Fun with Discretionary Funding Maps

Gotham Gazette put together this great map overlaying discretionary funding broken down by district over a map of NYC.  Check out how much discretionary funding your district is getting. And then you can ask yourself – “wait, why is there such a big difference between all the districts?”  

Some candidates for NYC’s Mayoral opening have said that we need some kind of reform, but no one is coming forward with a proposition or a plan.  It’s a good thing I have.  


The Importance of Directional Arrows

As I embark on the beginning of my Thesis journey, I have been thinking back to the lessons and principles first taught to me by my now advisor Despina Papadopoulos.  In the first course I took, she taught me how to map.  I’ve always loved maps – old maps of the flat world, maps of the galaxy, maps of cities 500 years ago, 10,000 years ago (assuming they had some kind of maps) – to see how we see the world around us.  How we interpret and put down in some official manner what we see around us is an important benchmark for a society.  

What Despina taught was the importance of mapping for everything around us.  The importance of mapping for process.  Not just what’s around us, but how it got there.  How it moves through our lives.  How we interact with what’s around us.  And how that process can be mapped.  The functionality of mapping is that it allows us to take a step back and analyze our current behaviors and systems from the outside.  The ability to take a step back and really see things allows us to gain clarity in the systems around us.  

With this in mind, I began my work on my Thesis.  

First things first, define your universe; define your problem.  I’ll be writing, more eloquently I would hope, about the universe and the problem, but at its base level I want to explore the relationship between citizen and government.  Before I get to which interactions, I think it’s important to take that step back and draw a very basic map.  

Think about your interactions with any institution, not just governmental.  Think about your interactions with any service provided for you.  On a map, we draw arrows for interactions.  You go to the store, you give the cashier money, you leave with a product.  There are a bunch of arrows in there, all of them one directional.  

In my experience working for the government and my own experiences with governmental services and agencies, I found most of the interactions are one directional.  I report something, I ask something, I need something; they do or do not respond, but the platform for the response, the personelle of the response is rarely ever the same.  There are many different kinds of interactions, and many different one way arrows when you start mapping out citizen to government interactions.  

What we need, what I hope to prove we need, what I hope to build, is a system which creates two dimensional arrows.  

Look out over the summer for more updates as I start this process, build my research, and explore how to create these arrows.


“I Followed the Money and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt”

Let’s say you are a corrupt politician, and you’re looking to launder some public money.  Don’t fret, it’s actually not all that hard.

Every year the New York City Council debates the budget.  How much of your tax money goes to parks, how much to schools, infrastructure, they divide the budget pie.  A portion of that pie every year gets sectioned away for “discretionary funding”.  In 2012, that pie slice was 579 million dollars.  Discretionary funds are money that the City Council Member can allocate as he or she sees fit. There are two types of discretionary funds. Expense funds ($151 million) are used to pay for salaries and services. Capital funds ($428 million) are used to pay for physical infrastructure – for “brick and mortar” projects.

If you’re looking to launder some money, discretionary funding is your best bet.  The trick is to take your portion of discretionary funding and allocate it to programs and organizations that you run, behind the scenes.  You give the money to “Totally Legit Company”, which you founded – that’s legal – and which is staffed and run by your family and friends – also, technically, legal.  Once they collect their paychecks, the money is clean, and free to be given to you in a bag with a dollar bill sign on it.  Luckily you won’t have to worry all that much because once the money is allocated from the Council budget to the Councilmember, there’s no oversight process to monitor its use or effectiveness.  It’s a good faith kind of thing. New York City’s protection against discretionary funding abuse is only a few steps removed from a bank putting up a sign over its open vault that reads, “please do not steal.”

The most recent politician to be caught was Larry Seabrook who had been laundering money for decades before he finally went down.  He sent taxpayer dollars to organizations run by his girlfriend.  He funded an organization whose mission was to produce a parade, which hasn’t produced a march around the block.  There is even a record of a lunch Seabrook put on the books for $170 dollars.  The contents of the lunch?  A bagel and cream cheese.

