- At a City Council subcommittee hearing regarding land use applications, Council Member Laurie Cumbo stated her continued opposition to the Bedford Union Armory proposal in its current form. “I will reject this application unless I can secure a project that at baseline has no market rate condos or luxury condos,” she said. In his testimony, NYC Economic Development Corporation President James Patchett committed to reevaluate the proposal. If the subcommittee approves the deal, it will still have to clear a full City Council vote in order to move forward. Despite the tone of Tuesday’s hearing, the Council is likely to approve the armory plan.
- The NYC Public Advocate released the annual “Worst Landlords List” on Tuesday, highlighting the 100 owners with the highest number of code violations per unit in their buildings. The mapped version of the list makes for easier searching.
- WGA-East reached an agreement on behalf DNAInfo/Gothamist employees that includes four months pay, three months of benefits, and no requirement to sign a non-disparagement agreement.
- Staff of DNAinfo and Gothamist were warned that unionization would mean shutting down the sites.
- The City is refunding $26 million in parking fines because of a technical error.
- As the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) prepares to implement a federally mandated smoking ban, advocates are concerned about the city’s commitment to allocating resources for meaningful tobacco cessation support to residents.
- A press conference was held to unveil a prototype of a streetcar to be used as part of the Brooklyn-Queens Connector this past week. However, there have been multiple recent reports which call into question whether the de Blasio Administration backed project will ever come to fruition.
- Today, November 20th, is the Transgender Day of Remembrance. Local LGBTQ-focused organizations will gather on the steps of City Hall to unveil a policy brief at noon. The LGBT Community Center is hosting an evening of reflection and prayer at 7pm.
- City Council Member Elizabeth Crowley is conceding defeat after the final count of paper ballots revealed that her Republican challenger won by 137 votes. She is the only incumbent who lost their seat in this year’s election.
- Gov. Cuomo has raised over $25 million in political contributions, nearly all from big donors. Over 99 percent of contributions to him are of at least $1,000, and at one point, he went six months without a donation under $200.
- Only 24 percent of registered voters came out for the 2017 general election, which is part of a long trend. 41 percent of registered voters showed up in 2001, 60 percent in 1989, and 81 percent in 1969.
- Efforts are being made to combat New York’s issues with low voter turnout in the form of a state bill which would extend the vote to 17-year-olds,It also contains provisions to include comprehensive civics education in New York Schools, and a New York City bill to allow online voter registration.
- After claiming his election win as a “progressive mandate,” Bill de Blasio unveiled an updated plan to provide affordable housing for New York residents. However, many affordable housing advocates question whether the Administration is on the right track.
- Council Member Ben Kallos (District 5, Upper East Side), is planning to draft a bill next year to establish a “Democracy Voucher” program, modeled after Seattle’s public campaign financing system.
In-Depth: Algorithmic Transparency—What City Agencies Do With Our Data
From the NYC-DSA Tech Action Working Group
On Monday, October 16th, the New York City Council Committee on Technology held an introductory hearing on a bill that would require “Algorithmic Transparency” for all data analysis software used by City agencies. The bill was put forward by Council Member James Vacca (District 13, The Bronx), Chair of the Council Committee on Technology. The targeted “algorithms” are any City-operated automated or computer-aided processing methods that “target services, impose penalties, or police persons.” Software covered by this legislation is used to rank teachers and place students in schools, to fund and supply public housing, and to allocate police and firefighters throughout the city.
Currently, the City government has no centralized oversight of software being used by its various agencies. Because of contracts with third-party developers and purported security concerns, City agencies are often prohibited from releasing, or simply refuse to release information on the processes used to make core decisions. This legislation aims to fix that problem by centralizing oversight of this software, requiring source code be made public, and mandating agencies to allow for the public to test these systems with their own info. Such transparency is important for good governance because it allows the public to test for bias that is often introduced through human error or algorithmic hiccups. If adopted, this legislation would potentially be the first of its sort in the U.S., although similar measures have been introduced in the European Union.
Chairman Vacca began the hearing by saying opaque algorithms hinder our ability to hold government accountable and evaluate decision making—key parts of a functioning democracy. Vacca said that algorithms are bundles of coded assumptions, and if we can’t evaluate the biases these assumptions exhibit, we can’t hope to deal with inequities in our city. The committee heard testimony from the Mayor’s office, from Donald Sunderland of the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, and Craig Campbell of the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics. They spoke in opposition to the legislation, claiming that security and operational functionality would be compromised, and adding that an enormous amount of resources would be needed to rewrite current software to comply with the law’s open source requirement. Vacca challenged the administration, rhetorically asking if parents have the right to know the reasoning behind their child’s school placement when they were assigned their fifth or sixth choice, or if tenants are entitled to information on an inadequate public housing assignment. Short on answers to the specific inner workings of agencies, the representatives conceded it was an imperfect system, but reiterated that they could not support the legislation in its current form.
Next, the floor was opened to testimony from the public. Opposition to the bill came from Tech NYC, a lobbying group representing the interests of NYC technology companies. They expressed concerns about intellectual property, actionable rights for individuals, security, the administrative burden on public agencies, and a lack of clear understanding regarding the bill’s potential impact. However, the vast majority of public testimony was supportive. Research fellows at Cornell Tech spoke with some skepticism of the bill as currently worded. Members of NYC-DSA, Beta NYC, NYCLU, The Brennan Center for Justice, Bronx and Brooklyn Defenders, and The Legal Aid Society all spoke in favor. Many of the witnesses spoke to its necessity in criminal justice reform. Risk assessment algorithms that increase pretrial detention times, feedback loops that can send police officers back to neighborhoods that are already over policed, repeated errors in algorithmic sentencing that were shrouded in secrecy, and data that is tainted by years of disproportionate detention in communities of color were among the countless examples presented of gross failings of algorithms currently used locally and nationwide.
Some witnesses also spoke about the issue of public-private partnerships in this realm. Sumana Harihareswara of Changeset pointed out that the City is slated to spend $45 million on predictive policing technology in the coming years. She testified that the public should own that technology. Ownership of technology, as well as more robust public sector activity in developing these algorithms, would allow the City to correct problems internally without having to rely on—and continue to pay—private firms. Putting data and algorithms in the sphere of the commons could unearth a plethora of inefficiencies and inequities that were formerly cloaked, which would give insight to new ways of bettering society. Many argued that the security concerns expressed regarding disclosure of algorithms are illusory, and that open source would, in fact, allow for more robust security. It is also worth noting that fuller transparency would require public access to the data being fed into these systems.
Towards the end of the committee meeting, Chairman Vacca spoke to the possibility of convening a commission tasked with drafting a more robust version of the bill. As it stands, there are serious issues regarding the bill’s rollout, as the current text is short and potentially overly broad, while at the same time missing important specifics about implementation. Moreover, due to term limits, Council Member Vacca will be vacating his City Council seat at the end of this year, along with two other members of the five-person Tech Committee. However, five of the bill’s seven co-sponsors on the greater Council will remain. If a commission is formed, the Council appears to be open to input from experts and concerned citizens.
Going forward, it’s reasonable to expect more pushback and opposition to this bill from the Mayor’s Office and industry lobbyists present at this hearing, with the likely addition of law enforcement agencies and their backers. The NYC-DSA Tech Action Working Group has been in contact with Councilmember Vacca’s office and will be monitoring the progress of this bill. Should it be convened, we will attempt to influence the commission to ensure publicly funded technology is kept under public oversight and control.