The 59 community boards of New York City were created decades ago as a form of neighborhood City Halls. But unlike the central City Hall, presided over these days by a man who made a fortune in technology, many of these local offices are on the other side of the digital divide, according to a report (in pdf format) that the City Council released this month.
Surveyed last October, many of the community boards were found to have computers that were at least ten years old. Worse, 19 of the community boards had no access to the Internet, and 34 did not have their own web sites.
There have been on-going efforts to improve this situation by the city's Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, or DoITT. Even in the few months since the survey has taken, DoITT has given one new computer to each of the 59 community boards, and 50 of the boards now have high-speed Internet access, half of them for free as a result of an agreement between DoITT and Verizon.
But community boards face significant obstacles — inadequate staffing and training, lack of state-of-the-art equipment — which prevent many of them from taking advantage of some very common technology, such as e-mail, much less the more sophisticated plans the mayor has for the city.
"We can and must do more to expand the presence and accessibility of our boards by further leveraging the powerful information technology tools and resources which the city already possesses," said Councilmember Gale Brewer, who is chair of the council's select committee on technology in government. "In most cases, this can be done at little cost to the city since we have already invested substantial sums in creating, implementing, and customizing the various systems."
Current proposals to improve the technological capacity of community boards include:
- plugging community boards into the mayor's 311 telephone call center system
- allowing boards access to high-tech mapping data which is already available to city agencies
- expanding access to the city's Intranet (its internal online community)
WEB SITE DEVELOPMENT PROJECT
Thomas Lowenhaupt, the vice chair of Queens community board three, believes that only about a fifth of city residents even know that community boards exist, and even fewer (he guesses five percent) know which board represents them.
Web sites would greatly improve awareness of the vital work that community boards do in their communities, Lowenhaupt says, which is why, in 1999, his community board, with financial assistance from City Hall, began working on a prototype web site that could be rolled out for all 59 boards. Mayor Rudy Giuliani was a strong supporter of the project, which was supposed to have been completed by 2001. But the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications was about to hire a contractor when the attacks of 9/11 forced them to evacuate their offices, and required their around-the-clock attention to recover New York's critical telecommunications infrastructure.
And this year the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, citing the budget deficit, cut the funding for the project.
Lowenhaupt and other supporters of the project have been looking for other sources of funding, including the private sector, which could greatly change the direction of the project. Community boards could end up waiting several more years for funding.
The council's technology committee has recently proposed that NYC.gov be used as a portal to quickly build out web sites for all community boards. This could be accomplished using the city's new content management software. Thus, the prototype project could be rolled out and linked to the Mayor's Community Assistance Unit.
Another technology that community boards could take more advantage of is ComNet or Computerized Neighborhood Environment Tracking, a program of the Fund for the City of New York's Center on Municipal Government Performance. ComNet allows communities to survey their neighborhood using small hand-held computers to collect data, including photographs, about street level conditions. The data can be uploaded to the Internet and reported to the appropriate government agencies in charge of fixing the problems identified. However, in order to use this technology successfully, community boards must have computers capable of processing the data and a high-speed Internet connection.
IN OTHER NEWS: Buy NY Campaign
According to Crains New York, New York City's technology sector has lost more than 30,000 jobs in the last two years. In an effort to stimulate the tech sector, the New York Software Industry Association is kicking of a Buy NY campaign in order to convince buyers to purchase software and information technology locally rather than outsourcing their needs to overseas markets. Councilmember Brewer has introduced a resolution to support this initiative.
Laura Forlano is a doctoral student studying communication technology policy at Columbia University.