BetaNYC supports #PetitioNYC (Int 0471-2014)

To: NYC Council – Committee on Technology
From: A BetaNYC community Member
Re: Online Petitions for NYC Council, aka PetitioNYC

1 October 2014

To the NYC Committee on Technology & Chairperson Vacca,

It is an honor to have this opportunity to represent New York City’s civic technology, design, and data community. 

I am a member of BetaNYC, a member driven good government organization. Currently, we are over 2,000 members. Our mission is to build a city powered by the people, for the people, for the 21st Century. Last year, we published a “People’s Roadmap to a Digital New York City” where we outline the people’s digital roadmap.

In The People’s Roadmap, we outline the need for New York City government to adopt an online self-organizing tool that permits individuals to petition their government. We value the creation of such a tool to be paramount.

We see intr 0471-214 as a complement to NYC 311, the city’s inquiry and complaint line. For over ten years, New Yorkers have had a central location to find out about civic services and complain about them. Currently, NYC 311 permits individuals to use their cell phone and report on 19 categories.

NYC 311 is the not the only online complaint line. This summer, NYC’s Department of Transportation pioneered an online map and permitted the public to flag design problems with intersections and help achieve vision zero.

Together, these tools allow for the public to self-organize and report on municipal problems. But where can the public go to suggest new ideas and improvements?

Listening to the people

In 2011, the White House and New York City government pioneered a path. That year, New York City deployed “Change by us.” This public-private partnership enabled citizens to organize or join projects to improve their communities. Sadly, this tool is online but no one seems to be listening.

Note, Change by us’ blog has not been updated since Nov 20, 2013.

Again in 2011, NYC’s Department of Transportation launched a website that permitted the public to annotate and organize around desired bike share locations. Painfully, we wait for Citi Bike NYC to stay solvent and roll out the stations we requested.

That same year, the White House launched “We the People.” While it is the only one of the three that is still running, its operations have evolved and influenced the development of two other notable sites.

Currently, the only official City website that allows citizens to self-organize and petition the city on their ideas is the City’s Rules website. Additionally, we are blessed that a hand full of Councilmembers see similar value and have started to use Participatory Politics Foundation’s AskThem.

These tools are just the tip of the iceberg. This city needs an open and digital petition platform.

What is needed

Twitter, Facebook, 311, and private constituent complaints have proven their value. We can complain, but ideas only go so far. We need this government to take our engagement operunities to the next level. We need a 21st century participatory government to value the public’s ideas and be a transparent steward on replying to them.

BetaNYC supports the creation of #PetitioNYC but has some reservations.

First, we need this bill to have appropriate enforcement provisions. While we are ok with DOITT hosting and managing this site, we are concerned that some issues might not get the proper oversight. Looking at the architecture of the City Charter, we encourage the Public Advocate to have an active role in the oversight of these petitions, and hope this can be codified in the proposed legislation.

Second, this tool needs to be built for the 21st century. It needs to be ready for people’s pockets, be mobile responsive, and have an API to empower 3rd party petition sites to engage in the marketplace of ideas.

Lastly, our third concern is cost. The White House’s “We the People” and Participatory Politics Foundation’s “Ask them” are open source projects. This means the City can inexpensively re-deploy one or both of these proven tools. It is fiscally prudent for the city to adopt and maintain an open source solution that can be developed as a shared and collective resource.

With these concerns, we thank the City Council for their leadership and hope this great city implements #PetitioNYC.

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