To: NYC Council – Committee on Land Use with the Committee on Technology
From: Noel Hidalgo, Executive Director of BetaNYC
Re: Preliminary Budget Hearing
10 March 2021
BetaNYC is a civic organization dedicated to improving all lives in New York through civic design, technology, and data. We envision an informed and empowered public that can leverage civic design, technology, and data to hold government accountable and improve its economic opportunity.
BetaNYC is oriented around four digital freedoms — the freedoms to Connect, Learn, Innovate, and Collaborate.
The freedom to connect to a “high-speed bi-directional internet” is a prerequisite for full participation in our digital era.
TODAY, high-speed bi-directional internet is as important to New York City as the subway or electricity was in the 20th century and as fresh water was in the 18th century. For too long, we’ve seen arguments for broadband framed under the “economic development” banner. The pandemic has pulled back back the curtains on this charade.
For the last year, we have lived, learned, and loved online. We are completely dependent on high-speed bi-directional internet at home and in our pockets.
Just as the yellow fever epidemic of the late 1700s drove the city to found a public health department and invest in a municipally funded water supply, the COVID-19 pandemic is making us rethink our infrastructure and address centuries of inequity.
The past year is a testament for high-speed bi-directional internet. Our city requires a robust digital backbone that is ready for the 21st century. BetaNYC agrees that we MUST invest in this opportunity and build a public network for the 21st century and beyond.
As part of funding the City’s technology budget, we need the City to fund a public option for the internet master plan.
Since Saturday, March 6th, 2021, we have co-hosted NYC’s Open Data Week with the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics. On Monday, we launched our new Intro to Open Data course and as of today, we have trained over 200 people in the last 72 hours. On Thursday, we will launch our first Spanish language course with Manhattan Community Board 12.
In the last three years, we have received Council funding that supports our digital inclusion and literacy programming. We have engaged 2055 New Yorkers at events; 1498 of them attended open data classes.
New Yorkers want to know about the data collected about them and data collected by them. In 2019-2020, we launched a certificate program to enable New Yorkers to teach open data in their communities. We trained 14 Open Data Ambassadors who have since hosted over 30 sessions at Queens Public Library branches. These intimate, hands-on trainings, exposed over 200 New Yorkers to the City’s Open Data portal and other open data resources.
When the pandemic started, we retooled all of our classes so New Yorkers could join virtually Soon, we will launch a virtual Open Data Ambassadors program with the Queens Public Library and the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics.
As part of our partnership with the Department of Education, we facilitated the 2019-2020 hack league academic competition that engaged 254 students from 42 middle and high schools in open data and civics. At six events, they built 61 data driven solutions to their community issues. In total, our open data curriculum reached 2,270 students and 181 teachers at New York City schools.
When we went on PAUSE, BetaNYC was in the middle of our 6th Civic Innovation Fellowship (CIF). This program bridges digital and data literacy gaps with CUNY Service Corps students. Without high-speed internet, it would have been impossible to provide emotional and moral support for our Fellows. We helped them navigate the trauma the pandemic created in their academic, personal, and professional pursuits. Additionally, we dedicated all of our technological resources for our Fellows to continue their virtual learnings. Our 6th cohort successfully completed their assigned projects and graduated in May 2020.
Over the summer, we ran our organization and programming virtually. This included a virtual summer Fellowship program. We formalized our Apprenticeship program, and hired two recent CIF graduates to replace two outgoing apprentices.
Our Staff, Apprentices, and Fellows help Borough Presidents, Community Boards and NGOs address their data and analytical needs. We have built a digital and data literacy service to specifically meet difficult & complex data needs. We call it Research and Data Assistance Requests (RADARs).
From March 15, 2020, to March 10, 2021, our staff, fellows, and apprentices addressed 88 RADARs across the City.
A majority of our RADARs serve community boards or elected officials desperate to understand how open data can help inform their decision making process.
We ask that the City Council continue to fund its digital literacy and inclusion initiative grants so we can continue to provide for the needs of your colleagues and constituents.