Last year, four progressive Councilmembers took a stand against this kind of fraud.  They launched what they called an experiment dubbed “Participatory Budgeting.”  Each Councilmember set aside one million dollars of their discretionary funding for projects to be proposed by, debated by, and instituted by their constituents.  The project culminated in a vote by the constituents for the top ideas to receive funding.  Direct democracy taking place, with the use of magic markers.

Councilmember Brad Lander at a Participatory Budgeting meeting

Increased participation will keep potential thieves on their toes.  If Larry Seabrook had to pitch his shell company ideas in front of his constituents and asked them to fund the pockets of his family and friends’ bank accounts, I would imagine those not in his immediate family would have dealt with him long before the US Attorney General would have had to.

Why is it easier to spend 170 dollars on a bagel than it is for people to realize that you shouldn’t be able to spend 170 dollars on a bagel.  The lesson here is fairly simple: when someone steals from you, don’t keep giving them money.  Hopefully participatory budgeting expands, hopefully we start to realize that the money is being taken out of our pockets, hopefully we can make our City better for everyone, except of course for you: the corrupt politician.


Plotting Yourself

As I reflect on this past semester, the discussions we’ve had about data – what to do with it, who can do what, where does it come from; the discussions about technology’s place and use in today’s world – what do we understand, how complicated can we make something before nobody uses it; the discussions about how to redesign processes that have never been redesigned before, how to intervene into systems never thought to be broken, how to re-engineer the plane while we’re flying it, as @bethnoveck says. 

As I think about all of these run-on, incomplete sentences, I think back to a design practice taught to me while taking a course at ITP.  Jorge Just @jorgej and Chris Fabian @unickf taught us an exercise best used at the beginning stages of designing your idea.  Draw out a graph, just like you did in 7th grade math class, and on the X axis you chart “local” to “international.”  On the Y axis, you’re looking at “low tech” to “high tech.” 

Think of your current idea.  That idea that you know is going to change the world.  Plot it on your map.  Where does it fall? 




Feel free to use my map as your starting point.  This sketch, for those following along at home, would probably be plotted on the bottom left corner, maybe a little higher up on the Y axis since it’s a white board.  A paper and pen would be lower tech.  But it is extremely local, since it’s in my apartment (also, yes, I white boarded part of my wall, something I recommend to everyone).

How would I scale that up and move it along each axis?  A chart that’s on a computer would go higher on the tech side.  But if it’s my computer, still stay local.  However, by putting this picture on this blog, it’s now wider spread and thus less local.  So it spreads on the X axis.  If there was an app to chart things, that would move even farther in both directions. 

The point is to reimagine your idea in both directions.  What I’ve found to be true is that a good idea can move in any direction on this map.  It’s all about how you want to intervene in the world.  The design world uses the world intervention, which I personally adore because it means you’re causing a ruckus but in a good way.  Before you do, think about where on this graph you’re intervening.  Then think about what it would be like all the way to the left.  Then the right.  I promise you’ll think of new problems and eventually new solutions in your designs of programs and experiments and ideas. 

By: Asher Novek

Interview with City Councilmember Jumaane Williams regarding Participatory Budgeting

I was fortunate to sit and chat with Councilmember Jumaane Williams, of the 45th Council District, around his efforts in participatory budgeting. Initiated in NYC in 2011, participatory budgeting is a project meant to engage the community in allocating funding towards local projects, but also meant to empower the community to engage with their local City officials. Each of the Councilmembers (4 participated in 2011) allocated funding from their discretionary budget just for the PB project. The constituents held town halls, debated what the money should be used for, proposed projects, and eventually culminated in a vote for the top project ideas. The votes were held in schools, community centers; votes were tallied on poster board, with markers. Democracy in action.

