Thursday, May 19, 2011
The World’s City is Becoming the Widest Net
Have you ever been stuck in the rain, in a rush, wet, miserable, and not sure what the quickest way to get to your destination is? Well, there's an app for that! For the past few years Mayor Michael Bloomberg has joined Twitter, hired the city's first Chief Digital Officer, and has made a push for New York City to become a major player in the online development community.
A conglomerate of businesses in the city called NYC Seed, has worked with the New York's Economic Development Corporation to attract developers to the city. In a competition called SeedStart 2011, entrepreneurs competed to live in New York for a summer, plus a prize of $20,000 to work on their proposed project. Owen Davis, Managing Director of NYC Seed, told me they received hundreds of applications. When I asked him if New York could compete with the major companies in Silicon Valley, he said that it is a "silly" comparison and "New York has many substantial industries in it already "giving it an edge to attract start ups to work within the fashion, media, and advertizing industries. According to Davis, many developers are already doing so: "There's a lot of startups coming to New York and it's increasing so you have a good supporting system that is being built and will continue to be built."
Many popular online features have already been created in the city such as Tweetdeck which was recently bought by Twitter for $50 billion. A lot of these start ups are located in the flatiron district where you can find large, open, spaces for $26 dollars per square foot. Tech companies are attracted to these types of offices because much of the work they do is collaborative and these areas make everyone in the office more accessible.
Under the title Government 2.0, a number of corporations and other entities have been trying to figure out ways office holders and public agencies can release information so it can be used to benefit the people they represent. Mayor Bloomberg has worked within this realm and initiated the BigApps competition. Over 350 data sets were released by city agencies for programmers to create smartphone applications. The prize was a dinner with the Mayor and $40 thousand dollars. The best part of the competition is that is has already solved the rainy day problem. In its second year, the top prize went to a iphone app called Roadify, which tells people the latest subway, bus, and driving conditions in real time.
There are other applications the city has put out, one of which is called Don't Eat At. Using information from the city's Department of Health's grading system, you can check into a restaurant via Foursquare (also created in New York) and get an instant text message telling you whether the chef washes his hands before cooking. The MTA has also created an application where people can see where there are delays on the subway and bus routes, and in the future will tell people the exact time when a subway or bus will arrive.
As social media is slowly becoming a part of our everyday lives, it is important for office holders to enter this realm as a way to interact with their constituents and govern in a way where they are accessible. New York is already home to the largest amount of Twitter accounts with over 26 million people, making it only natural for the City's mayor to get in on the game. "I think social media overall, especially Twitter, gives politicians a new and exciting way to connect to constituents in ways they weren't able to do even a few years ago. And it has really changed the dynamic of how politicians are able to respond to the citizens." Richard Robbins, the Marketing Director for Media Innovation at AT&T explained. But there is no filter for the internet, and being caught in a gaff online can be much worse than being committing one caught on TV. To conquer this problem, Robbins said politicians should think about social media as "a campaign event or a cocktail party where it's an opportunity to go and meet with people. And the idea whether they're running for office or in office, interacting with constituents, helping constituents bring their concerns, responding to them is all politics."
Since creating his account, Bloomberg has held online town halls using the #askmike hashtag. While there were some serious questions about housing, crime, and other city matters, the Mayor was also asked to explain how magnets work. As an engineer he knew the answer, but probably did not know the question was actually referring to a song by the hip hop group Insane Clown Posse. Making yourself more accessible to constituents is of course important, but obviously some can pull it off better than others. As Microsoft's Director of Innovative Social Engagement, Dr. Mark Drapeau emailed me "if the goal is to make government and its billionaire mayor seem more human and down-to-earth through Twitter, than Insane Clown Posse could be an appropriate discussion topic, even if the mayor doesn't completely appreciate who they are. Some of his citizens do, and he's doing his best to relate."
When I told him about the BigApp competition Drapeau said "App contest are not strictly necessary, and many of them end up on the proverbial shelf not getting much use. But they also motivate the developer community into public service, show citizens and govies the art of the possible, and occasionally deliver a hit." It can also be a good way to promote the start ups and build the community that will further drive New York's economic engine into the future.
Robbins explained to me that all these efforts help grow the industry "there's more capitol at the early stage, the city is behind supporting entrepreneurs, there's very good investors who are experienced who are trying to deploy capitol. And all those things matter in terms of building a ecosystem, it's not one beast that does it."
But flip phones are going the way of the dinosaur and young people are some of the most computer literate people in the country. Having grown up with this technology, using new devices is more natural to them than their parents. But looking further, Facebook is not going to be all fun anymore. Not only do politicians need to go where their constituents are, but governments will have to upgrade their services to keep up with the increasing demand as this new technology becomes more prominent.