New York City

City Council's Technology Lags Behind

The New York State Senate is not generally known as a forward-thinking legislative body, but they are one-upping their more progressive legislative partners in both the state Assembly and the New York City Council in one surprising area: technology. Thanks to reforms dating back to 2009, the state Senate website is one of the most accessible and transparent in the country.

Legislation is searchable in multiple ways and changes in bills are tracked in a searchable manner. Public comments on legislation and FOIL requests can be submitted online. Senate data covering everything from the state budget to website analytics can be searched using five different file types, making it easy to use. 

In addition, the data that flows through the Open Senate site is licensed under a Creative Commons copyright, meaning it is free to use in custom applications. The software is open source whenever possible. This allows the Senate to save on fees and allow smaller municipalities to use the site design for free. 

The New York City Council’s Legistar system lags far behind its Senate equivalent. Like grandma’s old Buick, it’s still runs, but it is an ancient relic in the high-speed world of today. The search functions are limited and the data is not machine-readable. If you wanted to do something as simple as check a Council member’s attendance record you have to manually look at every meeting roll call or, if you have the skill, write a code to search the data.

Members of the civic tech community say it is time for government to trade in the Buick for a newer model, but exactly how that will happen is still up in the air. Government traditionally moves at a snail’s pace, but there are some city officials pushing to bring government into the 21st century.

Gale Brewer, who led the charge for a more open city government as a councilwoman, is continuing her efforts in her role as Manhattan borough president. She has brought her community boards and the technology community together to brainstorm how data can solve issues, and continues to be vocal about the issue.

On Thursday evening Brewer will speak on a panel at 7 World Trade, hosted by City & State, to discuss the state of open data in New York City.

Joining her will be Councilman Ben Kallos, who, as a software developer, helped lobby the city to sign the open data law. He has taken Brewer’s place as the most outspoken open data advocate in the Council. During the budget process Kallos has focused on better contracting and licensing standards related to technology contracts. 

In a phone interview Wednesday, Kallos said he would discuss at the panel why the city is spending $17 million on a software contract with Microsoft when it could use open source software. He said he would also discuss how the city can expand FOIL laws to keep up with other cities.

Technology has not been at the forefront of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s messaging in his first few months in office. The mayor has not picked a commissioner for the Department of Information Technology and he is rumored to be doing away with the position of chief digital officer. That role had been filled by Rachel Haot, who took the same position in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office in December.