In Conversation: John Paul Farmer, CTO, NYC

By Smart City Expo Atlanta
September 23, 2020

John Paul Farmer is Chief Technology Officer for the City of New York, leading the city’s efforts to use innovative technology to provide better services to all residents. Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed Farmer to the role in April 2019. Since then, Farmer has focused on making New York future-ready, a challenge that has become even more critical in the midst of a global pandemic, economic crisis, and fight for racial justice. 

In an interview with Smart City Expo Atlanta, he discussed the power of partnership during a crisis, NYC’s new Internet Master Plan, and why it’s become more urgent in recent weeks.

Here’s our interview edited for context and clarity.  

Smart City Expo Atlanta: You have always been at the forefront of civic innovation, from creating the Presidential Innovation Fellows program under the Obama administration to your work at Microsoft. From the pandemic to a national call for justice, what role is, or can, civic innovation play in fostering equity in this time of extraordinary change?

John Paul Farmer: Civic innovation is about recognizing that we are all in this together. Communities have more power when they act together to bring about progress by using the tools that can help scale their impact. In New York City, technology and innovation are helping us shape the fairest big city in the nation. Specifically, we are making the Big Apple future-ready by applying an equity lens to our work on universal broadband, digital services, innovation, and tech policy, and future planning.

We’ve seen how technology and technologists have played a huge role in helping the City respond to people’s needs during the COVID-19 pandemic. The City has been able to rapidly pivot, use innovative approaches, and provide critical data and essential services online at this unprecedented time. Under the engaged leadership of the Mayor and working in close collaboration with colleagues across a number of agencies, we’ve been able to move the City safely into phased recovery and develop best practices that can help others too.

SCATL: Prior to the pandemic, you released the NYC Internet Master Plan. Tell us about the goals of the program and how delivering on it may have become more urgent in recent weeks. 

Farmer: At the beginning of this year, the Mayor announced the New York City Internet Master Plan, which is a groundbreaking document that frames the City’s goals for the future of the internet, identifies the partnerships and infrastructure required and sets a course for closing the digital divide in New York City. 

The Internet Master Plan is built upon five foundational principles:

Equity – No one will face a barrier based on who they are or where they live. 

Performance – The internet should be fast and reliable, and the quality should improve over time as uses of the internet continue to evolve. 

Affordability – Cost should not be a barrier for anyone who wants to connect to the internet. 

Privacy – People must be able to determine how their data is or is not used. 

Cost – There should be sufficient competition among providers and diversity of technological solutions to sustain the other principles.

These are the five principles that guide the City’s decision-making related to broadband. In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, it is more clear than ever before just how essential the internet is. A just society cannot allow digital redlining, because just as electricity or the subway were essential to life in 20th century New York, the internet is essential now.

SCATL: New York City is one of the world’s hardest-hit cities in the COVID-19 pandemic. City agencies are distributing internet-connected devices to elderly residents to help close the digital divide. In what other ways has technology helped the city respond to and recover from this crisis?

Farmer: During the COVID-19 crisis, people need to be able to access healthcare, groceries, school, and even their loved ones as they stay safer at home. In May, the City committed $5 million to deliver 10,000 internet-connected tablets to older adults living in NYCHA public housing. We then worked to quickly get those devices into the hands of the people who needed them. This was a partnership between our office, the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), the Department for the Aging (DFTA), and a non-profit called Older Adults Technology Services (OATS). We’ve received incredible feedback from the recipients, including one woman who said she didn’t realize how lonesome she was without visits from her children and that the tablet provides a much-needed connection to the outside without fear of catching the virus. 

Partnership has been essential to the success of this program. OATS and DFTA have been instrumental in helping us create materials for these recipients, getting their tablets set up, and teaching them how to use their new devices while ensuring they have the ongoing support they need. Through this initiative, we reached people in 88% of NYCHA developments across all five boroughs. 

Even more exciting news has come out recently. The City is accelerating the Internet Master Plan with an investment of $157 million to provide new, low-cost internet service to 600,000 residents, including 200,000 across NYCHA developments in neighborhoods hardest-hit by COVID-19. We’re reviewing responses to a Request for Expressions of Interest that closed June 30. Next, a Request for Proposals will be released this fall and will help us find the partners and allocate the capital to ensure that this effort accomplishes our goal.

A key internal partnership on this work has been with the Mayor’s Task Force on Racial Inclusion and Equity to accelerate the work needed to ensure that no New Yorker is left behind.

SCATL: The City of New York is viewed as a global smart city leader. You have developed best practices for the use of IoT devices, which other cities have since adopted. Why is it important for local governments to take the lead in these types of initiatives? 

Farmer: Cities engage with their constituents every day, in very real and meaningful ways. As a result, we are often in a better position than the federal government to understand the challenges that everyday people are confronted with during a crisis. We use that awareness to rapidly respond to their needs. We are also better equipped to protect the digital rights of our most under-served communities and to quickly redirect resources toward those most in need. 

The Connected NYCHA: Older Adults tablet program is a perfect example of that. We have since received calls from other cities in the country asking for input so that they can replicate a similar program for their residents. Cities share common challenges and are able to share best practices that help one another. For example, cities in the U.S. and abroad have contacted us about the success of our connected tablet program to explore implementing the same for their own vulnerable communities. That’s exactly how this should work — one city experiments, learns what works, and shares with others.

SCATL: As CTO, your job is to oversee the use of emerging technologies to deliver municipal services. What have been some of the opportunities and challenges and how may your goals have shifted?

Farmer: Since taking on the role of Chief Technology Officer just over a year ago, I’ve been focused on how we can build capacity and new capabilities to make New York City future-ready. That North Star hasn’t changed but rather has become even more important in 2020. The triplet of crises that span health, racial justice, and the economy have highlighted the urgency to deliver. 

Where people previously thought we had decades to close the digital divide, it’s clear that we need it now. Where people thought we had years to conduct digital transformation of government agencies, it’s clear that we need it now. To accomplish all of this, we need to tap into the people. skills, and tools that are native to the 21st century — that’s how we will make New York City more fair, equitable, and inclusive than ever.

SCATL: Any parting thoughts as a CTO on why we must redefine “smart” to ensure humanity and equity is at the center of technology?

Farmer: It’s all about people. We do this work to use technology to improve the lived experience. The tools that we use to do it are themselves created by human beings, which means that human biases and errors are involved. We need to agree that “automated” does not necessarily equate to “smart.” Smart takes into account not just what can be done using technology, but what should be done. A society in which everyone can participate and thrive isn’t only morally right, it’s also a good idea when it comes to dollars and cents. Which leads me to ask: If a city isn’t accessible, if it isn’t equitable, if it isn’t human-centered, then how smart is it really?


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