MyGov.nyc Offers New Yorkers a More Transparent City, with a Page for Every Capital Project

Few things impact the lives of New Yorkers more than the city’s “capital projects.” These projects create, maintain, and improve the infrastructure New Yorkers use every day, including: streets, bridges, tunnels, sewers, parks, and so much more. In 2018, the capital budget will be $16.2 billion, approximately 17% the size of the city’s $85.2 billion “expense budget.” What are these projects? How can you find out about them? It’s not easy, but it should be.

The Capital Budgeting process is a complex endeavour. The City maintains a 10 Year Capital Strategy that it updates every two years, and an Annual Capital Budget that is passed every year by the City Council, and a Capital Commitment Plan that is prepared by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) three times a year, which outlines precisely how and when funds are being allocated to agencies on a project by project basis. The Commitment Plan is the most interesting because it’s the closest to the reality of how the city is planning to spend our money. It comes in fourvolumes” of PDFs containing 2,162 pages of table after table of information describing nearly 10,000 different projects. Printing this out results in a stack of paper about one foot tall.

In 2017, why isn’t all this information in an easy-to-use spreadsheet or database? The only reasonable answer is that the city doesn’t want the public to scrutinize this information too deeply.

Fortunately, recent advances in technology have made it much easier to turn PDFs into spreadsheets, and spreadsheets into web applications. And that’s what we’ve done at MyGov.NYC, a website developed by Sarapis that generates a web page for every single capital project in New York City, organized by agency and sortable by project cost. Of course, our ability to display useful information about projects is limited by the information in the capital budget reports – but there’s more than enough information to pique any budget conscious New Yorker’s interest.

Here’s an example: Project HBMA23216 from the DOT is a $312 million construction project for the “Promenade over FDR E81st – 90th St Bin 2232167.” That’s a lot of money for a promenade. By Googling the project’s name, description, and various internal codes (FMS Number, Budgetline and Commitment Codes) we can find a lot more information, like the RFP Notice, proposed architectural plans, and more.

As you browse the budget, sorting the most expensive projects by agency, more questions arise: Why does the City’s 311 system need a “Re-Architecture” that costs over $5.5 million this year? Why does the “Vision Zero Street Reconstuction” [sic] go from $2 million in 2018 to $100 million per year in 2021-2023?

I’m sure good answers exist for these and other, more probing, questions. These projects are, after all, funded by us taxpayers. Making this information more accessible would not only create more opportunities for civic engagement, it would also allow the public, journalists, academics, and others to serve as watchdogs, which might result in millions of dollars of identifiable cost savings.

A quick trip to the New York City Charter reveals that the City is required by law to document its capital projects in a very specific way. Presumably the City follows its Charter, which means this information exists, so shouldn’t the city share more of it? Cost shouldn’t be the reason we don’t have access to this information. If the City spent just 1/100th of 1% of the capital budget on public documentation, they could easily fund an exceptional website with a team of data organizers and content publishers who could keep it up-to-date.

Image of the city’s capital commitment plan vs. our MyGov web app

What would that website look like? It would certainly have a lot more information than what the city currently publishes in its PDFs and on their “Capital Project Dashboard,” which offers very little additional information about the 189 “active projects over $25 millions.”

Imagine if the City maintained a web page for every capital project that contained all related public information: project status, project scope summaries, location on a map, lists of hired contractors and their fees, and an activity log so we, the people, could watch as projects move through their various stages. Now that’s the types of transparency we should expect from our city government!

This piece was originally published on Gotham Gazette on November 2, 2017 and updated in March, 2018 for this website. Image from Wikipedia.

Sim City Showed Us Brilliant Civic Technology Interfaces 30 Years Ago. Lets Building Them.

I was eight years old when I first encountered a computer game called “SimCity.” The general premise of the game was that you were the mayor of a virtual city, and you would use game money to create a place for communities of “Sims” to live. First you set up basic infrastructure like roads, pipes, and zoning and soon after, the “Sims” would arrive to build buildings and pay taxes. As tax revenue flowed in, you would use it to make citywide improvements by establishing public infrastructure like schools, hospitals and parks. The more robust your city’s services, the more Sims would want to live there, and the more taxes revenue would roll in. As the game progressed and your city grew, your decisions as mayor became increasingly complex. However, an easy-to-use interface simplified the tasks and made the whole experience a lot of fun.

