How NYCDOT Put 'Mobile First' Dev To Work

Stringent procurement rules didn't stop New York City's Department of Transportation from quickly creating a tablet app to document Hurricane Sandy damage.
Big-bang projects are out of style. Short, iterative development cycles with your business partners are in, especially when it comes to mobile app development. But what if your city's procurement guidelines require that you spec out the entire scope of a project or phase at its start in order to allow for transparent, public bidding for that work?

That formal procurement cycle is the reality at the New York City Department of Transportation, where CTO Cordell Schachter and his colleagues have found creative ways to innovate amid requirements. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Schachter's team put some of these strategies to particularly good use.

Superstorm Sandy made a mess of New York City's streets, sidewalks, bridges and signs -- an estimated $500 million worth of damage. The city's DOT needed to document that damage to plan repairs, and also to get any eligible reimbursement from federal, state and local disaster funds. NYCDOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan advocated a visual approach: maps and pictures instead of a long list of text. NYCDOT tech department quickly built an app to do that, which then let DOT field staff take over and work around the clock for days to document the damage.

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How did Schachter's team move quickly enough to develop an app for documenting the damage? A combination of open-source software, in-house staff work, consumer IT and a "mobile first" development strategy.

Aside from a couple of dozen iPads, "we didn't have to buy anything," Schachter says. By redirecting in-house development staff to the project and relying largely on open-source software, the NYCDOT team put the system together without a major procurement effort. The department does use some commercial software, such as department geographers who use ERSI products for pre-production work, and the department did need to acquire the tablet hardware. But by using off-the-shelf iPads, it could buy a couple of dozen devices and still stay within its procurement limits. The iPads aren't quite as durable as the ruggedized tablets NYCDOT has tried in the past, but they're far lighter for field staff to carry, and they're durable enough. Plus, "someone can drop 4 or 5 iPads for the price of one of those rugged devices," Schachter notes.

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As for NYCDOT's "mobile first" mindset, one element is slimming down data messages to small pieces, so that weak coverage in cellular connectivity doesn't disrupt data sharing. Another is understanding the small real estate you're working with on a smartphone or tablet. Using the space well means reserving it for only the most essential features and also making sure that icons are "thumb-size" rather than tiny. On a well-designed app, "you don't miss the icon very often," Schachter says.

The resulting NYCDOT app was an interactive map that organizes photos and damage reports by location while collecting 44 data layers. The map is a responsive design, meaning the browser-based app resizes itself to fit the smartphone, tablet or desktop screen on which it's running. The iPad's native features let NYCDOT field inspectors capture digital photos of damages with accurate embedded location data, and the iPads are priced much lower than specialized GIS cameras.

Schachter will discuss the approach used for the post-Sandy app and other development models that NYCDOT uses as part of a panel discussion on Innovation in Regulated Industries that I'm moderating next week in New York City at our CIO Summit. New York-Presbyterian Hospital CIO Aurelia Boyer will also participate.

In New York, the DOT has some projects that require procuring extensive outside development resources who then work under the direction of an in-house project manager; another recent project tapped a consultant project manager and outsourced developers alongside in-house database expertise. Every business faces its regulatory restrictions -- whether it's public-sector procurement rules like NYCDOT is subject to or data privacy rules in healthcare or the gauntlet of regulations financial companies must deal with daily. Such rules provide every reason to give up on that never-been-done initiative. Here's to you not giving in.