Gotham Gazette Sat, 17 Nov 2018 00:41:21 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Smart Cities: Civic Tech Innovation and The Internet of Things smart city stanford

(image: Stanford)

Government technology practitioners from various cities and countries gathered last week to discuss the future of “smart cities” and the “Internet of Things” at the Smart Cities NYC conference that took place at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

One panel was moderated by Jeff Merritt, Director of Innovation for the City of New York and a go-to person for smart cities in the local administration, and included technology leaders from four cities -- Chicago, Atlanta, Toronto, and Amsterdam -- who discussed a variety of ongoing projects and future plans. A portion of the discussion focused on the Internet of Things, which generally means a series of interconnected devices with the ability to exchange data. The panel was preceded by a keynote address by Miguel Gamiño, New York City’s Chief Technology Officer.

Merritt led the panelists in a discussion of the importance of changing processes and government operation in the digital era, and making progress in the ability to respond to challenges presented by the new world technological order, which is also constantly evolving. This includes integrating emerging technologies into everyday work, from substituting paper documents with digital to adopting the use of sensors and establishing citywide connectivity. The Internet of Things may be a piece of the puzzle.

“I do think we are at a tipping point,” said Ger Baron, Chief Technology Officer of Amsterdam, Netherlands, referring to the transformation of government, which is essential for adapting to the expanding digital world. Similar to the banking industry that has been adjusting and launching digital services, the government, Baron said, needs to redefine itself and move away from the organization designed 30 or 40 years ago. Government needs to get rid of obsolete procedures and focus on relevant ones, he said.

“This is the moment to start connecting the dots,” Baron said, referring to evaluating lessons from recent years. He added he is optimistic about ongoing initiatives around the world that indicate responsiveness to the need for change and modernization.

In Amsterdam, the government adopted a shorter policy-making cycle and more agile approach to creating and testing regulations in order to provide better solutions.

In an interview with Gotham Gazette after the panel, Baron mentioned that the city constantly sees an inflow of new initiatives, such as sharing economy platforms, for instance, but related regulations are often late, outdated, or based on irrelevant data. To resolve the issue, the government began to evaluate and revise smart city regulations every three months based on the information gathered through Google analytics, social media, citizens’ feedback, and other sources. Baron referred to it as a relatively new form of measuring an output of government efforts as opposed to the more traditional three- or four-year cycle that typically accompanies a government administration.

Meanwhile, Chicago’s flagship smart cities initiative is the “Array of Things,” a network, consisting of 500 sensor clusters, with around 20 sensors in each, that will cover the entire city by 2018. About 50 sensor nodes were installed in 2016. They gather massive amounts of data on environment, infrastructure, and activity every second of every day, said Brenna Berman, former CTO of the city and current executive director of City Digital, and will continue doing so for the next five years and beyond.

Merritt referred to the Array of Things as “one of the most publicized IoT deployments, perhaps, in the world.” It was launched in 2016 and is primarily intended as a research platform. Its two purposes, Berman said, are to prove that it’s possible to build hardware that survives diverse environmental conditions for five or more years and to collect real-time data, such as air quality or noise. The data then can be used, for example, to study connection between environment and diseases, or collect traffic information and time the traffic lights. No privacy concerns were discussed at the panel.

One use-case example for the platform is mapping the safest routes for students in the neighborhoods with high rates of asthma. Analysts discovered that even changing the door through which the students enter the school or altering the path they take to get there, can decrease the rate of absences, Berman said.  

According to Berman, similar projects are currently in deployment in other cities around the world, including Denver, Seattle, Delhi, and cities in the Middle East and Africa.

“What we are trying to create is an IoT-specific urban scale research platform,” Berman said. She mentioned that the “city-sensing platform” will be at scale in 2018, but data will become available to public at the end of May, this year.

In the meantime, Chicago high school students are learning about the project by recreating a small scale version of the Array of Things in their science classes. As part of “complementary” high school science curriculum, they install the sensors around the schools, gather similar data, and analyze it in class.

