“While Mayor Bloomberg’s recent initiatives are innovative and forward-looking, perhaps his most valuable role for the openness movement in New York CIty has been as a foil. This is a mayor so strong that he steamrolled the City Council into approving a term limits extension so that he could run for a third term, and then made the 2009 mayoral race a formality by massively outspending his opponents. He has consolidated executive power at the top of one the most arcane and entrenched municipal governments in the United States. In a way, this has been beneficial to the open government and open data movements, as it forces them to make a strong case and build real political support.
Often, the work of New York City activists takes hold in other cities before it feeds back home. Outsiders watch our story unfold, borrow our tactics and message, and convince their more progressive officials to adopt early. New York officials get to watch and wait, and implement selectively based on successes elsewhere.
This summer, City Councilmember Gale Brewer, Chair of the Committee on Technology in Government, introduced legislation mandating an open data policy across all city agencies. Bloomberg has fought the bill partly on cost, but his team’s core argument has been that they take a “customer-focused approach” and will release data streams selectively as customers demand them. (The New York Observer’s Future Initiative blog has tracked the entire story here under its “open data” tag.) So, even though Brewer’s legislation might create an innovation ecology that far surpasses anything that Bloomberg’s corporate-model government could produce, we have not as a movement made a sufficient case. Meanwhile, cities like San Francisco and Portland are aggressively releasing their municipal data.
The Open Planning Project (TOPP), one of the organizations mentioned in Ms. Chen’s article, has been a major driver of the open data movement. They have produced useful one-off applications, such as FixCity.org, which crowdsources potential locations for new bike racks thus speeding their installation. They have also acted as stewards of open standards in the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) community and, more recently, the Open 311 community. Mayor Bloomberg pioneered the 311 non-emergency telephone-based citizen information service, but has been slow to open up the data for mashups by eager civic hackers. Washington D.C. was the first to move on this, and TOPP is now stewarding the effort at Open311.org to create a standard for all Open311 APIs in any city.
As part of this effort, TOPP is hosting an Open311 DevCamp at their home office in New York, where officials from more than 7 cities from across the Americas will gather to develop best practices. It wasn’t until late last week, however, after so many other cities got on board, that NYC officials bothered to acknowledge and RSVP for an innovative event in their own backyard.
Another telling example can be found in Ms. Chen’s article. Tom Lowenhaupt has been fighting for almost ten years to bring the .nyc top-level domain to New York City. His vision has been to use the revenue generated from this civic resource to provide digital literacy and civic education through neighborhood-oriented online community spaces. In that time, Tom has built a knowledge base (within a TOPP wiki) that has become a common reference point for City TLD initiatives globally. It contains a wide range of information, including arguments for why a TLD needs to be as carefully planned as city streets, and the potential civic benefits that can accrue through such planning. Tom has worked with parallel initiatives in global cities such as Paris and Barcelona to develop international standards for City TLDs, ensuring that non-English speakers can easily access the city’s resources.
Recently, city officials announced their intention to apply for the .nyc TLD. They issued an RFP, seeking vendors who are qualified to manage this resource. The key criterion for choosing the winner? Who can produce the most revenue for the city in the next five years. There is no mention of appropriate planning for the allocation of domain names, or synergies with other global cities. While other cities may benefit from Tom’s grassroots efforts, New York is looking to make a short term profit from a TLD “landrush”, and will soon find themselves lagging behind more forward-thinking cities that have benefitted from better digital planning.
In the .nyc case, there is still time for the usual pattern to unfold. Perhaps officials will look beyond the short-term revenue potential (a difficult thing to do in this economy) and learn from other cities some lessons that they, ironically, learned in the first place from a determined New Yorker. There is incredible civic innovation in NYC, in some ways strengthened by the resistance it faces. But we don’t always reap what we sow, and when we do we are often served last.”