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Open Government Initiatives Helped New Yorkers Stay Connected During Hurricane Sandy

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Editor’s note: Rachel Haot is the first Chief Digital Officer for the City of New York, where she leads NYC Digital and is focused on the city’s digital media strategy. Follow her on Twitter @rachelhaot.

From hackathons to social media, open government is transforming the way that Mayor Bloomberg’s administration and New York City government serve the public. And there has been no greater testament to open government’s potential than the strategy and innovation in action during Hurricane Sandy.

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In the days leading up to Hurricane Sandy’s landfall in New York City, government technologists, learning from their Hurricane Irene experience, reached out to the data science community to share recently updated hurricane evacuation zone maps based on up-to-the-minute flooding projections.

To ensure wide public access to this information, the city’s IT department immediately published the data to the city’s Open Data portal, enabling developers and designers to create emergency maps and applications. For the second consecutive year, the city also partnered with organizations, such as WNYC.org, The New York Times, and Google’s Crisis Response team, to develop a customized New York City-centric Hurricane Sandy map featuring evacuation zones, shelters, food distribution centers, warming centers, recovery centers, and more. We estimate that collectively we served and informed 10x as many individuals – hundreds of thousands of people – by embracing an open strategy.

On the public communications front, the city embraced social media to increase transparency and access to information. Twitter emerged as a primary source of real-time information with Mayor Bloomberg urging New Yorkers to follow the @nycmayorsoffice channel during his online live video streams and television broadcasts.

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Our partners at Twitter also supported the emergency response effort by donating thousands of dollars worth of Promoted Tweets, helping @nycmayorsoffice reach over a million more individuals and nearly doubling its follower count over several days.

Facebook and Tumblr also played crucial roles, as the city was able to quickly distill press releases into compact, social media-ready formats. We reached a peak audience of 322,000 on Facebook and saw dramatic increases in engagement. On YouTube, the public viewed videos more than 1 million times, and across all social media channels, more than 200,000 new people followed the City of New York.

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On all channels, the city engaged in two-way communication, responding to questions, clarifying statements, and listening to the public in order to more efficiently allocate resources. The city sent more than 2,000 tweets and responded to nearly 300 questions. For the first time, we also communicated with Spanish-speaking New Yorkers via the dedicated Spanish language @nycgob.

Twitter

Finally, it’s notable that many of the city employees who worked day and night to publish data and communicate with the public were themselves significantly impacted by the storm, and enduring loss of power and heat. It’s a great testament to their resolve and commitment to service.

For many who did not have access to a television, or high-speed Internet connectivity, mobile access to lightweight social media feeds proved crucial during Hurricane Sandy. Of course, safety and security are always the No. 1 priority, and concerns about health, heat, connectivity, and power took precedence during the storm.

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But research also illustrated that constant, responsive communication in an emergency can provide enormous positive psychological and emotional benefits to the public, as well as prevent health issues caused by stress and anxiety. Thanks to open data measures and social media, New Yorkers reported that they felt connected and informed and saw firsthand that government workers were listening to their needs.

Open government initiatives continue to play a vital role in recovery efforts, and we are grateful to the many New Yorkers and technology partners who contributed their time and expertise to help better serve our city in its time of need.