TechWeb

New York City Builds On Its Technology Base

Apr 23, 2013 (10:04 AM EDT)

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A massive data center -- 32 stories high and 1 million square feet in size -- opened last month in New York City. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, on hand for the launch, called it the latest sign of New York's emergence as a global technology center.

That emergence didn't happen by accident. The city has been broadening its tech base since Bloomberg took office in 2002, encouraging Silicon Valley companies to make New York their second home, deploying Wi-Fi in parks and other public places, sponsoring application development competitions and using analytics to bring new efficiency to municipal operations.

Signs of progress are evident throughout the city's five boroughs but concentrated in Manhattan. Google established a software development center in the Chelsea section, Facebook opened an engineering center on Madison Avenue and LinkedIn set up shop in the Empire State Building. Verizon, in partnership with New York's Department of IT and Telecommunications, has begun laying fiber cable across the city using a technique called "micro trenching" that's less disruptive to streets and sidewalks than using backhoes. The city will use the cable to extend broadband services to neighborhoods and small businesses that don't have them.

New York's 32-Story Data Fortress: Inside Tour
New York's 32-Story Data Fortress: Inside Tour
(click image for slideshow)

City Hall is looking to replace 11,000 public pay phones with kiosks that provide wireless connectivity and information services, such as bus arrival times, neighborhood maps and emergency calling, to residents and tourists. The city invited technologists and urban planners to participate in a design competition, and it plans to begin replacing the iconic pay phones in the second half of next year.

Bloomberg has assembled a leadership team to drive its smart city initiatives. CIO Rahul Merchant, who reports to the mayor, oversees the city's IT infrastructure, including its data centers and 311 non-emergency information service. But that's only half the job description. Merchant is also the city's chief innovation officer, reflecting a mandate to work with entrepreneurs, academic institutions and tech companies on innovations such as the next-gen pay phones.

Chief digital officer Rachel Haot heads a team established two year ago with the mission of transforming the Big Apple into "the world's leading digital city." Haot's group leads the city's open government efforts, social media engagement and partnerships with educational institutions. Its initiatives have included expanding broadband access through federal grants and computer-equipped "digital vans" and, in collaboration with the private sector, creating an interactive evacuation-zone map during Hurricane Sandy.

New York is also one of a growing number of cities that have assigned someone to drive the use of analytics. Michael Flowers, the city's chief analytics and open platform officer, is charged with creating a technology platform to facilitate information sharing among city agencies and with the public. For example, 23,000 metrics from the mayor's "management report" are available as raw data for download and analysis.

Open government is a part of the bigger picture. The New York City Council last year passed legislation, Local Law 11, that requires agencies to make data available in open formats. More than 1,000 data sets, including ones covering building permits and crime data, are now available on the city's NYC Open Data portal. Developers are encouraged to use that data to create mobile apps for public consumption. The fourth annual NYC BigApps competition kicked off last month with $150,000 in prize money.

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The mayor's office is also recruiting universities to the area to expand the pipeline of skilled tech professionals. Cornell University and Technion-Israel Institute of Technology are building an engineering campus, dubbed NYCTech, on Roosevelt Island between Manhattan and Queens. The ambitious project includes a grant of land and $100 million for infrastructure improvements, plus $350 million from an anonymous donor. Other developments include establishment of the Academy for Software Engineering and New York University's new NYU Center for Urban Science and Progress.

And then there's the new 32-story data center, operated by Sabey Data Centers and located at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge in lower Manhattan. The facility's first tenant is the New York Genome Center, which will house high-performance computer systems used for genome-sequencing there. Dr. Robert Darnell, CEO of the Genome Center, says the data center will support "the convergence between medicine and technology in New York."

With its mix of financial, tech, media and retail companies, Lower Manhattan is emerging as "a multifaceted 21st century business district," says Nicole LaRusso, senior VP of planning and economic development for the Alliance for Downtown New York. That's another big step in the direction of a future city.