This week, we’re excited to be joined by the visionary John Paul Farmer for our second Queens Tech Night meetup. John has had a diverse range of experience in civic technology, a path that has included stints in the Obama administration and at Microsoft, and now he serves as the Chief Technology Officer for New York City. In advance of his keynote, we had a chance to discuss a few of the topics he’ll be covering, as well as his thoughts on some tech topics more broadly.
What is the one innovation, investment, or policy that New York City will live or die on in the next decade?
We want to close the digital divide, which is why we introduced the New York City Internet Master Plan earlier this year. It frames the City’s goals for the next generation of internet technology, identifies the partnerships and infrastructure required, and sets a course for ending the digital divide in New York City. This is a policy initiative that must live and flourish over the next decade.
Are there any other municipalities that you look to as a model for what you can and should implement in New York City?
We look at cities around the world and leverage best practices when it comes to smart cities and Internet of Things deployment, closing the digital divide, protecting digital rights, and implementing digital services that serve everyone. We’ve been lucky to have cities like Seoul, Berlin, London, Paris, Copenhagen, and others help promote our Challenges to quality applicants. Our NYCx Cybersecurity Challenge captured 169 proposals for 77 cities representing 18 countries from around the world.
It was recently announced that Seattle is running a mobile voting pilot program. In what ways do you see technology helping increase civic engagement, either at the polls themselves or in the day-to-day work of government beyond election day?
It is also important that we convey that democracy doesn’t just happen on the first Tuesday in November. Democracy happens every single day. I’m excited to have the opportunity to work side-by-side with Commissioner Sarah Sayeed and the Civic Engagement Commission. People like Columbia’s Dr. Hollie Russon Gilman are working on civic engagement in forms such as participatory budgeting. Institutions like Civic Hall are leading the civic tech movement, meaning the use of technology for public good. And non-profits like DoSomething.org are joined by newer groups like DataKind. Each is using technology to bridge divides and involve people in the daily work of our communities.
What are the most overrated and most underrated trends in tech today?
One of the most exciting things about working in technology is that the field is always changing and sometimes those changes happen very quickly. Generally, people grab onto exciting ideas and take that excitement too far or, at the very least, too far too soon. Current candidates for being overrated include chatbots, autonomous vehicles, and smart home technologies. That doesn’t mean they won’t be transformational, but it does mean that transformation won’t happen overnight. I’m not sure if it is underrated, but in terms of misunderstood, I would say diversity in tech. The conversation focuses on increasing diversity in tech as the right and moral thing to do, and that’s completely true. While some progress is being made, we have a ways to go. The piece of the conversation that I don’t see or hear enough of is the acknowledgement that diverse teams perform better. And in a day and age when teamwork is increasingly how work gets done, there is no better way to increase your odds of success than ensuring you have a diverse team of people working with you.
You’ve had an impressive career that has taken you from the baseball diamond to the White House. What is the biggest lesson you’ve taken away thus far, and what advice would you give to those just starting their careers?
Talk to strangers. It is terrible advice at age 8. But fantastic advice at 18, 28, or even 58. I can attest from my own personal experience, because some of my best friends and even some key professional opportunities in my career arose from being curious enough and open enough to strike up a conversation with a total stranger.
If you were master of the universe for one day, what pipe dream initiative would you institute in New York?
If I could snap my fingers, I would make sure every New Yorker has affordable, high-quality, privacy-respecting broadband at home and on the go. The internet is foundational technology that empowers people to access opportunity, education, healthcare and so much more. Of course – as the NYC Internet Master Plan makes clear – universal broadband is not just a pipe dream. It’s an achievable challenge. And it’s our job to make it a reality.
Hear more from John on Wednesday, February 5 at the Museum of the Moving Image for Queens Tech Night. We’re proud to host this event alongside our friends at Kaufman Astoria Studios, Plaxall, and the LIC Partnership, and we’re excited to have further support from LaGuardia Community College, NY Designs, New York Hall of Science, Pursuit, QEDC StartUP! Competition, Queens College Tech Incubator, Tech:NYC, Sac’s Place, SquareWine, and Capitol Foundry. Tickets are nearly sold out, so book yours ASAP. And don’t forget to join the ongoing community on Meetup. See you there!