In a later panel on collaboration between CIO’s of the cities, Berman spoke about her approach to privacy policy for the projects like the Array of Things. To put together policy in Chicago, she first looked at Seattle and New York to learn from the work that was done and processes these cities went through. “Sensors in general are collecting data in a public way, so privacy is a component of sensors in every city. So every city is dealing with privacy. And the privacy policy for every city is going to be different,” Berman said, explaining it with differences in priorities and local communities. [pictured below, l-r: Rob Meikle, Samir Saini, Brenna Berman, Ger Baron, Jeff Merritt]

smart cities iot panelAtlanta is testing the waters by creating a “smart corridor,” before turning the whole city into a connected network.

According to Chief Information Officer Samir Saini, the future corridor, roughly a five-mile stretch of Atlanta’s North Avenue, will be packed with a blend of IoT devices from various providers, some underground, others above ground, collecting different types of data. The city then plans to analyze it and apply to improve the corridor.

“We have about 100-plus IoT sensors that will be able to see, hear, and smell every square meter of North Avenue,” Saini said at the Smart Cities panel. The sensors will gather data related to the environment, safety, and mobility.

Saini also referred to predictive analytics as a game-changer and mentioned that the city is taking baby steps in this direction, hoping for big leaps in the future. The goal is to develop a data repository “that would serve as a backbone for an urban operating system,” he said.

In Toronto, one of the largest projects that would eventually serve as a base for the smart city initiative is revitalization of the waterfront. This includes covering 2,000 acres of the waterfront area with fiber optic network that will ensure connectivity throughout the district and encouraging developers to construct smart buildings.

In addition, Toronto recently started using drones to inspect 1,800 overflows and watercourses that don’t have easy access by foot, said Rob Meikle, Chief Information Officer of the city.

All speakers agreed on the critical role of public private partnerships (P3) to advance the development of smart cities, for instance, government partnering with startups, telecommunications providers, and universities. Public space in the digital world is different from public space in the real world, said Ger Baron, and it’s important to establish relationships with technology companies, startups, telecommunications companies and others who own the digital space and the data.

For Atlanta, for instance, this type of partnership is a critical collaboration with Georgia Institute of Technology, widely known as Georgia Tech. The power of being a smart city lies in the data, Saini said, and one of the key resources for the IoT projects is data scientists, whose job it is to make sense of information and find patterns. The Atlanta-Georgia Tech partnership includes access to the university’s data scientists, whom the city government cannot attract as of now.

“It not just about a pilot or technology, but it’s really, when we talk about data, it’s about attitudes, mindsets and behaviors, and how do we foster that culture,” said Rob Meikle, speaking about establishing the civic innovation office in Toronto. Meikle’s statement refers to the importance of support of data analysis and technology projects by stakeholders within the government for the successful innovation within the cities.

Preceding the panel, Miguel Gamiño, Chief Technology Officer of New York City, shared his vision on city’s engagement in the “digital revolution” in a 20-minute keynote address. Gamiño highlighted data, connectivity and people as three key resources for smart city. He also mentioned artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles and drones as concepts to watch and shared an overview of LinkNYC, the new wifi and multimedia kiosks that are replacing old payphones across the city, and connectivity as flagship smart city initiatives happening in New York.

“We are focused generally still on delivering broadband to all New Yorkers, so that is a consistent priority,” Gamiño told Gotham Gazette in an interview later that week. The administration is evaluating the means to integrate smart connected projects with each other, he said. “At the end of the day, that’s the real benefit to the public, is when these individual projects work with one another in a way that makes the public experience significantly better.”

Gamiño of New York City, Berman of Chicago, and Saini of Atlanta are also the founding members of Global Cities CIOs Council, created in Autumn 2016 to promote knowledge sharing and collaboration among chief technologists in the cities around the world. The council’s activities include sharing of lessons learned, potential collective negotiation with vendors, and other tasks.

