Cogito, Ergo Sumana

Categories: sumana | Transparency in Government Code

Algorithms and software governments make and use should be available for public inspection and reuse


: NYC Comptroller Town Hall, And Reflections on Constraint: Last night I suited up and went to a local town hall held by the office of New York City's Comptroller, Scott Stringer. (I am in the fuzzy foreground of the second photo.) After very short introductions from the venue host (CUNY Law School), Stringer and his staff, we went straight to questions!

I appreciated a lot of things about the event. There was an ASL translator on the stage, and when residents wanted to ask questions in Spanish, a staffer translated between Spanish and English for them. Stringer kept the lines moving by answering folks' questions but also limiting them to one question each (or they could head to the back of the line to get another turn), and interrupted rambly rants by asking for a question he could answer. And if people spoke up with complaints, he promised: fill out a constituent intake form and give it to one of my staffers, and we will call you by noon tomorrow. And free bottled water, next to the paper copies of audit reports and outreach flyers, was a nice touch.

a filled-out constituent intake form with the question I had asked orallyI asked the first question: how can we save money in IT procurement? Perhaps by banding together in consortia with other municipalities to have better leverage with vendors, or making or using open source software? I fear I was not very clear and was misunderstood. Stringer replied by talking about the need to modernize the procurement process itself, which is evidently still paper-based and slow, and about how this depends on revising the City Charter. Wendy Garcia (the office's Chief Diversity Officer) followed up by suggesting that I myself might want to come to their office so they could help my business figure out where our services matched up with the city's contracting needs. [I spoke with her after the town hall to clarify: no, I'm not trying to get business for Changeset here, I'm just interested in the issue! (Maybe I misguided them by introducing myself as a consultant and wearing a suit. The suit was just to respect the occasion! Next time maybe I will wear a stylish dress and cardigan, which seems to be what middle-class women activists wear to these things??)]

I filled out a constituent intake form, and, sure enough, just before 10:30am today, I got a call from their office asking me to email a specific staffer with more details! Well done.

Other questions and answers included a wide variety of concerns: older guy who doesn't like streets getting named after politicians, frequent meeting questioner guy whose stuff was taken (and never returned) when he was arrested in 2015, the Major Capital Improvement rule landlords use to get around rent control, Department of Education buildings that perhaps ought to be reused instead of sold, divesting NYC's pension fund of fossil fuel, Stringer's political ambitions, an idea for stop sign speed sensors (like traffic light speed sensors), the closure of the jail on Rikers Island, helping immigrants pay the costs of applying for citizenship, sewer problems, the placements of homeless shelters, and helping residents use their on-time rent payments to count towards credit scores. My neighbors care about a lot of different things. I took a few notes and mostly sketched. There was this one power outlet mechanism embedded in the desk right in front of me and I drew it like five times and never got the angles to look right.

One interesting thing I learned: when the Comptroller's office audits a city department, it usually takes about 18 months, so they only go in and do an audit if they think it's likely they'll find something.

signs on the wall at CUNY Law School about 'Why I'm Here': 'Bend The Arc', 'Learn The Law, Use The Law, Change The Law'I went home and commented on the proposed National Park Service rule change "Special Regulations, Areas of the National Park System, National Capital Region, Special Events and Demonstrations". I commented on 4 things: making the swimming/wading rules more consistent, removing the "duplicative" criterion, the "atmosphere of contemplation" expansion, and the proposed permit application fees. And then I wrote a thing to prepare for a meeting today, while texting with a friend who's going through a rough time.