That was 1994, and at the time, I assumed that one day, my neighbors and I would all have a hand in understanding and shaping New York City through tools and interfaces like SimCity’s. Apparently I wasn’t the only one.  A recent story in the LA Times entitled claims that “‘Sim City’ inspired a generation of city planners.”

As the internet was getting increasingly popular, my confidence in that idea strengthened. How difficult could it possibly be for the biggest city in the world’s richest country to create “Sim NYCity”?

Apparently it’s quite difficult – not from a technical perspective, but from an organizational development one.

Technically, government agencies have the vast majority of the data Sim City offers to viewers, such as information about geographic information like zoning and elevation; statistical information like crime rates and population, educations rates; and infrastructure monitoring like traffic rates, electricity use, water flow rates, etc. But bringing it all together to give the residents an intelligible, (relatively) real-time dashboard for seeing their city operate clearly just isn’t a priority.

Thanks to the tireless work of open source software developers and open government advocates, we don’t have to wait for our city to organize this information for us. We can begin to do it ourselves.

Here are a few of the features that would make “SIMNYCity” such a valuable contribution to civic life.

Interactive Community Maps

The centerpiece of the system is a map similar to Google Maps or the City’s Planning Lab’s new Community District Profiles website. It would have highly curated data layers that display education, health, police, fire and mass transit indicators (in SimCity parlance: data maps), as well as useful demographic information of residents. Anyone could click a few layers on and off to see which neighborhoods have access to which services, and which don’t. Users could select which facilities they’d like to see added to an area, and then receive a projection of how the addition of such a facility would impact access in the neighborhood. Of course, accurate projections would be difficult to create, but basic estimates wouldn’t be, and more importantly, the existence of such a tool would whet the public’s appetite for more information and involvement in planning processes.

Citizen-Driven Budgets

Offering opinions on the budget could be as easy as pulling a few sliders.

Managing the budget was one of the most important jobs of the mayor in SimCity. The tool for doing this was similar to a mortgage calculator. Income and expenses were presented with about 10 line items each, and you could pull the slider in one direction or another to change funding allocations and see how those allocation impact the entire city’s budget.

We should offer a similar tool to New Yorkers. We can synthesize the NYC budget from thousands of line items into a dozen or so, enabling anyone to quickly see how money flows in and out of NYC’s government. Then we can invite them to create their budget by pulling sliders. As they do, the city’s budget projections change. So, if someone would like to increase the education budget they would toggle education to the right. Then they might adjust income by increasing taxes to balance the budget. Bonds could be included into the mix too by showing a list of public bond offers and requests. This type of tool would allow New Yorkers to create the budgetary mixes they want to see, and they can share it with others. We could also generate statistics about all the different budgets New Yorkers create to develop insights about how the city’s budget could more accurately reflect the values of the city’s residents.

Decision-Making Moments

City advisers could send out messages to New Yorkers and ask for their direct feedback.

When time sensitive decisions were needed in Sim City, a popup would appear with a message from an adviser asking the mayor for a decision. “SimNYCity” could work similar by providing citizens with more opportunities to indicate their preferences on key civic issues. For example, when a controversial zoning change is being proposed, an alert from the Commissioner of City Planning could be sent to SimNYCity users saying something like: “Residents are wondering what you plan to do with the Bedford Armory. Here’s some information about the various interest groups. Do you think the current proposals should move forward or should it be rewritten?” Users could then say how they feel. This type of feedback could provide useful information for city leaders that they could incorporate into their decision-making processes. A similar workflow could be used for legislative and administrative decision-making.

Moving Beyond the Vote

Imagine if all the active and proposed city ordinances were laid out in a simple list.

Our current democratic processes are, unfortunately, failing New York City. Less than 25% of eligible New Yorkers voted in the last election cycle. In this cycle, over 95% of incumbents won their primaries and it appears that over 95% of general election races will be noncompetitive. This means that a very small group of Democratic party insiders are the people determining who will serve in New York City government. That isn’t very democratic, and it’s the main reason so few New Yorkers show up to the polls.

