New York City's Connected City Initiative

New York City CIO Paul Cosgrave outlines new technology initiatives.

by / December 28, 2009
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New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg recently announced a range of technology projects known as the Connected City Initiative aimed at making government more accessible, transparent and accountable. City CIO Paul Cosgrave elaborated on the mayor's plans at an October technology conference, outlining how New York is adding iPhone apps and social media capabilities to its celebrated 311 hotline service, while also launching an ambitious plan to consolidate its sprawling IT infrastructure.

Cosgrave, who is also commissioner of New York City Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT), said the consolidation plan would radically reduce the number of data centers operated by the city government, saving millions of dollars annually. The city also is using Web 2.0 tools to boost citizen interaction and engaging local software developers to create useful new applications, said Cosgrave in an interview at Government Technology's annual Tech Forum in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Cutting Costs

Addressing the city's cost-reduction needs is NYCitiServ, Bloomberg's data center consolidation effort being executed by DoITT. The agency aims to reduce the number of data centers operated by the city from 55 to two. Cosgrave called this project his No. 1 priority.

"We're going to be able to do this much more efficiently because of virtualization technology," he said. "Already, we're one of the largest VMware installations, with 1,500 virtual servers."

Cosgrave expects NYCitiServ to at least double that number. Unifying data centers from across 42 agencies will make the city more energy efficient while reducing its carbon output, Cosgrave insisted. He expects the consolidation to save the city more than $300 million.

The challenge Cosgrave faces is convincing agencies that letting go of their data centers will be beneficial. The solution is to put governance of those newly consolidated data centers into users' hands, said Cosgrave.

"We have an operations governance committee, which is run by users and is involved with making all the operating decisions. Overseeing that is a strategic governance committee, which deals with high-level strategic policy," he said.

Cosgrave is also working with the city's Office of Management and Budget to ensure that DoITT's funding will be adequate for taking on the added tasks of running the data centers and providing the level of IT shared services that the agencies will expect. Cosgrave added that the Office of Management and Budget sits on the committee for the data centers' strategic governance.

Social Media and BigApps

Like so many other jurisdictions, New York City faces an explosion in demand for social media and networking services. Fifteen city agencies now use some form of social media, according to Jeanette Moy, who works in the Mayor's Office of Operations. The city's 311 service recently began offering Twitter via 311Online, the call center's Web version of its hotline service. The mayor announced that 311Online will distribute content and receive feedback, questions and inquiries from customers via Twitter. The city also will help develop neighborhood wikis to share ideas for how technology could be used to solve problems at the block and neighborhood level.

City residents who have an Apple iPhone can now download an app that lets them attach a photo to a complaint and upload it to the city's 311Online service. With the aid of GPS technology, a user can file a complaint about a broken streetlight or a dirty vacant lot, for example, and have its location automatically uploaded, along with photo and message. The service will soon expand to include other mobile platforms, such as the BlackBerry smartphone.

To build on Bloomberg's push to make city government more transparent, Cosgrave said the city has released 170 data sets to let developers build applications that will serve residents, visitors, businesses and the public sector. Like the District of Columbia's Apps for Democracy competition, New York City launched BigApps as an awards program, with the winners receiving cash prizes. Cosgrave said the city has already received more than 1,700 inquiries and it plans to announce winners in January.

Other Tech Initiatives

Cosgrave also highlighted a number of other IT developments.

  • Work has just begun on the back-end integration for NYC Business Express, a project that will streamline and simplify the city's complex and cumbersome business permitting process.

  • Growth in call volume for the city's 311 service has reached 20 percent annually, while the center's work force has been reduced by 20 percent. Cosgrave attributed the productivity gain to better use of interactive voice response software and offloading more calls to 311Online.

  • As part of the mayor's Connected City Initiative, New York will launch NYC Connected Learning, an initiative designed to bridge the digital divide. NYC Connected Learning will offer low-income sixth-graders computers, training and free Internet access to special e-mail accounts and select learning sites. The city aims to deploy updated technology in libraries, community centers and various other centers of activity within low-income areas. DoITT will run the program, but stimulus money and corporate sponsorships are expected to fund it.

  • The city will soon have a greater multilingual presence online. Agencies that have direct interaction with citizens will be required to translate "essential" documents and post them on their Web sites. The project is set for completion by the end of 2010. The city also will build a Web site featuring information about municipal services relevant to immigrants available through applications and notices in English, Spanish, Russian and Chinese.

  • The city plans to create an application that would alert drivers to available parking spaces as they search from behind the wheel. Cosgrave said DoITT was still exploring a technological way to do that, but it would likely be connected to the city's credit card-reading parking meters. Additionally the mayor's parking agenda includes a plan for enabling citizens to pay parking meters from smartphones online. This means a driver needing more time on the meter while at a checkout counter or in a meeting could put more money on the meter without racing back to the street, Cosgrave explained.

Andy Opsahl, features editor for Digital Communities, contributed to this story.


Tod Newcombe, Editor Editor, Public CIO