This is How They Do-ITT

Talking Tech with Commissioner Carole Post

Since assuming the top job at the City's Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) in January of this year, Commissioner Carole Post has had her hands full with the NYC Big Apps contest, which made gigabytes of government data publically available to civic-minded programmers. Reclaim stole a few of her precious minutes to sit down and talk with her about 311, the world of maps and how her agency is embracing the open-data revolution.

T.A.: We hear you're quite a cyclist.

COMMISSIONER CAROLE POST: I actually am a biker. I ride a beach cruiser with wide handlebars. I did the Five Borough Bike Tour last year in the absolutely pouring rain the entire way. I finished the trek to Staten Island. I didn't give up. I spend a lot of time on the West Side Highway doing that tour from end to end, which is a beautiful route to take.

That's the busiest bike path in the nation.

It seemed that way this weekend, for sure.

So as a new commissioner for the agency, where do you see NYC relative to other major cities in using technology to open up government?

I think New York City is a leader. Mayor Bloomberg has really made it an important part and a crucial part of his administration with high-level innovations like 311. But we're really never satisfied with having been in the lead. We need to keep on the cutting edge.

What are you learning from other big cities?

New York doesn't have a lock on having the best and the newest ideas. We certainly learned a lot from what DC did with "Apps for Democracy" by emulating it exactly. I actually just met with the CIO from Los Angeles about some of the efforts that they're undertaking. I think the technology in San Francisco is always cutting edge. One of the things I'd like to do here is form a working group whose efforts involve exploring those types of things on a more affirmative basis.

What innovations are happening right here that affect our streets?

There's a lot that's being done to convey information in the Big Apps Competition that we undertook. There were a number of applications that come out of that effort, a couple that cater directly to cyclists and that were well-received. Spokes NYC and Ride the City were two that reflected how the data the city had could be made available in a more easy-to-use way for a targeted audience.

What else is coming down the pipeline in terms of data being released?

Big Apps will have a second generation, likely in the fall. So we are currently in the process of collecting additional data sets from all of our agencies in order to provide a refresh of the existing data and augment it and add to it. We encourage the agencies to dig deep and be creative. We'll see what we get from them. A lot of the focus these days seems to be on mapping data sets.

City Maps is a tool we've had for a number of years. We're looking to add information about bus routes to complement the subway line and bike path information that's already there. And we also want articulate the pedestrian-only zones you're seeing in Herald Square and Times Square.

We can't remember the last time the DOT showed up for a presentation without crash maps handy. Does your agency interact with that at all?

That data exists with DOT and with NYPD. The ability to pull that data out of the agencies in a reliable and recurring way that we could then reflect on something like City Map or some other usable pattern is always something that we're looking to do. If you've been to all those meetings you probably know that the most pressing issue is the reliability of the data. And so I think before we publish it we would want to ensure that we have a verifiable method of ensuring the accuracy of it.

We worked with DOITT last year to add the Williamsburg Bridge bike path to 311's system. Talk a bit about how that happened.

In that case, the challenge was not having a specific address or even a particular segment of the bridge to be able to link to. We worked through a way to essentially work around that to be able to give the caller an opportunity to log in the complaint and be able to identify it in a way that was sufficient to allow the repair to occur. That's a great example of keeping 311 fresh and keeping an open line between the users and the City to make sure that we're not letting the constraints of the technology govern the way we deliver the service.

How close are we getting to the point where the virtual New York starts to mirror the real New York?

What's representative of how we're bridging that connection is how 311 users can now use pictures and video to really reflect what's going on in the city to those who deliver the City services. In the past we were relying on the caller to convey what they were observing. We have evolved so that you now have mobile 311 for the iPhone and 311 online where you can uplink pictures and video to represent precisely what you saw.

What do you make of the SeeClickFix phenomenon being used in place of 311 in many smaller cities?

Many municipalities and jurisdictions do not have 311, and that's where you'll see SeeClickFix. We've had some dialogue with the leadership there. It's a great model. Where it works for a municipality

I support it 100 percent, but I don't think that we need it in NYC because we have the complexity, sophistication and comprehensiveness of 311 to cover that same terrain.

Does it have any lessons for NYC?

SeeClickFix's intention is accountability. And that's one of the reasons why we have made the transition of oversight for 311 to the Mayor's Office of Operations. While we're extremely confident in the way the 311 call center operation works, where we could use improvement in some respects is closing the loop on actually fixing the problem out in the field. And the Mayor's Office of Operations is an expert at ensuring accountability for agencies to follow through.

Where is the line for turning over public data to the private sector?

The City's data belongs to the people. There's not a proprietary nature to that data. Except where you have confidentiality, safety or security issues there should almost be a default that public data is public data, and it should be used for the improvement of the quality of life.

Lastly, are there any chants of "This is how we Do-ITT" in your office?

We don't have a motto that I've been made aware of--but we will! We actually are undertaking an internal brainstorming and election for mottos, logos and some branding that can refresh the image of the agency a little bit.

You should throw "This is how we Do-ITT" into the mix. As long as it's not "This is how we don't Do-ITT."