New York City Shouldn’t Regulate Ride-Hailing Apps – It Should Compete With Them

This article was originally published on Gotham Gazette on November 30, 2018

Smartphones are transforming transit in cities all over the world, and city governments are struggling to figure out how to best manage the change. If the world was looking to New York City’s recently enacted legislation affecting for-hire vehicle companies, then there will be disappointment given that, once again, the city’s political establishment decided to impose an outdated regulatory regime on innovative firms, making life harder for thousands of new taxi drivers while raising the price of rides for millions of New Yorkers and visitors to the city. The law, enacted this summer, caps the number of e-hail licenses in the city for a year and also enables the city to impose regulations on the type of compensation structures offered to drivers.

Who benefits? Politicians argue that it’s existing drivers who received their taxi registration before the one-year moratorium on new licenses was implemented, but if you think they’re the primary beneficiary then there’s a bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to sell you.

In reality, politicians got behind this legislation because they want to send a message to Silicon Valley, the startup community and their financiers: If you want access to the 8-plus million person New York City market, you’ll have to go through the local political class first, and that will cost you: in form of taxes, campaign contributions, lobbyists, and more.

True to form, the left and right have staked out their normal positions on this issue. For the left, it’s all about protecting the wages and rights of the less-than-10,000 existing drivers, even if that means higher costs for all New Yorkers and more obstacles for people who want to earn money by driving a car. For the right, it’s about protecting businesses and drivers from regulatory controls that will raise prices for consumers, even if that means facilitating the big business takeover of an industry that has been a source of wealth for independent individuals and small businesses in New York City for a century.

Like many issues involving new technology, we need to look beyond the left-wing or right-wing way to manage these technologies, and instead look to the “open source way.”

What do we want? Safe, convenient rides, with low prices for riders, high income for drivers, positive impacts on traffic, and data protection for everyone involved.

The best way to achieve these ends isn’t complex licensure regimes, quotas on new taxis, or putting more surveillance technologies in our cars or on our streets. Instead, New York City should do for its local cab industry the same thing successful industries do for themselves: standardize how information is formatted and exchanged between systems. This makes it possible for information from one app, like Uber, to be read, understood and interacted with by another app, like Lyft or Google Maps.

Making ride-hailing data more standardized and interoperable will have a number of benefits.

First, it aggregates supply and demand, which increases competition in the taxi market leading to lower prices for riders and more business for drivers.

Second, it gives riders and drivers more options, allowing them to use an app with the mission of benefiting New Yorkers instead of benefiting investors in giant tech corporations.

Third, it mitigates a threat many people fear: that Uber, Lyft, and other venture-backed ride-sharing apps are subsidizing their own cab rides to undermine the legacy taxi industry, and then once the legacy industry is dead, they’ll jack up prices. That strategy won’t work if New York City is committed to maintaining a system of its own.

The idea of establishing a “ride sharing” (or “e-hail”) standard isn’t new. It has been discussed and proposed by a number of people in New York City’s tech community for years, including Ben Kallos, a tech-aware City Council member who proposed it in a 2014 bill, and by Chris Whong, now the lead developer of NYC Planning Labs, who proposed it in a 2013 blog post.

Critics of this approach have claimed that the city doesn’t have the capacity to develop its own e-hailing systems, but that simply isn’t true. Generic apps similar to Lyft and Uber exist in hundreds of markets around the world. Even local cab companies in New York City have developed their own apps.

Creating an e-hailing system for New York City would likely involve a three-step process: (a) develop a “ride sharing data standards” body that would bring riders, drivers, city agencies, and app developers together to create specifications for how all taxi-hailing information should be formatted and exchanged; (b) develop and operate a basic, open source e-hail smartphone application that would use these data standards to, like any one of the dozens of ride-hailing apps available around the world, allow New Yorkers to request rides and drivers to fulfill those requests; and (c) create a city-administered server that not only processes information from the current city taxi app but also allows other ride-sharing apps to exchange their information with the server.

This approach would give Uber, Lyft, and other popular apps a choice: they can plug in to the city’s e-hail exchange server and share their rider and driver information with other apps – or go it alone and face the consequences of having less access to rider and driver information than their competitors.