We don’t have to wait for deep reforms to our city’s democratic process before we start experimenting with new and innovative ways to provide participatory democratic experiences to New Yorkers. We can offer citizens methods for engagement right now – and if these methods turn out to be popular, then we can organize the public to pressure existing politicians into incorporating these methods into their decision-making processes.

These are just a few interfaces Sim City has for making cities and their government more legible, and interacting with them more enjoyable. The technical hurdles to implementing similar interfaces for the city are certainly significant, but not impossible to overcome. Planning Labs, a digital service organization within NYC’s City Planning agency is building open source software and open data resources that could power many of the complicated mapping elements. Furthermore, New York City’s Open Data law mandates that much of the information we’d need from the government to build such a system is being published to the city’s official Open Data Portal.

Exploring what that data is and how it can be connected together to build the type of deep data resources needed to power interfaces similar to Sim City’s is the next step – and it’s work we’ve begun to do through our MyGov.NYC project, which connects nearly a dozen (and counting!) city datasets together to create data-driven government agency profiles. Our primary goal with this project is to make this information easier for civicly minded people, especially journalists, to navigate and use for their work. This process also gives us uniquely sharp insights about what data is and isn’t available. By understanding those gaps, we can develop a list of data we’d need to build Sim City style interfaces for New York City.

Expect a report on that in the not too distant future…

Featured image from SIMNYC blog

Cryptocurrency Can Shift the Balance of Power Between Cities, States and Nations

One of the most powerful tools of a modern nation is its central bank’s ability to create money “out of thin air.” Nations can use this new money to purchase their own nation’s debt in the form of treasury bills, bonds and notes, allowing it to spend more than it earns in taxes and other income. If a nation prints too much money, however, it can create inflation, which reduces the value of their currency. In some instances, central banks can lose control of their currency’s inflation rate, destroying the value of the nation’s currency, collapsing its economy and leaving it at the mercy of predatory financial interests. Fear of inflation keeps nation’s from printing infinite amounts of money.

The US dollar is a bit different than other currencies because it isn’t simply the “reserve currency” for the United States, but also functions as the world’s reserve currency. Ever nation in the world uses US dollars because it is the easiest, and sometimes only, currency that can be used  to purchase large quantities of commodities in international markets. The most important of these commodities is oil. Some commentators call this monetary arrangement the “petrodollar system” and view it as the successor to the Brenton Woods system, which still relied on nations to maintain gold reserves. The Petrodollar system was established through a series of arrangements between the US and Saudi Arabia in the 1970s.

Since the 1970s, we’ve seen the development of other transnational monetary systems such as the Euro and the development of giant commercial “money center” banks, which have further consolidated the monopoly on monetary production in the hands of fewer and fewer institutions. If you asked an economist a decade ago about the future of global monetary production, they’d have predicted more consolidation. The Euro in Europe would be complemented by the Amero is North America, and slowly but surely, the world would integrate into a single market with a single currency.

The financial collapse of 2008 helped undermine the vision of a global currency, but it was the invention of Bitcoin and the blockchain technology behind it that has given people a viable alternative to global monetary consolidation. Blockchain is a new type of database that is extremely good at producing “digital cash” and executing financial transactions. It’s open source, so there are no limitations or restrictions on who and how this technology can be used. Currently, blockchains are making it possible for people to create secure, digital money systems for extremely low costs. It’s being used by big banks to speed up their SWIFT international fund transfer systems, it’s being used by countries to create new national digital currency systems, and it’s being used by entrepreneurs and online communities to create their own currency systems outside the purview of the nation-state. It’s only a matter of time, it seems, before sub-national governments and municipalities create their own currency systems and begin to challenge the nation-state’s monopoly on the production of money.

Under normal political conditions, the idea that cities and states would risk disrupting the current monetary order by creating their own currency systems would be outrageous. US city and state governments benefit greatly from the US government’s petrodollar system. Not only does the federal government give cities and states significant amounts of money in the form of grants, they also allow people to deduct income from municipal bonds from their federal taxes. The makes it possible for cities and states to access tremendous amounts of capital at a rate much cheaper than corporations or individuals. These municipal bonds are used to fund everything from a local government’s general operations to specific infrastructure projects. But with the Trump administration and sub-national governments around the US on a collision course over immigration and other policies, it’s possible that federal governments will start trying to squeeze the finances of “sanctuary” cities and states. In fact, Trump declared he’ll do precisely that by threatening to cut off federal funding to cities and states that don’t implement his widely unpopular immigration policies. Eliminating the federal tax deduction on municipal bonds would be an even more aggressive move that he could try to use to coerce cities and states to follow his policies.

