Hacking the Civic Architecture

Noel Hidalgo, left, and Emily Goldman, middle, with CUNY Civic Innovation Fellow Lester Barrett at the Manhattan Borough President’s office. Photo via BetaNYC

What good is a library if you don’t know how to read? New York’s Open Data Law has made a wealth of information about the city available to the public. But can the public make use of it? Beta NYC — an advocate for open data and civic technology — has been instrumental in increasing access to government data in New York City.  Now they’re working with community boards to put that data to use. We recently explored the history of community boards, their aspirations and some of the limits to what they can achieve. The wealth of techy tools and data now available can build this piece of civic architecture to new heights — and technical failings can hobble boards’ daily function in new ways. In partnership with the office of Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, Beta NYC’s Civic Innovation Lab trains students from the City University of New York (CUNY), community board members, and others to address the technology needs of the city’s community boards. Below, Noel Hidalgo and Emily Goldman talk about the simple hacks that can help boards understand what’s happening in the district, communicate with constituents, and keep the wheels of civic democracy turning.

Urban Omnibus (UO):

What is the Civic Innovation Lab?

NH:

We use lean and agile methods to produce tools, trainings, and services for community boards. We’re able to empower community boards to develop digital and open data practices that are appropriate for the local constituencies that they serve. Currently we’re partnered with the Manhattan Borough President’s Office, but we’re hoping to grow to all five boroughs.

UO:

Why community boards?

NH:

In the era of civic hacking, community boards seemed like the most appropriate focus for our efforts to give government the digital tools and the resources to stay relevant. Community boards have three charter-mandated responsibilities. Everybody hears about  licensing: liquor licenses, massage parlors, neon signs, sidewalk cafés, hair salons. Second is land use decisions around the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP). And the third charter-mandated responsibility that community boards have is around the capital budget process. Those three things are fundamental components of our civic architecture. But community boards are traditionally underfunded, under-resourced, and driven by more or less whoever’s on the board at the time.

UO:

How does the Civic Innovation Lab produce tools for community boards?

NH:

Primarily through the Civic Innovation Fellows program, which is a civic tech work-study program for CUNY students in the Manhattan Borough President’s Office. We work with the students to give them a boot camp in government, open data, civic technology, and design thinking. Then, they utilize their talents with the lab staff to develop different projects, whether research or technical projects, and we coach them and figure out how to build some type of either research project or alpha implementation of a technology tool that we can hack. The third phase is figuring out how to either take that hack — that “alpha” — and actually build a real tool for others to use — a “beta” — or to have their research affect policymakers’ decisions.

Two CUNY fellows at work in the Borough President’s office, building a BoardStat webinar. Photo via BetaNYC
UO:

How did you get started?

NH:

In the first year, we received funding from Data & Society and the Fund for the City of New York to begin protoyping, with the students, a curriculum for community boards about how to understand, access, analyze, visualize, and map the city’s open data. We also conducted a gap analysis to find out where community boards stood in terms of technological capacities and data analytics. We identified a number of deficiencies within community board operations. The first one was that individual community boards have disparate technology inside of their offices. Some places have WiFi and really fast internet, and some offices are seemingly on dial-up speed. If their meeting places don’t have internet access, they can’t livestream.

Then, a majority of the community boards were using websites built with a tool called Teamsite (the city’s default content management system) and were very frustrated. The websites can be complicated to use, which means the boards don’t update their sites as frequently as they should, which then means the community isn’t aware of the meetings that community boards are having.

Community boards also don’t have a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system. An organization that is tasked with channeling constituent relationships in the city of New York doesn’t have a unified database to track those relationships as they’re happening.

Finally, there was this massive literacy gap in regards to data. Since the Open Data Law was passed in 2012, there’s been this wealth of government information available, but it’s written as government information. Who’s going to translate that to the layperson? Even community boards, who are in charge of understanding government operations, still felt that there was a gap in the tools as well as the language. No one had come up with a class for community boards to teach them how to do that, nor were there tools that actually presented the data in a very usable way. It was like all of a sudden they could walk into a library but they didn’t know how to read. So we’ve had to reverse-engineer how to take something that is super technical and make it usable for the general public.

