In NYC, the Web is a Public Space

This morning, I was extraordinarily excited to get to witness Mayor Bloomberg and our city’s new Chief Digital Office Rachel Sterne unveil New York City’s “Road Map for the Digital City”. It’s an extraordinary document, and as someone who loves the web, civic engagement, public infrastructure and New York City, it feels like a momentous accomplishment, even though it marks the beginning of a years-long process, not just the end of a months-long one.


But the single biggest lesson I got from the 65-page, 11.8mb PDF is a simple one: The greatest city in the world can take shared public spaces online as seriously as it takes its public spaces in the physical world.

As you’d expect, there’s a press release about the Digital Road Map, but more reassuringly, the document demonstrates the idea of the web as public space throughout, making the idea explicit on page 43:

Maintaining digital ‘public spaces’ such as or 311 Online is equally important as maintaining physical public spaces like Prospect Park or the New York Public Library. Both digital and physical should be welcoming, accessible, cared for, and easy to navigate. Both must provide value to New Yorkers. And for both, regular stewardship and improvements are a necessity.

Why is that declaration so promising? Well for me, it goes back to the post that I wrote last September 11th:

[T]his is, in many ways, a golden era in the entire history of New York City.

Over the four hundred years it’s taken for this city to evolve into its current form, there’s never been a better time to walk down the street. … {I]n less than half a decade, the public park where I got married went from a place where I often felt uncomfortable at noontime to one that I wanted to bring together my closest friends and family on the best day of my life. We still struggle with radical inequality, but more people interact with people from broadly different social classes and cultures every day in New York than any other place in America, and possibly than in any other city in the world.

And all of this happened, by choice, in the years since the attacks. We didn’t withdraw, we didn’t say “we can’t build bike lanes because the terrorists will use them”, we didn’t abandon our subways en masse because we feared some theoretical attack that might strike us there. It could just have easily gone the other way. Many predicted an exodus from New York City after the attacks, with our once-proud citizenry retreating to the theoretically-safer environs of smaller towns or lesser cities. It didn’t happen. …

We have not conceded our public places or our shared spaces where we marry and play, eat and dance, walk and shop, or just sit quietly by ourselves. Maybe it seems like a small thing, but it’s a beautiful and meaningful and brave thing, and I am nothing but thankful for those who’ve made the choices to enable this evolution of our city. And I hope that making New York more livable for those of us who are here is an appropriate, albeit humble, tribute.

So the New York City you see today is the safest, most vibrant, most livable version of the city that’s ever existed because we’ve invested in making it so. And at a time when the web is in danger from an array of forces that match the social pressures that nearly tore New York City apart in the 70s, seeing a city seriously invest in treating the web as a valuable public space for its citizens is both provocative and inspiring.

Rachel Sterne announces NYC's Digital Road Map

What’s the plan?

Now, any plan of this scale is necessarily going to have some vague parts. But a few highlights really jumped out at me:

  • New York City hears loud and clear the cries from the entrepreneurial and startup communities for more engineering talent being needed in the city. While it’s an area we’re focusing on with the NY Tech Meetup community, I have to admit it’s a thrill to see the NYC Economic Development Corporation also addressing the issue with their challenge to bring more engineering talent to New York by establishing new engineering schools in conjunction with top universities. (And announced on their Tumblr blog, no less!) As Andrew Rasiej said to me after today’s event, New York City startups have an advantage in this wave of technology because they are born right at the intersection of media and technology. It’s the exact same premise that we’ve built Activate around, so I obviously wholeheartedly agree with his assessment.
  • We’re going to make the best 311 system in the country even better. Beyond stuff like accessing 311 via Skype or SMS or Twitter or an iPhone app (which you can do today), there’s a three-phase plan which first gives access to basic data dumps like taxi complaints, then makes existing 311 answers available to developers through an API, and in its final phase actually makes the API read/write so that developers can enable citizens to ask and answer each other’s questions. The idea of connecting citizens with one another to solve problems instead of having the city have to answer everything itself is exactly in keeping with the can-do attitude New Yorkers expect from one another.
  • We’ve gotta be connected. The city will try to help by broadening access to wifi, including in public parks, and by encouraging broadband availability. These are basics, but the plan that’s outlined in the Digital Road Map seems specific and achievable.
  • Geek service! The city is doing the stuff that might not have the biggest impact for normal citizens, but will please geeks in a way that encourages them to get involved. Foursquare badges for visiting NYC’s public spaces. A Tumblr vertical just for NYC. A hackathon in coordination with NYC-based startups to encourage use of city data (a great followup to the already-inspired work made as part of NYC BigApps). A new @nycgov Twitter account to act as one central place to get info. A custom URL for city info. Even today’s announcement was broadcast as live video on the web, across multiple networks.
  • And last, but certainly not least, better transparency and public engagement through technology. At Expert Labs, we’ve already begun working with several groups in NYC government, helping to enable public feedback and response to make sure the wisdom and expertise of every New Yorker can filter in to the policies and decisions that are made in City Hall. We have a high degree of confidence the city can make its information easily accessible using social networks, and want to raise the bar even higher to having the city rely on social networks to give citizens a voice in the way the city runs.

In all, it’s a great day for New York City’s tech community, for those of us who think technology can make cities run better, and for all New Yorkers who want their city to be more responsive, accessible and accountable. And while I’d like to congratulate Rachel Sterne, Mayor Bloomberg, and all the people involved in NYC Digital at City Hall, instead I’d tell them the same thing I’d tell any other tech entrepreneurs: Let’s get to work.