About 2 weeks ago, I attended a talk by NYC’s CTO Minerva Tantoco (yes, a woman 🙂 ) and got an insight into the behind-the-scenes effort that goes into making this city so amazing!

 

As a celebration of one year in office, Ms. Tantaco was making herself available at numerous talks to share with the people her team’s accomplishments, what the future holds and to get feedback from New Yorkers themselves. It was amazing to learn how heavily her team relies on data. Every decision is data driven. To the extent that partnerships are forged with only those vendors who can prove through data how change will impact the people – prior, during as well as after the project. Further, they only entertain vendors who have had proven track records in their areas of expertise – as NYC is simply too big a city to do “tests” on.

 

The power of data was revealed through an example she shared. Once, in the same building, two separate tenants applied for a “liquor licence” and a “daycare license”. Having a liquor store so close to a daycare is against the city’s rules. The error was easily spotted and corrective action easily taken.

 

She also mentioned how all their data has been made available to the public through their web portal. This helps individuals/organisations come back with ideas – based on real data – on how to better the city.

 

So what does the future hold for one of the most efficiently run cities in the world? “Leak Watchers” for one. A leak watcher alerts owners/renters if the water usage of their homes crosses a certain limit. This way leaks can be quickly identified and water wastage prevented. “Smart signals” too. Smart signals change light as they gauge traffic in the area. The city also has plans to offer free wifi to all homes. Currently 600,000 homes in NYC do not have wifi and the Government’s concern is how kids at these homes will do homework or how will adults in these homes look for jobs?

 

During her talk, Ms. Tantoco kept pitching to the room (which had alot of engineers in presence) to apply for a job at her department. Because after all only a great team can deliver great results. In true democratic fashion, her exact words were, “All these changes are not possible without you.” And to reinforce her point, she shared the example of the Public Phones project. As mobile phones took over, her team reached out to the people to get their feedback on what should be done with the public phones in the city? Most people responded saying that they should be converted to wifi spots. So they took tenders from vendors; and the vendor with the best proposal eventually won the contract. The best proposal converts old public phones to wifi hubs where pedestrians will be able to connect for free. It will also be possible to charge one’s phone at these spots. That’s not all. The best part is that no tax payer money would be paying for any part of this project. With advertising built into the redesign of the phone booth, the Government infact ends up earning a 1% (with the remaining 99% going to the vendor)!

 

Walking out of the building amazed by everything I had just heard, I was suddenly taken back to my Atlas Corps application, in particular to my response to the question – What is your plan for when you return home after the Fellowship? How do you plan to implement lessons from the Fellowship?

 

To which I had written, “Over the years, I have developed an unexpected fascination of the power of the internet, both good and bad. Which has encouraged a dream – for public services in India, like local transportation, electricity, telephone, and voters’ databases to have technologically driven systems; powerful, interactive and informational websites so that one can do away with the many levels of bureacracy that currently exist to ease the burden on the common man.

 

I would like to take the best from nonprofit pioneers in the online space and bring it back home. The Internet medium in India today is at a fairly nascent stage and poised for growth as it provides an efficient and effective mechanism for reaching the underprivileged. It will not be enough to provide an online platform that enables giving of different kinds but provide a platform that encourages and instills this desire in people – something which many online platforms in the U.S. already do with great success. I would really like to get exposed to these learnings and bring them back to GiveIndia itself ( as well as to other major players in the online giving space ). Also, the international exposure I gain would indirectly help in bettering the standards and image of the nonprofit sector in India; which will go a long way in making a bigger impact towards poverty.

 

I’m thankful to Atlas Corps for this one small step in getting exposed to these learnings!

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