The tech industry loves a rockstar. Your Mark Zuckerbergs, your Tony Starks – even once upon a time, one of Stark’s reported real-world inspirations, Elon Musk.
But at City & State’s Digital New York Summit on Wednesday, it was New York City Chief Technology Officer Matt Fraser who had attendees buzzing, lining up to get a word in with the city’s top tech official, even stopping him for selfies.
At the beginning of Mayor Eric Adams’ term, Fraser stepped in to head up the city’s new Office of Technology and Innovation, a reorganization of the city’s technology and IT offices into one central authority. Fraser, the former deputy commissioner for information technology at the New York City Police Department, said on Wednesday that he’s focused on how to make the city’s government – and its technology – work better for New Yorkers. “For a very long time, there wasn’t a single voice that could tell you what tech was. Every agency, every entity had an idea of what tech should be or what it could be,” Fraser recalled of the time when the city’s tech offices were more siloed. “The city built a lot of its applications and services around agencies’ identities and less around people. And as a consequence, the people who live here, the people who work here (and) the people who are looking to build businesses here suffer because of that dysfunction.”
In between getting swarmed by attendees – ostensibly including vendors looking to work with the city – Fraser sat down for a fireside chat with City & State to discuss what the Office of Technology and Innovation has been working on over the last year, including its new approach to expanding internet access to public housing residents, its development of an artificial intelligence strategy and its promised soon-to-launch MyCity portal.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Just over a year into the existence of the Office of Technology and Innovation, can you point to some of the benefits and efficiencies that this reorganization has led to? What are some specific examples of ways that you see the city working differently under this centralized tech authority than it did when these offices were more siloed?
I think there’s a number of things that we can point to. One of the things that's coming out very soon is what we're doing around MyCity. When you think about a working family in the city, and you think about how that family gets access to childcare, right now, it’s a 15-page application that goes between one to three different agencies. And then you have to go through an eligibility review process to figure out if you qualify for a service that’s rendered by that agency. And the fact is, every agency is focused on the things in their specific service line. So if I'm the Administration for Children's Services, I care about the things that support ACS’s mission. If I'm the Department of Education, I care about educating the kids and supporting my mission. You have a benefit that can be rendered by one of these two agencies, but these agencies have never had a conversation about how to best coordinate those benefits to ensure that New Yorkers that are eligible get the most that they can out of the city. So for the first time, and it's a weird sort of thing, but the Office of Tech and Innovation steps in and we pull all the agencies to the table and we say, “Listen, this is a business process. Here's a benefit that we're rendering, how can we do this better?” And we use that to build the foundation of what will be the first phase of the MyCity program, where we'll do subsidized child care in that system. In addition to that, there's a number of things that we're working on with the business community around how we can revolutionize how small businesses get started in the city, and look at how we can do better with our construction and permitting process. A very good example for those of you who've ever had to build or do a renovation of something significant in the city – a lot of that starts with our Department of Buildings. But (with) our Department of Buildings, seldomly can you go to one place to get every permit that you need to get something done (or) get every inspection that you need to get something done. And the communication between that agency and the plethora of other agencies that are in that process – it’s poor at best. So our goal is to democratize access to information and simplify processes, so that when you interact with the city, it isn't confusing. It's simple.
How closely does OTI stay in contact with individual agencies on their technology projects?
For the first time ever, what we've done is we've made a catalog of every tech initiative of substance that's going on across the city. And now for any funding requests or any approval to move forward with a project, it literally has to come through this office. And then we work in direct partnership with the Office of Management and Budget to say that we’ve cleared a project, it looks good, we should fund it. And what that does is it gives us the ability to capture areas where we may be overcommitting the city in terms of expenses, where we may be duplicating efforts. You have, as an example when we stepped in, 12 different efforts to build an HR system. We had in some cases, maybe 15 different Salesforce implementations going on. When you look at the difference in cost between the big agencies and the small agencies, because of user scale, there was a massive price difference between what those agencies would pay. There's no way that our largest agencies should reap benefits of having scale, and our smaller agencies should be penalized for not, because we're just one city. By wrapping our arms around the tech programs and being smarter about how we contract, if I know I have 12 different things that are going to be executed with one vendor, instead of having 12 different contracts let’s have one.
MyCity has been pitched as a sort of one-stop shopping portal to access different government services and benefits. At one point the project was supposed to come out in late 2022. How close is the project to launching now, and what can New Yorkers expect to experience when it launches?
