De Blasio Making Progress On Embracing Tech Sector

New York City’s tech sector has boomed over the last five years, in large part because of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s efforts. His wooing of the industry brought big-name firms like Google and Facebook to the city’s newly created Silicon Alley, now the second largest tech hub in the country. 

But with Bloomberg’s departure from the mayoralty, many in the tech community were left wondering if his successor, Bill de Blasio, who did not focus heavily on the interests of the industry during his campaign, would continue to cultivate a relationship with the sector. 

Three months into de Blasio’s tenure that uncertainty still lingers to a degree. The mayor still has yet to name a commissioner for the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT), although other pieces are falling into place. 

When she was appointed in mid-February, Counsel to the Mayor Maya Wiley was tasked with spearheading efforts to invest in New York’s technology infrastructure and expand broadband access to all five boroughs. De Blasio also tapped Jeff Merritt, who led his open government and technology initiatives in the public advocate’s office, as a senior advisor to the mayor. 

“I think it is fair to say I would not be working for the mayor if I did not believe strongly in his vision, not only broadly for the city of New York but also his vision for tech,” Merritt said at City & State’s “On Technology” forum held on March 20 at 7 World Trade Center. “[Technology] is an area where we definitely want to double down.” 

Growing the tech industry is not just about attracting more big-name start-ups or more venture capital dollars. The mayor will need to target multiple areas: increasing broadband access and speeds, expanding education efforts to ensure that the next generation of New York City public school children are ready for the knowledge economy, and continuing to open government data to the public. 

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, who led the charge to get the city’s Open Data law passed, said at City & State’s forum that it is time to take the next step with open data by getting the most out of it. She is currently working with her borough’s 12 community boards to show them how to use data to solve many issues in their districts. 

Brewer has brought in members of the tech community, including a group of civically minded hackers called BetaNYC. The civic hackers work with the community boards to identify problems that can be addressed with technology and to create solutions— usually maps—using information already found on the open data portal. 

But not all of the necessary data from the city is available yet, or in a usable format, leaving some issues unresolved. 

“What we really need to be doing as a government is changing the culture, which goes back decades and decades, where government has always felt they have to guard their information,” Merritt said. “We do need to move toward a culture in government that realizes information is not something to be scared of. In fact, we need to be proactively p ushing out information into the world. That is when it becomes beneficial.” 

De Blasio, who fought for greater data transparency when he was public advocate, has begun to pry open the New York City Police Department’s data. As part of his Vision Zero initiative, he directed the historically secretive department to share TrafficStat data with multiple agencies—a first for the NYPD. 

How that push for transparency will play out in other departments remains to be seen. 

On the education front, de Blasio had focused a great deal of his efforts so far on finding the money for his universal pre-K and after-school initiatives. According to Merritt, at least some of the after-school programs envisioned would have a focus on tech. 

“We will definitely be looking, as we expand after-school programs, to be introducing more computer science opportunities,” Merritt said. 

While much remains unknown about the mayor’s tech goals, that uncertainty will likely not last too much longer. On May 19, as part of Internet Week, de Blasio is scheduled to unveil his tech plans in a keynote address. 

City & State’s “On Technology” forum, co-sponsored by Verizon, IBM and SAP, was held at 7 WTC on March 20. 

Reshma Saujani 

Q: 1.4 million jobs are opening up in America in the computing and technology industry. To what degree will women be filling those positions? 

RS: Less than 20 percent of them, at the current rate, will be filled by women, even though women make up 56 percent of the labor force. We have had an 80 percent decline in the amount of female engineers. We had more engineers in the 1970s that were women than today … As women, we own the Internet. We make 85 percent of all consumer purchases. We Facebook more, we tweet more, but we are not on the other end. 

Jonathan Bowles 

Q: Do you think Mayor de Blasio will take the tech baton and run with it? 

JB: It is too early to say. Understandably, the mayor has had other priorities that he is trying to figure out right now. We heard some pretty good proposals during the campaign, though they were mostly focused on creating more pipeline to make sure more New Yorkers develop the skills. I think that is really helpful. 

But I think it would be silly if Mayor de Blasio did not continue to try and support the tech sector. He needs to create jobs. We still have an unemployment rate near 8 percent, and the tech sector has been a catalyst for job growth over the last five years.