I don't know anyone who's not going through some kind of rough time. Or at least I can't think of any. If nothing else we have the awful "well, MY life is great, but the world is horrifying" awareness; it feels like we're betraying our neighbors when we enjoy our personal successes. I never know whether I'm doing enough; I have to define "enough" for myself, which feels audacious. Willow Brugh wrote about how she's implementing a concept I first heard about from Abi Sutherland in December 2016:

While I am pushing to find ways to gain (and deserve) greater influence in the world, those things which fall outside of my influence cannot be that which concerns me most. To do otherwise is a path to madness. I must trust that other capable people exist in the world, and that they are taking up their share just as I am taking up mine. As you are taking up yours.
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: Bill 1696 and Learning Old Systems: A very amended version of Councilmember Vacca's algorithmic transparency bill has now passed the City Council and is headed for the Mayor's desk to sign.*

This follows the October 16th hearing (which was moved to a larger hearing room at City Hall due to huge attendance) -- the video recording is available now and is a little over two hours long, as are PDFs for Hearing Testimony (pre-written) and the hearing transcript. One attendee live-tweeted practically the whole hearing (sometimes the threading broke a bit) and another shared rough notes as a GitHub gist. Several people spoke for a few minutes each from, e.g., the New York Civil Liberties Union, The Brennan Center for Justice, Legal Aid Society, BetaNYC, Brooklyn Defender Services, Princeton's Center for Information Technology Policy, and various other institutions, and some spoke just as individuals. I testified for a few minutes, starting at about 1:53 in the video, and got quoted in Civicist.

The amended bill, approved by the Council's Technology Committee and then by the City Council earlier this month, is a compromise. It creates a task force, and they'll have 18 months to write up a report with recommendations, and that report will be made public. The bill specifically says that "Nothing herein shall require compliance with the task force's recommendations". Who appoints the members of the task force? "Such task force and the chair thereof shall be appointed by the mayor or a designee thereof" with no particular mandate that, say, the Council has a voice in who's placed on the task force. The bill says nothing about whether the task force will perform any of its hearings in public.

So those of us who want to keep momentum going on this issue will have to note who's been appointed, submit testimony when the opportunity arises, and find a way to sustainably pay attention to it.

The Mayor could allow the bill to lapse into law without signing it, could sign it into law, or could veto it (and then probably have the Council override his veto with a two-thirds majority). What I hear is that it'll almost certainly be the first or the second of those three. Legistar says there'll be a hearing tomorrow, Monday the 18th, but what I've heard is that this will be kind of a formality in which 20+ bills are being "heard" but no substantive discussion is expected.

So I tried to find out when on Monday this hearing will be. I looked around the Mayor's chunk of nyc.gov and found nothing. My Council contact told me that the daily Sked in the daily First Read in City & State and Gotham Gazette's Week Ahead sections would tell me these kinds of schedule details -- once Monday rolled around.** Ahhh. New York City is a very old system, like sewing or software packaging,*** and way before there existed a municipal website, there was a rich ecosystem that depended on knowing this information, and so niche publications emerged. Right.

And today, while writing this, I found the City Record Online (every day the City Record puts out notices of city hearings, court notices, etc. and you can look at recent daily editions as PDFs or search electronically), and figured out: 4:30 pm, in the Blue Room at City Hall, as announced on December 13th.

So I'll probably be there, even though it probably isn't substantively important, as I learn this system, as I learn how to pay attention. Maybe I'll see you there too.


* Legistar, the application that NYC uses to track bills as they move through the City Council, has email and RSS notification, but the email alerts have not been functioning for me, and the RSS option is pretty uninformative and (I think) slow to update. Councilmatic is an open source alternative that had to use screen scraping to get bill and event data (the comments in the bills scraper elucidate some stuff I'd been unsure about). I'm glad to hear that, thanks to NYC open data advocates, there's now a proper Legistar API available for civic developers like us.

** Indeed, the First Read now includes a sked for Monday that mentions a Mayoral hearing and bill signing -- but doesn't specify or link to the list of bills.

*** I'm improving various skills and learning multiple systems right now. In rough order of how old our systems/skills are, as humans, here are some of them:

  1. Time management (regular)
  2. Sewing
  3. New York City governance
  4. Bicycling
  5. Sewing (electric)
  6. Time management (with mass media)
  7. Bicycling (in car-heavy urban environments)
  8. Time management (with email)
  9. Python packaging
  10. Time management (in attention-casino electronic environment)
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