“I do think in a year -- 18 months -- you will see a common deployment across two or more cities,” said Berman. “I think you will actually start to see the first cross city deployment of an IoT solution in the next year.”

by Natalia Erokhina for Gotham Gazette

Smart Cities: Civic Tech Innovation and The Internet of Things Tue, 09 May 2017 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Examines Data Privacy, Security vacca prep computer

City Council Member Vacca (seated)

The Technology Committee of the New York City Council held an oversight hearing Monday on the city’s data privacy policies and data security protocols. A broad variety of more specific topics were covered during the hearing, chaired by Council Member James Vacca, including unauthorized data usage and security breaches; risks related to the expansion of high-speed internet availability and sidewalk wi-fi kiosks; the Worker Connect program that allows New Yorkers to search and apply for public benefits; new efforts at data exchange among city agencies; and the ‘Internet of Things,’ which refers to interconnectivity of various applications, devices, and information.

As expected, a number of questions were raised at the hearing, only some of which were answered, about data privacy for New Yorkers and data security for city agencies.

“I do think we came across some needs to have more of a formalized process on how we protect people’s privacy,” Vacca said after the hearing. “There should be an agency that’s tasked with this specific issue of privacy.”

The main city agency tasked with data privacy concerns and security is the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, or DoITT. Commissioner Anne Roest testified Monday and told Vacca and the committee that the city is constantly experiencing hacking attacks. Since the current administration took office in January 2014, there were two instances when city data was stolen, Roest said, once from the Fire Department and once from the Administration for Children’s Services.

“We’ve had, and I don’t have a number in front of me, but hundreds in the past year, of incidents where malware got into our system, but didn’t get anything out,” Roest said, emphasizing the quality of agencies cybersecurity threat response and prevention.

A substantial part of the hearing revolved around LinkNYC, a network of interactive kiosks spread throughout the city, often where payphones used to be, providing free, fast wi-fi, access to various public services, and free phone calls anywhere in the United States. In January 2017, LinkNYC had over 1 million subscribers. Meanwhile, the latest data published on the city’s Open Data Portal indicates over 7 million sessions for the week of April 10.  

While the Link network is being used and expanded, there are privacy concerns. DoITT takes pride in the latest version of the privacy policy negotiated with the franchise partner, CityBridge LLC. Roest emphasized in her opening statement that LinkNYC does not track users’ browsing history and location, and therefore does not store or sell it.

According to the privacy policy published on the LinkNYC website, the software does collect unique information about the device and browser being used, such as, for example, IP and MAC addresses, time zone settings, and other data (According to the privacy policy, this information is needed by LinkNYC to be able to provide internet connectivity). The storage period for this information varies from 60 days to a year. Each booth is also equipped with two cameras used to prevent or track vandalism, Roest said. The video is stored for seven days and then deleted.  

“Many national studies indicate that lower income people are disproportionately burned by data collection and privacy violations,” said Vacca in his opening statement at the hearing. He continued: “Last month Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced that his office received approximately 1,300 notifications regarding data breaches of non-governmental systems in 2016. That is a 60 percent increase from the previous year.”

“Privacy is not a luxury item, but a fundamental right of all people. With the recent federal repeal of the data privacy measures for internet service providers this discussion takes on added importance,” Vacca said about the decision to roll back a set of privacy regulations that obliged Internet providers to request consent from users before sharing and selling sensitive information, such as, for instance, healthcare and financial data, obtained by tracking their browsing behavior.

The city’s Chief Technology Officer, Miguel A. Gamiño Jr., added during testimony that his office is planning to conduct a legal review to investigate the city’s potential to protect the privacy of New Yorkers, given ongoing reconsideration of Obama-era FCC regulations. “Specifically, this review includes an evaluation of the authority the city may have over the privacy policies of internet service providers, how and to what extent the city is exercising this authority currently, and whether the city can expand the exercise of its available authority to achieve, at minimum, the privacy protections for internet service consumers that Congress and the President have recently repealed,” said Gamiño.     