This approach leverages the city’s considerable influence to produce a number of benefits:

By following established best practices from government digital service organizations and open source communities, this system could be produced quickly and inexpensively. And by open-sourcing an app and inviting other cities to use and modify the New York City code, we could join a small but growing community of cities around the world developing and sharing open source software (such as Madrid’s Consul project) that enables them to provide government services faster, better, cheaper, and in a more ethical manner.

The original meaning of “regulation” wasn’t the levying of taxes and fees to penalize innovation — it was to “make regular” through the implementation of transparent business practices and the adoption of standard operating procedures. That is precisely what New York City should be doing, and it can do so by modelling best practice behavior that challenges Silicon Valley (and its New York-based counterparts) to produce better products, for lower prices, in more responsible ways, with more respect for the rights of their users.

Any municipality can throw rocks at Silicon Valley by imposing taxes and creating obstacles to market entry, but few have the capacity and scale to challenge Silicon Valley by creating innovative products. New York City has that ability. Let’s use it.

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Devin Balkind is a technologist and nonprofit executive who works on civic technology projects in New York City. On Twitter @DevinBalkind.

Photo: Ed Reed/Mayor’s Office

For Government, It’s DSO or Die

This piece was originally published on Gotham Gazette on March 28, 2018

Private sector innovations in information technologies are transforming virtually every industry, and the rate of change seems to be accelerating. A decade ago, Facebook was a website used almost exclusively by college students to keep in touch with each other; today it’s one of the world’s largest media distributors with the capability of swaying elections simply by tweaking its algorithms; and in ten years it’ll likely be directing a self-driving car to drop you off at your friend’s house.

The mindblowing rate of innovation taking place in the private sector is a stark contrast to the glacial pace of innovation in government bureaucracies. Indeed, to many people in the private and public sectors, government agencies appear, at best, frozen in time, and at worst, actually deteriorating before our very eyes. New York City’s beloved subway system is a case in point.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Government agencies can leverage new tools, techniques and technologies to improve their effectiveness and even delight their users, but doing so requires more than simply signing a fat contract with a vendor of high-tech wares. It requires government adopting the values of the “open source way”: open exchange, participation, rapid prototyping, meritocracy, and community building.

Doing so will change government agencies in significant ways: new roles, new skills, new trainings, new people, and new organizational structures.

It’s easy to see why wholesale reform of government agencies isn’t happening: people don’t want to lose their jobs. But piecemeal reform is taking place within government, and patterns are emerging that show how small teams within government that deliver “digital services” to other government units and agencies – things like websites, mapping systems, workflow management solutions and other high-tech products and services – are driving change.

The major factor that distinguishes these newly emergent “digital services organizations” (DSOs) from other technology groups within government is that their main job isn’t procuring software from large software companies, but instead to leverage open source software, peer to peer collaboration methodologies, and agile development approaches to build their own products.

The origins of the “digital service” concept can be traced back to 2010 when the government of the United Kingdom began a website redesign project that turned into something much more: a rethinking of the very nature of government. Mike Bracken, co-founder of the U.K.’s Government Digital Services (GDS), articulated “government as a platform” in his 2014 PDF talk. GDS has gone on to become a vocal advocate of the open source way in government and is responsible for saving the UK Government over £1 billion a year since its inception in 2013.

The United States federal government got serious about starting a GDS-style entity in 2013 when the Obama administration realized that its hallmark legislative achievement, the Affordable Care Act, could be jeopardized by its inability to successfully launch the HealthCare.gov website by the time the legislation came into effect.

Once it became clear that the project was massively mismanaged, the administration assembled a crack team of technologists from inside and outside government to get the website up and stable. To achieve this goal, the team used many open source and agile development methodologies popular in startup culture. Ultimately they got the site launched, and many of the people involved went on to create and lead high-tech units in the government such as the U.S. Digital Service in the White House, and “18F” within the General Services Administration.

18F “collaborates with other agencies to fix technical problems, build products, and improve how government serves the public through technology.” Its process relies on open source and startup-centric principles of “human centered design, agile methods and open technology.”

