Reinvent Albany’s Testimony at the Information Revolution Hearing

May 25, 2012

The first broad idea is that the most successful technology initiatives “align” the interests of a government agency and the public. For instance, the best government websites are the ones used by government and the public. Both groups demand continuous improvement from the site. (Yes, websites are the basic information platform for the foreseeable future.) Another example of “alignment” is New York City’s Bus time, bus tracker. Bus riders and bus managers can see where all the buses on a given route are, but managers can access an extra layer of information.

The second broad idea is that harnessing government Information Technology is an essential, and inexpensive, economic development strategy. “Egovernment” practices like online transactions, permitting and information, make it easy to do business here. Putting government data online, and making it easy to find and use encourages innovation.

Reinvent Albany has developed ten recommendations, drawing from practices already in use in other states and cities. Most can be done incrementally and at very low cost. They really call for a change of heart and willingness to try new things.

  1. Put all digital information subject to FOIL online in an easy to find and use format on agency sites. No more locked, unsearchable, pdf files. All “FOILable” digital information that isn’t personal should be available as a downloadable text or spreadsheet/CSV file depending on what it contains. Start with the most FOILed and otherwise information and go from there. Where possible, agencies should use an API layer, computer code that allows immediate streaming data from a website. The MTA has had huge success doing this with bus and subway trip data. There are dozens of state air, soil, water, road, bridge and public health data sets that should be made available this way.
  2. Pass an open data law like New York’s Local Law 11 which passed this spring with the strong support of the technology industry, the city’s information agency and transparency advocates. If the governor is opposed to a legislative mandate, he can issue an executive order to the same effect. Either way, open data software platforms like Ckan and Socrata are inexpensive, and can make huge amounts of government data usable, very quickly.
  3. Put all transactions completely online using web forms. Taxes, permits, fees, registration, charitable filings and annual forms, it should all be completely done online. This will save the state millions in processing costs, increase compliance, reduce errors, improve enforcement and reduce the cost of doing business in New York State. The Department of Tax and Finance is charging extra for paper income tax returns. Great idea. This is a win-win for the public and state government. Clerks that are laboring over mounds of paper can turn to ensuring that state rules and regulations are being followed — which in many areas, including Charitable organization compliance, they aren’t. (Hint — this would be a great hearing for the Investigations Committee.)
  4. Map everything. The State Liquor Authority recently posted an online map of all liquor licenses. A viewer can scroll around and zoom in and get info on every licensee and their violations. This map is a good idea, and the information is of great interest to the public. That map, plus a downloadable database, mobile version and what’s called an API, a tool that allows developers to directly access data, could be built for about $15,000 using open source software. (SLA paid more, but still a good project.) This is also a good an example of “alignment” since local police and SLA enforcement are also using the map.
  5. Put Freedom of Information requests and responses completely online, and use FOIL requests to help determine what state digital information is put online first. The Port Authority is now putting all FOIL responses online, so everyone can see every response. (This idea is marred by the PA making the responses really hard to find and search, but let’s take the good part.)
  6. Create and empower a technology czar to coordinate the state’s technology policy citizen centered initiatives, spread best practices, align public and intra- governmental technology efforts, promote open data efforts, collaborate with other levels of government and seek to fully exploit Information Technology for the public benefit. NY needs a center of gravity for IT thinking and innovation.
  7. Eliminate barriers to tax payer paid for state digital information by eliminating fees for all but the largest information users. State digital information is a form of public wealth that can help foster innovation, and gets more valuable the more people that use it. The MTA was right to give away bus and subway travel data for free so as to encourage software developers to create apps. Likewise, the state should think of free data as an economic development strategy.
  8. Buy open source software and join collaborative efforts with other states, the federal government and cities and towns, especially New York City. The current software purchase and licensing model is unaffordable and obsolete. NYS should be seeking to participate in the creation of civic software, as it is with the IRS’ online charitable filing system. Online, shared, FOIL management software is an obvious place to begin since small towns and counties could use the same system, as could NYC.
  9. Make informed decisions about IT. The state should aggressively gather, analyze and publicize information about state information usage. The state should use website analytics, phone and FOIL requests to create a picture of who is asking for what information. The CIOOFT did a great 2009 survey of state agency ecommerce and social media use. That should be an annual report, and should be expanded to include information about what information the public most frequently requests and FOIL’s. The state makes big strategic decisions about IT organization and contracting money based on scanty internal research.
  10. Use Content Management Systems like Drupal or WordPress for all state websites. Once these sites are set-up, non-technical staff can update pictures, blog posts or other content. This frees up state technologists to work on more pressing problems and ensures more timely and useful content for the public.

Read the full text of our testimony here.