Officials identified public education as one of the key measures in preventing hacking attacks and data breaches in New York. Gamiño announced an “interagency work group on internet health and human rights” that will look for ways to educate consumers and businesses on how to protect their privacy. He also mentioned the city’s cooperation with public libraries on digital literacy materials for citizens and collaboration with Mozilla Foundation on a series of digital security workshops for organizations. Mozilla, a technology company known for its Firefox web browser, runs a nonprofit foundation that promotes open and accessible internet.

Another topic covered by several meeting participants was an interagency data exchange strategy. Better data exchange among city agencies can improve transparency, efficiency, and broader accessibility to information for New Yorkers, but necessitates establishment of security and privacy protocols.

DoITT Commissioner Roest discussed the importance of classifying collected data and applying safety protocols to the resulting categories. For instance, all data characterized as confidential cannot be stored or transferred unless it is protected by a special encryption technology.

Finally, the Council committee discussed existing guidelines and a future strategy for the ‘Internet of Things’, where New York City claims to be one of the global pioneers, and a recent launch of the Neighborhood Innovation Lab initiative, aimed to connect government, technologists, and communities in a joint effort to innovate and improve local communities.    

“Data privacy is a wide-ranging issue and seemingly touches almost every aspect of our city’s services,” Vacca concluded.

by Natalia Erokhina for Gotham Gazette

City Council Examines Data Privacy, Security Wed, 26 Apr 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Praise, and Recommendations, for City's Open Data Progress vacca tech open data cropped

Council Member Vacca (photo: @JamesVacca13)

There are two years to go before the deadline set by the city’s 2012 Open Data Law, which requires city agencies identify and publish all their citywide aggregated public data online. At a Wednesday afternoon oversight hearing of the City Council’s Committee on Technology, open data and civic technology advocates offered praise for the city’s progress thus far and recommendations for the city to meet its goals.

Open data is considered a vital transparency tool that allows citizens and government to evaluate and improve city services. New York City, considered a trendsetter in this area, committed to this goal in 2012 by passing a law that would make data easily accessible and consumable by the public. Through the city’s Open Data Portal, New Yorkers can access a range of information such as the number and type of complaints made to the 311 helpline, real-time traffic speed data, or where the City Council spends discretionary funding.

The Open Data Portal hosts nearly 1,600 datasets across all city agencies.

Last year, in the annual progress report on the city’s implementation of the Open Data Law,  Mayor Bill de Blasio released a new open data plan, “Open Data For All,” which aims at making the Open Data Portal more user-friendly, making it easily visualized for those with little experience in data or programming, and pushes for more citywide engagement.

Following that, the City Council passed a package of legislation to enhance the existing law and improve access to information through the city’s Open Data Portal maintained by the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT).

This was the first year which saw some of the new amendments put into effect. These new laws, seven in total, deal with retention of data, building data dictionaries, standardizing geospatial data, establishing timelines for agencies to respond to public requests on the Open Data Portal, mandating timely updates for public data, requiring publication of datasets obtained through Freedom of Information Law requests, and examination and verification of agency compliance.

“One of the things we’ve been able to do is build an open data ecosystem,” testified Dr. Amen Ra Mashariki, director of the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics (MODA), who is also the chief analytics officer and chief open platform officer for the city. He said the new laws help “anchor the administration’s commitment to transparency and equitable uses of technology around open data.”

Ra Mashariki stressed that MODA’s focus has been on user research, feedback mechanisms, and technical standards, and he laid out the city’s progress on each while teasing updates that will be released later this year. These updates include a first-of-its-kind analysis with NYU Center for Urban Science and Progress on “data poverty” -- the lack of access or representation of communities in city data; a study with Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs on opportunities for community based organizations to utilize open data; and a new centralized mechanism for receiving feedback, with quicker responses and tracking.

Concluding his testimony, Ra Mashariki cited an important example of how open data can be useful to the public. He referenced Ben Wellington, a data scientist who runs the blog “I Quant NY.” Wellington examined parking violation data and found that the NYPD had been ticketing legally parked cars for millions of dollars. He took his analysis to the NYPD who confirmed it and took measures to prevent it in the future.

