BetaNYC’s testimony to NYC Charter Revision Commission Manhattan Meeting


To: NYC Charter Revision Commission
From: Noel Hidalgo, Executive Director of BetaNYC
Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Dear Chair Cesar Perales, Vice Chair Rachel Godsil, and Commissioners,

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

I am the Executive Director of BetaNYC, a member driven good government organization. In 2009, a group of considered neighbors started meeting up to talk about the future of municipal open data. In 2012, we joined with Council Member Gale A Brewer to support the City’s open data law. Over the last six years, our 4,700+ members have fought to improve people’s lives through technology, data and design.

We are advocates for a City government that is for the people, by the people, and for the 21st Century.

In 2014, we published a People’s Roadmap to a Digital New York City and outlined the need for our City government to adopt modern, agile practices to be efficient, participatory, and transparent. Additionally, we outlined 34 ideas that ended up producing nine new laws. These laws have strethinged the City’s open data program and shaped the charter’s previsions around data and information sharing.

Based on our work with the Manhattan Borough President Gale A Brewer and Manhattan’s twelve community boards, and feedback from our 4,700 members, I want to identify three core issues that this commission can use to improve our collective democracy.

  • Government should be digital.
  • Digital and data literacy are core elements to a 21st century democracy.
  • We need active civic participation beyond the ballot box.

FIRST — Government should be digital.

Paper and PDFs are expensive, limit access, and privilege the few. A digital first government provides flexibility to serve as many as possible in as many languages as possible. By using service design practices, government programs become flexible and responsive to people’s needs. Lastly, a digital first government enables data sharing that enables public meeting notifications on websites, LinkNYC, email, text messages, push notifications, etc.

  • RECOMMENDATION — The city enshrine that municipal information be accessible to all regardless of device.
  • RECOMMENDATION — We need our city government to rethink technology deployments to include modern, secure open source software. We strongly call for the creation of a New York City Digital Services department within DOITT or DCAS who’s mission is to is to deliver better government services to all New Yorkers through technology and design. Modeled after the US Digital Service & 18F, this City needs an agency that can improve the user experience of government, transform critical services, expand the use of common platforms, services and tools; rethink how the government buys digital services, and bring top technical talent into public service.
  • RECOMMENDATION — Outside the Mayor’s Office of Operations, there should be independant Mayor’s Office of Data & Analytics. This office would help agencies be in compliance with the City’s open data law, utilize data systems to help create operational efficiency, and create a framework for agencies to adopt artificial intelligence systems. Additionally, the data directory section should be replaced with references to the City’s open data law.
  • RECOMMENDATION — A digital first government requires data to be disaggregated, machine readable, and structured data. Within the Charter, review all references to data and reports and ensure that information is published to the City’s open data portal. Where applicable, all references to Charter required data should reference the same language that the City Record uses.
    • “shall be available as soon as possible, but no later than 24 hours of publishing, at no charge on a website maintained by or on behalf of the city of New York as well as on a single web portal that is linked to or any successor website maintained by, or on behalf of, the city of New York”
    • “Such information shall be available in both a non-proprietary, machine-readable format and a human-readable format and shall be capable of being downloaded in bulk.”

SECOND — Digital and data literacy are core elements to a 21st century democracy.

At this part of the 21st century, we are standing on thin bridge over a great divide. Our elected officials, agency heads, civil servants, and community boards are in desperate need for ongoing digital and data literacy.

  • RECOMMENDATION — In the 29 year history of the commission on public information and communication (COPIC) it has met less than its charter mandated responsibility, aka once per year. Nor does it seem to have the resources to fulfill its charter mandated responsibilities. In 1989, COPIC was visionary. In the 21st century, there is a chance for COPIC to help guide the city across the digital divide. COPIC ether needs to be revived or its powers moved to a new agency.
  • RECOMMENDATION — Borough Presidents and Community Boards need more resources to handle increased demands of a paperless, digital first government.

THIRD – We need active civic participation beyond the ballot box.

With a city filled with so much democratic diversity, it is a bit naive to place so much emphasis on a civic action that happens once or twice a year. We need a City Charter that embraces pathways for civic participation beyond voting. From police precinct councils, to community boards, and school associations, our democracy is rich with hyper-local institutions that need dedicated resources.

  • RECOMMENDATION — DOITT and other-agencies that assist in a community board’s operation should be charted mandated to respond to community board district needs statements.
  • RECOMMENDATION — Community boards should be mandated to be transparent as to whom is on the board, how long have they served, who is on which committee, and we should have a general sense of how to communicate with them. Term limits should be considered.
  • RECOMMENDATION — The charter should expand participatory budgeting to support every City Council member and participatory budgeting should be part of the executive budget.

Specific Amendments

Campaign Finance Board

  • The campaign finance board should be required to publish its database of campaign contributions and expenditures more frequently than it does.

Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DOITT)

Section 1072

  • J. — make it clear that it is DOITT’s responsibility to maintain the City’s open data portal
  • Q.1. — All of this data should be bulk accessible and downloadable via the map. Also, this data should  published to the City’s open data portal and/or referenced on the open data portal.
  • Q.2.  — All of this data should be bulk accessible and downloadable via the map. Also, this data should  published to the City’s open data portal and/or referenced on the open data portal.
  • R.  — All of this data should be bulk accessible and downloadable via the map. Also, this data should  published to the City’s open data portal and/or referenced on the open data portal.

311 citizen service center reports

Section 1075

  • This section needs to be updated and state that the data should be published to the City’s open data portal.
  • References to reports “emailed” are outdated and should be replaced with a website dashboard.
  • For the last four+ years, this has not been done. BetaNYC has stepped in to provide these services, via BoardStat.
  • It is great to see that this section calls for quarterly meetings, we wish that other agencies had this type of iterative feedback.