Newark, with Rutgers, Makes Progressive Move towards Citizen Empowerment through Data

Photo: Newark Mayor Ras Baraka at the Open Data press conference Photo Credit: Esther Surden
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka at the Open Data press conference | Esther Surden

The City of Newark made great strides towards empowering its citizens by introducing an innovative app called “My Newark,” adding new data sets onto its open data portal and offering inexpensive broadband Internet to all of its residents.

These advances, introduced on Jan. 29-30, were accompanied by a three-year research collaboration agreement with Rutgers University-Newark.

Said Mayor Ras J. Baraka at a press briefing, “Of all the things we have announced since I’ve come to office seven months ago, this is the most important thing. … What it has done is make the residents of Newark a part of our administration.”

The Newark-Rutgers agreement is the first time in the U.S. that a city and a university have collaborated on open data to such an extent, according to Marc Holzer, dean of Rutgers University-Newark School of Public Affairs and Administration.

My Newark is the result of a collaboration between Rutgers and the tech company Public Stuff (New York). It offers information about sights and events in Newark, and is available from the Apple and Google Play stores.

At the press briefing, Holzer pointed out that both the new app and the open-data initiative would help achieve more effective and responsive government.

“What we are really launching here is the story … of why Newark is an important destination to live, work, play and visit,” he said. “We want to make sure citizens participate in what is happening. … The app and these open-data initiatives are promoting civic engagement as a potent tool,” enabling the mayor, the council and others to respond to citizen’s concerns.

The app allows citizens to report service needs without having to call City Hall or contact an elected representative. The citizen can report a problem through the app, take a picture and then see what action has been taken. “This is an important way that the citizen can begin to collaborate with the city,” said Holzer.

He added that the research currently being undertaken at Rutgers-Newark SPAA coincides well with the mayor’s objectives. Much of the research involves “improving how government delivers as promised.”

Newark Mayor Ras J. Baraka praised Rutgers University-Newark and its chancellor,  Nancy Cantor, for making the collaboration happen within such a short time.

He noted that the app is a breakthrough for Newark, giving citizens the opportunity to report problems like illegal dumping or trees in need of trimming. “You can do this with this app without even coming to City Hall,” and without being hassled. “You have an opportunity to be an active member of your community.”

Baraka went on to speak about how open data will make residents’ lives better, explaining that citizens will be able to use the Internet to find information that “you would normally have to go to City Hall and stand in line to get, that you would have to fill out a request for, that would be denied,” and then you’d have to go back to City Hall to talk to someone in charge.

Pointing to the part of the open data portal that lists abandoned property, the mayor noted that anyone can get into the data, look at the vacant lots and find out such details as the complaints involving a property, who the owners are, and how much they paid for it.

 “There are a whole lot of opportunities for us to get data out there about things that are happening in the city that are usually buried in boxes here in City Hall,” said Baraka. Newark wants to give residents direct access to that information. “To me, that’s revolutionary.”

Newark CIO Seth Wainer, who is credited with quarterbacking the new open-data project, said that the project was aimed at promoting participatory democracy.

Open data, he said, is about unlocking the vaults of information we have all around us. Newark wants to offer relevant and efficient services, and open data is all about transparency, according to Wainer. He added that, when things are done openly, the efficiency will show.

He demonstrated several parts of the open-data website, including a visualization of where snow plows have been after a big storm. During snowstorms, the visualization will be available in real time, so citizens can track when plows will be on their streets.

He pointed out that the open-data app will be important for people “smarter than me” who could then build products on top of the data. “This is about the city being open to collaboration … and creating a foundation where others can innovate after us.”

After Wainer spoke, Dr. Nabil R. Adam, vice chancellor of Rutgers’ Center for Information Management, Integration and Connectivity, discussed some of the research that CIMIC will be working on in collaboration with the City of Newark, including the development of real-time communications among members of the police or fire departments.

To top everything off, the city announced a program with the nonprofit JerseyOn to provide $10/month broadband Internet to any Newark resident and to connect 500 students and their families for free. 

JerseyOn, affiliated with the national organization EveryoneOn, is working to eliminate the digital, economic and academic divides by providing the 500,000 unconnected households in New Jersey with high-speed, low-cost Internet; affordable computers; and digital-literacy training.

This pilot program will invest $75,000 to finance hot spot devices and digital literacy instruction for more than 1,000 students in Newark. Initial digital-literacy classes will be offered through My Brother’s Keeper, a federal program to keep young men of color on track for a fulfilling life.

P3GM (New York), a smart city infrastructure development and advisory firm, raised the capital to fund the hot spot devices.

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