Testifying on behalf of DoITT, Albert Webber cited the city’s key accomplishments over the last year -- traffic on the Open Data Portal increased to more than 5 million hits; 116 datasets were made public, bringing the total to nearly 1,600; 100 new data sets are now automatically updated; and more than 40 unscheduled data sets were identified and published. He also said DoITT would soon fill three of four new dedicated positions for the Open Data Portal.

At the hearing, government transparency advocates and civic technology professionals wholeheartedly endorsed the city’s efforts, and also made a few recommendations for improvements.

John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany and co-chair of the New York City Transparency Working Group, emphasised “that City Council stay actively and energetically involved in pushing, cajoling and cheerleading for open data in this city,” without which the program can not be a success.

The Transparency Working Group is co-chaired by Gene Russianoff, senior attorney at the New York Public Interest Research Group, and its members include Common Cause New York and Citizens Union. “Open data and the idea behind open data is working in New York City,” Kaehny said, also stressing that city agencies will eventually save tens of millions of dollars by using open data.

He said the de Blasio administration has “started upping their game” in implementing open data but in his testimony Kaehny pointed out a number of outstanding issues. These included the need for a better process for remedying public complaints about data quality, more standardization of data, clearer agency criteria for publishing data, and publishing high-demand data sets, such as NYPD crime statistics or the Department of Transportation’s street paving schedule.

He also suggested other needed improvements to the overall system and the law. Currently, one of the new laws requires publishing the number of datasets requested under FOIL -- a method often used by advocates and journalists to examine city information. These, he said, should also be named. He said the city should also consider creating a data issues tracker to monitor errors in datasets reported by the public, similar to a tool used by the federal government.

Council Member James Vacca, chair of the technology committee, was generally satisfied with the administration although he raised a few concerns at the hearing. He was especially pleased that one dataset to be added soon will be of snowplow locations, updated every hour, which would give people quick answers during snowstorms when the city usually struggles to clear roads across the five boroughs. He did question the administration on whether certain agencies were fully complying with the law, particularly the New York Police Department.

Vacca also wondered later whether open data use was being taught to local community groups and Community Boards, which would then have a stronger ability to advocate for local issues. “I know communities that always say ‘We want more police, we want more traffic agents...but they don’t have the documentation, they don’t do the research,” he said. “Here it’s at their fingertips, here we can do the research.”

DoITT’s Webber said that agencies “have made strides across the board,” and that the NYPD had added a number of datasets to its website and the Open Data Portal links to them. “Overall I wouldn’t say any particular agency is not committed to doing what they’re supposed to do,” Webber said, adding that he would later follow up with the Council Member with specific NYPD datasets.

For civic technology advocates, the major concern is not only the availability of data but its usefulness to the public.

Noel Hidalgo, executive director of BetaNYC, a civic technology and open government group, made this clear even as he praised the administration and the Council for their push on open data. “The seven pieces of legislation that were passed are taking us in the right direction and have really strengthened the city’s open data practice,” he said. But Hidalgo pointed out that one big weakness, echoing Vacca’s words, is figuring out how to teach community groups to access, understand and utilize open data. “Frustratingly, there are zero best practices out there on how to teach the city’s open data to itself,” Hidalgo said.

Hidalgo added that under the provisions of the new laws passed last year, the data dictionaries need to contain tutorials and that there needs to be easier access to bulk data downloading. Finally, he stressed the need for the city to create an open data legacy that can last through successive administrations and City Council classes, with a unit dedicated to leadership, standardization, development, and education.

There was also consensus at the hearing among advocates that the very infrastructure of the Open Data Portal could be modernized. Joel Natividad, director of open data at OpenGov Inc., said the portal, currently run by a contracted vendor, needs to be an open source platform that can “support innovation and experimentation” by universities, non-governmental organizations and the private sector. This will allow the city to “tap the genius of the crowd,” he said. Kaehn, of Reinvent Albany, agreed, saying the current platform has severe limitations.

by Samar Khurshid, Senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Praise, and Recommendations, for City's Open Data Progress Wed, 21 Sep 2016 04:00:00 +0000
New York City’s Evolving Approach to Open Data crowd phones

(photo: Rob Bennett/Mayoral Photography Office)

During the first weekend of March, the New York City School of Data - a network of advocates, activists, and professionals for an open data ecosystem - hosted a day of panels and workshop sessions in recognition of the international day celebrating open data and the fourth anniversary of the city passing its first open data law. City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, who have each promoted open data initiatives, delivered keynote remarks at the event.

