Celebrating a Year of Technology and Civic Innovation in New York

| John Paul Farmer

Microsoft NY Year One Team

What a year! In the Summer of 2014, our Technology and Civic Innovation team in New York City began to take shape. We began by identifying clear ways for Microsoft to engage through civic participation, partnerships, and new product development. We’ve been delving into how the community uses data to address its challenges, spreading 21st century tech skills and job opportunities, and leveraging innovative technologies to create a more responsive and resilient city.

We would like to share the story of our first year to connect with others doing similar work and inspire many more to deploy innovative technologies to address our shared challenges. Of the many things we’ve been able to accomplish over the past year, here are ten of my personal favorites:

  1. Helped Bring NYC Together as a Founding Sponsor of Civic Hall

Recap: Civic Hall Grand Opening

When we were in the early days of our new civic tech work, Andrew Rasiej and Micah Sifry shared their vision with us for a 21st century community center, a physical hub for the civic tech community located in the heart of New York City. We saw the potential and signed on as Civic Hall’s first founding sponsor…and we’re so glad we did. Since opening its doors earlier this year, Civic Hall has become a magnet for those looking to use technology to improve the lives of the many. In fact, there is a good chance you’ll find our team working at Civic Hall on any given day.

  1. Announced Tech Jobs Academy with Mayor de Blasio

In the 21st century, tech skills are a necessity. So we decided to partner with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Tech Talent Pipeline (headed by the incredible Kristen Titus) and the City University of New York (CUNY) to pilot the Tech Jobs Academy, a new approach to demand-driven accelerated learning to deliver skills in months instead of years. This program will deliver long-lasting careers in technology to those who otherwise might never have the opportunity.

  1. Created a Civic Tech Fellows Program

NYC 2015 Civic Tech Fellows

Upon joining Microsoft, the very first program I put in place was the Civic Tech Fellowship, so that Microsoft could tap into incredible emerging talent, orient them toward the hard problems the community faces, and establish even stronger roots in the New York civic tech community. Having been integral to a number of the projects on this list, the Civic Tech Fellows have lived up to our high hopes. In fact, they’ve been so impressive that we’ve doubled the size of the program for its second year.

  1. Drove Creative Open Data Usage through Big Apps NYC

In its fifth year, Big Apps NYC was already established as a pioneering program in the open data movement. We were excited to get involved as Big Apps refocused on accessibility and usability of data by any person in any borough, which coincided with the emergence of Heat Seek NYC as the “best in show” app.

Big Apps Annoucement

  1. Gifted Azure, BizSpark, and Devices to Civic Startups

All startups – and civic-oriented startups, in particular – are deserving of our support as they undertake the herculean task of building new businesses and non-profits. We have supported several ventures with free software and cloud services through the Microsoft BizSpark program, like Heat Seek NYC and the winners of CodeAcross New Jersey. We’ve also lent top-of-the-line devices to groups like Silicon Harlem and Black Girls Code so their students can start coding and designing with powerful equipment.

  1. Convened Town Halls with BetaNYC and Leaders from the Mayor’s Tech Team

In collaboration with BetaNYC, we have hosted leaders from City Hall’s tech and data teams to discuss the state of government tech, open data, participatory civic tech, and more. In December, first-ever NYC Chief Technology Officer Minerva Tantoco joined us at Microsoft Research in the Flatiron District to lay out her vision for what could be accomplished. In February, NYC Chief Analytics Officer Amen Ra Mashariki visited our Times Square headquarters to discuss the direction of open data under his leadership of the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics. These conversations allowed hundreds of citizens and civic hackers to engage directly with leading technologists in their city.

  1. Hosted Book Talks and Film Festivals for the Community

Using our convening power, we have hosted thought leaders such as Susan Crawford, Steven Goldsmith, Dan Ward, and Anthony Townsend and thought provokers such as Maker: The Movie. These events have attracted both core members of the civic tech community and those just hearing about it for the first time, serving to extend the reach of these important conversations.

  1. Boosted Cross-Sector Collaboration as Founding Technology Partner of LMHQ


A “third space” that is neither home nor office recently opened in Lower Manhattan, a neighborhood long known for Wall Street and City Hall, but now home to a growing tech community, creative design firms, fashion, media, and more. We have been pleased to be the technology partner of choice for LMHQ, providing hardware, software, and services to help people connect across sectors and enjoy new experiences made possible through cutting-edge tech.

  1. Fueled Entrepreneurship and Innovation as Technology Partner of Grand Central Tech

Grand Central Tech (GCT) In 2014, Grand Central Tech (GCT) opened its doors as a new kind of accelerator, one that attracted cream of the crop startups, connected them with programming and growth opportunities as well as talented interns from underrepresented communities, and charged zero rent while taking zero equity. As the technology partner of GCT, we are contributing a suite of tools and services for the community, including mentorships, workshops, and BizSpark Plus, which provides $60,000 in free Azure cloud services during a startup’s first year.

  1. Built the Civic Graph

Civic Graph

As we did our research into the current state of the civic tech in New York and across the country, it became clear that the field didn’t have an up-to-date, accessible, structured knowledge base. It was hard to discern what was already happening. So we decided to build an open source, crowdsourced, open data tool showing who’s who and what’s what in civic tech. Employing the best of lean startup, agile development, and continuous iteration, the Civic Graph has been getting increasing attention from civic tech luminaries for its foundational role in supporting the growing the field of civic tech. You can check out get a great view of the current status landscape at CivicGraph.io – and don’t forget to put yourself on the map!

This progress has been made possible and accelerated by the fantastic partners, dedicated colleagues, and jaw-dropping talent that we have found here in New York City. If you are interested in collaborating on these exciting initiatives, please drop me a note at: [email protected]

This has been an incredible first year for the Technology & Civic Innovation team. We couldn’t be more optimistic for what’s to come in this next year and beyond!

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John Paul Farmer

John believes in the combined power of technology and cross-sector collaboration to drive positive change throughout society. As the Director of Microsoft’s Technology & Civic Innovation team in New York City, John leads hands-on engagement with governments, non-profits, for-profits, academic institutions, startups, and civic hackers so that they can do more good together than they could apart. Previously, John served as a Senior Advisor for Innovation in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, where he spearheaded the President’s innovation agenda. Under President Barack Obama, he co-founded and led the Presidential Innovation Fellows program, which attracts top innovators and entrepreneurs from the private sector for focused tours of duty in government, in order to make game-changing progress on projects of national importance. He also served in the Administration as Senior Advisor for Healthcare Reform, working on healthcare information technology such as Blue Button, delivery system reform and economic analyses. John holds an MBA from the Graduate School of Business at Columbia University and an AB with honors from Harvard University.