New York City's Digital Deficiency

Sure, it would be neat if an app could help me find a local pickup game in my neighborhood, but is that something residents of New York City actually need?

New York City - Night Cityscape

You are circling the block yet again, desperately seeking a parking space—and then you remember there's an app for that. You whip out your phone and pull up Roadify, the high-profile winner of New York City's second BigApps contest, which is supposed to provide a real-time list of parking spaces near your location. You watch as Roadify loads and quickly discover there are no free parking spaces within a 10-mile radius of where you are currently circling the block. This shouldn't surprise you because there are usually almost no parking spaces listed in the app, rendering it fairly useless. Then, as you slam on your breaks to avoid hitting a pedestrian, you remember that driving while using your phone is difficult, dangerous, and often illegal.

And this is the app that won?

Undeterred by Roadify's failure, the city announced the third installment of the BigApps contest in September, in which the city awards $50,000 in cash to the best app that uses city data. So far the first two contests have yielded apps that have received a fair amount of media attention but have lagged in user adoption. Sportify, another winner that garnered a lot of press, also relies on a critical mass of users to function. It, too, is a great idea in principle (find people near you who want to play pickup sports!), which has yet to catch on. All of this is the predictable result of the city's approach to digital development, which focuses on plenty of sizzle, not much steak. It's time for the city to deeply explore what New York's citizens actually need, and the ways in which those citizens are likely to behave.

In the professional digital development world, website and app development begins with a deep look at what the end users need, and how they are likely to use sites and apps in the course of their day. The problem with the BigApps contest is that it leaves both user needs and likely user behavior out of the equation, instead beginning with an enormous data dump and asking developers to make something cool out of it. Sure, it would be great to have an app that tells me where I can find a parking spot, but does it have any relationship to how people are likely to behave? Apparently not. And yes, it would be neat to find a local pickup game in my neighborhood, but is that something residents of New York City actually need? Some quick user experience work would have made this abundantly obvious and saved the city $50,000.

These missteps tend to be true with all of New York City's digital efforts. Was anyone thinking about user behavior when they printed a long URL on all subway maps directing subway riders to a buried page on the MTA website to find out about service changes? Subway riders who were underground and therefore unable to access the web? The new pilot program allowing bus riders to text for the location of their bus offers another example of what not to do. Bus riders who text a number posted at their bus stop are rewarded with a text back from the MTA that says something like "your bus is 0.8 miles away."

I suppose in some city, somewhere, 0.8 miles might be a meaningful designation for the distance between two points, but in Brooklyn, where the program is being piloted, it leaves riders with exactly the same knowledge about their bus's whereabouts they would have had before texting. Is 0.8 miles very far away? Is there traffic? Why not text back the location of the bus ("Your bus is at Atlantic and Court St."), or an estimated arrival time, both of which should be easily calculable based on the user's location and average bus travel times? Instead of just throwing technology at New Yorkers purely for technology's sake, why not start by spending $50,000 on talking to the people who live in the city and finding out what they really need?

In other cities they take digital seriously. Boston, for example, won the Digital Cities award for their Citizens Connect website and app, which allows Boston residents to access nearly all government services online. Need a birth certificate? Done. Want to get a pothole filled? Done. Best of all, Boston was able to do all of this with a budget of $25,000.

But the biggest success for Boston is that people actually use the app and the website, unlike the BigApps contest winners. And this is because Citizens Connect takes into account the needs of the citizens of Boston. The starting point for its development wasn't, "Hey, let's make something neat." Instead, the team took a look at Boston's 24-hour call center system and tried to figure out how they could get people's questions answered more efficiently. In other words, the team started with the end users of the system, understood what people needed, and went from there.

New York City also lags far behind Louisville, Kentucky, another Digital Cities winner, whose website greets users with links to information on drivers' licenses, garbage pickups, and permit applications among other items that clearly match up with the reasons citizens would visit the website. New York City's website, by contrast, provides a quick link to the new New York City Food website as the most prominent call to action, clearly matching up with the goals of someone in the media relations or publicity department. It is possible to access some New York City services online, but information is spread out over 100 websites, each with a different UI, all presented in a giant list as though purchasing a Queens Midtown Tunnel magnet is as important as knowing when to put out the recycling. And the widely publicized "Re-Invent Hackathon" held over the summer is only going to encourage more Roadify-like ideas, rather than address what people really need out of the city's website.

Mayor Bloomberg has taken several public actions indicating that he's interested in making New York into a truly digital city, but the approach the city takes always ignores the most important aspect of creating a digital entity: the people who live here.

Those people want to be able to find the school lunch calendar (I challenge you to try and find it now in under an hour), learn how to handle a speeding ticket (currently a Kafkaesque process online), and find out how to appropriately dispose of paint thinner (not possible as far as I can tell). Once all of that has been accomplished, then we can turn to apps for organizing pickup games. But only if that's what the people want.

[Image: Flickr User AndrewHavis]

Hana Schank is a Principal at Collective User Experience. Follow her on Twitter.

