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SXSW: New York City's Data Hacking for Good

By Amy Sample Ward - March 12, 2013

More and more city governments are working to share data and engage citizens in creating information systems and solutions that support engagement, access to resources, and much more. At SXSW Interactive, Rachel Haot, Chief Digital Officer for the City of New York, shared an update about the city’s attempts to open up data and collaborate with developers and the public.

In the panel Hacking Cities for a Better, Sustainable Tomorrow, Haot explained NYC’s approach to “hacking”, saying that instead of fighting against the process or creating an “us versus them” situation with developers, taking a hacker approach allows the city to work collaboratively with citizens. “If we unleash our data resources in the right way, then we can build really cool stuff together,” Haot said. It’s about embracing the agency that the public already has and taking it to a new level.

Bryan Walsh, senior editor for Time Magazine and the panel moderator, asked Haot what the New York City office did in response to Hurricane Sandy. Haot explained that it was a very difficult time yet they “used digital technology in a greater extent than [they] ever had in the past.”

When it came to the application of technology for engagement, NYC has 300 social profiles, with one set of parent accounts for each channel. Normally the various accounts are managed autonomously, but during Sandy they consolidated that management. Haot said, “It was crucial to keep people up to date. Social media was a lifeline for those that could access it via mobiles because Twitter, Facebook, and other apps took very little data to access and they could report that they were okay or get information. We had accelerated approvals process so if a department had a new status update, the message could be verified with legal and any other necessary departments as quickly as possible and then posted.” Twitter worked with the City to support promoted tweets so anyone searching for Sandy on Twitter would see the updates from the Mayor’s Office. “We streamed every press conference online with over a million views.”

Alternatively, on the data side of things, the City has over 11,000 datasets, and one of them is on hurricane evacuation zones. “Coming up to the storm, we reached out and made sure that everyone using that dataset had the newest data. We estimate that we served millions more people through those partners building their own maps than we could have reached alone,” said Haot. It doesn’t mean the City has to be the sole source as long as they can get the data to people who need it and can share it.

Haot also touched on some of the changes the City is making for the future. “In Sandy, we had 900 technologists come to us asking for help but we didn’t have them vetted or know their competencies. Now we can do that ahead of time and get people ready to go in the case of emergency.” The City has established fourteen partnerships with groups like easy, Tumblr, Code for America, and others to ensure that people are prepared to work closely with the City in times of disaster to use and distribute data as well as inform and serve impacted communities.

For more about the digital office from the Mayor’s Office, visit: http://www.nyc.gov/html/digital/html/about/about.shtml

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