As part of our My Ideal City series looking at the future of cities, PSFK reached out to experts to get their take on key trends we’ve identified that are currently affecting urban environments. Rachel Sterne is the Chief Digital Officer for the city of New York, with the goal to make New York City the premier digital city in the world by supporting innovation inside government and innovation outside city government, in the private sector, and in the technology community. She spoke with PSFK.com about how hyperlocal reporting is boosting civic engagement by establishing direct channels of communication from the ground up, while helping to ensure communal well-being by rapidly documenting potentially harmful incidents.
Can the push for transparency and imagining the city as a platform change the way that our cities operate?
City as a platform is something we’ve talked about since this office was created, and it’s the underlying belief behind a lot of our transparency and open data initiatives. Today, New York City has more data than any other city in the world. We have over 1,300 data sets that are API‑enabled through our open data platform, and through things like the hackathons and various apps competitions, we regularly encourage, and try to help to guide in a strategic way, the developer community to build apps that help to improve the lives of New Yorkers.
A great example of why this is important, and how it can even save lives, is during Hurricane Sandy, we made a conscious effort to reach out to the open data community in the days as the storm was approaching the city, and make sure they were aware, for example, of the hurricane evacuation zone data that was available on the open data platform, as well as other resources that would help them to disseminate important information.
We had great responses from partners, including the New York Times, Google, and Wnyc.org. They all developed their own interactive resources that help people to find out if they were in an evacuation zone, and later on, help them to find resources such as warming centers or homeless shelters.
This was very important to us because they were using city data, they were using city information, and as long as their information is accurate, we are very happy for them to help, to spread that message, and to essentially be our partners in serving New Yorkers.
We estimate that we reach about 10 times as many people, literally hundreds of thousands more people, through these efforts, and by having a more decentralized, distributed approach to reaching and engaging the public.
How can local communication platforms positively impact urban environments?
The concept of hyperlocal reporting is not entirely new to city government. In some ways, 311 is probably one of the earliest examples of city‑facilitated, government‑enabled hyperlocal reporting. This is really the brainchild of Mayor Bloomberg, who himself is an entrepreneur, a technologist, and someone who built his success on excellent customer service in part, and in analyzing vast lots of information.
What 311 is is a platform for customer service that helps people to, very easily and quickly, navigate complicated city processes to help to improve the city, and that’s very exciting, and has seen enormous success in the analog world. There are about 20 million requests processed every year, from New Yorkers, and people on the ground in New York City, through city agencies that are resolved.
Do you think that people are realizing the impact of them reporting this information?
Yes. Absolutely. That’s crucial to how 311 works. That’s crucial to the functioning of the city is we need to be showing the effects of what they’re reporting, however we can. What’s really great is that people will often tweet pictures or post on Facebook, because they are very happy that it actually worked with such a seamless process. They’ll say, “Thank you. Thanks for fixing this. This is what it looks like now,” that type of thing. We also have some city agencies that do a really great job of adding that level of transparency, so people actually know what is going on, because the city does so much, but it’s not always a story, necessarily, that the press reports.
With social media, we do have an opportunity to tell that story in a more engaging way, so we have platforms like “The Daily Pothole,” which is a Tumblr blog that the Department of Transportation maintains, and they show you great high‑impact numbers and images about how many potholes were fixed, how many miles, and thousands of miles they’ve been able to traverse and improve every weekend.
What three things would you include in your perfect city?
Digitally speaking, three things I’d like to see in my ideal city is affordable, high-speed broadband Internet access for all New Yorkers, government APIs and realtime sensors that integrate directly into operations systems, and institutions that allow anyone to learn how to code and participate in the tech ecosystem.
Check out the video below for more on the idea of the city as a social platform: