Why Beautiful But Dumb?

Good information architecture balances a lot of competing elements: design, business needs, marketing needs, stuff the CEO wants, things the tech department wants to try out, and user needs. Without IA ,the web, and the world, tends to start drifting towards what looks cool (the beautiful part) in favor of being smart (hence the dumb part).

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Really, NYC? More Hackathons?

NYC released some information today about the city's attempts at becoming a premier digital city, including the city's "Roadmap for the Digital City" which is apparently something the Chief Digital Officer, Rachael Sterne, put together.  What's wonderful about the roadmap is that it outlines perfectly why New York's approach is completely backward, and how the Mayor's Office (and the Chief Digital Offficer) have a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be a digital city.

Here's the roadmap:

Let's look at it point by point.

1. Industry: A vibrant digital sector
This is where the Mayor's office spends a lot of time talking about how New York City encourages digital industry, by which they mean they want a lot of tech companies to be based in New York.  That's lovely, but it has nothing to do with being a "digital city." Right now is New York a "banking city" or a "legal city?"  We may be a financial world capital, and we may have a lot of top laws firms and be home to a range of other industries, and sure, digital should be one of those industries, but what does that have to do with digital city initiatives? Should being a digital city mean that citizens have access to premier digital services, not that a lot of the office buildings are taken up by companies working in the digital sector?

Which brings me to my second pint - there isn't really a digital sector.  Having worked in digital for my entire career, I can assure you that each client is housed within it's very own industry.  I've worked on booking apps (transportation industry), health care sites (Health Care/Pharma industry), financial sites (Financial Services), clothing sites (Retail), and so on.  Every project has in common that it's on a digital device, but beyond that what actually makes each project separate and unique are the challenges each industry faces.  So while it might be very hot and of-the-moment to say that NYC grows digital businesses (and here everyone is constantly pointing to Seamless Web, as though it's the only web site idea to ever come out of NYC) every digital business is actually based in a completely different industry.

2. Open Government: Technology & Culture 
We hear a lot about open government and open data, which for the uninitiated means that the government allows anyone to access government data in order to build an app using that data.  Setting aside something I recently heard from a developer about the data frequently being old and not very good, I have larger issues with open data which I've written about before.  To recap: dumping a bunch of data out into the world does not equal building a digital city.  In fact, it's pretty much the opposite of building a digital city, as it encourages programmers to build apps that will most likely fail, given that they are devoid of user input.  In order for open government to work, the city needs to supply user information derived from true user research.  For example, if the city provided 311 data along with a list of the top 20 reasons people call into 311 that would be something that a developer could build a truly meaningful app out of, one which meets a true user need.  Instead, the city just likes to throw data out into the world and see what happens.

3. Access: Internet connectivity for all
WiFi in the park?  Okay, fine.  I have no issue with this, except to say that it should also come hand in hand with the ability to access city services online in a simple manner.  Which at the moment it doesn't.

4. Engagement: A citizen-centric digital experience
A citizen-centric digital experience sounds totally awesome, until it turns out that what the city really means is more Hackathons.  Great news for all those developers who like to get together in a sweaty room and attempt to bang out something useful for the city with absolutely no information about what types of things citizens might find useful.  Hackathons make for great photo ops, not great digital solutions.  If the city was really serious about providing a citizen-centric digital experience they would start by talking to some citizens.  Where's that in their roadmap?

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