This approach is very different than the “monolithic procurement” approach that usually happens within government where “large, complex, multi-year contracts” are drawn up between government agencies and large corporations. “According to the Standish Report from 2003-2012, 94 percent of government software projects over $10 million are either over budget, over time, or just don’t work,” via the 18F website.

Instead of monolithic procurement, 18F and other DSO advocate for in-house open source development and modular procurement, which is “a strategy that breaks up large, complex procurements into multiple, tightly-scoped projects to implement technology systems in successive, interoperable increments.” By pairing this with open source software development and meticulous documentation, 18F can share the innovations they develop for one agency with others, reducing costs for everyone involved and allowing anyone in the world to use and contribute code to their projects.

This approach has been highly successful. In less than four years, 18F has grown to nearly 200 staff and completed hundreds of projects for over 25 federal agencies that range from building public websites (like FEC.gov) to backend infrastructure (like Cloud.gov) and a myriad of products that help other government workers build fastermore accessible, and more secure technology products. They’ve been successful to the point where for-profit software industry groups lodged an official complaint that 18F was hurting their businesses because they were saving the federal government too much money.

The significance of 18F’s accomplishments, along with the clarity of their message about how to reform government, has gone almost entirely unnoticed by nearly everyone, except for a small but very online group of people who self-identify as “civic technologists.” This community consists mostly of people who work as technologists for private enterprise by day, and try to use their technical skills to more broadly help people by night. Rarely do these people actually work within government, and if they do, it’s rarer still for them to have the freedom and support within government to perform the type of work that 18F does.

While there are a number of federal entities that have adopted the DSO model such as Defense Digital Service, which applies 18F-style approaches across the Department of Defense, at the municipal level there are very few: San Francisco has a small digital services team, and the teams managing websites in Boston and Philadelphia have some DSO characteristics, but New York City Department of City Planning’s Planning Labs follows the 18F model most closely.

Planning Labs is a nine-month-old, three-person unit within DCP that isn’t shy about borrowing from 18F’s playbook. Its site is built with 18F code, its published principles are nearly identical, and its members’ outspoken support for open source as the path forward for government is just as loud.

In its short existence, its already launched a half-dozen products, each of which uses open source approaches to deliver a standardized product. Looking through its portfolio of products – from its zoning toolfacilities directory, tax lot viewer, and statistical mapping tool – it becomes clear that Labs isn’t simply building products, but instead organizing the city’s information in an open, standardized, and future-friendly way that will benefit New Yorkers for generations. It’s not hard to imagine these various systems being weaved together along with other open source solutions such as David Moore’s City Council tracking system Councilmatic to create a comprehensive city information system like SimCity, but real, and in real-time.

For Chris Whong, Planning Lab’s founder, NYC Planning Labs “is responding to the need to create more functional and accessible tools for planners, practitioners, and the general public to use and analyze data. With a smaller team, human-centered design, agile processes, and open source software, we are delivering tech products better, faster, and cheaper in-house.”

Whether one thinks government is good or bad, or somewhere in between, almost everyone agrees that it should work effectively, operate transparently, and if it’s going to provide services to the public, they should be of decent quality and at a reasonable costs. The capacity for government to deliver services, and the public’s desire to pay taxes to fund government agencies to provide them, is heavily dependent on the effectiveness of government agencies and the civil servants that work within them.

In an age of rapid private sector innovation, those agencies and civil servants will need to be able to leverage technology effectively if they want to keep up with their private sector counterparts. If they don’t, the public will want to privatize these services. It’s that simple.

The “do or die” nature of this moment can’t be overstressed enough. If DSOs like 18F and Planning Labs aren’t given the resources and flexibility they need, their members will become dejected and find happier homes in a private sector that values their talents.

Anyone who is passionate about good government, anyone who thinks the public sector is important and worth preserving, should be studying and supporting DSOs and the principles that they follow. If they aren’t the future of government, it’s possible nothing is. Such is the sentiment of Matt Brackin, the co-founder of the U.K.’s GSA, who recently tweeted: “I hoped the internet era would revitalise our state. It’s just exposed its bankruptcy.”