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  • Rachel Sterne

    Hana, thank you for your thoughtful look at civic innovation, and I hope that you will apply your expertise and participate in our efforts to fulfill the New York City's digital roadmap. At the core of the strategy, which is based on thousands of points of input from New Yorkers, is a focus on evolving New York City government's digital resources to become more user-centric and to serve the public. 

    I'd like to clarify a few points that you may not be aware of. The Reinvent NYC.GOV Hackathon (I encourage you to review the designs, created by New Yorkers, here: was a success because we equipped over 100 developers and designers with user analytics and public input that reveal how individuals currently access information on the website, and what drives their searches. We hosted the hackathon - the first of its kind, and an effective way to bring transparency and public innovation to municiapal projects - to kick off the process of redesigning NYC.GOV, which was last updated several years ago.

    I encourage you to take a look at the Road Map for the Digital City and our plans for helping NYC realize its digital potential, as well as the progress we have made to date, as a City here:

    We are all in this progress together, and would welcome your participation in helping to achieve our shared goals. 

  • Susan Bregman

    Hi Hana -

    I agree that some apps focus first on data availability and second on usability. 

    But I think you were a little unfair to the MTA and its Bus Time application. You're right that sometimes the app texts back mileage information, but that's only when the bus is fairly far away. As the bus approaches, the information gets more specific and more intuitive -- telling riders how many stops away the bus is and, eventually, that the bus is approaching.

    Bus Time may not be perfect, but the app is a good example of how an agency can provide basic bus location information to its riders without a major capital investment in proprietary systems that offer bus-arrival predictions.

  • Nick Sbordone

    Hana: Ongoing digital government efforts no doubt require focus on the end-user – and better serving New Yorkers will always be the focus of our work. First – NYC BigApps, which has evolved at every turn to include input from the public and technologist community.  As part of its latest iteration – NYC BigApps 3.0 – the City launched NYC Open Data, featuring APIs and data visualization tools more accessible to a wider audience.  It also features – as you suggested – discussion forums for user feedback and suggestions.   Moreover, the portal also keeps a running, sortable tally of the most popular data sets on its front page – a good way to keep an eye on what types of data our users want to be sure. As successful as NYC BigApps has been, it’s just one part of a wider strategy to realize New York City's digital potential – a comprehensive plan that focuses on access to technology, open government, engagement, and industry innovation.  That’s why NYC Open Data exists as a standalone – meaning that we’re making regular refreshes of the data there, both for BigApps competitions and during the interims, as our users prioritize the data they’d like to see.  We also recently launched an Open Data tumblr to highlight data visualizations for the non-developer crowd. So I’d invite the public to “kick the tires” on these new tools – because we want to hear from them! Second –, which is undergoing a comprehensive redesign.  To kick off that effort in the open, rather than behind closed doors, we hosted a Hackathon to inform our work “reinventing” the City’s digital home.  Every team was given detailed web analytics to use when developing their user-centric proposals.  I’d encourage your readers to review these designs before dismissing them. And while that’s ongoing, New Yorkers can always use 311Online, easily accessible from the home page.  Simply searching by keywords will lead users directly to the things you mention (and more), like how to: handle speeding tickets, dispose of paint thinner, find birth certificates, get potholes filled – and yes, even find school lunch calendars.  Best part is that these searches, combined, should take all of five minutes, tops. That is but a sampling of the initiatives underway.  As someone with an eye toward these developments, I’d welcome you to take a look and get involved. Thanks again for your interest. Nick SbordoneNYC Department of Info Tech & Telecomm

  • Nigel Jacob

    Hi Hana - We would love to tell you more about what we're up to here in Boston in addition to Citizens Connect. If you have a moment, drop us a line! Thanks!

    Cheers,Nigel.Nigel JacobCo-Chair, Mayor's Office of New Urban MechanicsBoston City HallNigel.Jacob@cityofboston.govhttp://newurbanmechanics.org617-606-3651@nsjacob:twitter 

  • Brandon Kessler

    Hi Hana,

    Did you check out one of the first year's winners, NYC Way (My City Wasy)? No lack of user adoption, and a big success story. (They quit their jobs on Wall Street, got funding, and are in a ton of cities and doing great.) 

    And who is to say that because a developer creates an app with city data as an ingredient, almost totally of their choosing and informed by their own experiences in the city, that user needs are avoided? Just because a the city didn't do user need requirements gathering on what it's like to live in NYC doesn't mean that user needs are ignored. On the contrary, the developers are citizens/the customers, and they can do as much user need gathering as they like. 

    Furthermore, this year BigApps actually did ask people for their needs in advance, and what problems the apps should solve. You can see that on the NYC BigApps Ideas site here: It was prominently listed on the resources section of BigApps. That said, I think there is room to gather needs from individual agencies, and that could be a great resource for future app makers.

    By the way, the post also ignores the government transparency benefits of making data available, which was the impetus for BigApps.

    Lastly, I find your negative speculation about the Re-invent Hackathon to be unsubstantiated in this post. Maybe wait for the results?