Top tech boss dismisses effort to update city’s glitchy computer systems

But it has been nearly two decades since the city took an inventory of its software and computer systems, a fact City Council members are citing as a reason to study its tech and seek upgrades.

A technical glitch, for instance, crashed the city’s municipal wireless network—which manages traffic lights and police license-plate readers—for 11 days in April 2019. A private audit commissioned by City Hall concluded the incident could have been avoided through more timely upgrades to the system.

A bill from Councilman Paul Vallone would require officials study the feasibility of updating its software and data systems to the cloud, which he said could improve the security and reliability of those systems and help businesses better track the status of online services, such as 311 complaints and permit applications.

“We are not far off from city workers walking files from department to department,” Vallone said. “It is time for us to get to the next level.”

Using cloud computing, municipal data is stored online through software providers rather than in local data centers that the city must pay to lease and maintain. Amazon Web Services, the world’s largest cloud provider, has been lobbying City Council members to adopt cloud servers for several years, spending more than $80,000 this year alone, city records show.

Noel Hidalgo, leader of the technology-focused nonprofit BetaNYC, said a comprehensive report of city computing systems could show which facets have not been updated and remain difficult for New Yorkers to navigate.

“This bill attempts to get at something that we haven’t had in close to 20 years,” Hidalgo said. “Having an understanding of the data systems our city government has is critical to bringing them into the 21st century.”

Tisch declined to provide an estimate of what percentage of city data is already stored on cloud servers. She acknowledged the city still maintains several data storage centers, but she did not have the exact square footage or the annual costs to lease those facilities.

There are examples of agencies lagging. The Department of Design and Construction, for instance, uses a 20-year-old data center to store contracts and designs worth billions, without a timeline for its replacement, according to December 2019 audit from Comptroller Scott Stringer.

Moving into the cloud would allow for those systems to be more easily upgraded, Vallone said. He added that the change could make it easier for small-business owners and other New Yorkers to track the status of building and zoning applications, grant awards and 311 complaints.

While Vallone recognized the city has modernized many of its systems, he pressed for a comprehensive plan that would outline where software needs to be updating.

“Most of us are coming down to the end of our term, and the end of (de Blasio’s) administration,” he said during the hearing. “I do not want to hand off to the next people coming in a system without a plan.”