City agencies boost services with new tech projects

City agencies have been exploring options to integrate the latest technology into their services and New Yorkers are already seeing major improvements to their quality of life.

Tech advocates and experts predict the best is yet to come.

City Councilman James Vacca, who chairs the technology committee, said city commissioners have pushed for new laws that enhance agencies like the health department, education department and other divisions and, more importantly, make City Hall more transparent.

“We can use technology to have more open government,” he said. “People can now have access to most of the data for each agency.”

amNewYork talked with some of the agencies who discussed their latest and pending technological initiatives and how New Yorkers will benefit from them.


Wi-Fi pay phones

One of the biggest tech projects in the works is the Deptartment of Information Technology’s proposal to retrofit up to 9,100 pay phone kiosks into Wi-Fi hot spots.

The city received several applications for the proposal that will give new life to the kiosks. In addition to providing free, high-speed Internet for anyone who has a smartphone, tablet or computer, the call boxes will also give access to 911 and 311 and may include other features depending on the vendor. Vacca said he has some ideas to spruce up the pay phones.

“The sky’s the limit,” he said. “I can see them have interactive maps for navigating the streets.”

The first kiosks will go live some time next year. DoITT couldn’t divulge more information about the applicants but Google has been rumored to be a top contender.

Although Mayor Bill de Blasio heralds the hot spots as a boon for the city’s tech infrastructure and economy, several City Council members and Public Advocate Letitia James have concerns.

James, along with 28 council members, has asked the mayor to reconsider awarding only one contract, because the project is too critical to leave in the hands of one group.

“We cannot risk a vital tool not be functioning because the sole service provider is not operational,” she wrote in a letter two weeks ago.

In the past, representatives for DoiTT have said a single vendor would ensure a uniform interface and maintenance system for the hot spots but indicated that it will work with the Council as the plan moves forward.



Storm-proof tech

Ever since Superstorm Sandy devastated New York, the city’s Economic Development Corporation has been looking for ideas to help businesses prepare for worst-case scenarios.

The agency’s Rise: NYC competition seeks tech-based solutions to strengthen the city’s building systems, telecommunications, electricity and other infrastructure.

EDC vice president David Gilford said he’s been very impressed with the ideas brought forth by the 27 finalists.

“Overall, they help small businesses prepare for extreme weather,” he explained. “There is a broad range of approaches.”

The EDC has not determined how many winners there will be but it will divulge $30 million in federal money for ideas. The winners will receive between $500,000 and $10 million each.

A “goTenna” communicator, for example, will provide users with short-range, peer-to-peer communication, like a walkie-talkie, or text messages when cellphone towers go out. Parcor Materials, a Willets Point-based company, created FloodSax, a self-inflating sandbag.

California-based Solatube proposed a special system that would deliver natural sunlight into buildings during a blackout.

New Yorkers will have a chance to see these prototypes at a demo night on Oct. 7 at the New York Academy of Sciences. Gilford said EDC will use public feedback to help decide the winners.

“We’re very pleased and excited by the breadth of application in terms of diversity, and they really have a positive impact on communities across New York City,” he said.


Smart tables

Students at three Bronx elementary schools won’t be looking up at a blackboard or a projector screen in class this fall.

Vacca started a pilot program that will bring interactive “smart tables” to PS 392 in Throgs Neck, PS 175 on City Island and PS 108 in Morris Park. The desk-sized touch screen computers provide educators with a useful tool that can be implemented in countless ways.

“Students can learn in groups, teachers can teach interactively and students can get introduced to technology early,” he said.

Vacca said the tables in the pilot come preloaded with various educational software that is geared for early education. For example, students can learn reading and grammar by repositioning the words on the screen while a teacher explains the language rules at the same time.

“They are really an interactive road map for early childhood education,” he said.

The councilman hopes the pilot catches on so more schools across the city can have access and educators can add their own ideas on how to use the devices to improve lessons.

“The bottom line is we want to improve performance,” he said.



First responders say the communication between them and hospitals is critical in saving lives, so last year it developed a system to streamline the process.

The FDNY’s Electronic Pre-hospital Care Report, uploads the patient’s stats to an online cloud server that can easily be accessed by the city’s hospitals. Sophia Kwok, the division chief in charge of the ePCR program, said the system has been instrumental for her crews.

“Everything we do essentially is to allow the EMTs and paramedics to give patients better care,” she said.

Ambulance crews use tablets and Wi-Fi built into the truck to transmit the anonymous data to the system. Awaiting doctors not only have more time preparing emergency rooms for the patient, they also can provide guidance to the responders to treat immediate injuries.

“This is near real time as the document is prepared. Before, when we had paper, it had to be scanned and the paper was taken to a storage area and we had to wait until the end of the day for the data to be updated,” Kwok said.

The FDNY estimates that the service will save the city more than $1.7 million as a result of reduced overtime and support costs that were associated with the old paper system. Kwok said the agency will continue to fine-tune the database to make it more efficient.



Health Department

The city’s Department of Health has three tech initiatives in the works to help improve New Yorkers’ well-being.

The agency updated its mobile app, ABCEats, which provides information on restaurant grades and inspections. Now, users can search eateries by cuisine and report missing grade signage.

Health department officials are now using video conferencing to treat tuberculosis cases. Patients are given secure smartphones loaded with an app that allows a health worker to observe 30 people a day and make sure they are taking their medications.

“This approach removes barriers by making the ‘visits’ cheaper, more convenient for both the health professional and the patient, and less intrusive,” the health department said in a statement.

The agency also urges New Yorkers to use its text information services. People can send various messages to 877-877 for up-to-date data on HIV care, green markets and other options.

“Our texting campaigns have proved to be a great way for New Yorkers to find the health services they need in an easy and open way,” the health department said.

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