New York City Plans Consolidation, New 311 Services and Apps Competition

New York City CIO Paul Cosgrave outlines tech initiatives.

by / October 19, 2009

Photo: Paul Cosgrave, New York City CIO;commissioner, Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications

On Oct. 1, New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced a range of technology projects -- known as the Connected City Initiative -- that he described as the "latest steps we're taking to employ technology to serve New Yorkers better."

Two weeks later, during the annual Tech Forum in Brooklyn, N.Y., Oct. 15-16, CIO Paul Cosgrave elaborated on the mayor's plans to make New York more accessible, transparent and accountable. Calling the initiatives transformational, Cosgrave outlined how the city is adding iPhone apps and social media capabilities to its celebrated 311 hotline service, while also launching an ambitious plan to consolidate New York's IT infrastructure.

In an interview with Public CIO magazine during the forum, Cosgrave explained that the recent moves focus on economic concerns and the explosive growth in social media.

Reducing Costs

Addressing the severe economic problem is NYCitiServ, the name for Bloomberg's major cost-saving effort by the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) to reduce the number of data centers from 55 down to two. Cosgrave called this project his No. 1 priority.

"The reason we're going to be able to do this much more efficiently is because of virtualization technology," he said. "Already, we're one of the largest VMware installations, with 1,500 virtual servers." NYCitiServ is expected to double or triple the number, according to Cosgrave. In addition, by unifying data centers spread across 42 agencies in nearly every borough, the move will make the city more energy efficient while reducing its carbon output.

The consolidation is expected to reap the city more than $300 million in cost savings, according to Cosgrave.

The challenge Cosgrave faces is convincing agencies that letting go of their own data centers will be a benefit. The solution is to put governance of the data centers into the hands of the users. "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 OMB 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. In addition, the city 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 allows them to 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 any photo and message. The service will soon expand to include other mobile platforms,

such as the BlackBerry smartphone.

Reflecting on the new initiatives involving social media and mobile Web browsers, Cosgrave said it's important that the city's services be accessible in whatever form the public likes to use. "We have to provide services in the way that people want to interact," he said.

To build on Bloomberg's push to make city government more transparent, Cosgrave pointed out that 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 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 that it plans to announce winners in January.

In other IT developments, Cosgrave highlighted:

  • NYC Business Express, an integration project that will streamline and simplify the city's complex and cumbersome business permitting process. Work has just begun on the back-end integration effort.
  • Growth in call volume for the city's 311 service has reached 20 percent annually, while the center's head count 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.
  • The city is working to close the digital divide by targeting corporate and federal funding to purchase PCs and make them available in poor neighborhoods.


Tod Newcombe, Editor Editor, Public CIO