MyCity is in a state where the application for the first phase has been completed for some time, but you'd appreciate the complexity in government bureaucracy. The state oversees a lot of our child care subsidy programs and a lot of our health and human services programs, where funding comes down from the federal level. So we're currently in the process where we have to work through the state's bureaucracy to get an approval to move forward with MyCity. So for the last few months, while we've been working through that process, we've been working with working families so that they can actually see the tool and give us feedback on the tool. What we got back so far, they took one look at MyCity and said, “This process is so simple. How come this process can't be replicated for other benefits that I also receive, like cash benefits?” A good example is a working family that gets cash benefits. Quarterly, you have to provide copies of your ID. How often does your ID expire? Why do you have to provide that same document over and over and over again? One of the things that we're hoping to do as we continue to push the boundaries of MyCity, for the first phase, is look at all the other things that we can pull in as a rapid release to come very shortly after the first release. So our expectation is, we're still holding firm, hoping that we can get through the state's bureaucracy by the end of this month to have MyCity go live. But from the application perspective, it's ready to go.
Last fall, OTI announced Big Apple Connect, a program to offer free internet and cable to public housing residents in more than 200 developments by the end of this year. Can you talk a little bit about the decision to set aside the Internet Master Plan that was in place under the last administration and pursue Big Apple Connect as a first major step to address digital equity and inclusion?
Prior to being the CTO for the city, I was at the NYPD as the deputy commissioner for IT. Being in a place like that, what you really see firsthand is the people that live in the areas that historically have had the least, and how much they’re disenfranchised by violence. I think a lot of what we take for granted, like having access to broadband, it’s a real challenge in neighborhoods where they have to choose between paying a cable bill and putting food in the fridge. Who wants to do that? And then you have working families, strong families, that built this city, that built this country, that have kids that are participating in school, and more and more, those education programs are being pushed online. But when you walk into your building, you don't have access to WiFi, you don't have access to broadband. The mayor says this all the time: We focus on solving problems downstream, but we don't look upstream to figure out why these problems exist. Broadband may not be the silver bullet to slay this, but it's certainly part of the thing that can help. When you look at some of the shooting stats, a lot of the violence in the city is driven by kids between the ages of 12 and 17. How does that happen? I'd like to imagine if you had a household where you had access to things like broadband, you had social and emotional outlets where you can communicate with friends and you can build on your education, you can build a pathway out of poverty, that that would be an option that would be the last thing that you would choose.
When we came in, we listened to the last administration’s stance on digital equity and what they wanted to do. We had novel efforts, like Queensbridge Connected, where we deployed an in-building mesh wireless network to Queensbridge Houses, which was one housing development out of 262 housing developments. It just wasn't enough. So my goal was to change the landscape of those that come out of public housing, to create pathways to opportunity that break systemic cycles of poverty. That’s where we’ve got to get. Because if we can help our public housing community, if we can help those that historically have had access to the least, they will forever change the landscape of New York City.
When we look at the Internet Master Plan – I know I got a lot of criticism about tearing that down – but I think people romanticize the concept, but they don’t measure the results. Any plan that has a tangible item that's supposed to be delivered within a two-year timeframe, but you get two years in, and there's not a single contract issued – that’s not a plan, it’s an idea. (Editor’s note: A spokesperson for OTI later clarified that while the former administration had identified a group of internet service providers to participate in the Internet Master Plan, it never executed contracts.) So when we looked at how we could solve this challenge, we partnered with those that had infrastructure across the city. We brought in our big cable providers. We brought in the folks at Charter Communications, we brought in the folks at Altice, and we brought in the folks at Verizon. We want to make sure that we get these communities access as quickly as possible. We started with public housing, but we're not going to stop at public housing. We're going to extend that to those that have other housing subsidies from the city and try to extend these programs to them as well. But what we wanted to do was, within a year from launching the program, we wanted to get to a space where we could say the problem with broadband and public housing is now done. Now that we’ve treated this like a trauma patient, we stopped the bleeding and provided access, now we can also look at better ways or more efficient ways that we can do this. But I'm proud to say that if we've done one thing since the start of this administration, solving broadband and public housing, which was a challenge that many have taken on, is one of our biggest accomplishments. And like I said, we're not going to stop there.
Are there any plans to involve smaller or M/WBE providers in Big Apple Connect – or other broadband expansion efforts from OTI – down the line?
We're looking at how we can partner with the M/WBE providers, but we want to make sure that we don't do that at a consequence to those that need access. This is one of those areas where we have a responsibility to grow our small business community, we have a responsibility to diversify the marketplace. But we can't do that on the backs of those that need access to the service now. So we're continuously evaluating areas where our M/WBE community has resources and has assets deployed, and looking at ways that we can leverage those as part of Big Apple Connect. One of the challenges that we face is that you may have fiber out in the street, but to get it in the building requires a lot of abatement to get a wired network or a wireless network established through a building. And that takes time. So while we've stopped the bleeding, over the next three to four years, we can look at other options to increase the M/WBE participation in the space.