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Devin Balkind is a technologist and nonprofit executive who works on civic technology projects in New York City through Sarapis Foundation and on humanitarian projects around the world through Sahana Software Foundation. He was a candidate for New York City Public Advocate in 2017. On Twitter @DevinBalkind.

Photo: NYC City Planning’s Planning Labs

Expanding Consul presented at MediaLab Prado, Madrid, Spain on November 15th, 2018

COLLECTIVE INTELLIGENCE FOR DEMOCRACY 2018 was a program of the MediaLab Prado in Madrid, Spain, funded by the Madrid City Government.

I was lucky enough to be invited to participate in the two week program where I worked with a team to improve the Consul Participatory Democracy software platform.

It was an extremely significant experience for me, as I felt I was living briefly in a future where municipal government had genuinely committed to making their operations as participatory and democratic as possible.

Here’s the presentation my team and I gave at the end of the program.

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OpEd: Disaster Preparedness Requires a 211 System; New York City Still Doesn’t Have One

This piece was originally published on Gotham Gazette on October 3, 2017

Over the last few weeks, New Yorkers have watched with great anxiety as Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, among many other places, were pummeled by massive hurricanes. Whenever we see storm destruction, memories of Sandy re-enter our consciousness; as does the question: Is New York City significantly better prepared for the next big one? My answer is “No.”

As a technology professional in disaster management, I’m constantly on the lookout for better ways to use software tools and information management practices to improve a city’s resilience. With new technologies coming out all the time, there are many pathways for improvement, and selecting the right place to focus preparedness efforts is never easy. In New York City’s case, however, it’s pretty simple: one of the most impactful things we could do, and certainly the lowest hanging fruit, is to build a canonical directory of all the health, human, and social services available in New York City so people know where to go to get the services they need before, during, and after a disaster.

The directory system I’m proposing is often called a “211 system.” In almost every major U.S. city and in over 90% of counties, if you call 2-1-1, you’re connected to a directory assistance representative that can refer you to the health and social services that meet your needs. If you call 2-1-1 in New York City, you’re connected to our 311 system — which is good at providing basic information about government services, but isn’t able to refer you to the vast majority of nonprofit services available in the city.

211 systems are essential infrastructure for any coherent social safety net. Indeed, without them we don’t even know what the social safety net looks like! These systems enable people to find a huge array of help for a broad collection of things, including: housing, employment, food, children’s services, domestic violence counseling, and so much more.

Without a 211, social workers are left to solve this information problem on their own. Many create their own lists on paper and in Word documents that they share with each other. Some organizations maintain resource directories for certain kinds of people or neighborhoods. Well-funded institutions even pay for-profit companies to find this information and provide it to their clientele.

Our lack of a real 211 system is a hindrance to every nonprofit and government service provider, and an embarrassment to every politician who claims to care about New Yorkers in need. If they really cared, wouldn’t they make sure it was possible for every New Yorker to actually find the services they’re entitled to receive?

Prosperous and powerful New Yorkers tend to be unaware that the city lacks a 211 system because they rarely, if ever, use nonprofit social services. But when a disaster like Sandy happens, many people who never before needed access to nonprofit services suddenly do. Because of this dynamic, 211 systems serve extremely important functions during disaster recovery by providing a canonical sources of information about services for survivors. They also tend to become the centers that convene and facilitate collaboration between government agencies, nonprofits and community groups.

211 systems in New Jersey and Long Island played this role after Sandy, and by most accounts their recoveries went much smoother than New York City’s. In New York City, no local entity took responsibility for organizing all the nonprofit service information, which led to a massive coordination crisis. Things got so bad that some intrepid FEMA staff created a 211-style services directory themselves, even though it was so far outside their traditional responsibilities that they had to pretend that other organizations had created it out of fear of political backlash. To this day, no one in city government or the nonprofit establishment has taken responsibility for these coordination failures. Nor has any agency or organization taken responsibility for ensuring that it never happens again.

While incremental improvements in disaster management and recovery processes have certainly been adopted over the last five years, one of the most important Sandy lessons is that New York City desperately needs a fully-funded and well-functioning 211 system. Until we have one, New York City cannot claim to be following even the most basic best practices in disaster preparedness.


