Fast Company

'We Want to Link the Net to Real Places and Improve Communities'

Mary McCormick is finding ingenious ways to apply Internet connections to urban problems -- from combating domestic violence to filling potholes. But the most important job of a social entrepreneur, she believes, is connecting people.

In Mary McCormick's view, digital technology can't solve a single significant social problem. What it can do, however, is help people solve problems faster.

At the Fund for the City of New York (FCNY), the nonprofit group that McCormick runs, the number of Web-based applications being developed and deployed rivals the output of the it departments of most billion-dollar companies. One FCNY team is working on a sophisticated Web site, in both English and Spanish, that helps abused women navigate the civil-court system and obtain temporary orders of protection. Also in the works is a Web app that can help poor families -- 85% of whom lack legal representation -- fight evictions in court.

Another team is rolling out a system for a Casio handheld computer that enables citizens to conduct surveys of the streetscape in their neighborhood -- which means snapping digital pictures of graffiti and enumerating every broken streetlight and empty tree pit -- and create reports for the appropriate government agencies. An FCNY-devised database that tracks the progress of complaints related to human-rights violations not only is used by New York City and New York State but also has been put into service by the ombudsman's office of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

FCNY was created in 1968 by the Ford Foundation with a simple -- and wildly broad -- mandate: to improve the quality of life and the responsiveness of government in New York City. McCormick says that today, roughly half of the Fund's projects are "built on the potential of technology to empower. The Internet can help us get out in front of some of the issues that we've struggled with: education, poverty, health, disenfranchisement."

FCNY's headquarters, on the top floor of an unassuming six-story building on the western edge of SoHo, serves as a kind of R&D center for New York City. Inside, a professional staff of 60 people works on programs that will help elderly diabetics better manage their condition or that will improve communication between at-risk new mothers and their nurses and social workers. The Fund's Nonprofit Computer Exchange and its Internet Academy annually conduct a full range of training courses for 4,000 staffers at city nonprofits, helping them learn to use the Web and develop and maintain their own sites.

Although McCormick is enthusiastic about all of the things that she'll be able to do when the latest FCNY project, E-CommunityConnect, starts bringing Internet access and relevant content to such low-income neighborhoods as Washington Heights and Red Hook, Brooklyn, she's also careful to remind her colleagues (and herself) that parachuting computers into neighborhoods that need them doesn't necessarily represent progress. "Technology is the least part of it," McCormick says. "We have to understand the needs and opportunities in these neighborhoods. Hooking up tenants to superintendents in a housing project could be a profound change. But if we want to make a difference, we have to understand the human issues."

The Makings of an Activist

From an early age, Mary McCormick intended to dedicate her life to public service. That commitment led her to work as a teacher, and to make a short foray into government before landing at FCNY. She grew up in a small town in western Nevada that was situated between a Naval air station and an Indian reservation. Her father was a research scientist at the University of Nevada, and her mother was a homemaker. In high school, McCormick participated in a political-science program that included a trip to the White House for tea with Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson.

At Radcliffe, McCormick was heavily influenced by reading Jonathan Kozol's Death at an Early Age, a book about racism and socioeconomic discrimination in the Boston public schools in the 1960s. After college, she gravitated to New York, where she hoped to teach in a school in which she could make a difference. "At the time, New York City was advertising for teachers and social workers on the subway," McCormick recalls. She enrolled in an intensive teacher-training program at New York University. "I wanted to teach at the worst public school I could find," she says. She wound up at PS 63 in Brooklyn, a school with the third-lowest reading scores in the city.

"Yes, I was idealistic -- and arrogant," says McCormick, who has retained the former trait but has shed the latter one. "I got to teach kindergarten failures in the first grade. They'd been socially promoted. Half were Hispanic, half were African-American. I learned a tremendous amount." McCormick found a phonics-based technique for teaching reading that helped her students make significant progress. But the administrators at PS 63 didn't want to adopt her system, so McCormick went to work training other teachers as an employee of Open Court Publishing Co., the educational publisher that once marketed the phonics system.

