Skip to main content

Smart cities NYC: Stuff you could do (and didn't know you could)

There are 8 million stories in the Naked City, and freely available data about almost every one of them.

Whether New York is the greatest city in the world may be open to debate (although, according to this New Yorker, if you say otherwise, you’re wrong). But it is certainly one of the most open with its municipal data, with extensive benefits for its managers and residents.

New York is awash in data, so much so that it’s the only city in the world with its own top-level domain (.nyc). The city publishes more than 11,000 datasets, which include data from departments you might expect—police, fire, housing, transit—and others that might be a little more obscure but important: the banking commission, the tax appeals tribunal, and the Office of the Actuary. All of that data is available for public use, for free.

And much of it is useful—at least when you need to know something. You want to see a map of where all the parking meters are? Locations of overhead electronic traffic signs? All 2017 rodent complaints in a neighborhood? (Ick.) A database of police officers who took the Sergeants Test—and their scores? Yessir.

Sometimes, you just want to look things up, but open data often is most useful when it’s correlated with other information. Starting this year, there is an NYC BigApps challenge, offering cash prizes for innovative and useful ways to use the open data. This year’s winners—none of which are yet available for public use—were OnBoard, a passenger check-in system for the city’s Access-A-Ride paratransit network; DollarVan.nyc, providing hailing and payment systems for the semi-official “dollar vans” that supplement bus service in immigrant communities; and Conductor, which promises to show reliable real-time transit information.

Bandwidth, public and private

The city has a closed Wi-Fi network for municipal services. Every building with water service, for instance, has a grey box bolted to it that transmits usage data to the Department of Environmental Protection three times a day. If you set up an account to pay your bill, you can see how much water you’re using nearly in real time. It’s detailed enough that I can pretty much tell if one of my kids skipped their shower yesterday.

How does the city of LA keep construction booming and protect itself against service disruptions?

New York’s been building out its public Internet access, too. All of the city’s underground subway stations now have Wi-Fi and cellular access (though that doesn’t do you a ton of good if you’re stuck between stations). And aboveground, a venture called LinkNYC has been installing free hotspots all over the city—1,100 of a planned 7,500—replacing pay phones. The hotspots, which are paid for by advertising on the kiosks’ 55-in. screens, provides gigabit Wi-Fi and USB power, as well as keypads for free telephone calls anywhere in the U.S.

But today, the front door to online municipal services is nyc.gov, or the associated NYC311 app. That’s where you find out if parking rules are in effect, garbage is being picked up, and if schools are open. It’s where you can make a complaint (the official municipal pastime) or check on the status of a complaint about noise, parking, streets, or public health; or you can rat out your landlord. You can also make all sorts of payments, including parking and traffic tickets, water bills, property tax, birth or death certificates, and so on. If you enter your address, you can learn your police precinct, school district, trash pickup days, and what’s called your BBL (borough, block, and lot number), which is handy for real estate transactions.

Real estate and permits

One place a BBL is useful is for a service called ACRIS (Automated City Register Information System, if you must know), which contains an alarming amount of information about every building in New York, including deeds and mortgages. Similarly, the Buildings Department has a site that helpfully tells you about any permits or outstanding violations on any building in the five boroughs. It’s also where you go to apply for permits and inspections, and where you can find the city’s fire code.

But what if you just want to know what’s going on in your neighborhood? You want proof that you’re not the “only person who’s complained” about something? If you’re in Manhattan, you’re in luck.

Mr. Data’s neighborhood

The city has been rolling out a series of dashboards that show tons of complaint data in bar charts, on maps, and on data tables. BoardStat, based on Microsoft BI, is nominally a tool created for community boards, the city’s neighborhood-level political organizations. There are 59 of them in New York; BoardStat so far covers just the 12 in Manhattan.

It’s an amazing tool. In Community Board 2 (Greenwich Village, Chinatown, and the Lower East Side), you can see that there have been 1,042 residential noise complaints this year, with two addresses accounting for more than 20 each. An apartment house at 421 Hudson Street has been the source of 71 commercial noise complaints (for loud music) this year. There have been 1,114 requests to assist the homeless, and 591 complaints about taxi drivers, many of them centered around The Bowery. As with all these open data projects, it’s easy to get sucked in by the detail. But BoardStat works best on a big screen.

Getting there

Besides real estate, New Yorkers’ other main obsession is with getting around town. And, of course, there are apps for that.

If what you want is the current status of the transit network, there’s nothing better than the official mta.info site on your smartphone. Subway delays and reroutings appear there first, and you can punch in the code of the bus stop you’re at (it’s on the Bus Stop sign) and find out how soon the next bus will arrive.

But if you want to get from point A to point B, most people opt for Citymapper. The Citymapper app, which works in many cities around the globe, gives multiple route options and detailed multi-mode directions—subway to here, bus to there, then walk—down to the vital matter of where on the train you should stand to get to the most efficient exit. And when the app updates, don’t forget to read the marvelously entertaining update notes.

You’d rather bike? Like other cities, New York has a major bike share program—still in limited neighborhoods, but expanding—called CitiBike. You don’t need the app to use CitiBike, but it helps. The app is the best way to find bike docks and learn which docks have bikes to rent and which have empty slots for bike return.

You gotta have park

If you insist on driving, you need to park, and your first attempt will be to park on the street. If you succeed, you’ll notice that the city now uses MuniMeters. These kiosks (roughly one to a block) require you to buy time and put a slip of paper that shows when your time runs out on your dashboard.

But the city’s been rolling out a new mobile system called ParkNYC. When you first use the app, you set up a pre-funded wallet—not unlike setting up a Starbucks account. The city’s ubiquitous if not always entirely penetrable parking regulation signs now carry a six-digit code. When you park, you enter the zone code and the length of time you need into the app. The app saves your location (and shows it on a map) and pings you 15 minutes before your time expires.

The thing about ParkNYC is that you can’t extend your time past the posted limit. If you’re on a one-hour block, ParkNYC won’t let you buy another hour until 30 minutes have passed. The MuniMeters are still working, though, so I guess you could pay for an hour with a MuniMeter, then an hour with ParkNYC, then repeat the cycle again.

You really gonna eat that?

Once you’ve parked, you’ve gotta eat, right? There are a million restaurant review sites and apps, but check out Inspector Ralph. The app locates you and uses open data from the city’s Department of Health to tell you about the restaurants near you and how they fared on their most recent inspection. It’s not just the grade, but what specifically the inspectors dinged them on. And there’s always something. Yum.

Big data for a big city

Given the amount of data New York makes public, it’s actually a little surprising that there isn’t more in the way of dashboards or apps that use it. Give them time, though: The mandate to open all the data is just five years old. It takes time to publish everything and longer still for people to figure out what to do with it.

If you’re curious, Boston is also doing cool things with open data and municipal services.

The good news is, all the great stuff that’s available? That’s just the start.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.