Devin Balkind is a candidate for New York City Public Advocate. He is also the President of the Sahana Software Foundation, a nonprofit organization that produces the world’s most popular open source software platform for disaster management. On Twitter @DevinBalkind.

This piece was originally published on Gotham Gazette on October 3, 2017

Photo: After Sandy (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor’s Office)

Presenting the Open Aid Movement at Open Source Bridge

“Open source” is a method for putting intellectual property in the public domain, allowing anyone to use it however they see fit. I’m an advocate of the “open source way” because I believe that if more people shared intellectual property of all types – whether its farming techniques, software code, music, etc – then we’ll eventually be able to meet the basic needs of everyone in the world, allowing all people to pursue their own happiness without fear of material scarcity.

This type of thinking can lead to some pretty impractical theorizing, so my route in actualizing this belief is to help build the open source movement by demonstrating how open source can improve the world. As president of the Sahana Software Foundation, a world leader in open source information systems for disaster and humanitarian aid management, it’s gratifying to work with talented people who feel similarly about open source and its role in the world as I do.

In my work with Sahana, I’ve discovered that there is a lot of curiosity among disaster management professionals about how open source thinking is impacting their field. I’ve given presentations about this topic at nearly a dozen disaster management conferences including those organized by IAEM, NVOAD, OASIS, IEEE SIGHT, NYCEM, ARC, STAR-TIDES, and other acronym-ed groups.

The basic thesis of my talk is that an “open aid movement” is emerging because of two factors:  (1) The maturity of free and open source software tools; and (2) The proliferation of open data practices among NGOs and government agencies. Together, these expand the public’s capacity to respond to disasters and enable them to form peer-to-peer disaster relief groups that can become assets during disaster relief efforts.  

These groups come in two formats: (a) “grassroots disaster relief networks” organized by local people affected by disasters and (b) “volunteer technical communities” consisting of volunteers who organize information online from anywhere on the globe to serve those affected by disasters.

This June, I had the pleasure of talking with an audience who has an affinity for open source, as opposed to a sole interest in disaster and humanitarian aid. This presentation took place at the Open Source Bridge conference, which is held annually in Portland, Oregon and “focused on building open source community and citizenship.” The presentation was modified to be more relevant to this unique audience. You can see it below.

Despite the conference’s general nature, most of my time was spent in conversations with people involved in other open source humanitarian projects such as Open Data Kit, Digital Impact Alliance and LibreHealth. These conversations focus on two critical topics: (a) how we understand, articulate and build awareness of open source as a coherent movement within the disaster/humanitarian sector, and (b) how open source projects within the disaster/humanitarian sector can achieve sustainability and scale without building centralized bureaucracies that ultimately undermine the peer-to-peer structure that makes open source projects so dynamic and successful.

The takeaway?  We have A LOT of work to do on both fronts to address the challenges ahead.

The first challenge is that there is very little collaboration taking place between the people and projects advancing open source in the humanitarian sector, despite the fact that open source developers and advocates within the sector recognize that they’re doing complementary work, encountering similar challenges and overcoming them in similar ways. This is something many people have identified as an issue, and something folks from DIAL’s very new Open Source Center are likely able to affect. DIAL’s OSC plans to “convene a vibrant, inclusive, free & open source software community that promotes knowledge sharing, collaboration, and co-investment in technology & human capacity to support positive social change in communities around the world.” Really exciting and certainly needed!

The second challenge is to define the “open aid movement” and use that shared understanding to organize an ecosystem of support services that make it easier for open source projects to deliver humanitarian practitioners the solutions they need while also ensuring those projects are stable over the long term. By doing this work, we can demonstrate that open source is more than just a useful “type” of software, but also a production methodology that enables the disaster and humanitarian management sector to most effectively utilize networked communication technologies.

As the maker of Sahana EDEN, the world’s most widely used information system for disaster and humanitarian management, Sahana Foundation can help define the movement and leverage its unique organizational format and administrative capacity to offer fiscal sponsorship and other support services to aligned open source humanitarian projects.

My Open Source Bridge experience confirmed to me that this is the right way to go. Let’s do it!