“As someone who represents some of the most vulnerable, yet resilient New Yorkers in this city, I want to make data a priority,” Mark-Viverito said at the gathering of tech advocates, civic hackers, and public officials. “I want our work to tell a story, one that has rarely been told rightly before. I want our data to move people, organizations, and of course, governments to act differently.”

What Mark-Viverito was getting at - something discussed in several forms over the course of the event and on an ongoing basis - is the idea of using data about civic life, people’s needs, and government services to make things work better while ensuring equity.

Late last year, the City Council approved the final bills of a package amending and adding to the 2012 Open Data law, which created the Open Data Portal, but the legislative action has been met with mixed reviews and questions about the portal’s effectiveness remain.

The portal is intended to increase information available to the public about city services and government operations. According to the de Blasio administration, “New Yorkers can use this data to make informed decisions, become more engaged in their communities, solve tough problems, or turn their dreams into a reality.”

Data available includes the extent to which city school buildings are being used, taxi trip pickups and dropoffs, tree censuses, requests made to the city’s 311 help line, general city budget spending, and much more.

The two newest laws seek to ensure city agency compliance with the Open Data Law,  particularly regarding timely release of data, and updates to the Open Data Portal with information released through Freedom of Information Law requests (often known as FOILs). Both are part of ongoing efforts to make the portal more useful. The more quickly data is released, the more useful it is.

On Nov. 30 of last year, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed into law the five prior bills from the open data package.

“In 2012 we set a new bar for transparency and civic engagement with passage of the most comprehensive open data law in the country,” said Anne Roest, Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) Commissioner. “To be as effective as it can for all New Yorkers, open data needs to be usable data – and these bills will help us achieve that goal.”

While “open” is important, “usable” is really the key word, according to data experts.

The open data law and portal are part of efforts to make government transparent and accountable. In theory, data is to be made easily available - and in a useful format - for interested parties, who can use it to help solve city problems. The portal currently offers 1400 data sets through dozens of city agencies and other entities.

As stated by the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics, “The Open Data Law mandates full coverage of all City public data by 2018. The value is clear – every time a new data set is published on the NYC Open Data Portal, there are new opportunities for users to find insight.”

While there is a wealth of information available, and hundreds of data sets still to come online, it is not always clear who uses the open data portal and to what end. How many New Yorkers even know about the availability of so much data?

And, getting back to usability, there are also significant questions about the format in which data sets are often published.

Still, open government advocates continue to say that it is an essential feature and push to see it improved. Public, usable data, they say, is key to holding government accountable and opening up policy-making to a broader audience, including people outside of government able to help solve a wide variety of problems.

BetaNYC, a nonpartisan group comprised of civic hackers and technologists that has worked with government actors to improve the city’s embrace of civic tech and open data, features a digital project list currently being developed by the NYC tech community. HeatSeekNYC, “a web-enabled hardware platform to detect heating violations in NYC”, and NYC Bus Adherence, “tools for analyzing and visualizing MTA Bus performance data,” are two examples of data-based projects moving civic discourse.

Since the passage of the 2012 open data law, there have been other modifications. In 2014, de Blasio signed into law two transparency bills which require the City Record, a daily publication of city business, to be published on the open data portal in a machine-readable format; the City Charter, the Administrative Code, and the Rules of the City of New York to be published online; and the compilation of laws updated within 30 days of any change.

In July 2015 the de Blasio administration released a new plan for the portal, Open Data for All, which emphasizes community partnership and focuses on making data sets accessible and user-friendly for all New Yorkers.

“[Open Data for All] means it will be easier for people, even those with no programming experience – like myself – to find the information they want, and better ways to utilize that information,” said de Blasio.

