Letter From New York City

New York City holds its seventh annual Technology Forum amid budget and baseball setbacks

by / October 26, 2004

Gino Menchini, New York City CIO

On the surface, events did not seem to be going New York City's way as the seventh annual Technology Forum opened on October 21. The city's beloved Yankees had just suffered a stunning defeat to the upstart Boston Red Sox the night before. Adding to the gloom was word that next year's city budget was once again going to be extremely tight.

But New York is no ordinary city and as Alan Cox, Government Technology's vice president of executive events likes to point out, the city's IT community is in a league of its own when it comes to innovation and perseverance. So there was a definite buzz of excitement among the hundreds of IT professionals who jammed the corridors and rooms in the Brooklyn Marriott to talk technology and learn from their peers.

When CIO Gino Menchini read out a proclamation from Mayor Michael Bloomberg declaring October 21 "Technology Day" in New York City, the warm response from the audience was their way of acknowledging they had an elected leader who not only gets technology, he does it as well. Clearly, Bloomberg's unwavering support for IT in city government -- backed by the exuberant Menchini to carry out his policies -- has emboldened New York's IT professionals in a way that is seldom seen in other jurisdictions.

Budget problems? Fugidaboutit!

These are the people who carried out a massive overhaul of siloed call centers in record time and now have deployed the public sector's biggest one-stop citizen service center that has become the envy of many other governments. The call center -- which handled 3 million calls in 2003 and answers questions in 170 languages using live operators who are available 24 hours a day -- continues to change how the city serves its citizens almost on a daily basis. Most recently, the city has begun using business analytic tools to decipher the vast amount of information collected by the 311 system and to accurately measure the performance of certain services and departments. Already, the city is publishing performance reports on its Web site as part of Bloomberg's move towards transparency in city government.

But the 311 system just happens to be the most widely publicized of the city's many IT projects and initiatives. As Menchini likes to say, New York has a "target-rich" environment, as far as IT is concerned. That became apparent during the Excellence in Technology Awards program, when the city recognized more than a dozen individuals and projects for their achievements with technology. Many of the award-winning projects were developed while the city was awash in a fiscal sea of red ink and reeling from slashed budgets. Despite the constraints, a range of departments -- libraries, police, buildings, health, consumer affairs, education -- achieved some astounding benefits using IT.

At the same time, DOITT, the city's Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, raised the bar yet again on GIS as an information infrastructure for government operations and services. New York proved just how useful geospatial data is during and right after 9/11. Today, they now have the Citywide GIS Group, a newly-hired in-house team of geo-experts led by Marsha Kaunitz, director and Colin Reilly, deputy director.

Citywide GIS publicized the recent launching of New York's first intranet portal for GIS, where city agencies can go for data, maps and Web application hosting, to name a few of its services. Future plans call for 24 x 7 support for geospatial applications, improved infrastructure and greater use of Web services.

And while NYC is no different from other local governments that are saddled with legacy systems, a session on open source showed how DOITT's staff is using Linux and other open source software to wring cost savings from aging and expensive systems.

Overlooking baseball and budget problems, New York City once again showed why there's only one city called the Big Apple.