In the past, the only institutions that cities and states could look to for financial assistance were the federal governments and large commercial banks. But that is changing. The blockchain makes it possible for sub-national governments to create their own financial systems and begin to insulate themselves from federal monetary policy and budgeting decisions. Cities and states could do many things with their own cryptocurrency networks. They could create cryptographically secured paper monies, credit and debit cards and online transaction systems that enable their residents to more easily engage in local commerce, create international remittance systems allowing residents to transmit money around the world, and create new types of financial contracts that aren’t mediated by the commercial banks or federal entities. These monetary systems could be “backed” by valuable assets owned by cities and states such as real estate, taxes and other revenue streams. The technology to implement these types of systems is new, but its developing rapidly. Financial institutions invested nearly $2 billion in blockchain-based technologies in 2016. And the commercial banks are investing billions of dollars a year to continue to improve these alternative systems.

By developing autonomous, networked, blockchain-based financial systems for themselves, cities and states can create deep and direct financial ties with each other and challenge the US government’s monopoly on the production of money. This challenge, if delivered in a credible way, could threaten the US government’s capacity to pay its debts and seriously impact the federal government’s financial health.

I want to be clear: I’m not advocating for a financial war between US cities and states, and the federal government. Rather, I’m recognizing that blockchain-based technologies could enable sub-national governments to build a new type of power that they currently don’t have: the ability to compete with the nation-state-based monetary systems. This threat could be an extremely powerful tool for cities and states when they negotiate with the Trump administration. If the federal government is going to threaten to undermine the financial health of cities and states, then cities and states should find ways to credibly threaten the federal government right back.

If you’d like to read more about how the blockchain technology fits into a broader history of DIY finance, check out my essay Finance without Force.

Cities Can Prepare for Trump by Establishing Digital Service Organizations and Mobilizing Civic Tech Communities

Within a few weeks of Trump’s victory, mayors of big “sanctuary cities” throughout America, including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles declared that they wouldn’t collaborate with a Trump administration order to deport peaceful, law-abiding resident. Trump is now threatening that he will deny these cities federal funding unless they comply. The amount of money that cities could be denied by the Trump administration isn’t entirely clear, but Mother Jones estimates that Washington DC could potentially lose up to 25% of its budget, New York and San Francisco could lose 10% and Los Angeles could lose 2%.

If cities want to have a leg to stand on during their negotiations with the Trump administration, they must prepare to operate without federal funding. If there is one message US cities need to convey to Trump, it’s that they can turn Trump’s belligerence into the political will they need to make municipal government more  efficient, transparent and participatory than the Federal government; and in the process restructure the relationship between municipalities and nations. Trump and his supporters must realize that the more pressure the Federal government puts on cities, the more cities will unite together, and the faster an emergent, post-nation-state paradigm will emerge. If In short, if Trump doesn’t play his cards right, he could very well become the president that undermines the role of the nation-state in global affairs and kicks off a new version of the “devolution revolution“, but this time based in cities and inspired by progressive values.

Municipal governments will not be able to fend off the federal government if their bureaucracies are inefficient and unpopular with the public. Most municipal bureaucracies were designed in an era of switchboards and memos and need a significant upgrade. Is there really any doubt that new systems designed around smart phones and open source software couldn’t out perform the many-decades-old legacy systems most cities currently use by significant margins? The factor limiting the upgrading of municipal bureaucracies are political, not technological. Changing how government works involves shifting the balance of power within agencies, department and groups. These types of changes require tremendous amounts of buy-in from members of the bureaucracy and the public in general. This buy-in is hard to get, but with the nightmare of Trump using federal funds as leverage to coerce cities to adopt policies their residents abhor, it will become much easier to make the case that municipalities must engage in serious internal reform.

The choice for city residents should be clear: adopt 21st century technologies and organizational forms, or submitting to federal coercion. If current city leaders can’t or won’t execute the reforms needed to wean their cities off federal funds, then new leaders need to be brought in who will. Instead of talking about it — let’s build it. For our cities. And now. As if the lives of our neighbors depends on it. Because it might.