De Blasio’s rhetoric shows a typical shift from remarks by his predecessor, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who remarked that sharing data with the public “[catalyzes] the creativity, intellect, and enterprising spirit of computer programmers to build tools that help us all improve our lives.” The evolution of the portal is aimed at ensuring that every New Yorker, not only computer programmers, will be able to utilize and benefit from the information being made available.

The Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics (MODA) and DoITT led a citywide engagement tour, assessing the needs and priorities of New Yorkers, across user types and domain areas. Throughout the fall, Dr. Amen Ra Mashariki, Chief Operations Officer at MODA, met with CUNY students, community groups, civic leaders, and others. MODA intends for the engagement tour to culminate in a Open Data Summit.

“[The summit] will bring people together who we’ve engaged over the citywide tour and let them know what we’ve heard from them and then we will identify strategies,” Dr. Mashariki told Gotham Gazette in an interview late last year.

In October, Dr. Mashariki testified before the City Council Committee on Technology, reporting on the progress of the tour at that point and the portal in general. He announced that the Open Data Portal contained 1,386 data sets -- up from 1,268 in 2014. Still, City Limits reported late last year that datasets due to be published are missing deadlines and that there has been little enforcement of the law. Mashariki said it will not be the number of published data sets that will determine the success of the portal: “The ultimate success [will be] in the number of New Yorkers who use open data in their daily lives. And that’s not just the tech-savvy New Yorkers – it’s all New Yorkers, in all five boroughs.”

At the “summit,” MODA and DoITT will identify strategies seeking to build an open data ecosystem prioritizing expanded access to data sets, high data quality, and enhanced portal usability. “Increased access to data is critical for open government and transparency in the digital age,” said Minerva Tantoco, the city’s Chief Technology Officer.

Technical and community engagement challenges remain as the open data portal continues to be refined and expanded. It is one often lower-profile way in which the de Blasio administration’s reputation for government transparency and effectiveness will be formed.

Technical challenges for the open data portal
“There are currently many challenges,” said Ben Wellington, visiting assistant professor in the City & Regional Planning program at The Pratt Institute and creator of the increasingly popular data science and policy blog I Quant NY. “One of them is the wide use of PDF documents. PDF is inherently difficult to analyze, so when an agency is forced to release data but doesn’t necessarily want to have it widely used, PDF is an opportune way to do that. “

PDF documents, unlike an Excel spreadsheet, are not in machine-readable format, which Wellington and others argue creates a long-term problem for civic technologists who end up spending a large amount of their time extracting data rather than analyzing it.

“It’s just not a good use of advocates’ time,” Wellington told Gotham Gazette. Wellington has become known for using government data to show trends, point out problems, and identify potential solutions. He delivered a popular TED talk in 2014 using big data to give insight for the “worst” places to park in New York City. Wellington’s blog features many articles crunching numbers to illuminate topics from “Trump’s Unpaid Bills” to pay raises for City Council members.

City Council Member and Chair of the Committee on Technology James Vacca has concerns regarding another aspect of city data - like with quality, the timely release of data from city agencies leaves much to be desired. Vacca sponsored a bill passed by the City Council and signed into law by Mayor de Blasio, which mandates a city office or agency examine the compliance of mayoral agencies posting public data sets under the open data law.

“Some agencies are not as diligent as they should be when it comes to posting information, there has to be good coordination among the city agencies,” Vacca explained. “Right now, there really is no enforcement mechanism if agencies don’t comply. We are dependent upon cooperation, which is great, but we need an enforcement mechanism.“

Wellington suggests that a position should be created in every city agency - an “open data liaison” - to act as a point of contact for the public and be responsible for any inquiries about information released by the agency. “Today, there’s no way for the public to understand who’s responsible for any dataset,” Wellington noted, which can only further obfuscate any process of data clarification, sourcing or transparency.