Emily Goldman (EG):

Within an open data framework, accessible is very different from usable.

NYC 311 service request card game, designed by BetaNYC and Katie Edmonds.
311 service cards in use at the Data & Society Research Institute. Photos via Beta NYC
UO:

What kind of educational tools came out of this process?

NH:

We designed a card set to learn how to answer a question like: How many service requests have been made in my zip code? To get this answer, you have to filter the data by the community board, then by complaint type, then group by status.

We use physical activities to teach people how to read the data. We have people pin a complaint to themselves and move around the room — we’ll say, for instance, “Sort yourselves alphabetically,” “sort yourselves by complaint type,” “all noise complaints raise your hands” — and they learn the basic ideas of group, filter, sort, count, and pivot. This is the literacy of understanding how to look at data.

Then we have them go through more complex data journeys using BoardStat, one of the tools we developed to basically break down, visualize, and map 311 complaints within individual community boards. Now that they have that language of grouping and counting and filtering, they can start to interlace other municipal tools, like the crime map, the state liquor map, BIS Web. All of a sudden we’re moving beyond a very basic conversation of data, to using data for decision-making alongside the other government tools that are available.

UO:

Who is using these tools?

EG:

Members of the public. We adapted the CUNY students’ curriculum for a mass audience, doing trainings in the evenings, and having it be more fun and interactive. Last night we had 40 people, and only a handful of them were actually on community boards, even though the workshop was called Data for Community Boards. Those people are going to be on the more engaged side of the spectrum. But there is no average engaged citizen, necessarily, in New York — there’s engaged citizens from all walks of life and socioeconomic brackets. This program is also having an impact on elevating the public’s understanding of the community board function across New York City, getting them interested in that process and potentially getting them involved.

UO:

What other prototypes and projects came out of the first few rounds of the Civic Innovation Lab?

EG:

In Year Two we were pretty much told that we needed to develop some tangible products.

UO:

Education is not enough!

EG:

And research is not enough. After the gap analysis and our first meeting with the Borough President’s senior staff, they were like, “We want products.” So we turned the second semester into product creation.

BoardStat data — here, 311 complaints originating in Manhattan Community Board 3 between 2010 and 2018 — can be broken down by agency, complaint type, and date range, focusing in on a day, a month, or eight years of 311 reports.
EG:

BoardStat was conceived as a way to make 311 data understandable to community board members. Each community district has its own BoardStat, which streams in data that’s been filtered to the district boundaries. It shows the top ten complaint types, trend lines, and addresses that are getting the most complaints. You can delve into a particular address and see its whole history of 311 issues, you can look at spikes, you can look at seasonal analysis and see how 311 service requests vary over time.

NH:

311 is the activist’s tool inside city government. It’s the one thing that you can use to articulate your problems very clearly (as long as your problems fall within the government’s set of buckets). As a Safe Streets activist, you can take a photo of a taxi cab blocking a sidewalk, crosswalk, or bike lane, and then that starts this whole administrative process of that driver being fined for creating a dangerous situation. At the other end, BoardStat enables someone to see where those incidents are happening in aggregate, potentially because of bad street design.

UO:

So anyone can use this to get a sense of what’s going on in their district: What are red flags, what are issues that might be visible through the 311 data that might not come out from someone calling the community board on the phone?

EG:

Exactly.

NH:

It includes a ton of different views on the data. Our address lookup page comes from one conversation with Community Board 4, where they said, “We want to look into that particular address, how do we do that?” Another view came from, I think it was CB 10, where they wanted to be able to select a particular complaint type and see everything on a map.

In Community Board 3, complaints at a specific address are broken down by type and volume.
Single complaint types are mapped to locations throughout the district.
UO:

What other tools have you developed?

NH:

BoardTrack is an attendance-tracking tool.

EG:

Attendance is so important because it is the most basic form of data collection and analytics that a board would want, showing who of the board members are attending the meetings they are responsible for attending.

It is a challenge because of the time and length of the meetings (at least two hours in the evenings), people’s busy schedules, and because there are 50 members to keep track of whether they are in attendance for the full meeting, arriving late, departing early, have an excuse, etc.