Existing models show us how we can systematically transforming government agencies through the adoption and use of inexpensive open source tools and techniques. One group that performs this type of activity is 18F, a unit within the Federal Government’s General Services Administration. 18F helps federal agencies figure out how to improve their operations using open source technology and iterative development processes. They’ve been extremely successful, to the point where government contractors lodged an official complaint that 18F was hurting their businesses because they were saving the Federal government too much money.  18F’s is small group in a massive federal government so their impact is limited, but their model is spreading. The Pentagon’s Defense Digital Services and the White Houses US Digital Service both model themselves off of 18F. City governments could and should create similar types of Digital Service Organizations (DSOs) as a means of increasing their ability to not only do more with less, but also as a means of challenging the Trump administration’s competence.

One of the innovative features of DSOs is their commitments to clear documentation of business processes and utilization of open source software. This allows them to share the innovations they develop for one agency with other agencies within that government (and ideally with other governments around the world.) This eliminates complex procurement processes, reduces costs and even creates an opportunity for highly skilled developers outside government to contribute to their effort. Since the solutions DSOs create are often open source, they can (and do) set up bounty systems that allow software developers to submit code that solve problems identified by the DSO. Allowing highly skilled urban residents to contribute code to a project that improves a city’s effectiveness if precisely the type of deep contribution city residents should be able to make to defend their cities from federal coercion.

There are existing “civic tech” volunteer groups in cities all around the country filled with people passionate about finding ways to help city governments run faster, better and cheaper. A great example is NYC’s BetaNYC group. These groups present fantastic venues for sourcing and organizing volunteers that can amplify and support the work of DSOs to help make cities more resilient to federal coercion. But technology is just one area. Cities will need to build many more mechanisms that can convert their resident’s anger at Federal policies into surges of local volunteer-ship that increase the capability of city governments and reduce their need for federal aid.

If cities can find more effective ways to mobilize their massive human resources, then the era of Trump will be a catalyst pushing cities to be more efficient, autonomous and globally networked than ever before. This might sound like overkill, or too much work, but we have to be prepared if we want to defend ourselves and our neighbors from destructive federal actions. And if it turns out we overreacted and mistakenly volunteered to improve our cities, so it goes.

What is “Municipalism”?

The definition of “municipalism” is still up for grabs. If you Google the word you’ll be given a snippet from Wikipedia about “libertarian municipalism”,  a compelling but very specific utopian political philosophy of Murray Bookchin. Surely “municipalism” can and should mean something more.

Over the last fifty years, the percentage of people around the globe living in urban areas has increased from 30% to over 50%, but cities have not seen a corresponding increase in political power. Instead, nation-states and transnational institutions that network them have become the centers of power relations. Many people predict this dynamic will change: and it is. Efforts like UN Habitat III created space for cities to represent themselves at the UN for the first time in that organization’s history. The C40 Initiative has brought cities together to fight climate change by making significantly more aggressive emission reduction pledges than nation-states did at the Paris Summit. The Global Parliament of Mayors is provides a venue for municipalities to share knowledge and make collective decisions. You can find more entities in our directory.

Over the last two thousands years, cities have frequently been more politically powerful than the nations and empires in which they’ve been located. Cities, municipalities and regional governments have performed many nation-state like functions such as building trade networks, engaging in foreign relations, waging war, completing massive public infrastructure projects and protecting their residents from state violence.

Municipalism should refer to the idea that cities and regions should have more autonomy from the nation-states in which they’re located, while also being active participants in a global network of peer municipalities that upholds human rights and humanitarian standards.

It should be an idea that incorporates old and new concepts from all over the social, political and economic landscape, including urbanism, bioregionalism, paradiplomacycommunity-based economics,  civic technology, participatory democracy, social ecology and more.

It should help mobilize residents to participate deeply in local problem solving and inspire municipal governments to share solutions with cities around the world. 

Most of all, municipalism should provide a positive alternative to the failure of the nation-state and an affirmation that we can recenter political control at the local level while advancing human rights and humanitarian standards globally.

What does “municipalism” mean to you now? What do you think it should mean in the future? Let us know below.

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