That job led McCormick to Columbia University's Graduate School of Business, where she got her MBA and then started work on a PhD, while simultaneously pursuing a master's degree in education from NYU. McCormick briefly put her studies on hold to work for the administration of Mayor Abraham Beame and then for that of Mayor Ed Koch, where she served first as a research director for the Temporary Commission on the City Finances (trying to identify some of the weaknesses of the city's management infrastructure), and later as a special assistant to the deputy mayor for labor relations and personnel (participating in collective bargaining with the city's uniformed and civilian unions). "This was the first half of 1978, and we had to have new contracts by June in order for the Federal government to release bonds" that would help the city recover from its brush with bankruptcy, McCormick says. "I can remember 4 AM negotiations in hotel rooms with policemen who made a point of wearing their weapons."

McCormick came to FCNY in 1981 "without portfolio," as she puts it, "but with the ability to take my interests in public-sector entrepreneurship and private-sector practices and to create some needed programs for city government." She dove into a series of projects that were designed to help city managers expand their skill sets. One of those projects, the LaGuardia Fellows Program, took people in New York City's government and rotated them through different agencies and functions -- "the same kind of managerial development that you'd get at IBM," McCormick notes. Another project used FCNY money to finance a management-exchange program with Japan. "In the public sector, you can't go somewhere else to learn something," McCormick says. "It's perceived as a misuse of the public's dollars. You might be investing millions in a water-filtration plant, but you can't go and look at some of the best plants in the world."

Over an eight-year period, McCormick's Manager's Exchange Program with Japan branched out to include officials from Chicago and Los Angeles and sent 140 city managers and officials to Japan. "This was something that New York City might not have done on its own," says Diane M. Coffey, 58, who was Mayor Koch's chief of staff at the time. "The Fund, and Mary, are not afraid to take risks."

In 1990, McCormick became president of the Fund. Since then, its budget has quadrupled to $22 million, and new branches have been created. Such branches include the Center for Internet Innovation, the Center on Municipal Government Performance (which includes the project that involves Casio handheld computers), and the Youth Development Institute (a national leader in providing assistance to school-community collaborations as well as building consensus around and disseminating best practices of effective youth work). The Incubator Program provides administrative, financial, and technical support to 20 new nonprofit and government projects.

Open Systems -- The Impact of a "Yes Person"

Surrounded by a half-dozen FCNY technology specialists in a conference room, McCormick is considering the various kinds of computers and Internet access that the Fund could deploy in homes and community centers in Washington Heights, a section of upper Manhattan with a substantial population of immigrants from the Dominican Republic. The neighborhood will be a pilot site for E-CommunityConnect, an FCNY project that will provide training for local residents in how to run servers and how to produce and maintain their own Web sites.

As for access, 56-K modems could be hamstrung by the area's old phone lines. Although 28-K modems are cheaper, they might put limitations on the service's design. Internet appliances would be easier for computer neophytes to use if they could be configured so that users could save homework assignments or household budgets locally. McCormick listens and considers the options. "Mary works rigorously to involve everyone," says Coffey. "Everyone feels a sense of ownership in the project. She's adept at getting people to agree and to work toward a common objective."

One time, for example, McCormick brought together 400 officials and staffers from the city's Department of Corrections, Department of Health, Health and Hospitals Corp., and Human Resources Administration to discuss how those agencies could work together to stop the spread of the multidrug-resistant strain of tuberculosis that had cropped up in prisons and in city shelters and keep it from turning into an epidemic. They came up with a consolidated-budget request to fight the problem jointly, as well as a direct-observation monitoring program that ensures that people who have the disease take the prescribed medicine over a course of several months.

"Mary has a high level of convening power," says Vincent McGee, vice president of the Irene Diamond Fund. "If Mary calls, people will respond, and they will bite their tongues and sit down to try to work together. That's rare in New York. Mary is quiet and thoughtful, and she doesn't let her ego get in the way."