NH:

Emily and I had gone back and forth with a number of different community boards to find out how they take attendance, what’s in their bylaws, and how they can use this tool to report attendance up to the borough president’s office. We came up with BoardTrack; it’s really a glorified Google spreadsheet.

Then, several years ago, we identified that there was this gap in website usability: A few community boards were using WordPress, while others were still frustrated using the city-provided site. So, we started diving deeper, and then made recommendations to the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT), who came up with a WordPress theme. The goal is that in the first round of development, DoITT tailors the tool to meet some of the city’s design principles, to make it fundamentally accessible for all New Yorkers using some type of screen reader and accessible on the LinkNYC kiosks.

UO:

So that would be the access point for residents to find out about what’s happening in a given community board?

NH:

To get there will require some organization to help community boards through the transition. DoITT right now doesn’t have the resources to help community boards adopt WordPress, which is kind of crazy — our city’s IT department doesn’t have the resources to help our city’s community boards essentially use technology.

UO:

What kind of skepticism or resistance have you encountered along the way?

NH:

The three things that community boards don’t have are money, time, and resources. So some of the skepticism at first was based on the fact that we were an organization that didn’t have resources or money, nor did we have a big long-term funding strategy. And then it became, “You’re trying to introduce new tools into my workflow, and I fundamentally don’t have time. I’m already having to make a judgment call about what important decisions I am not going to make today.” Now that the resistance and the apprehension has begun to wash away, we’re thinking about a borough-wide task force and starting to identify the people who would best use these tools. We’re coming up with a long-term strategy to capture them so these tools can be put to use in decision-making.

UO:

It sounds like one thing is having the products and the tools, but even more important than that is how folks are trained and empowered to actually use them.

NH:

Yeah, that’s our hack. What we learned is that you have to have some sort of product that has already been co-designed by the users. This is Technology Development 101: Work with somebody who’s already using a product to make it so desirable that everybody else wants it. Figuring out how to localize that narrative inside of community boards has been a slow process because it has required building relationships, building trust, as well as building expertise about the issues, the pain points, places they’ve been bruised before.

We went out to Brooklyn and started talking about BoardStat, and the board members said, “That’s cool, but we need a relationship management database. We used to use it in City Council, we need one for Brooklyn. It’s like Salesforce, you can do that.” Look, we’re two people. We would love to do that but do you realize what it takes to maintain a professional-level CRM? So then our role is to figure out the resources it would take and how to legitimize this request so that the city will understand it. It’s not super transparent how this process has happened in the past. Now we’re slowly carving out spaces in the formal process for community boards to articulate their issues and their needs around 21st-century tools.

UO:

What would the ideal municipal framework for the development of these kinds of tools and processes be?

NH:

Well, it’s the maturing of the bureaucracy that we have. We have a proposed executive budget which is $84.5 billion. Sure, public-private partnerships should continue, but fundamentally, each community board is a government agency. The things that BetaNYC is doing should be valued as a product of government, and they should be produced and supported and grown as part of government. We’re fortunate enough that we’ve developed BetaNYC as a private entity, a non-profit organization that has relationships with elected officials and agencies, winning their trust and the trust of community boards. But fundamentally the Mayor’s Community Affairs Unit or DoITT or some other lab should have a well-resourced, lean, agile tech team that’s able to think of community boards as their customers and see 8.5 million New Yorkers as the end users, and be churning out these tools for digital civic engagement. It should come from government. If it’s not, then we’ll have to continue to cobble together resources to make it happen.

Noel Hidalgo is Executive Director of BetaNYC, which he cofounded in 2009. He is an Eagle Scout and formerly a Technology and Democracy fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, an elected member of Code for America’s National Advisory Council, and a fellow at Data & Society Research Institution.

Emily Goldman is Director of the NYC Civic Innovation Fellowship Program. She joined BetaNYC as a member of its leadership committee in 2014, and as full-time staff in 2016. She received a PhD from the Cornell University Department of City and Regional Planning.

BetaNYC is a 4,700-plus-member organization dedicated to improving New York City’s use of technology and data-sharing practices. BetaNYC has advocated for the passage of seven government transparency laws, including the city’s transformative open data law and city record online law, and curates the NYC School of Data community conference. They are New York City’s Code for America Brigade.