The next frontier: A Q&A with DoITT Commissioner Anne Roest

Photo courtesy of DoITT

The next frontier: A Q&A with DoITT Commissioner Anne Roest

DoITT Commissioner Anne Roest interview
September 11, 2017

From Wi-Fi hotspots to cybersecurity, New York City Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications Commissioner Anne Roest leads a staff of nearly 1,000 employees to advance the mayor’s ambitious technology agenda, while also providing tech support for 45 agencies and other government entities. But if she had her druthers, and an unlimited budget, she’d do even more. City & State’s Frank G. Runyeon spoke with Roest about how her department is changing, what’s next for those LinkNYC wireless hubs you’ve seen cropping up around the city, and what her department has in common with Silicon Valley.

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C&S: You have had an interesting career, and a pretty long one in information technology. You started off as a programmer, is that right?

AR: That’s absolutely right.

C&S: Do you do any programming now?

AR: No, I don’t, I don’t have time. One of the wonderful things about my career is that because I got in early, I’ve been able to do so many different things. I’ve had opportunities to work in almost every area in technology and that means a couple things. No. 1, you’re not the deepest expert in any one area, but also you have kind of the experience to be able to connect to people in almost any job in the agency. I’ve been really fortunate to have experienced just about every different job in technology.

C&S: I have been told that DoITT is evolving. Can you tell me what that means and why you think it’s needed?

AR: It’s really needed because technology as a whole is evolving and you’ve heard about some of the principles of how fast technology evolves. We’re just seeing this rapid change in technology. We’re moving to a place where technology is accessible to those end users in ways it’s never been accessible before. And I’ve been worried that we’re at the point now in the technology space where if you don’t learn to become that kind of organization and provide services in that kind of way, you’ll just be left behind. And so we’re really being driven by the market and by our customers’ expectations.

C&S: How is your department doing in that respect?

AR: So actually, I’m really excited about some of the changes I’m seeing. If we look around and say a customer needs a calendar system, do we write it ourselves? Do we use a fast solution? Do we find something that’s in another agency? Whatever the customer needs, what’s the leanest, fastest way to get it to them, and we’ve got a group that’s been doing that. They’ve done some really creative things. We’ve delivered solutions in a week that normally would have taken us, in the past, months or even years.

C&S: Sounds more like a Silicon Valley approach than a government agency approach.

AR: It is. And, you know, change is hard, but people in the agency are excited and they’re embracing the idea. They love to learn the new technology, so there’s some energy behind it. I think if you look around, this is the direction that a lot of organizations are heading. We just want to be out in front because we’re New York and we should be.

“We’ve delivered solutions in a week that normally would have taken us, in the past, months or even years.”

C&S: What’s next for the LinkNYC wireless internet hubs? Is there sort of a next frontier here?

AR: So, for LinkNYC, I think you may see some additional services added and it’s obviously going to continue to grow and reach all areas of the city. For affordable, reliable high-speed internet – which is a goal that the mayor set early on in the administration – to get to all New Yorkers by 2025. You’ll see other offerings that complement the LinkNYC portfolio and the city’s (chief technology officer) is spearheading that. It’s a real focus of the mayor’s and of the city to complement LinkNYC with other ways for people to get affordable, high-speed broadband.

C&S: Can you tell me about the oversight when it comes to privacy for LinkNYC users? How is your oversight monitored?

AR: So we have a privacy policy that is public. So I would say we’re monitored, of course, by the city. The administration cares deeply about the privacy and security of New Yorkers’ data. So we’re monitored of course by the city, but also, because our privacy policy is public, we’re monitored by all of our constituents who care about privacy. And in fact, I don’t know if you saw recently we did an updated privacy policy for Link that was lauded by the NYCLU for how robust and strong the policy is.

C&S: New York City Councilman James Vacca said that there should be an agency tasked specifically with the issue of privacy. Do you agree with that?