What happens when people were given a power they were not used to? Did the project lead to a strengthening of the bond between constituents and their local government? Will participatory budgeting continue to grow in the coming years? And how can technology influence PB, but also civic engagement on a larger scale? These were some of the questions I spoke to CM Williams about.

Some of the points that he brought up, the “initial hesitation when people are given power” I find to be the most interesting. How can you empower people if they won’t trust the source? There is a fundamental divide between some communities and their government, and it isn’t the kind of divide that can be filled by any one thing in any given amount of time. It takes a generational effort among both the citizens and their elected officials to build a bond of mutual trust, something that I think participatory budgeting lays a wonderful groundwork for.

In looking at how technology can help bridge that gap, I also think it’s critical to keep in mind the “digital divide” that Williams talks about. Those of us in design school and blogging and live tweeting often times forget that there is a basic technology divide, and I would even go so far to say that there are far more people who don’t understand than who do. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t design tech programs that help link and connect people, but like Williams says, “we need to get people to understand the importance and have access to technology.” The last part – access – is critical. Not everyone has an iPad or even a computer, but everyone has a phone. Everyone has a TV. We should be looking at ways to utilize the technologies that we know are universal to engage people in the technology sphere, as a way to bridge that gap between government and citizen.

“Make [technology] something that people WANT to do” is the key.

Participatory budgeting attempts to do something broader which I feel is the core of its nobility. It reveals a part of government to people, brings down the curtain, lets people see the inside. I know the old adage “there are two things you never want to let people see how you make – laws and sausages” but I don’t agree with it. People should be given much more credit than they are currently allowed, and participatory budgeting is a way for local government to make that first step in establishing that trust. Does budgeting have to be something that only politicians understand? Does it have to be stuffy and hearings and rhetoric? Or can it be hands on? Can it be, dare I say, fun? Engaging? Accessible – in both a literal and metaphorical sense?

The steps Councilmember Williams, along with his colleagues, have taken so far in bringing law making to their constituents is a great feet. One that needs to be duplicated and tweaked and expanded on. Like Williams says, “technology is part of the squeaky wheel.”

Looking to Comedy for Process

Regardless of political affiliation, regardless of Red or Blue, one thing I know is true for everyone – we all like comedy.  Everybody likes to laugh.  Comedy has been around, arguably, since before politics, since before government.  So in our studies of how we can improve the systems of government, I thought it might benefit looking at a system which has withstood the test of time – comedy.

One comedian immediately came up in my mind, Louis CK.  Louis has been around the comedy world for decades, but only in the last few years has really taken off.  What’s his secret?  Besides brutal honesty, he has a process which forces his creativity, which is not his process.

Here Louis talks about where his process came from – the late George Carlin.  What George would do, after every special or CD he put out was throw away all his material.  Every year he would do a bit, and as soon as it was done, out with it.  Time to rewrite new material.  Louis reflected on when he heard about this:  “This idea that you throw everything away and you start over again. After you are done telling jokes about airplanes and dogs, you throw them away. What do you have left? You can only dig deeper. You start talking about your feelings and who you are. And then you do those jokes until they’re gone.You gotta dig deeper. So then you start thinking about your fears and your nightmares and doing jokes about that. And then they’re gone. And then you start going into just weird shit.  It’s a process that I watched him do my whole life. And I started to try and do it.”

One of the reasons comedy is still funny year after year after decade after century is that you don’t know what’s coming.  That’s the punchline.  So starting fresh makes sense in the process of keeping jokes fresh and therefore, funny.  Couldn’t we apply this to our lawmaking process?  Our methods of developing innovation?

I think when we talk about fixing government, when we talk about changing parts of the system, I think too often we just talk about airplanes and dogs.  We end up using “soft language”, as George would put it.  If something isn’t working, let’s try something new.  I don’t think we should throw away our constitution, but maybe we can throw away and start over on some of our processes.  We could throw away some of our processes of developing innovation.  We can throw away our incomplete projects and start again.  We can try again, we can do better.