Second, we ask that the Council develop a funding framework to help non-profit organizations, like BetaNYC, provide literacy and career development for all New Yorkers. Also, we ask that CUNY Service Corps is funded to ensure career opportunities exist for the next generation of Public Interest Technologists, Designers, and Analytics.
[Innovate and Collaborate]
No technology tool can replace poor or missing leadership.
In March 2020, we ensured there was a continuity of government operations by researching and coaching 16 community boards and one Borough President to adopt virtual meeting practices and Zoom. In the course of seven days, we developed context specific training materials and hosted trainings with community board staff and members.
Six weeks later, DoITT rolled out WebEx and Microsoft Teams to all agencies and our training material became the foundation for the City’s training material for Community Boards. Every month, for the past year, I’ve received emails asking how an agency or community board could switch to Zoom. As a community member of Brooklyn Community Board 1, I’ve seen how inconsistent training and lack of resources has led to meetings that normally take 1 hour to span three to four hours.
Our research shows that community boards need continuous investment. Two years later, they continue to face significant challenges in getting across the digital divide. Not only do they need continuing technology literacy training, they need more than one DOITT tech support person to address their hardware, software, and training needs.
During the PAUSE, reliable retail information on Google Maps and Yelp became unreliable and inaccurate. In response, mutual aid and community groups started crowdsourcing information and providing up-to-date information about essential services. BetaNYC built multiple “open maps” in partnership with nine community organizations across Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens.
These maps immediately met the needs of elderly and immunocompromised neighbors’ — we provided information about special store hours, accessibility, and delivery options. At their height, maps were receiving thousands of unique visits per day. Each map/partnership continues to evolve into a platform of hyper-local geographic information that local partners are maintaining. These maps have continued to support the City’s recovery efforts though the Data Recovery Partnership.
Since March 2020, we have known that this virus was disproportionately affecting communities of color. Yet, equity issues were marginalized until we had the data to see the impact of the tragedy.
Throughout the pandemic we found it difficult to navigate the City’s myriad of covid websites. For every question asked, unsettling conversations unfolded. For nearly a year there has been a service design and technology leadership vacuum. Dating back to April 2020, we have seen digital information tools and service design processes sit on the sidelines. Yet again, this Administration refuses to address known inequities and deploy service design and collaborative technology leadership.
It is insulting for this administration to willfully sideline government technologists and designers who sit in the Mayor’s Office. Refusing to employ them in this crisis has furthered the digital divide, while perpetuating racism, ageism, and ablest mentalities.
For the last eight years, we have said the same thing, digital technology is a critical tool in how government services are delivered in the 21st Century. In real time, the pandemic and vaccine distribution has demonstrated what a massive government technical and design failure looks like.
NYC’s technology leadership needs to be reorganized and properly resourced for the 21st century. While we commend DoITT’s work in this time of crisis, there are several fundamental improvements that MUST be made. Service design must be at the core of ALL policies and technology. New Yorkers who are on the other side of the digital divide, in or near poverty, or are not a member of a privileged caste need the City’s services and technology to work for them. Their lives depend on services and technology meeting them where they are, in a language they speak, and on tools that they have.
This reorganization must start with a reorganization of DoITT and the CTO, and include a complete inventory of the City’s computing systems. For government services to work in the digital era, they must share development practices and code bases. Services and tools need to be co-developed with the people they are serving. We need policy leaders to be digitally literate. We need technology staff to be literate in service design strategies AND have the resources to implement with agility. The current tug of war between technology resources needs to end.
Second, NYC.gov needs a content management system built for this century, not the last.
Third, the City needs to embrace open sources practices. All software has vulnerability but only close sourced software license fleece our tax dollars while preventing us to audit the code .
Lastly, this reorganization requires a realignment of procurement and hiring practices. If the Mayor is not going to realign these practices, we need the City Council to use whatever resources it has to move us forward. We cannot squander eight more years.