Best of New York 2018: Winning Projects Focus on Cooperation, Breaking Down Silos

New York’s state and municipal governments face daily challenges often on a scale unlike those found elsewhere in the country, and this year’s award winners excelled at finding new and more efficient ways to tackle them.

by / September 20, 2018
e.republic/David Kidd

The paths they took to their rewards were varied, but the Center for Digital Government’s* Best of New York 2018 award winners shared some key qualities in common, as did the projects they undertook.

Perhaps most prominently, this year’s group of winners — comprising 13 winners across five categories — share a deep commitment to finding internal solutions to long-standing problems, ranging from efficiency in the sanitation department to updating legacy systems as vital to daily functions as telephones. 

Best Application Serving an Agency’s Business Needs

For more than six decades, New York City’s Department of Sanitation used to manage its operations — which include a host of duties, from garbage pickup to snow removal — with a manual paper card system.

With this analog methodology, the department tracked thousands of pieces of equipment, as well as personnel and the status of ongoing assignments. There was no way to keep data, and the board was essentially left at the mercy of anyone who had access to it, meaning it could be changed around and there was no way to know who modified it or why. That, however, has since changed.

2018 Hugh L. Carey Leadership Award Winner

The 2018 Hugh L. Carey Award was presented to Theresa L. Egan, executive deputy commissioner for the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles, for her leadership of initiatives that impact her agency, as well as the safety and quality of life of New Yorkers statewide.

In her role with the DMV since July 2015, Egan has also served as deputy commissioner for safety, consumer protection and clean air since 2007. She headed up initiatives including driver and vehicle safety programs, emissions programs, and the governor’s Traffic Safety Committee. Egan was previously town supervisor for Bethlehem, N.Y., since 2004, as well as town justice from 1998-2003.

Egan is the eighth recipient of the Hugh L. Carey Leadership award.

One of the winning projects in the Best Application Serving an Agency’s Business Needs category is an upgrade to the paper system, dubbed Sanitation Management Analysis and Resource Tracking, or SMART. SMART is essentially a digital version of the old system, a new platform with Web-based mobile functionality that provides the sanitation department field forces with fully digital operations, including scheduling and reporting technology.

Perhaps most important, it gives the entire department real-time access to the information that used to be tracked with paper, meaning multiple users at different computers can see what’s being modified or changed as it happens. There are plenty of other new benefits being provided by SMART as well.

The system, users said, has helped to break down silos and bolster information sharing. It has also reduced any redundant or manual data entry requirements, which has in turn reduced the number of human errors while subsequently also increasing efficiency. The system provides a holistic view of sanitations complex operations to officials, along with the capability to track and store data over time. It also comes with templates, so that when New York City has something like a parade or other event, the department can roll out the template they need to handle it, instead of always having to devise something new from scratch, as was the past procedure.

Sriram Vasantha, director of application development for the Department of Sanitation, said the design process involved working through several different iterations using agile methodology. The developers' first priority was, of course, to automate the long-standing paper system, and so they assembled a group of consultants and end users from throughout the department who could give them feedback and input as they built it.

Developers also made ample use of open-source technologies, something that was key in creating the new system efficiently.

“A few years ago,” Vasantha said, “it was quite challenging to build that type of product, but we were able to leverage open source technologies to be able to do this now.”

Developers continue to add new applications and functionality to SMART in pieces, making its overall value and capabilities all the more robust. End-user feedback remains an important and vital part of this process.

“All different levels of the uniformed team are involved in developing the application and giving feedback,” said Dean Beaver, training lead with the Department of Sanitation. “It’s very much an interactive development process with the customers, and in this case the customers are the guys in the field. They built it.”

Demonstrated Excellence in Project Management

Talal Qureshi is a solutions architect/program manager in network design and engineering for New York City’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications.

His role requires him to provide a host of different solutions to his clients, all of whom are internal agencies within the municipal government in one of the biggest and most logistically challenging cities in the world. Those who work with him describe Qureshi as exceedingly adept at a wide range of vital characteristics, from coordinating with outside vendors when the need arises, to sticking with projects until completion.

Qureshi has a depth of technical knowledge — he has two master’s degrees, one in electrical engineering and the other in high energy particle physics — which is obviously a must for someone who deals with a varied host of complex constituents on such a large scale. What really stands out about his work, however, is the bright attitude he brings to it.

In fact, Qureshi said he is often asked how much coffee drinks, and the answer is none. In fact, he doesn’t even so much as dabble in caffeine. His energetic disposition is entirely a product of his outlook on his work.

“Motivation is within,” Qureshi said. “Once you find that element that motivates you — whether it be external factors or just the pride that you take. There is no city like New York City, and I take a lot of pride in the privilege I have of working in my position and in working for the constituents that we have here.”

It’s this attitude that has made Qureshi such an effective leader and project manager, in addition to his wide depth of expertise.

Among his myriad impressive accomplishments for New York City is an ongoing project that aims to update outdated legacy phone systems. A project he oversaw recently involved replacing 10,000 telephones citywide from over 20 agencies in the service of this, and he’s currently working with his team on a second phase of that project that would see more than 8,000 additional phones converted to more modern systems.

“Ultimately, our objective is to provide the best-in-class service at the least possible cost,” Qureshi said, “and that’s where the real creative thinking comes in.” 

Best Application Serving an Agency’s Business Needs

Of course, New York is far more than just it's most well-known city, and good governance and innovation are alive and well at the state level, as evidenced by the New York State Cash Tracking Application from the New York State Office for People with Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD) and the Office of Information Technology Services.

OPWDD has a stated mission of putting people first, which demands tech that can help its employees manage and protect sensitive items they work with, including personal funds, burial accounts, trusts and other specialized assets of people with developmental disabilities. All told, these funds include millions of dollars, and they have to be protected pursuant to the NYS Mental Hygiene Law, NYS Finance Law, and the OPWDD Personal Allowance Regulations.

The winning project is a new Web-based application that gives users a wide range of benefits, including better security, database integrity, oversight and protection of funds, and process automation. One benefit of improved systems is that online users of these services have grown to more than 4,000, and as a result, staff time to process and pay monthly reimbursement billings has decreased by 50 percent, essentially generating over $50 million in annual revenue.

For a full list of this year's winners, click here.

*The Center for Digital Government is part of e.Republic, Government Technology's parent company.

Zack Quaintance Staff Writer

Zack Quaintance is a staff writer for Government Technology. Prior to that, he spent five years working in daily newspapers, and another five years working in the tech sector. He lives in Northern California.