Innovation is a verb.  It needs to be moving, to be changing, maybe we need it to be reset every once and a while.  We amend and amend and amend, when have we ever thrown away our material and started fresh?  It’s a terrifying concept, but maybe we need a little fear.

“We citizens are the users. What we’ve always lacked is a well-designed user interface. That’s not a surprise when you consider the era in which our system was invented,” comic strip “Dilbert”‘s Scott Adams wrote.  “Perhaps what we need is a fourth branch of government, smallish and economical, operating independently, with a mission to build and maintain a friendly user interface for citizens to manage their government.”  Great idea.  But let’s make sure comedians are in charge of that branch.

By: Asher Novek

The Importance of Bad Questions

“Connection technologies, including social media, tend to devolve power from the nation state and large institutions to individuals and small institutions,” Alec J. Ross, senior innovation advisor to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, said in an interview. “If governments are not engaging in social media, they are essentially ceding influence and power,” said Ross.

While I do agree wholeheartedly with Ross, I do think that government needs to cede a certain amount of power and social media is the outlet for that.  Government needs to show the ability to take a step back and say out loud, “We can’t solve everything, we don’t know everything, we need help.”  I’ve heard the cliche a million times – it takes a bigger person to admit when they need help – but I’ve yet to hear the government say so.  The open government initiatives are stepping in that direction, and all the openness trends are moving in that direction.  The barrier is who they’re opening up to, and what they let in. 

Joel Spolsky (@spolsky) talked about the importance of good questions, which lead to good answers.  His project – Stack Exchange – allows an online community of experts on various topics answer specific questions.  The process is open and democratic, where someone asks a question, people can reply with answers, and then vote on which answer is the best.  Joel did, however, stress the importance of good questions vs. bad questions, something that I think government should disagree with.  A bad question, Joel uses as an example, is “why is there a green Honda parked outside of my house?”  For the purposes of obtaining an expert answer, yes, that is a bad question.  There’s no real answer for it, there’s no real purpose behind the question.  But imagine a slightly different setting for the question – an online community forum, a community list serve, a forum where communities and politicians can interact.  Then it becomes a great-bad question: is there a safety concern with the car?  Is there a permit issue?  It opens up to discussion and opens up to a wider array of topics.  This is how government should be collaborating and opening up, with the use of ‘bad’ questions. 

My whole life, my mother has always told me, “crazy people just seem to find you, no matter where you are.”  This was true when I worked in fast food, volunteering for environmental groups, bar tending, so why would it be any different when I worked in city government?  When I worked for the City, I worked in public affairs, and somehow people found my direct line for any and all of their complaints, ideas, or just to talk for hours and hours.  People have things to say, they have ideas.  They just need someone to talk to.  And I can’t be that only person.  There needs to be a space where people can voice their thoughts and ideas, and the abilities of social media can make that.  Stack Exchange is a great place for expert questions, but I wonder if there’s a way to create a “community oriented stack exchange”, a place for “bad” questions. 

Government needs some bad ideas.  They need to know what the needs and concerns of its citizens are, but more importantly they need a method of engagement.  So far, little has worked to stimulate and bring people together with their representatives.  Social media is a vehicle which could bridge that gap.  President Obama has held Twitter town halls, a great signal of technology bringing people’s voices to government.  If there was a space which was easily accessible – via Twitter or email, a low tech solution – which could allow people to voice ideas and challenges to the government, and a space for the government to communicate back, then there wouldn’t be any “bad” ideas or questions. 

I’m of the train of thought that people should inundate government with ideas because you never know where a good idea can come from.  Granted, I may not have felt that way when I was fielding dozens of calls a day with questions that my office had no jurisdiction over, but that doesn’t mean that space shouldn’t exist.  If there was a space for people to ask questions and allow for, what Joel calls a “community of self governance”, where people can vote on their peer’s questions and answers, where people can answer their peer’s questions, where government can ask people “bad” questions, then we open up doors that are still for some reason closed. 

