Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Further Thoughts On The Road Map To A Digital City

Rachel Sterne, Mayor Bloomberg

Is New York City the city of the future? Could New York City's new digital strategy be a roadmap for cities around the country and, conceivably the world?

Earlier this month there was the announcement of PLAN, which is short for Personal Localized Alerting Network, which will be rolled out first in New York City by the end of the year. PLAN is an expansion of the Federal Communications Commission's emergency alert system, and the fact that it is being rolled out in New York -- which houses major terrorist targets like Wall Street and the largest and strangest subway system in the world -- provided the perfect launching pad for the unveiling of a digital strategy. And in light of Bloomberg's disastrous response to the last major snowstorm of 2010, a system of alerts for seasonal emergencies sounds, in retrospect, like a sound idea.

Ideally, the results of an effective digital strategy is an educated -- and employable -- workforce, energetic start-ups, a robust economy and the effective distribution of information as well as city services. "Road Map for the Digital City outlines a path to build on New York City’s successes and establish it as the world’s top-ranked Digital City, based on indices of Internet access, Open Government, citizen engagement, and digital industry growth," begins the Executive Summary. The road map commits to four principles: access, open government, industry and engagement.

Rachel Sterne, New York City's Chief Digital Officer, was at yesterday's press conference (and on NY1) at long last, speaking directly the press. Five months of radio silence is nearly a lifetime in the media capital of the world. As a result of that hermetic period one presumes she was mastering the learning curve of digital government and getting the strategy in place. Sterne took a bit of a beating from the newly prickly AdWeek. But the newly released 65 page PDF file released yesterday should quiet some of her most vocal critics, because it is quite thorough, quite exciting -- if you are a wonk like I am -- and quite radical.

The Road Map is an interesting document on how one of America's most important cities could use digital technology to orient itself into being the most important municipality in a digital future. It is, in a sense, only natural that such radical piece municipal innovation takes place under the mayoralty of a pragmatic, technocratic centrist -- Michael Bloomberg -- who just happens to be the founder of a multibillion-dollar digital media company.

The city is pressing for initiatives in:

Increasing WiFi

Mayor Bloomberg and Rachel Sterne said at yesterday's press conference that one of the biggest digitally oriented request that they have heard from New Yorkers was a demand for more public Wi-Fi and broader Internet access. The roadmap calls for a significant increase in WiFi at city parks and publci spaces, beyond locations like Bryant Park. Wifi in the subways, for example, would be quite popular.


The city plans to bring new technology -- like, for example, connecting to other classrooms globally through Skype -- to students through their iZone initiative. Cosco and Google are already program partners and presumably there will be more public-private collaboration in education in the cities of the future (and I don't think that;s a bad thing). Another interesting initiative -- the Hudson High School of Learning -- is a textbook-free school, equipping ambitious students with valuable Information Technology specialist skills that they can take into the workforce. They begin as apprentice IT staff for their particular school and by the time they get their diploma, they have a tremendous advantage.

Further, public libraries -- when not in controversy over porn access -- provide web access to low-income households, immigrants, and youths, the report notes. Computers for public use help bridge the digital divide. To that end the New York Public Library, according to the report, is planning to offer greater access to its collections and content on mobile devices.

Ennabling Innovation

In the interests of Open Government, the roadmap expresses an interest in launching a central hub for cultivaing feedback from the NYC developer community (shades of Quora here?).

Further, in the interest of ennabling innovation in the city, taking a page out of Facebook, the city will have a "hackathon" to reinvent NYC.gov. NYC.gov already has more than 100 original public applications that streamline municipal processes like learning about social services benefits, like permits and aplkications, starting a new business, or accessing property records.

Industry Friendliness

Michael Bloomberg often appears philosophically vague, a political chameleon changing his party more times than anyone can count. But if there is anything that the pragmatic Mayor truly believes in -- an idea that has shaped his entire political legacy -- it is in making the city as industry and business-friendly as humanly possible, ideally to maximize employment (and we cannot fail to note to keep the city's tax coffers full). Towards that end, Bloomberg plans to continue supporting technology infrastructure, where the city does a pretty good job.

Making New York the number one digital city seems to me the most interesting and achievable legacy that the often vague Bloomberg has yet articulated.

One final note on this: I thought it was particularly interesting that Sterne and Bloomberg both included the Developer Community in with Entrepreneurs. Quite a smart enlarging of categories. Educating, attracting and keeping engineering and programming talent will be one of the major factors in the growth of municipalities and, ancillary to that, vital nations in the future. "Technology startups cited the need for a stronger engineering workforce as their most prominent need, reflecting the NYC Media 2020 report produced by the Economic Development Corporation," the report notes. "Entrepreneurs suggested that competition for engineers with the West Coast and the financial sector, as well as the need for an anchor engineering institution, were key influences."

Expect to see some of that.

Social Media

"Collaborative government" -- or "citizen centric" -- are the new watchwords of this digital strategy. Citizen-centric thinking is opposed to agency centric thinking. The city will be utilizing social media -- like Tumblr, for instance -- to maximize engagement with residents. Agency feedback and interaction is also a part of the roadmaps social media strategy, making the city more of a community.

Some of the more interesting social media ideas in the roadmap: an improved @MayorsOffice -- a one stop Twitter account for interaction with the Mayor (a la Cory Booker?) as well as contests and calls-to-action and NYC Schools on Facebook (potentially a great source for news and student journalism a la New Youth Connections).

Also, the roadmap gives a clear nod to the idea of status -- and status consciousness -- inherent to social media by proposing the introduction of SMART, recognizing the City's social media leaders (And how do I get on that list?).

The Takeaway

The roadmap is an exciting and philosophically cohesive document that liberally borrows from some of the most successful recent digital media trends (mobile, crowdsourcing and contests, geolocation, a social media friendly platform).
The traffic to NYC.gov skewers surprisingly young (then again, new technology is always adopted by the younger): with 26% percent of visitors 25-34, followed by 19% 35 – 44, and 19% for visitors 18 – 24. Urban digital experimenting in New York City has its advantages. "As Andrew Rasiej said to me after today's event, New York City startups have an advantage in this wave of technology because they are born right at the intersection of media and technology," writes Anil Dash.

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