Urban Transformation

Will technology not only make our cities smarter, but more equal too?

Pedestrians stop to look at the construction site of the World Trade Center through a window in New York March 7, 2011.

Image: REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Minerva Tantoco
Chief Technology Officer, City of New York
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“The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed,” - William Gibson

After 30+ years as a private sector technologist and innovator, I was appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2014 to my first public service role, as the Chief Technology Officer (CTO), City of New York. As CTO, I get to see first-hand the huge impact that technology decisions have on the City’s policies, processes, and people. As technologists, policy makers and government officials, we all have a shared responsibility to humanize tech ─ guiding the development of new technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT) to help address the toughest urban challenges. As IoT expands from wearables to the home, office, and onto city streets and into infrastructure, now, more than ever, municipalities and residents have a stake in these exciting developments from the tech industry. The expansion and use of IoT has the potential for bold urban transformation, and to transform our everyday lives ─ using tech for good.

What does it mean to be a smart city in 2016? With some very cool tech already in place, New York City is already a smart and innovative city. But it is not enough to have cool tech. Being a smart city means also being an equitable city ─ “distributing the future more evenly” across all five boroughs. Given this rapid expansion of new technology, we must be mindful that we do not perpetuate the digital divide. Rather, we must use this opportunity to close the gap. For Mayor de Blasio, this means our approach to technology in New York City is focused on developing tech talent, providing broad access to free or affordable internet, promoting innovation in the delivery of government services, and growing an inclusive tech and innovation economy. To tap and grow NYC tech talent, we launched Computer Science for All (CS4All), a public-private initiative to provide access to CS education in all NYC public schools in the next 10 years; the Tech Talent Pipeline, a training program that places adults into tech jobs; and the Center for Youth Employment has expanded summer jobs into tech industry companies. To help support digital engagement at a community level, we launched Neighborhoods.nyc, which uses open data to provide neighborhood-specific hubs for civic engagement, online organizing and information-sharing.

The latest smart city initiative is being installed this year. LinkNYC is a city franchise that turns old payphone locations into fast, free Wi-Fi hotspots, complete with phone chargers and free phone calls ─ all of which will not cost taxpayers a penny. In fact, this agreement will generate revenue for the City while providing an incredible free resource for New Yorkers. LinkNYC is just one of the IoT deployments which are being researched and piloted by City agencies. One of my jobs as CTO is to provide City agencies with guidance on the impact of emerging technology on their overall tech strategy.

To help map this uncharted territory, we drafted a set of guidelines to assist City agencies in piloting and prototyping their IoT initiatives. These guidelines are designed to help assure consistency, provide transparency to communities, and protect City assets and residents. They are a resource for City agencies which we decided to share publicly as a guide to the broader smart city ecosystem. We hope to reduce the potential for confusion, provide transparency, and future-proof the tech through interoperability and extensible frameworks that anticipate change.

The year-long collaborative process in developing these guidelines started in early 2015. We surveyed IoT deployments across City agencies to understand the status quo and existing policies, and researched best practices and lessons learned from more than 50 cities around the globe. This resulted in a database of more than 450 best practices across five categories. From these, an initial set of 99 guidelines were shared with 50+ subject matter experts from the City, universities, regulatory and standards bodies, public interest groups, private companies, and other governments. Input was collected and integrated through a combination of calls, in-person meeting and written input, resulting in the beta version we are releasing internally to agencies and to the public, because we want to be transparent and gather feedback as we continue to develop our work in this area.

The guidelines, designed to assist City agencies on IoT projects, will be the first of its kind issued by a municipality. They incorporate a number of key principles that reflect the City’s priorities across technology implementations: security, privacy, agility, usability, accessibility, reusability, efficiency, and interoperability. For example, since multiple agencies may be implementing different solutions with IoT, agencies should make sure that systems are interoperable, allowing them to work together. More specifically, the IoT Guidelines encourage that all components of a solution be implemented in a modular manner, using open and publicly-available standards where possible, to prevent dependency on a single vendor and make sure data and components can be shared across agencies. These guidelines aim to help agencies navigate the sometimes confusing world of IoT standards and protocols in an effort to prevent the kinds of fragmentation that plagued the early days of web browsers and home video.

Through thoughtful planning and public-private dialogue we can maximize the use of public space for the public good. Without guidelines, and the dialogue that goes with them, we may miss important opportunities to coordinate and collaborate, and to evenly distribute the future. Government should play a role in the industry dialogue about the deployment of IoT in city streets. It should help give voice to the public interest, and to empower neighborhoods and communities to help determine how it is deployed. It should provide guidance on how to maximize the use of public space for the public good. Government does not have all the answers, but we can start the conversation by asking the question: “Together with industry, academia, residents, and other world cities, how can we make New York City a smart and equitable City?” We look forward to the conversation.

Minerva Tantoco is the Chief Technology Officer for the City of New York, and heads the Mayor’s Office of Tech & Innovation

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Related topics:
Urban TransformationFourth Industrial Revolution
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