Humanizing tech in New York City

Rapid technological change has brought incredible opportunities as well as daunting challenges to cities around the world. In New York City, the de Blasio administration created a new team, the Mayor’s Office of Technology and Innovation, to grapple with these issues. We spoke with Minerva Tantoco and Jeff Merritt, the City’s first chief technology officer and director of innovation, respectively, to learn more.


The titles developed for your office foreground the concept of innovation. What does that mean in relation to New York and technology?

Minerva: My prior jobs were all in the private sector, and my most recent title was chief technology officer for innovation for UBS Bank. I think the same definition of innovation applies for both roles. Innovation is really twofold: it’s both about doing new things and doing things we do today in a new way. So when we’re talking about the New York City government, it’s about using technology to provide new services to the public but also to deliver services we already provide in new ways.Subway-wifi_HOR_MTA_cc-by-2

The creation of a CTO role for the City is itself pretty innovative. It has a model in the United States federal CTO, a role that largely has to do with using technology policy to support the most Americans. But within a city it’s also tied to the implementation of that technology policy on the ground.

Jeff: In terms of why it’s important to try new approaches, traditionally most folks in both the public and private sectors have said the goal is to find ways to do things better, faster, cheaper. What makes New York really unique is that, for us, it’s better, faster, cheaper, and more equitable.

Minerva: There are a couple of quotes I use all the time. One of them is from William Gibson: “The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.” A big part of our role here in the city is to distribute that future evenly.

And the other quote is actually mine. I’ve been saying for many, many years that it’s the responsibility of technologists to humanize tech. In a government context this means not just innovating for innovation’s sake. It really is about innovating to make the everyday lives of New Yorkers better, safer, more efficient.

It’s the responsibility of technologists to humanize tech.

Right — your recent report focuses on the relationship between smart cities and equity. How did that come about?

Minerva: A big part of what we do is ensure that the city’s technology strategy aligns with the administration’s overall plans and strategies. The smart and equitable city is really the translation of OneNYC, which is an urban planning document that explicitly takes equity as a guiding principle.

I’ll give you some examples. It’s technology policy that enables more New Yorkers to participate in the tech ecosystem, right? So it’s developing and implementing policy that offers computer science education to every NYC public school kid, which will break down the barriers for families that don’t have computers at home. And also for girls, who will get exposed to tech early on so that they don’t opt out of it later.

And then we have policies dealing with broadband access, which is really the water and electricity of our digital age. Today we have digital deserts, we have tech haves and have-nots. How do you look for a job, how do you a find a place to live, how do you do your homework if you don’t have internet access?

Today we have digital deserts, we have tech haves and have-nots.

OneNYC set a goal of giving every resident and business access to affordable and reliable broadband service by 2025. But what strategies and policies can be put in place to reach that goal?

A great example is LinkNYC, which uses a unique approach that brings private-sector knowledge into city government. Instead of saying, “Here’s what we want — give us your lowest bid,” we presented the problem and took the best proposal. So there’s innovation on multiple levels. These devices have never existed before; they were custom made to respond to our request for proposal. But the [request for proposal] was also done in an innovative way, as a problem-based challenge as opposed to just a request for bids on a specific thing, like chairs or pencils.

Jeff: In some ways, by rebranding smart cities as smart and equitable cities, we’re taking back ownership. That brand came out of the private sector and some large multinational tech firms that were pushing products. As a result, it really became about the technology. We’re trying to put the focus back on the people. How can technology improve people’s lives? Broadband, the infrastructure, the development of the tech ecosystem — these are all enablers to help us get there. But really it’s not about the tech. It’s about creating a better place for all New Yorkers.

How does New York’s digital divide compare to what you find in other American cities today, and how do the government’s plans compare to what other cities are doing?

Jeff: Well, New York has broadband, right? In New York anything is available for the right price! But we have an incredible income disparity. We have more millionaires in NYC than in any other city — over 389,000. But on the flip side, roughly half of households are at or near the poverty level.

Nearly 22% of households don’t have internet access at home. And again, it’s not that internet access isn’t available; it’s that they’re priced out.Internet-accessibility-map_HOR_NYC-Department-of-Planning_US-Census-Bureau

Similarly, smartphones have become widespread in New York — over 95% percent of New Yorkers report owning a cell phone, and 79% of cell phone owners have smartphones. People will often point to that and say there is no digital divide anymore. But when your smartphone is your only access to the internet, data limits take on new meaning. Imagine trying to take an online course when you’re worried about the overage charges from streaming video. Imagine trying to complete your homework or apply for a job using your smartphone. New Yorkers shouldn’t have to choose between accessing new opportunity or potentially going into debt.

So that’s where something like LinkNYC is critical, because it enables people to access the internet without having to worry about the financial implications.

Minerva: The concept is not a new one: internet access should be free. I heard [MIT Media Lab cofounder] Nicholas Negroponte say a couple of weeks ago, “Oh, we should just put a bunch of satellites in space and blanket the whole planet in free Wi-Fi.” [laughs] There’s an idea! But then you’ve got to figure out how you pay for that.Subway-WiFi_MTA_HOR_cc-by-2

In many ways, New York City is leading the way on these inventive ways to do Wi-Fi. Many cities have tried to create municipal Wi-Fi that the government just pays for, or that relies on charitable contributions, and failed. And they’re often using a specific technology that becomes outdated. Taking lessons from that, our team was very mindful of the need to create an economically and technologically sustainable model. LinkNYC is paid for by advertising and has built-in upgrades. I think that model will get copied in other cities.

The concept is not a new one: internet access should be free.

How does this all play out in terms of the city’s built environment? How do you reconcile the fact that technology changes so fast with the need for permanent physical infrastructure to handle things like broadband?

Jeff: LinkNYC is a great case study of the way we’re approaching these issues. The Link structures are fairly simple technology-wise. We call them a living room in a box: they’re two flat-screen TVs, an Android tablet, and a router. They’re very modular, which means you can swap components in and out over time. We wanted to build them for the future, so we built technology refreshes into the contract. The vendors — they’re a partnership that was formed just to apply for this contract — want to be best in class, and that works to our advantage. So that gives you a sense of how we’re planning for the future even though technologies are going to be constantly outdated.

I think also the multifunctional aspect is important to keep in mind. Pay phones were a single-function, single-use piece of technology; all they did were make phone calls. With LinkNYC, you have an Android tablet that can bring all services from all the city agencies to people on the street.

New York City payphone map

Map of planned LinkNYC coverage

Even the advertising panels can push out emergency notifications that are site-specific. They can be used as a vehicle for local economic development, encouraging small businesses to do micro ad buys, or for civic engagement, posting information about public hearings and events happening in that area in the coming hours.

Minerva: I love thinking about the built environment becoming a more connected place. Think about how what started out as a piece of equipment that only made phone calls — a cell phone — now pretty much does everything. I think we have a similar opportunity with the built environment, starting to connect people with each other in physical space. We don’t just think about tech for individual people, but also for people in a social context.

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