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How Crowdsourcing, Ride-Hailing Apps Are Reshaping NYC

New York City Council Member Ben Kallos continues to sponsor legislation that solves local problems with high-tech answers.

Since taking office on Jan. 1, 2014, New York City Council Member Ben Kallos has made it a priority to introduce legislation that uses technology to overcome issues in the Big Apple.

From requiring New York City laws to be easily accessible online, to improving the transparency of government operations, Kallos -- who represents NYC's Upper East Side and Roosevelt Island -- has leveraged his background as a software developer to illustrate the value of tech use in the public sector.

Government Technology spoke to Kallos about the strides he’s made during his first year in office, and how technology will continue to play a vital part of his legislative agenda in 2015 and beyond.

The following has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Government Technology: You’ve been an advocate for using crowdsourcing to help identify, draft and edit legislation. What are some of the more interesting bills that have developed out of that?
Ben Kallos: Experimenting with posting my legislation and proposals online for more New Yorkers to comment on and see has been an invaluable experience. Between Github, Madison, my own website and platforms like DemocracyOs, I have worked to engage more New Yorkers in the legislative process. It has been exciting to see what edits residents make to the bills or what they have to contribute.

People like to be heard and deserve to be heard by their elected officials, so one of the main goals here is to empower people to be part of the process. Every second Tuesday at 6 p.m., I host a policy night for residents to get involved in issues of importance to them. Through those partnerships, I have launched an initiative to expand broadband access for public housing residents; helped move forward increasing guidance counselors in schools; and have championed a host of issues – just by hearing from residents on the issues that they care about.
GT: What are two main issues New York City has that can be addressed using technology, and why are they so important to tackle?
BK: Participation is at an all-time low in New York City, and few New Yorkers even know about the essential democratic tools they have at their disposal. Technology can help. So much of the world is just a click or a swipe away, and government can and must be, too. I have introduced legislation to allow residents to register to vote online, and I passed legislation to help residents find the law and crucial public information online. To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, we get the democracy we deserve – so it is essential that we engage to get a better democracy.
The digital divide is another unacceptable gap that entrenches inequality. Access to the world’s library of knowledge must be equal, and that includes broadband that ensures individuals have the access they need. To communicate with loved ones, find jobs and more, residents need high-speed Internet. I have led New York City coalitions to advocate for net neutrality to protect equal Internet access and have fought to expand broadband access in public housing.
GT: What’s the status on the legislation you introduced last year to create a free, universal, e-hail app? If it’s still on the table, what are some of the points being debated and why?

BK: The free, universal e-hail bill is also in the transportation committee. The TLC [Taxi & Limousine Commission] has integrated some aspects of the bill into its new e-hail rules, such as centralizing data in the cabs’ on-board computer systems. I was proud to testify at the hearing for the new rules to advocate for the e-hail legislation. While we are waiting for the bill to move forward, we have seen increased dominance of e-hail apps over yellow and green cabs, leaving consumers with fewer options.

GT: You introduced legislation earlier this year that would give NYC residents the ability to find out where their car had been moved to online, if it was towed because of temporary parking restrictions, such as a movie being filmed. Where does that measure stand now?
BK: The towing and temporary parking legislation has been an assigned to the Transportation Committee, where I hope it will receive a timely hearing. Readers can help by contacting their council members or the committee chair if they support the bill.
GT: You’re co-chair of the Free Law Founders, a nationwide partnership of local elected officials and others dedicated to upgrading online access to America’s laws and legislation. Tell us a little bit about the work that group does and why it’s important to both you personally, and government as a whole.
BK: The Free Law Founders is a group of elected officials, civic technologists and advocates who work together to advance open government in our own municipalities and nationally. Co-chaired by San Francisco Supervisor Mark Farrell and I, our group has worked together to advocate for open APIs in legislative websites in Chicago, San Francisco and New York City.

New York City recently announced that we are moving ahead with the open API. We also support one another in open government and technology legislation and initiatives in our local legislatures. We are working on creating a one-stop shop democracy platform that legislatures everywhere could use.
The Free Law Founders represents the future of open government. Cities are at the forefront of helping government catch up with the progress that has already been made. We as an urban network can test tools to open up our legislatures, engage with people directly and provide better services – and then share that information with one another.
GT: Open forum – what’s next for you, in regard to technology-related legislation or issues you want to work on?
BK: The City Record online bill will put 50 years’ worth of the City Record – the most important newspaper you’ve never read – online for all to see. Through putting the City Record online, residents will have easier access to information on public meetings, contracts and more. This is a critical missing piece in ensuring residents knows the decisions that government makes and are able to respond to them.
An RFP has been issued for my law online bill sponsored with Council Member Brad Lander and I encourage anyone who wishes to apply should check the solicitation to learn more. My Open FOIL [Freedom of Information Law] bill to make the FOIL process more transparent and improve ease of access to information was heard, and I am working on its implementation prior to codification. Technology continues to help in the advocacy for a greener, safer, fairer and better city, and I look forward to bringing more New Yorkers into the process.

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines from 2011 to mid-2015.