March 2, 2017

How does tech enrich urban policy? SIPA’s Entrepreneurship and Policy Initiative joined Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs in an effort to answer that very question, convening experts in policy, technology, and entrepreneurship for a lively discussion on February 23.

Every seat in the room was filled for the event at Faculty House, which considered tensions between private technology and the public good while addressing the role of universities, industry, and nonprofits in developing a more robust technology ecosystem within cities.

Dean Merit E. Janow greeted the audience and welcomed participants including Rohit Aggarwala, Sidewalk Labs’ chief policy officer; Noelle Francois, CEO of Heat Seek NYC; Miguel Gamiño Jr., New York City’s chief technology officer; Maria Gotsch, president and CEO of the Partnership Fund for New York City; and moderator Andrew Rasiej, founder and CEO of Civic Hall.

The ensuing discussion offered a dynamic look at how technology and public policy are intertwined. Rasiej noted the complexity of this relationship, outlining several different types of public technologies: “civic tech” (used to provide public goods), “gov tech” (used for administrative tasks), and “city tech” (used to meet urban needs). Gamiño said that government has a role in each of these areas—although not necessarily the same role—and that each brings unique privacy concerns.

Rasiej suggested that the tech-policy relationship is complicated because “most public-policy people don’t think of tech as enriching, rather as a pain.”

Why are they reactive instead of proactive? Gamiño observed that when tech appears on the scene suddenly, as it often does, government is often forced to address the concerns that result. This means, he said, that to avoid problems we need to find ways to involve government much earlier in the tech development process.

Gotsch disagreed, saying that government should not be involved as a player in the development of public tech because it would be disruptive. Rather, she said, the government should play the role of referee.

Such a role is important in urban environments, where aggregate consequences can be much worse even when externalities remain the same, Aggarwala said. He also stressed the importance of public involvement in tech, reminding fellow panelists to not overlook the fact that private companies often fail to act in the public’s interest.

The discussion also addressed data collection and security, debating the difference between public and private records, as well as the cost-benefit tradeoffs we make as a society. Aggarwala noted the importance of trust in cultivating a healthy business environment, while Gotsch emphasized the relevance of consumer watchdogs.

Francois shared her experience with underprivileged clients of tech services, observing that many are not even in a position to understand data security issues. They are vulnerable, she added, and not by choice.

The event concluded with Q&A session that addressed how tech and privacy policies get made within organizations. Gamiño stressed that cities need a scalable way to organize privacy policies, rather than have them decided ad hoc by each department. Francois said that if an organization is driven by the profit motive, it can expand more easily, but its product and policies will reflect those profit concerns. Gotsch suggested benefit corporations, or B-corps, can be a good way to address this concern, as they aim to find a middle way between scalability and public benefit.

Collaboration and coordination were the watchwords of the evening, as speakers repeatedly emphasized the importance of collaboration amongst stakeholders in order to keep pace with emerging technology and ensure its benefits are disseminated among citizens in an equitable and trustworthy way.

— Jackie Burns Koven MPA ’17 and Matt Terry MIA ’17

Pictured: (left) Miguel Gamiño Jr.,, Noelle Francois; (top right) Maria Gotsch; (bottom right), Merit E. Janow, Gamiño, Hollie Russon Gilman (SIPA fellow in technology and policy), Rohit Aggarwala, Gotsch, Andrew Rasiej, Francois.