Following the meeting about E-CommunityConnect, McCormick switches conference rooms for a lunch gathering with a delegation from the New York City Board of Education. In 1995, the Fund and the Office of Pupil Transportation won an award from Microsoft for a bus-routing application that FCNY created to help reduce the amount of time special-education students spent traveling to and from school. Since then, the Fund has worked with Kevin F. Gill, head of the school system's Division of Food Services and Transportation, to build a public Web site that offers information about school menus, classroom facilities, and bus routes -- down to the time and the location of each stop. Since the site has the best database available for tracking which classrooms are air-conditioned and which aren't, the tool is already being used by administrators to help allocate classrooms for summer school. (Air-conditioning dramatically reduces the no-show rate for kids attending summer school.)

McCormick sees the work on bus routes and on school-lunch menus as a first step in providing parents with more information about -- and more control over -- their children's education. Right now, because FCNY is only doing development for one arm of the Board of Education, the site contains a comprehensive list of the cafeteria staff members but has nothing on teachers or on curricula. "Go into the future," McCormick implores. "If I'm a parent and I have any question about the school, I can just log on. What classroom is my child in? Who is the teacher? What textbooks are the students using? What's the homework? The Web can open up this system in a way that is unprecedented."

Opening up the system -- increasing its transparency and its accountability -- has been a central theme of McCormick's tenure at FCNY. McCormick has attracted programmers and designers from NYU's highly regarded Interactive Telecommunications Program and Panix Corp., one of the first commercial ISPs in New York. And she has given former government officials like Barbara Cohn, who is the former deputy commissioner of rent control under Mayor Koch, a chance to experiment with technology.

Cohn's current pet project is "ComNet," the handheld computer-based system for evaluating streetscapes. (The acronym stands for Computerized Neighborhood Environment Tracking.) "Mary is a 'yes person' in a positive sense. She is always pushing us not just to see problems but to see solutions, to try new approaches, and to 'make it work, make it work,' " Cohn says. "For me, that is a very compelling mantra."

ComNet was created when Cohn realized that city government had no way of gauging how citizens perceived quality of life on the street. She set out to create a universal measure that would get various city agencies to work together to improve that quality of life. The result? Community and business groups can now compile a complete list of things that mar their environment, using Casio's Cassiopeia handheld computers. Each item gets an automatic date-and-time stamp, and the user can also take color photographs using a tiny digital camera that plugs into the Cassiopeia. Once the assessment is complete, the group can easily see which agency is responsible for which problem. "Then the groups can prioritize what's important and what's not," Cohn says. "We can't send the data directly to the city yet, but even if we could, that would be a rather cold relationship. This way, people and government get together. You have human contact -- and that gets better results."

FCNY's intention is to have neighborhood groups do regular assays, so that, ideally, they can follow improvements over time. To support that plan, McCormick talks about providing an easy way to publish the status of various issues, along with pictures, on the Internet. "It's a way of publicly holding government accountable," she says, "but also giving it credit for the work that it does that benefits neighborhoods." ComNet is already being used by neighborhood organizations in other cities, including Austin, Texas. And several cities in Connecticut and in California are considering it. Indeed, other Fund initiatives are growing so fast and are taking root outside the city so often that McCormick is considering changing the organization's name to be less geographically specific.

FCNY's Internet Academy, along with its companion training program, the Nonprofit Computer Exchange, are expanding their course offerings to cover everything from Microsoft Word to Adobe PageMaker to advanced JavaScript. Classes are offered in English, Spanish, and Creole. The poster-sized course list seems in imminent danger of turning into a full-fledged catalog.

The Fund's Incubator Program supports several high-profile, high-tech endeavors. One project, called "Music Places," which is run by the nonprofit Exploring the Metropolis Inc., has just created a database of every rehearsal and performance space in the city. The database will be a valuable resource for the city's nomadic music groups, which constantly seek places to practice and perform. The Fund supplied the project with office space, PCs, phones, and Web servers. "If there's another place in the city that brings together this many nonprofits under one roof, I don't know about it," says Eugenie Cowan, director of Music Places and of Exploring the Metropolis.

