The fate of Open Government in New York City

Since 2008, we have seen several Chief Executives elected who have favorable opinions toward innovation in Government. What if that was not the case? What if you had a thriving Open Government / Civic Tech community and somehow a Chief Executive or Legislative body did not want to continue its investment?

In 2011, Washington DC’s mayoral turnover significantly impacted the local Open Government and Civic Technology community. Last fall, many wondered what would happen to the future of Federal Open Government initiatives if the Presidency changed hands. After the November 2012 elections, the same consternation entered my head. What if the next Mayor of New York City did not care about the technology community, open government, and the future of a digital city?

At the end of last year, Local Law 11 of 2012 was getting underway with good speed, but questions loomed on the horizon. Would they really unlock all of the city’s data before the end of this administration? Would the next Mayor of New York be as supportive of Open Government and Civic Tech? Would the next Mayor appoint a Chief Analytics Officer, a Chief Digital Officer, and continue sustained innovation throughout City Hall?

Why do we need to question the future of NYC’s open government?

NYC Digital’s “Roadmap to a Digital City” has neatly outlined, accomplishable deadlines before the departure of the current Bloomberg Administration walks out the door. While the passage of Local Law 11 of 2012 set out future ports of harbor, these could easily be ignored under a new administration.

Back in 1989, a group of activists helped re-write the city charter to create the role of the Public Advocate, COPIC – Commission on Public Information & Communication, and the Nation’s first Public Data Directory. NYC published the Nation’s first Public Data Directory in 1993. As for COPIC, it has met off and on since it was founded. The current Public Advocate held ONE meeting in his four years in office. Bring us back to 2013, the current currents seemed to be taking us forward, but nothing seemed permanent.

Yesterday, as New Yorkers casted ballots on machines that were first used before the United States Freedom of Information Act passed (read 1967), hopeful winds blew. Last night, they filled the sails of the Open Government and Open Data community.

Whatever happens eight weeks from today, it is clear the next NYC administration will embrace innovation, and build upon the last 12 years.

Intro 29 – 2010 / Local Law 11 of 2012

Looking back at City’s Open Data Law sponsors, 15 of the 23 sponsors won nominations for their re-election or won a nomination to a more powerful position.

The Law’s primary advocate, Gale A. Brewer, won the Democratic nomination to the Manhattan Borough President’s office. Should she win the general election, her office will directly control resources to the City’s Community Boards, who oversee land use policy, and be the advocate for more data and resources from City and State Agencies to help Community Boards to better understand their neighborhoods. In her campaign, she singled out avid support for the NYC Transparency Working Group’s work and Code for America’s work.

Other Intro 29 – 2010’s sponsors who won on NYC’s Primary Night 2013 were Vincent J. Gentile, Letitia James, Brad S. Lander, Annabel Palma, Daniel Dromm, Daniel R. Garodnick, Diana Reyna, Darlene Mealy, Stephen T. Levin, Fernando Cabrera, Jumaane D. Williams, James G. Van Bramer, Ydanis A. Rodriguez, The Public Advocate (Mr. de Blasio).

The Mayoral race

The race for the future Mayor of New York will be most interesting. The leading candidates have histories of advocating for more digital participatory systems.

Bill de Blasio, the current Public Advocate, launched several notable Open Government initiatives under his Transparency and Accountability section of his website. (Watch Bill de Blasio’s New York Tech Meetup interview.)

Joseph J. Lhota, who won the Republican nomination to run for the Mayor of New York is former Chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. While at the MTA, he extended Jay Walder’s pioneering open data and transparency work. (Watch Joseph J. Lhota’s New York Tech Meetup interview.)

The Comptroller and Public Advocate Races

While John Liu, the current City Comptroller, lost his bid for the Democratic Nomination for the Mayor, his work has set a precedent for the next Comptroller. Under Liu’s watch, New York gained an open sourced, digitized City’s Checkbook with an API.

Scott M. Stringer is the Democratic nominee for City Comptroller and the current Manhattan Borough President. Early in the year, the Manhattan Borough President’s office hosted a one day conference on the “Start-up City.”

The Start-Up City report details five key recommendations to Grow NYC’s Entrepreneurial Ecosystem for all. Most of the report focuses on how to use technology and digital communities for development.

Additionally under his tenure, the Manhattan Borough President’s office updated the City’s Community Board Workbook to be a framework for Community Boards to better manage information.

While the Democratic Party’s Public Advocate nomination has yet to be settled, the top two candidates, Daniel Squadron and Letitia James, have substantial track records in fighting for increased Government transparency. As a Council Member, Letitia James sponsored the City’s Open Data law’s introduction.

The Borough Presidents

In June, our friends at the Coalition for Queens, hosted a Queens Borough President Tech Policy debate where Melinda Katz, now the Democratic Nominee for the Queens Borough President, gave her thoughts on innovation, land use, and tech policy.

While as a State Senator in the Majority, Eric Adams, now the Democratic Nominee for the Brooklyn Borough President, gave ample support to de-politicise technology at the State Senate and overhaul the Senate’s technology infrastructure. (Note, I worked for the State Senate’s CIO Office and on these projects while Eric Adams was serving in the Senate.)

As for other Nominees for the Borough Presidents, BetaNYC is drafting an Open Government and Open Data survey to be sent to all candidates. We will report back in the middle of October.

The City Council

The most important part of last night election resides within the City Council. 11 of the 23 sponsors of the City’s Open Data Law were nominated to run again. The rest were term-limited out of the City Council. Their replacements were forced to deal with an unprecedented turnover across all levels of the NYC electorate. To effectively communicate within an over saturated media market, candidates took to social media unlike any NYC election before.

There was one NYC candidate who stood out amongst the rest, Ben Kallos. Ben Kallos’ is not your normal City Council Candidate. He was endorsed by Craig Newmark and Richard M. Stallman. For the last few years, Ben Kallos has been running a Drupal based website, soliciting the public for their ideas.

Additionally, Ben is one of first 50 people who joined BetaNYC when it was called “Open Government NYC.” Since then, he has been a vocal member for open government and a dedicated open source developer. As a member of the Brigade and on the campaign trail, Ben spoke openly about his ideas for Open Government.

The future

In eight weeks, New York City will vote again. In eight weeks, the old Soviet area voting machines will be replaced with their “just-as-faulty” 21st Century counterparts. Within that time, BetaNYC, NYC’s Code for America brigade, will survey general election candidates and report back on the future of NYC’s Open Government. Additionally, BetaNYC will launch its Digital Road Map for the next administration – Citizens Guide to a Digital Future.

In eight weeks, we will be able to calibrate out sextants and plot a new course for a new century.

In the meantime, other Brigades are starting to question their candidates on their Open Government and Open Data positions. Open Twin Cities currently distributing its questionnaire. If you have an Open Data questionnaire, tweet it at us – BetaNYC with #CfABrigade. 

Notes: Daniel Squadron and Letitia James will be in a runoff election for the Democratic nomination for Public Advocate. At the time of writing, Bill de Blasio was leading the democratic nomination ballot counts, but had yet to be certified the winner. If de Blasio does not receive more than 40% of the vote, William Thompson and Bill de Blasio will have a runoff election for the Democratic nomination for Mayor.

For transparency: Noel Hidalgo, co-founder of betaNYC, contributed money to Letitia James’ and Ben Kallos’ campaign; he donated time and money to Antonio Reynoso’s campaign.