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NYC Unveils Sandy Funding Tracking Portal Amid Calls for Transparency

By Miranda Neubauer
December 3, 2013

New York City on Monday unveiled the first iteration of an online platform designed to track the city’s dissemination of federal disaster recovery and resilience funds in connection with the aftermath from Superstorm Sandy. While advocates expressed concerns that not enough of the data was available in a disaggregated, accessible and downloadable format, city officials told techPresident they are working to make as much underlying data available as they could through New York City’s Open Data portal.

Deputy Mayor for Operations Cas Holloway and Chief Analytics Officer Michael Flowers announced the launch of the platform at a City Council hearing by the Committee on Finance regarding proposed legislation to set up an online, searchable database tracking the administration of funds from federal, state or city funds for recovery or rebuilding efforts.

Both the city officials and the members of the City Council cited as precedent for the website the city’s Stimulus Tracker, which focused on the dissemination of stimulus funds.

In their testimony, Holloway and Flowers explained how the tracker shows the status of funds coming from FEMA and Community Development Block Grants distributed by HUD. According to Holloway, FEMA has obligated around $1 billion out of $12 billion to New York City to address damages to infrastructure and immediate recovery and clean-up operations. The city estimates that Sandy caused around $4.6 billion in damages, and is working with FEMA to get additional funding and reimburse the $1.6 billion the city has spent so far, he said.

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Flowers highlighted how the platform’s tools allow users to click for more granular information and visualize the data through charts and tables. Users can see which programs the CDBG funding is going to, details on the borough and jobs associated with the business recovery initiatives, the applications by borough and zip code for the Build it Back program, and the city agencies responsible for FEMA funds, Flowers pointed out. He said that all financial information would be updated quarterly while other information on the programs would be updated monthly. While some of the data for the first release was entered manually, he said, “in the next round of this much of it will be automated.” Noting questions among City Council members about how the mayoral transition would impact the process, he said his philosophy was generally to “remove the human finger from this process so it doesn’t matter [how the transition goes.]” He also said his office was working on adding tools to track progress over time and other backend improvements. (He noted that a fix was underway for a display problem for mobile iOS users.)

In his testimony, Holloway suggested that the legislation, spearheaded by Queens City Council member Donovan Richards (D) and cosponsored by other 34 other Council members, including open data supporter and future Manhattan Borough President, Gale Brewer, was no longer necessary with the launch of the website, and that it would be more effective to address Council member concerns to enhance the existing portal.

He also reiterated city concerns that the legislation as written could endanger the privacy of homeowners and businesses, and that detailed salary and jobs reporting requirements would be impractical or intrusive for contractors. However, he did say it would be possible to provide information on the three prime contractors that are part of the Build it Back program and their subcontractors, information on the list of approved contractors homeowners can select on their own, and to calculate the amount of labor required to do work on the projects to give an idea of the economic activity being generated

The legislation would require among other data detailed information in the database on the contractors, the projects they are working on, the projects’ locations, the funding being provided, the jobs being created, the wages of workers on the project, their borough of residence and the borough of the project, whether the recipient of funding has ever been found to have violated any labor or employment laws and whether the recipient of the funding is in compliance with prevailing wage laws.

City Council members and advocacy groups emphasized that the database as envisioned by the law could help combat wage fraud, especially as it affects immigrant workers, ensure that funds are reaching those in need, help ensure that contracts and economic benefits are going to local businesses in affected communities and ensure that the federal government meets its reimbursement commitments.

“The city leads the way in being able to do websites,” Vincent Ignizio (R), City Council member from Staten Island, said at Monday’s hearing, as he and others praised the initial work of the administration. But City Council members also said they still considered the legislation necessary, especially to ensure that the process continues under the next mayoral administration and as funds continue to be disseminated in the coming years. Holloway noted in his testimony that the construction process for the Build it Back program would be continuing into 2014 and 2015.

The legislation would also require the data to be “available in a non-proprietary format.” Many of the advocacy groups testifying said they were unclear about the degree to which the data available under the existing portal would be available for download and analysis.

Josh Kellerman, senior policy and research analyst for the Alliance for a Greater New York, said the legislation was important to codify best practices for the website already implemented by comparable portals from the New York City Economic Development Corporation, Recovery.gov and New Jersey’s Sandy Transparency online database. That portal was established under executive order from Governor Chris Christie.

“New Jersey’s Sandy Transparency online database is a clear and simple example of how to provide essential information to the public and to decision makers on this spending,” Kellerman said in his testimony. “New Jersey’s one-stop website has easy to understand pie charts, and allows users to view fund allocations and expenditures, as well as program descriptions by federal agency, state agency, county and municipality.”

Kellerman, and representatives from Alliance for A Just Rebuilding and El Centro del Inmigrante said it was essential that the city clarify what data would be available in the form of a “non-proprietary, downloadable database.” Kellerman emphasized that the database should comply with New York City’s Open Data law and that underlying disaggregated data should be available through the Open Data portal. “Disaggregated data is essential and we will not get it under the mayor’s proposal,” Kellerman said. The advocacy groups also called for the inclusion of employment information by zip code, not just by borough.

In a brief interview and e-mail following the hearing, Flowers and Nicholas O’Brien, Chief of Staff in the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics, said that underlying data from the portal would be made available through the Open Data portal to the extent that it was covered by the law or did not raise privacy concerns. O’Brien said in an e-mail that a significant portion of the data is considered “reporting data” which is not covered by the Open Data law since the New York City charter already requires the publishing of aggregate reporting numbers.

“We are publishing it on a voluntary basis to increase transparency and accountability around the expenditure of Hurricane Sandy federal recovery dollars,” O’Brien wrote. “That said we do intend to publish this data to the Open Data portal. Now that the Sandy Tracker site is live, the publication of this data has been added to the agenda for the next Open Data internal meeting on Thursday and we will develop a timeline to get it integrated.”

Flowers, who during the hearing called the portal a “first cousin of Open Data,” said that the visualizations are “sort of a proxy of those things which we cannot report for privacy reasons, but those that can [go out], will.”

Flowers compared the different datasets to different collections of tiles collected in buckets broken down by color. “And then we have to put together a story from those, creating a mosaic of some kind. …We can dump those [data] tiles out, but how that data is interpreted and used by the city of New York to do what it does should also be part of the concept of transparency, and that element of it the Open Data statute does not speak to, that broader story and that context.”

O’Brien added in the e-mail that a significant portion of the granular financial data comes from the Office of Management and Budget, which is scheduled to release all its data subject to the law by the end of year per the city’s Open Data Plan. He wrote that more granular data regarding recipients of Build it Back funds would not be available due to privacy concerns. He also wrote that the Business Loan and Grant Program is administered by the EDC, which is not covered by the law, but that the Office of Analytics is working with the EDC to determine the most granular level of data it can provide voluntarily.

techPresident reported the other week on an earlier City Council hearing that highlighted the successes and challenges of the implementation of New York City’s Open Data Law. On Monday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed other legislation, spearheaded by Brewer, requiring that all city government public meetings be webcast. The NYC Department of Information Technology & Telecommunications recently highlighted a page showing the web site analytics of the city’s Open Data portal.

Earlier this year, the New York City Comptroller’s Office announced that it was working to release a new first-in-the nation database showcasing payments made by primary contractors to subcontractors as part of city projects.That data is currently scheduled to be integrated into the Comptroller’s Checkbook 2.0 platform by June or July 2014, according to an e-mail from Edward Sokolowski, director of the Program Management Office within the Comptroller’s Office. All data from the Checkbook platform is available through an API, except for visualizations.

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