The New York City Transparency Working Group (NYCTWG), a collection of civic technologists, data advocates, and good government groups, has argued that FOIL (Freedom of Information Law) requests should be published online through a centralized tracking system akin to the open data portal. Earlier this month, the de Blasio administration launched “the OpenRECORDS portal.” It is “designed to streamline the process of submitting, tracking, and responding to Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) records requests as we work toward becoming a more transparent and effective government,” the mayor’s press office said in an announcement.

Along with Vacca’s bill, another also approved by the City Council and signed by the mayor requires agencies to individually review all data released through FOIL requests and determine if the information should be posted on the open data portal. The thinking goes that if one person or group is interested in a certain data set, others probably are, and that if the information is being released publicly in one sense, why not make it generally available.

In 2013, then-Public Advocate Bill de Blasio released a transparency report card in which he called for a mandate to publish online the most commonly-sought information through FOIL requests, asserting “proactive disclosure will save time and resources by posting minutes, public schedules and license data online for easy access.”

As mayor, it took de Blasio some time, testing the patience of open data advocates, but he has now launched a systemized and centralized portal for FOIL requests.

Community engagement and outreach
Noel Hidalgo, co-founder and executive director of BetaNYC, believes that Open Data for All is helping to facilitate more public involvement in the open data portal and wants open data to be used regularly to solve civic problems.

“We’re at the point [with open data] where it’s not just about making an app but about making a culture, an understanding of how to use data for improving New York,” Hidalgo told Gotham Gazette.

Last year, Mayor de Blasio announced a public-private partnership to launch Computer Science for All, a computer science education program for every city public school student. As a new generation of students learn web design and coding technologies, Hidalgo hopes it will translate to increased interest and participation in civic hacking.

“We fundamentally believe that there is an opportunity to enhance digital literacy through civic education and we would love to see that embedded within the computer science program,” Hidalgo said on behalf of BetaNYC.

One essential question for open data is whether it is being used beyond the Ben Wellingtons and Noel Hidalgos of the world. In other words, are community activists and those without advanced data science training using the city data?

Juan Camilo Osorio, Director of Research at the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance (NYC-EJA), says, like Hidalgo, that a cultural shift is necessary to understand the capacity for individuals to be involved in an open data ecosystem. Osorio wants to challenge the model that community organizations function only for public outreach. “These organizations are part of community-based planning and can do research provided with the right technical and financial resources,” he said.

Osorio thinks the open data portal has great potential to be used by community organizers - not just computer programmers or data analysts.

Moreover, he believes the city has a bigger responsibility beyond publishing information on the portal: “It’s not just about opening access, [in order to use it] you still have to know what is the right agency that would have the data you need and then you will also need to have the basic capacity to process that data. The city should going a few steps further providing the tools and training to learn how to work with that information.”

City Council Member Ben Kallos, a software developer and long-time advocate for government transparency who now chairs the Council’s governmental operations committee, agrees that free trainings should be offered for New Yorkers interested in learning how to use the open data portal. He suggests partnering with the city’s three public library systems (New York Public Library, Brooklyn Public Library and Queens Public Library) to train librarians who can teach patrons to use the open data portal as a research resource. Featuring the open data portal on library websites and other logical online research centers would be helpful in expanding usership and public awareness.

Kallos acknowledged that New Yorkers must have basic access in order to use the open data portal.

“I want to make sure that every low-income New Yorker has access to free and affordable broadband and low-cost computers. That would mean everyone in NYCHA should have free broadband and that anyone who is low-income should have an affordable internet plan,” Kallos told Gotham Gazette. “In order to have a modern government, we need to make sure that everyone can connect.”

Dr. Mashariki, of the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics, certainly sees the portal as a long-term work in progress. “There’s no day I foresee where we stop and say you know, the portal is perfect and it’s at its most usable and we’ve expanded to it the point where we can’t expand it anymore,” he said. “This is always going to be a strategy that we’re going to have to adapt and adopt as needed to ensure new uses and new capabilities.”

by Kaela Sanborn-Hum for Gotham Gazette

New York City’s Evolving Approach to Open Data Sun, 10 Apr 2016 16:59:00 +0000