The Office of Technology and Innovation is hiring a Director of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning. How is that search going? And what kind of oversight of individual agencies’ AI tools do you plan to have with the creation of this role?
One of the things that existed in the city prior to the creation of OTI was the AMPO – the Algorithms Management and Policy Office. It was a team of about two people that was focused on reviewing all of the city's AI strategies, or any system where we had a machine learning or automated decision making capability. When we looked at the size of that office, and we looked at the mission that they were charged with, it was clear that that office was understaffed, and it was under-resourced. And as we looked forward to creating OTI, we took that office and consumed it within the Office of Tech and Innovation. The AI director that we're looking for is a person that will look across the city and speak definitively on what the city will do and what the city won't do when it comes to AI. And (we want) to have something when we leverage these technologies, that we understand the bias behind it, that we have clear privacy guidance, so that the public knows how we're leveraging their data. And on top of all those things, we want to make sure that it's very transparent. Nobody wants to figure out that some system in the background is making a decision about a benefit or a response category, and not have had an opportunity to give feedback on what that means to their quality of life.
A recent report by the state comptroller found that over the past three years, there hasn't really been a formal framework in place for how AI tools are used by city agencies. Do you anticipate putting more of a formal governance framework in place at some point?
Yes, that's one of the driving decisions. And it just so happens that that (report) was done in the process of us formulating our strategic initiatives division. We expect to have formal guidance and a framework around where AI can be applied, how it can be used, and making sure that we have clear clearance and publishing guidelines around any of the bias studies that we've done around those programs.
One of the city offices that was merged into OTI is New York City Cyber Command. Can you talk a bit about OTI’s role in cyber defense today in terms of working with individual city agencies, as well as New York’s new Joint Operations Security Center?
When I moved over to the Office of Tech and Innovation, one of the things that struck me as odd is that New York City Cyber Command, from its inception, was built to protect the city's assets. Part of the challenge is that they didn't have access to all the city's assets because of legal and regulatory requirements. But in addition to that, the partnerships outside the city were very limited. When you look at what New York City looks like from a threat perspective, every week we see about 80 billion security incidents. We have over a million endpoints, we have mobile devices, we have assets. So when it comes to a tech estate, we're bigger than most of the banks, we’re bigger than most of tech. In terms of infrastructure, we operate more utilities and things that extend far beyond the city. And we had a team that was focused on protecting that. But the amount of information sharing that they had outside of that team in collaboration with partners that had a joint mission was very limited. We had a conversation with New York State, the FBI and a number of other entities that have a similar focus. And we said, instead of us having these disparate centers, why not bring them all together, and have one common thread that we can look at. So if we see a threat across the state, whether it's upstate or downstate, we could respond quicker to that threat. We could bring the context of what's going on, not just on the local landscape, but in the national and international landscape, to see if this is a prevailing threat that will impact the rest of our nation, or if it’s a threat that’s starting in New York and we haven’t seen anywhere else. For the first time, we have New York City, New York state, our NYPD, New York State Police, the FBI and a number of other entities co-located in a facility that looks at cyber threats as they happen in real time. That gives us a better capability to respond. And in addition to that, we forged partnerships with other entities like U.S. Army Cyber Command, to make sure that the intelligence that we see, the information that we see, the threats that we see, we share forward in kind, so that that information is not just used to protect Europe, but it's used to protect the nation.
Finally, the news that everyone in and around tech is talking about right now is the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank here in New York. How bullish are you feeling about cryptocurrency and New York's ability to become a crypto capital, as the mayor has said he’d like to see happen.
We have been working very closely on the federal end and on the state end, and we’ve had a couple of conversations with both the tech and finance community in New York, saying what we're doing. We asked the federal government for immediate action, and as you saw, the federal government stepped in to ensure that anyone that had an account in Silicon Valley Bank will be made whole.
I think for cryptocurrency in general, any market that sees growth like we've seen growth of crypto over the last decade is subject to some sort of volatility. But the thing that crypto does is it gives access to those that historically have been locked out of the traditional banking community to invest and grow wealth in a different way. Now you have an industry that almost a decade ago was worth nothing, and today is worth near a trillion dollars. Though the worth of that dips and grows periodically, I think for us, we're going to see that market continue to grow, and it's going to be a while before it just stabilizes into a norm. In terms of what the mayor has said and the mayor’s hope for New York City being home to that – when you look across the FinTech landscape, New York City has been the home for FinTech for the modern era. Since technology existed, New York City was home to FinTech. We expect, as modern versions of FinTech like crypto continue to emerge, New York City will continue to be the home for that.