NYtrain.org, an FCNY-developed database of 4,350 listings of vocational courses, child-care programs, and alcohol- and substance-abuse clinics, is used at 250 sites around the city, including the Department of Employment, the Department of Probation, and the Literacy Assistance Center. Users can conduct searches by program location, by language, or by income restriction, among other criteria. The Domestic Violence Court System is expected to be widely adopted by such organizations as Safe Horizons at the Brooklyn Family Court and Jacobi Medical Center in Bronx, NY. Even in Georgia -- where the domestic-violence app offers videos on how to plan for personal safety after an order of protection is issued -- the system is expected to be used in every county. Both projects are part of the Fund's Center for Internet Innovation, which was started in 1994 -- before there was a Netscape.

McCormick wants E-CommunityConnect to be a model of how to wire poor communities around the country -- and how to help them develop what she calls "transformative content" too. It seems as if McCormick has just recently hit her stride in the campaign to use technology to bring citizens, nonprofits, and government agencies closer together. The legacy of the Internet, from her perspective, won't be about moving commerce online but about strengthening our social fabric. In five years, people won't rave about how the Net transports them to virtual communities. They'll talk about how it roots them to their real-world community.

"We want to link the Net to real places and improve communities," McCormick says. "I get to be part of a group that is working on long-term strategies for using the Internet to improve the quality of our lives and to enhance the vitality of our connections -- with each other and with our government.

"It's not our nature to showboat or to take credit," she continues. "Everything we do is a partnership. But it's just a real thrill to be able to do this kind of work."

Scott Kirsner (kirsner@worldnet.att.net), a Fast Company contributing editor, is based in Boston. Contact Mary McCormick by email (mmccormick@fcny.org) or learn more about the Fund for the City of New York on the Web (www.fcny.org).

Sidebar: What's Fast

One of the themes of Mary McCormick's career has been, "If you can't measure it, you can't manage it." In trying to cross-pollinate successful management techniques among the public, private, and nonprofit sectors, McCormick, 54, president of the Fund for the City of New York (FCNY), has found that focusing on concrete metrics has helped her steer around political quicksand. "When you use anecdote or emotion to talk about what's wrong with a situation, you get bogged down," says McCormick. "When you measure things, it makes the process more objective and less political."

Many recent FCNY projects aim to create metrics that will help city government better track improvements in service -- based on citizens' perceptions. Beginning in the 1970s, the Fund created a series of scorecards for such agencies as the Department of Sanitation and the Department of Parks and Recreation to give city managers a way to gauge progress.

The Fund's latest scorecard (dubbed "How Smooth Are New York City's Streets?") may sound trifling at first, but when the Fund convened a series of focus groups in 1995, supervised by FCNY board member and renowned public-opinion researcher Daniel Yankelovich, a huge 65% of participants griped about potholes, broken axles, and lost hubcaps.

No one had yet developed a measure for the smoothness of city streets, so Barbara Cohn, the Fund's "road worrier" and director of the Center on Municipal Government Performance, outfitted a test car with a laser-scanning profilometer -- a device that could measure the severity of jolts related to the road surface. Cohn then drafted a crew of professional drivers who covered 676 miles of city streets. Previously, the city had used only inspectors and engineers to inspect the streets visually -- a technique that was far less accurate.

The result was a neighborhood-by-neighborhood report, complete with color maps, on the condition of the city's streets: 60% of city blocks were rated acceptable, and 40% were rated poor or terrible. Manhattan had the highest number of "significant jolts" per mile (14.2), and Staten Island had the lowest (7.5). The study also found that there was no correlation between high-income neighborhoods and good road quality, contrary to what some of the researchers had expected. The Fund completed its second survey of the mean streets in the fall of 1999.

"If you don't have clear objectives and good outcomes, how will you know what you've accomplished?" McCormick asks. "Without the measures, you fall back to being purely political -- and that gets you nowhere."

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