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NYC Navigates COVID-19 While Working Toward Long-term Goals

Jessica Tisch, commissioner of the New York City Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, explains how she pivoted to address the pandemic while maintaining and modernizing the massive city’s systems.

by / September 2020

If New York City were a state, it would be the 12th largest in the nation by population. So when the city deploys tech solutions, it’s on a massive scale. Jessica Tisch took over city IT last December, following six years of IT leadership at NYPD, so she has ample experience with large-scale projects. Her ambitions are grand: 5G across the city, next-generation 911 and “wholesale modernization” of IT infrastructure. We caught up with Tisch in July, four months into the COVID-19 pandemic.

1. What role does technology play in New York City’s response to COVID-19?

I think about this in threemain workstreams: The first was positioning a large portion of the city’s 300,000-plus workforce to work remotely. That included purchasing and distributing tens of thousands of laptops; building out the city’s remote access platforms; WebEx accounts to allow for collaboration and virtual meetings; multi-factor authentication …. Everything that is required for remote work.  

The second was designing and delivering new services or reimagining the way that the city delivers traditional services to the public in areas ranging from public safety to human services to economic development. We worked with the Department of Education to distribute 300,000 iPads to support remote learning for kids in NYC public schools in six weeks. Another great example is our Get Food program. We built an application that allowed members of the public to sign up and say, “Hey, I need food and meals delivered to my home.” We built a portal for taxi drivers to pick up those meals and deliver them to residents’ doors. At its height, we were delivering 1 million meals a day. That platform was built and set up over a weekend. Another good example is our contact tracing system, which was built out over the course of a month. We have several thousand contact tracers, and we built out both the case management and the communication platform that they use.

The third big workstream has been with our 311 system. With COVID-19, 311 has really become a lifeline for people. They call to order meals as part of the Get Food program. They call if they need to be connected to a doctor if they don’t have a primary care physician. Small businesses call 311 to find out how to become eligible or apply for small business loans. We built out new service request types, but we also put a huge effort into the operation of 311 to minimize wait times. We hired hundreds of additional call takers, and we built out a whole bunch of new call centers to accommodate them. We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to make 311 work best for New Yorkers. 

2. Have perceptions of digital government changed in recent months?

The major sea change that I see is around people’s perceptions of the role that technology plays in government. As agencies reimagine the way that they provide services and the types of services they are providing, tech in general has pivoted from being thought of as a support function to absolutely central and fundamental to most of what the city does. To put it another way, people take my calls, typically on the first ring now. 

3. Government has a reputation for moving slowly and deliberately. Should it be able to move more quickly?

Government has to be able to build things in a nimble and quick way, but balance that with building things in a thoughtful way, so the cybersecurity protection is built in, data privacy is built in. I do think that we did more in three or four months than we ever imagined possible. We were working around the clock though. We were on conference calls from 7 a.m. until 1 a.m. every day. No one here on my executive team took a day off in three months.  

When you have a capable and committed tech agency working with capable and committed business owners, you can achieve a lot. But the pace of what went on in those three months is not sustainable. That’s not to say that we can’t or won’t continue to deliver service to the public in an expeditious way, but what went on during those months was not normal. These were extraordinary efforts.

4. Have you been able to move any pre-pandemic projects forward?

Despite all of this, the general work of our agency didn’t stop. For example, on June 2, we launched the long-planned text-to-911 system. We made a commitment to New Yorkers that this service would be available in June, and there was no way we were going to allow this pandemic to stand in the way of that.  

My priorities really haven’t changed, which I think validates the clear priorities I set when I started this job. The overarching priority is to modernize the city’s IT, and in so doing to put the city in a position to leverage tech as a key enabler of agencies’ efforts to provide services to the public. If anything, this pandemic has only highlighted the importance of these priorities.

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Noelle Knell Editor

Government Technology editor Noelle Knell has more than 15 years of writing and editing experience, covering public projects, transportation, business and technology. A California native, she has worked in both state and local government, and is a graduate of the University of California, Davis, with majors in political science and American history. She can be reached via email and on Twitter.

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