “Women are awesome, dynamic multitaskers,” Cumbo said, chuckling that she was talking to a reporter, ordering food and breastfeeding at the same time. Cumbo was pregnant on the campaign trail as she ran for reelection, and recently gave birth to her son. She won a tough primary battle on September 12 and is expected to easily beat two opponents on November 7.

Cumbo stressed that the role of a chief of staff involves “really wearing multiple hats at the same time,” being able to understand the issues a Council member is focused on and being able to troubleshoot problems before they arise. And, as much as she said she hates stereotypes, “Women are able to do that well,” Cumbo said.

In a city government so heavily dominated by men -- the mayor, the comptroller and most of the City Council are men, while the public advocate is Letitia James, the first woman of color to hold citywide office -- having women serve in top positions helps inform policy and the legislative process, Cumbo said. And chiefs of staff bring that valuable perspective to the table. “I think it’s something that happens by nature, because of staffers eating, breathing, and sleeping this work,” she said.

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, the second woman and first Latina to hold that powerful seat, has made it a future priority to increase the number of women elected to the City Council. She is spearheading the “21 in ’21” movement, which aims to elect 21 women in 2021, when more than 30 Council seats will be up for grabs along with incumbents seeking reelection. The speaker also launched the Young Women’s Initiative to provide enhanced services to girls and women, particularly those of color, between the ages of 12 and 24.

Monica Abend, Cumbo’s chief of staff, said her position gives her the opportunity to “participate in contributing ideas to legislation, to policy and contributing to progressive legislation for a progressive city that is a frontrunner in many of those policy areas.”

“To be able to wear that chief of staff role positions you in a wonderful arena to understand local government,” she said. It’s on-the-job training in the legislative process and in understanding how the city changes at the local level, she said. “While our communities change on a constant basis, a lot of the work stays the same,” she added.

Abend doesn’t envision running for office any time soon but she did agree that working for a Council member provides the skills to do so. “Maybe one day in the future,” she said.

Under the de Blasio administration and the largely progressive City Council, led by Mark-Viverito, the city has increased its focus on issues of gender equity. The mayor established the Commission on Gender Equity in 2015 through an executive order, and also banned city agencies from inquiring about salary history, a step towards ensuring pay equity for women.

The Council has passed and the mayor has signed numerous bills related to empowering and aiding women across all walks of life. These include legislation to enhance support for caregivers, who are largely immigrant women of color; establishing public lactation stations; increasing access to feminine hygiene products in shelters, jails and schools; improving contracting opportunities for women- and minority-owned businesses; enhancing protections for victims of domestic violence; among other measures. A bill from Public Advocate James to ban inquiries about salary history in the private sector was passed and signed earlier this year.

The Women’s Caucus also released its report last month that examines the cultural and institutional barriers to women’s representation in New York politics.

“I think that the City Council is really a great place for women to work and take on leadership positions and express themselves, and advocate for policies that benefit all New Yorkers,” said Aya Keefe, chief of staff to Council Member Mark Levine. She noted that Levine’s director of constituent services and budget and legislative director are also women. “It’s a powerful statement for our office,” she said. “We’re very much a partnership-driven office. There’s a strong female style of management, not necessarily being hierarchical but collaborative. And that works really well on legislation. Ultimately, you have to bring a lot of interests to the table and women are uniquely positioned to do that.”

Keefe personally has no intention of running for office, she said. “But I definitely think that chief of staff gives you great insight into the ins and outs of working in government,” she said. She also noted, as did others, that there should be a push to translate the gender balance at the staff level into elected positions.

Alexis Grenell, a Democratic political consultant and writer on gender issues, cautioned against being overly celebratory about the number of women chiefs of staff, saying it meets the “baseline expectation” since women represent half the population. “Women make up more than 50 percent of many graduate degree programs, making them arguably more qualified than their male counterparts,” she said.

She argued that it’s more important for women to receive support in their aspirations for elected office, pointing to the “crisis in women’s leadership” in the City Council, where the next speaker is likely to be a man for the first time in 12 years. “Empirical data shows that gender balance directly results in better outcomes,” she said. “This is true for corporate boards, and for legislation. That is undeniably the case.”

She did agree that chief of staff is a pipeline to the Council, with outgoing Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland being a prominent example. She also pointed to two Council staffers -- Ayala and Carlina Rivera -- who ran for City Council this year to replace the term-limited Council members who they worked for. Ayala was deputy chief of staff to Mark-Viverito before leaving to run for the speaker’s seat in District 8. Rivera, who served as legislative director to outgoing Council Member Rosie Mendez, handily won the primary for Mendez’s District 2 seat on the Lower East Side. “These are women who served in the Council for two terms and backed their staffers to replace them,” Grenell said, in the hope that other Council members do the same for their own staff.

While Ferreras-Copeland, who decided not to seek another term due to family considerations and a move to another state, is being replaced by a man, term-limited Council Member Darlene Mealy will be replaced by a woman, Alicka Samuel, who won a crowded primary in District 41. And while term-limited Annabel Palma is being replaced by a man, Adrienne Adams won the competitive primary to replace Ruben Wills, who had recently vacated the seat due to a corruption charge.

Sonia Ossorio, president of the National Organization for Women of New York, also hoped that the Council’s “abysmal” record of women’s representation would improve. “The good news is that while there are less than 25 percent of women in the City Council, a 50 percent rate of women chiefs of staff says to me that there’s a lot of potential,” she said. “They know the community well, they know the job.”

She agreed that women add a diversity of opinion that is necessary for good policy. “But we need a representation of leaders that reflects our community,” she said.

Council Member Helen Rosenthal, co-chair of the Women’s Caucus, whose chief of staff is also a woman, said the numbers were “heartening” but was cautious of drawing any conclusions. “I think that sounds normal to me,” she said of the nearly 50 percent representation. “It doesn’t necessarily reflect in what people are submitting legislation about or doing in their districts.”

“To the extent that there aren’t barriers to having chiefs of staff, it is an equalizer,” she acknowledged. But she wondered about the larger questions it raises about the entire city government. She also recognized that the Council as a body should perhaps do more to support women. “Should we have a daycare?” she said, for instance. “I think that’s something we should talk about.”

Council staffers also don’t have set pay ranges with titles, so it’s hard to gauge whether there is pay parity across the Council. “It’s not something I’ve explored,” Rosenthal said. “It’s a great question. Every Council member has their own fiefdom. Council members can choose to pay staff whatever they want. We’re not given a range and perhaps we should.”

“I’m lucky to have strong women leadership in the office and I benefit from it every day,” said Council Member Levine. “I think we certainly strive to be accommodating to women,” he said of the City Council, adding that he would support extending maternity leave. “We can do more,” he said, “there’s no doubt about it.”

Keefe, Levine’s chief of staff, also said the Council should do more to accommodate women. “I think we should have a better maternity leave policy, that sets the example for businesses and nonprofits across the city,” she said. She did note that when she gave birth last year, she received three months leave, but that that isn’t the standard policy across the Council.

Abend, from Cumbo’s office, said, “There’s always room for improvement,” but insisted that “this has been an incredible time to be a woman in local city government.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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