Collaboration between government and communities if government can admit it needs help, and communities are willing to step up and raise their voices, even if the questions are bad.

By: Asher Novek

Walking Dead – the Innovation Tool

I know my Mom has been waiting for the moment that all those games I played as a kid and now as an emerging adult to pay off, and this might be close to that moment.  “The Walking Dead” video game, released as an app as well as a console game, offers a unique style of gameplay.  Instead of a normal adventure game where you would wander through a zombie infested town, the game plays more like a story telling game.  Most of the actions are done automatically, what the game offers you are choices.  Choices of what to say, what to do, and the characters in the game react to your actions.  Not only that, but they will remember what you’ve chosen to do in the past, and the story unfolds based on the decisions you make.  It’s sort of like a choose-your-own-adventure video game, except you can’t flip through the pages and find the ending you want.  It puts the onus of responsibility on the user and requires your proactivity, as opposed to the user reacting to the game.

In the discussion of gamification, how to add a level of competition to innovation, I wonder how we can better incorporate – or take into account – user choice.  Competition is a necessary tool that increases the participation base, and incentives users.  But choice could be the tool that keeps people coming back.  Getting people to participate in a platform is one hurdle, the next, and in my opinion the largest hurdle, is getting people to participate in a platform on a daily basis with minimal falloff.  If people saw their choices play out in real life, and saw how their choices effected daily life around them, I believe they would be more inclined to use that platform on a regular basis.

For example, a tool that brought people into the legislative process, and also gave updates on a regular basis based on their participation – so if a bill gets a certain number of “likes” or “whatevers” that are community driven, the legislator votes a certain way – then people would feel a more direct connection to the process.  Competition can get people involved, choice might be the key to keep people involved.


“Only some people know how to find the data now, and they’re mostly investigative reporters”

@JoelGurin talked about making data accessible, and I think along with accessibility needs to go interactivity.  People need to be able to see the data evolve as they influence it.  When people feel a part of a process, I believe they are more likely to trust that process.  Or at least, take ownership and responsibility for that process. 

Data has that potential to empower people, if used properly.  Making the data accessible is a good first step, but it’s not the last step.  It certainly can’t be seen as the biggest step, either.  Data has the ability to give people an identity.  A project like Map Kibera allows citizens to map their neighborhoods.  If a process like this could be used to generate data that government agencies could use to map issues and keep people updated as to how they were working towards solving those issues, then you create a system of active data and active civic participation.  How you generate the data is just as important as what you do with it. 

In his lecture, Joel brought up a chart identifying 5 stakeholders who need to be connected: data holders (government), application developers (tech), consumers (average citizen), industry (product), and subject matter experts.  He argued that we need to find ways to bring these stakeholders together to create a better flow of information.  The line between government, citizens, and industry is the triangle I think we should focus on, with subject experts and developers sprinkling in ways to create that flow.  Bringing citizens into the equation is the hardest and most important part of that process. 

Maybe we need an OrgPedia for government agencies.  A place where people could filter through various agencies, see what processes are currently happening, places they could involve themselves, and create an interactive directory.  If government agencies were able to attach a singular person as a point of contact, people would be far more receptive to interacting with that agency.  In my experience working for a NYC agency, most people I encountered just had no idea who to talk to.  I spent 3 years connecting people to different agents around the City, most of the time just by pulling up someone’s public number that was buried underneath a hard to navigate government website.  If there was a clear, easy to use website or app – like OrgPedia – for government agencies, then people could reach out and develop those relationships that are being forgotten about. 

That space could also be a place for industry to involve itself, and create a place for user feedback to influence a running set of data.  Developers and subject experts could insert themselves in providing the tools and the relevant questions needed to keep those data sets moving and current.  Two way communication is the key in every arrow we draw from one stakeholder to the next.

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