Progress in New York City: Technology for Social Good

| John Paul Farmer

On New Years Day, against the backdrop of a brisk blue sky and a wind chill teetering near negative numbers, Mayor Bill de Blasio took the oath of office to kick off his second term in City Hall. Taking the stage before the city’s chief executive, Comptroller Scott Stringer and Public Advocate Letitia James – each having been reelected in November – were sworn into office. Then, Mayor de Blasio – surrounded by his family, a handful of Borough Presidents, dozens of City Council members, and hundreds of bundled-up New Yorkers – recited his oath of office, which was delivered by U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (VT). As Mayor de Blasio highlighted in his inauguration speech, New York City made a lot of progress during his first term in office. Violent crime dropped to its lowest level in decades, thousands more children are in pre-kindergarten classes, and all 1.1 million students in New York City public schools will soon have access to comprehensive computer science education through the #CS4ALL initiative.

At Microsoft, we are proud to have contributed to some of the advancements that have recently taken place in New York City by demonstrating how technology can be used for social good. With over a thousand of our own employees based here, we’ve worked with non-profits, foundations, universities, startups, and civic technologists to make an impact. But the impact wouldn’t be nearly what it has been without the close partnership of local government – from City Council to City Hall to Borough Hall. In just the past few years, the exciting and impactful projects we have accomplished with the City of New York include the following:

    • Microsoft Translator has been used to help New Yorkers overcome language barriers. This is needed in a city such as New York where, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 49% of households speak a language other than English at home. Relative to traditional translation solutions, Translator’s web-based machine learning translation technology has shown that it can do the job at a tiny fraction of the cost. Translator makes translation available where it was never before economically feasible, promising more New Yorkers access to city services.
    • TEALS (Technology Education and Literacy in Schools), supported by Microsoft Philanthropies, has brought professional computer programmers into dozens of New York City schools to teach computer science to students and teachers. During a year of “team-teaching” the curriculum, previously less-experienced teachers become equipped to continue on their own, thereby delivering computer science education to students in the near term and increasing the supply of Computer Science teachers in the medium term. This work is done in partnership with the NYC Dept of Education’s CS4All Initiative.
    • The Vision Zero Data Science project, developed by Microsoft and the pioneering non-profit DataKind, helped New York City’s Department of Transportation virtually test changes to laws such as speed limits and street architecture such as lane width in order to understand the impact on safety of various possible interventions.
    • The Microsoft Reactor at Grand Central Tech launched to support the growing New York City startup community with technologies ranging from the Azure cloud to mixed reality platforms such as HoloLens. This project wouldn’t have happened without the support of the New York City Economic Development Corporation in developing the Urban Tech Growth Hub at Grand Central Tech.
    • New York City Council piloted the use of Surfaces for Council business, showing how local legislatures can save both trees and taxpayer dollars.
    • BoardStat was developed by the Manhattan Borough President and civic tech non-profit BetaNYC using Microsoft’s PowerBI data analysis tools to help community boards gain relevant hyperlocal insights from openly available 311 data.
    • Tech Jobs Academy is an innovative rapid re-skilling program delivered in collaboration with the NYC Tech Talent Pipeline and CUNY’s New York City College of Technology that successfully addressed the skills gap. Through the four-month program, disadvantaged-but-capable New Yorkers transformed their lives – with average income jumping from $9,000 to $47,000 per year – and the model is inspiring similar programs around the country.

When we created the Microsoft Cities team early in Mayor de Blasio’s first term, we committed to work with every sector of New York to understand people’s needs and collaboratively figure out where and how technology could help. The solutions we’ve created have proven how technology can be a powerful tool in improving our communities, but there is much more work to be done, as some of these solutions are still in the pilot phase and have not yet been deployed at scale. Working closely with local government, we’ve done a lot of good in the last four years. We look forward to building on that foundation in these next four years…and in the years 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.