Sunday, May 22

Too hard on the City for their "Roadmap"? Here are some thoughts...

So, the past weekend, I have had a number of people talk to me about my post on the Roadmap and how I was quite disappointed. For the most part, people were in agreement with my sentiments and we similarly disappointed in what was published. But one has to wonder, why did the Roadmap so disappoint me?

I should clarify that I was unhappy with the Industry portion of the Roadmap, not the Roadmap in general. But from my own noodling on the issues, I wanted to clarify some of my thinking.

The NYC Administration could not politically afford to do anything
Very simply, Mayor Bloomberg's Administration is running out the clock. The race for the next Mayor will begin and while the business of governing is a nonstop effort, creating new expenditures is not going to be possible in an environment where the Administration is having to close firehouses and fire teachers. Creating a program that requires ANY expenditure would create a howl of frustration from other parts of the City - which would be politically damaging and cause more headache than is needed. Just look at the hullabaloo caused by Rachel's CDO salary.

The NYCEDC is focused on MANY efforts, not just technology
Unfortunately, while I may be a NY Tech enthusiast, the NYCEDC is not necessarily focused on building a tech industry. The programs they foster have to address a number of constituencies including the real estate/developers market (those large corporations pay lots of taxes in those buildings), the finance industry (maybe not as much in taxes), fashion, legal, accounting, etc. Building a tech industry and providing some support for a growing community is not a major priority. I will say I have heard of a gentleman in the EDC that is focused on these issues (I believe his name is Andrew and is an entrepreneur) looking to help in these efforts. But he is one out of 436 employees as of 2010 and I would guess he has little if no budget to work with.

Chief Digital Officer is a liason, not a budgeted organization
Rachel was given a task to help NYC figure out how to leverage social networking/social media to address the mission of the City - serve the constituents. Without a real budget, Rachel has a job of trying to listen, understand and address the many needs but had little authority to cause any of the numerous organizations to do anything. So Rachel did what she could - gathered a great deal of information, suggested ideas on how to make information from the City available via various social channels and used the content given to her by the other NYC organizations to fulfill her responsibility of creating the Roadmap.

Making a citywide wifi network could be hard - and does not make money easily
Since 2005, when Andrew Rasiej suggested wifi-ing up NYC as one of his planks for the Public Advocate campaign, the City hs been trying to get this initiative to happen. NYCWireless has been working this effort for quite come time and they have been able to accomplish little wins, but the City has had chances to make this happen for some time. And, like the earlier statement - how could the City today spend any money on setting up wireless networks?

I am sad that they City did not think of doing this 1) when it had some form of budget surplus in the 2005-2007 years and 2) did not work with a large company or equipment provider to provide the potential network in various neighborhoods throughout the City. In 2005, when I had my students investigate the idea of wifi-ing up the City, it was an expensive proposition - and a challenging one due to the City's population density and buildings. But, if it had been somewhat more modest and delivered Times Square with real coverage, colleges and other gathering spaces and neighborhoods (e.g. in the outer boroughs), that could have been big wins and gains for the community overall.

As for the impact on the City with wifi around the community, I like to think that by enabling access sooner and faster, tourists would be happier; local communities could benefit from access to information and collaborate with each other better; and people would be more informed than they are via MSM alone. And the cost? From my research, a ten-square block could get 100M down/10M up on the local network for under $100K. That sounds like a sound investment in infrastructure for a Digital City.

So, why do you care, Sanford?

One or two friends wondered why I made such a stink on this issue. The real reason is that, during the Mayor's re-election campaign, I was helping with the Coalition of Office Service Providers - to help get startups spaces within the City and was intrigued to see how the Mayor used the election campaign to push forward some changes in the City for startups. But the majority of the content from the EDC in the Roadmap were about those initiatives that we created or driven from that campaign.

This year, as I have talked with the EDC and other City members, I have shown, dropped off and even spent time discussing these issues I mentioned on my previous post to help in this effort. The fact that they did not engage (aside from a phone call) or try to address these issues with a serious effort (from my reading of the report) was the disappointment.

Charlie and I have spoken about this issue - trying to engage the City and the EDC in a way to help tech startups, and he was often more pessimistic than I was. I still want to believe that government can help its citizenry - one of the reason why I get involved in politics.

Maybe this stink is about asking the EDC to think beyond the next election and plan for a more long-term view. Lets truly build this ecosystem and put NYC on the map in a tech way. Here are a couple of more ideas on how to do so:
  • Offer community space for tech gatherings in building that are owned by the City or with developers in the City. Instead of housing companies, we need common spaces with bandwidth and power for these communities. Years ago, I used to suggest the idea of "mobile incubators" which would enable pop-up workspaces / conference spaces. Look at how New Work City got started. We need places for people to work together and build the communities. We have public parks for playing games, why not public spaces for people to work together?

  • Provide a tax break to real-estate developers to bring high-speed fiber (or other technology) to buildings throughout the City. Specifically, to places with high population density and leverage the fiber that is still in the City streets. Create an incentive program that rewards first movers with a better incentive (like a tax writeoff of double the cost) and then as others get involved, it drops off to 50% of the cost. I am not a government official, but the enablement of digital technology is similar to the building of our electric grid or water/sewer systems.

  • Support/foster monthly gathering in areas other than south of 23rd Street to foster connectivity of mentors and other enthusiasts. Specifically, support and attract these people together through engaging programs to educate and collaborate.

  • Create a "Technology Chamber of Commerce" where providers, companies and individuals can come together to learn who is doing what where. And instead of building from the ground up, you have WeAreNYTech and garysguide and other media channels. Why not work with them and leverage the digital properties that the City holds to drive awareness and visibility?
There are more ideas - and they are available for easy access. Check out the speeches from the before and during the NYTM Organizer election and see what everyone spoke about. It is a crib sheet for what can grow the Industry.

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