AR: I want to really understand what the driver would be to create that when we feel we have a strong force protecting the privacy of New Yorkers’ data. We’ve got the chief privacy officer, we’ve got the law department, we’ve got the cyber command all functioning, I think, really well in performing their discrete roles around privacy and data protection.

C&S: You work with your franchise partner, City Bridge LLC, to provide LinkNYC services – can you explain why they’re willing to provide this service at no cost to taxpayers?

AR: Yes and in fact, I’ll add not only is it no cost to taxpayers, but we will get $500 million over the life of the franchise to the city. The reason they are able to do it, I think is a really creative solution. If you see the kiosks on the street or kiosks that are in commercial areas and where it’s appropriate, there are advertisements on the side of the kiosks and that is really the revenue source.

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C&S: Does City Bridge LLC receive any valuable user data?

AR: They do not collect any user data.

C&S: Is there any cause for privacy concerns surrounding the city’s relationship with City Bridge?

AR: Absolutely not. And I think, again, the folks who have reviewed the privacy policy, which speaks to what data can and can’t be collected and the relationship, I think, including NYCLU, were pleased with how strong the policy is. They’re not collecting data, they’re not able to sell data. They are able to collect data, but not sensitive user data. They’re able to collect data on things like how many people are connecting, how long the connections are.

C&S: Law enforcement can request LinkNYC data through a court order. Has that happened to your knowledge?

AR: To my knowledge, no.

C&S: In testimony, you’ve noted that hackers have tried to get access to the system hundreds of times and that malware has gotten into city systems, although they did not get data out. Generally speaking – beyond LinkNYC – should New Yorkers be concerned about the security of their data that’s held by the city?

AR: I would say, no. Of course, it’s one of the greater challenges of tech these days. But I can tell you that I have had nothing but support for the cyber program in the city. And when I say support, when I’ve asked for resources, the administration has provided whatever we needed to protect the city. We’ve got a super cyber team. We’ve increased the resources of the cyber team greatly in the last few years. We’re implementing new tools and technology – it is a focus of the administration. And I think that people should feel comforted that we’re doing everything reasonable and beyond to protect their data.

C&S: What is the need for a cyber command chief?

AR: It’s a relatively new role. I think there’s a couple things that the city needs. No. 1 is a focus on cyber. It is a thing that everybody needs to have in the forefront of their mind to keep us all safe. We need a central command to make sure that we have a cohesive and strong protection. In a city like New York, or like any major city, you’re as good as your weakest link. We can’t have any weak links. So having a single organization that’s setting policy making sure that people are doing what they need to do to protect the city, I think, can’t be anything but a good idea. And again, just elevating it. … So, we’ve got the cyber command, everybody is aware. They’re making sure that we’re all doing the things that we need to do to keep the city safe and the executives have one place to go to get information and to set policy and to drive cyber in the city.

C&S: If money were no object – if they gave you an unlimited budget – what would you have DoITT do?

(At this point the public relations officer interjects: “Vacations for everyone!”)

AR: I actually have a lot of ideas. No. 1, I would change DoITT to an internal consulting organization for the city and provide what I’m going to call really high-end services, help rethink how we serve our New Yorkers. And I’ll give you an example. New Yorkers don’t really need to care about what the agency in the city is providing a service as long as they get that service in a usable way. So, as long as it’s consumable and easy to use, I should say. I would have DoITT just become like a thought leader and the consulting arm to help us rethink all our services.

C&S: That would greatly expand the scope of your work, I suppose?

AR: It would greatly expand the scope of our work. Obviously, there are more concrete goals that we would apply unlimited funds to. It would be things like expediting broadband access to all New Yorkers, getting the technology that is available. We could give you a million ideas. There are services you could provide like bus on demand, where the buses know where to go. We could talk all day about the really cool and great concrete things that we could do.

Frank Runyeon
Frank G. Runyeon
is City & State’s senior reporter. He covers state politics and investigations.