With the sun starting to set a warm glow over the East River, I was one of 150 people scurrying through the stone streets of DUMBO on Thursday, July 11th. Approaching the NYU-Poly DUMBO Incubator building, strangers’ suspecting glances were confirmed: others around them were also heading to the Brooklyn edition of the NYC Digital Roadmap Listening Sessions.
The name of the event series may cause some minor confusion. The “Digital Roadmap Listening Session” is not just for attendees to listen to government officials explain themselves. Those attending the sessions are not supposed to merely listen to that which is already occurring. It would be a mistake to assume that the listening in these sessions is merely passive. Ordinary New Yorkers are invited to be “innovators,” as the @nycgov Meetup group terms attendees. It is important to note that the events are described as participatory discussions; all are welcome to chime in on the city’s digital future.
It starts out with short messages from the cosponsors for the event. On the eleventh, we heard from Brooklyn Tech Meetup and the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, both of which foster an environment for innovation in the area. Brooklyn may be one of five boroughs, but let’s not forget what that really means. Mayor Bloomberg noted just today that Brooklyn has about as many residents as the entire city of Chicago.
Afterwards comes the meat: Rachel Haot, the city’s Chief Digital Officer, charismatically presents the New York City Digital Roadmap and cheerfully shows us the progress that has been made. Although I have already read the Roadmap several times, I am still impressed. It’s difficult not to be. Haot is the first Chief Digital Officer for one of the most influential cities on the globe and has appeared on the Forbes 30 Under 30: Law & Policy. Her résumé invites comparison to another a technologist, entrepreneur, and policymaker: Michael Bloomberg.
Amusingly, even Haot is susceptible to technical difficulties. Her microphone gives out early on, drained of batteries before the presentation has even gotten off the ground.
The Roadmap addresses five areas: access, education, open government, engagement, and industry. Access is expanding through free wifi in public spaces and increasing residential broadband options. Education is creating a pipeline of new tech workers by introducing targeted institutions of higher education and expanding STEM opportunities in the city schools. Government is more open through the release of data and hosting hackathons. Citizens are engaged through new apps, a relaunched website, and social media. Industry is facilitated through workforce development and supporting startups.
A “Progress Report” handed out at the event showed that 25 of 33 objectives had been achieved (about 75%) but even that was out of date. Even more of those objectives had been completed by the time of this session, Haot tells the crowd. Eager for new ideas, we break out into five groups reflecting the five areas of the Roadmap.
At the engagement breakout session, participants acknowledged progress but showed frustration with the obstacles that remain to be overcome. Digital Communications Director Ivy Li took many questions on what had already been done and considered. The room thought 311‘s digital presence was commendable. The NYC government information and services hotline also replies to citizens through mobile apps, Twitter, and SMS text message. There was concern, however, that only the wealthier, more educated segment of the city was being engaged. What of those living in the outer boroughs? What about those who speak languages other than English? More must be done.
The sentiment seemed to be shared by the other breakout groups when we reconvened. A volunteer from each group summarized their findings before the whole audience before the session was called to a close. Listening to these participants, it was clear that challenges remained but comforting that an intelligent and articulate community was eagerly taking on those challenges.
One does not need to be a technologist to attend one of these sessions. No special skills or education are required. Attendees should merely have a passion for improving New York City. Attendees should ideally have ideas for improving New York City and the lives of its citizens. Even the passion and ideas are optional, however. It is quite alright to quietly observe and absorb, but good luck not getting caught up by the energy in the room.