NYC Is Notoriously Bad With Tech. Can The Next Mayor Change That?

The pandemic has challenged the technological capacity of local and state governments across the country, but perhaps no more so than in New York City, where many of its nine million residents have been forced to rely on government technology amid an unprecedented rollout of public services.

The latest test came this week, when hundreds of thousands of public school students returned to classrooms. In the lead-up to the momentous day, Mayor Bill de Blasio and other city officials repeatedly assured families that every potential safety concern and logistical challenge had been addressed. But at around 7:30 a.m., families discovered that the crucial health screening which all students are required to fill out before entering school was not working.

The Department of Education website, which has been in use for in-person students since last September, was back up at 8:45 a.m., but the damage was already done. Across the five boroughs, hundreds of thousands of students and their parents stood on longer-than-usual lines as school administrators scrambled to hand out paper health forms. At Brooklyn Technical High School, the line wrapped around the block.

Monday’s website crash was yet another startling example of how the city’s technology can struggle with developing even basic websites. While not a new phenomenon, the shortcomings have become all the more glaring as the coronavirus crisis has increased the interaction New Yorkers have with government technology, and also as more and more people become accustomed to user-friendly applications created by big tech giants like Amazon, Apple and Google.

De Blasio later said he did not know what caused the crash, but speculated the reason for it. “Overload is the obvious answer,” he told reporters during his morning press briefing. “Because you’re talking about a million kids and all those families checking at once.”

Observers, both expert and non-expert alike, groaned at the mayor’s defense, arguing that city officials should have anticipated a spike in traffic.

“Just about everyone would tell you that the way cloud infrastructure and architecture works these days, there’s all sorts of great things you can use to make sure that a fairly simple website, like the health screening website, doesn’t go down,” said Josh Mendelsohn, a managing partner at Hangar, a company based in New York City that builds and launches tech companies that work with government.

Pressed for an explanation on what led to the site’s crash on Monday, the DOE did not provide details but said “steps were taken to prepare for increased health screening traffic.” The agency downplayed the incident by saying the health screening tool was down “briefly” for 45 minutes.

For many, the glitch was a symptom of a larger problem.

“We’re not where we should be,” said Robert Holden, a Queens City Councilmember who chairs the Council’s technology committee. Monday’s DOE health screening site crash, he added, was “par for the course.”

One of the worst tech stumbles occurred in January when city residents looking to book a vaccine appointment had to toggle between two distinct state and city vaccine appointment systems. The city’s process was singled out for requiring multiple time-consuming sign-ups and which proved especially difficult to navigate for the elderly, the very population that most urgently needed the shots.

The chaos led to Huge Ma, a 31-year-old software engineer for Airbnb, creating a much-heralded website called TurboVax that compiled all the available appointments and then published the information on Twitter.

“In an ideal world, we don’t rely on volunteers to do that,” Ma said.

Like others, he supported the mayor’s guess that the tech snafu was caused by the DOE’s server becoming overloaded. He also seconded the notion that such problems are easily solved nowadays.

While public tech stumbles like these garner a lot of attention, an even more troubling tech vulnerability surfaced this summer after a single hacker broke into the Law Department’s computer network, which contains confidential police evidence, medical data and city personnel files. According to the New York Times, the agency had failed to employ multifactor authentication, a common safeguard used by many companies to secure information.

There are various reasons why government tech trails that of the private sector, namely bureaucracy, the need for legislative approval, and a budget procurement process that fails to keep up with the speed of innovation.

Holden credited the de Blasio administration with making some strides under Jessica Tisch, the commissioner of the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, an agency which has an annual budget of more than $700 million. During the pandemic, Tisch was called in to overhaul the city’s original vaccine appointment system developed by the Department of Health along with a list of other crisis-related tasks. She is currently overseeing the city’s buildout of 5G coverage, a fifth-generation wireless network that is expected to allow cell phone users to connect to stronger and faster service.

A spokesman for Tisch did not comply with a request for an interview, and instead referred questions to the mayor’s office and the Department of Education.

Laura Feyer, a spokesperson for the mayor, issued a statement defending the administration’s record: “From building new systems from scratch that connect New Yorkers to vaccines and testing to adapting city infrastructure to remote work to strengthening 311, this Administration has consistently gone above and beyond to meet our most pressing challenges head on. We look forward to continuing to modernizing our IT infrastructure and expand broadband and 5G to more New Yorkers to build a just recovery for all New Yorkers.”

But experts say that the city is still only scratching the surface when it comes to deploying technology. Even widely praised websites like 311, launched in 2003 under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, have failed to evolve by incorporating new tools like GPS tracking.

“It was best in class then but it hasn’t had anything since,” said Mendelsohn, of Hangar. “That’s really shocking. Why can’t I enter a 311 based on my location without first having to worry about what the closest intersection is?”

Holden is already looking beyond de Blasio and the new mayor who will take office in January. “Whoever is the next mayor has to understand that tech can make life a lot easier in New York City for everyone,” he said.

That person is most likely to be Democratic mayoral nominee Eric Adams. A former police officer and computer science major credited with launching CompStat, the data-based policing tool, Adams has often talked about the need for the city to leverage technology. During the primary, he proposed a plan to create MyCity, a single digital platform that would enable New Yorkers to access all city services, from their children’s public school grades to food benefits and other city programs—a kind of one-stop shopping similar to a bill introduced in June by Holden.

Speaking at a Javits Center conference of mostly business executives on Monday, the heavily favored mayoral candidate expanded on his digital plan by offering to have the city create a single job application for unemployed New Yorkers. “Pledge to be part of this unprecedented effort to grow this city and get New Yorkers back to work,” he said.

But Adams has not explained the steps he would take to bring about these online services, whether he would overhaul the city’s IT department, contract an outside firm, or appoint a tech czar.

Reached for comment, Evan Thies, a campaign spokesman, said the plans were currently being put together.

Of the other candidates that ran for mayor during the primary, Art Chang, a tech entrepreneur and former city employee, drew up the most detailed technology plan, which included creating a new Office of Government Transformation to spearhead the development of customer-centered technology and passing a Digital Bill of Rights that establishes protections and terms of service for all city website users.

In a phone interview on Tuesday, he argued that City Hall often misses the bigger and more powerful point of technology and rattled off a list of examples.

“Do we want more responsive services? Do we want a more reliable health system? Do we want to be able to speed up the payment of relief and benefits to underserved people? Do we want to operate with more equity? Do we want to know what crime looks like?” he said. “Well, these things all are based on technology.”

For Chang, who said he was “disgusted” by the DOE’s website collapse, there is more at stake with the city’s repeated tech failings than consumer dissatisfaction.

“Unless we solve this problem, we are implicitly eroding people’s confidence in democracy,” he said. “Because if government services don’t work, then how can we trust our government?”

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