A few months ago, Andrew Hoppin was advising President Obama’s NASA transition team and contemplating his next move. He was settling back into New York after leaving the NASA Ames Research Center near Sunnyvale, Calif., where he co-founded and managed the NASA CoLab—a program that aimed to bring efficiency and transparency to the creaky government agency through new technologies. He encouraged astronauts to Twitter from space.
But after more than two years at the agency, he was itching to get more involved in the “government 2.0” initiatives that Mr. Obama and his new-media team were working on in Washington.
So in January, he approached his friend, Andrew Rasiej, a fixture in political tech circles. It was perfect timing; since early January, Mr. Rasiej and Micah Sifry, co-founders of Personal Democracy Forum and techPresident.com, had been advising the New York Senate majority leader, Malcolm Smith, on using technology to make Albany more open, transparent and efficient—the same kind of work Mr. Hoppin had been doing at NASA. Mr. Rasiej encouraged Mr. Hoppin to consider applying his talents to New York State.
“I told him, Obama’s people will be looking over your shoulder because they won’t be able to move fast enough,” Mr. Rasiej told The Observer. In the Senate, Mr. Rasiej explained, Mr. Hoppin had the opportunity to “move the ball farther” and set an example for upgrading government for every state in the nation.
“They convinced me that they were really serious about this,” said Mr. Hoppin, 37, who is mild-mannered, of medium height and wears gray suits with blue shirts to match his eyes. He often keeps his top button unbuttoned. “They would take Albany, which doesn’t have the best reputation for being the most efficient place, and do it right with transparency and technology.” Mr. Smith, along with Senate secretary Angelo Aponte, appointed Mr. Hoppin to be the first ever chief information officer for the New York State Senate.
ON A RECENT bright March morning, Mr. Hoppin was on the 19th floor of 250 Broadway, in a conference room in the Senate majority leader’s office, conducting a meeting with the team he had been quietly building since he was hired on Jan. 29. Their mission? To upgrade the New York State Senate and bring it into the 21st century with technology. For some members of the CIO team, it was their first full week on the job.
“Do you have any Facebook updates?” asked Jim Bell, the director of Senate technology services. He was videoconferencing in from Mr. Hoppin’s Albany office, along with Dean Hill, a veteran technology policy analyst. Sitting at a long wooden table, their laptops at attention, were Krista Brenner, a former Assembly chief of staff and State Senate campaign manager; Noel Hidalgo, a digital communications and technology organizer for both John Kerry’s presidential campaign and the New York Senate’s minority leader’s office; and Ben Yee, who ran President Obama’s New York State new-media team during his campaign. Mr. Yee answered Mr. Bell: “Facebook just restructured the way they operate, again,” he said, so he had to make changes to the “Facebook strategy document”—a guide that will be posted on the Senate’s new Web site (also in the works) to explain the social networking site and how senators might find it useful.
Mr. Yee is also designing a “Twitter strategy document” that will encourage Senators and their staff to sign up for the microblogging service. Just that morning, Mr. Hoppin had been flashing his new Senate business card, the first ever to boast a Twitter address: @ahoppin.
“It’s a cultural stake in the ground,” Mr. Hoppin explained to The Observer, “saying, you know, not only is [Twitter] not a bad idea, it’s a good idea to communicate openly about what you’re doing—it’s relevant for government transparency, it’s relevant for government efficiency, it’s relevant to get people aware of what you’re doing so they can participate in what you’re doing.”
To be sure, if Mr. Hoppin and his team have a mantra, it’s “efficiency, transparency and participation.” In just a few weeks, they announced that senators could (finally) access their email on the Web (efficiency). They launched a Facebook page, Twitter account and Tumblr blog to announce new projects from the chief of information office (transparency). And they helped create, literally overnight, two Web sites to solicit suggestions from constituents on the M.T.A.’s budget shortfall (NYMTAIdeas.org) and opinions on the state’s budget deficit (NYBudgetIdeas.org), as well as a prototype Web site for the Plain Language Initiative, which translates extracts data and legal jargon from M.T.A. budget documents into readable text, tables and charts to help commuters understand why the M.T.A. board is proposing bridge tolls, fare hikes and service cuts (participation).
And that’s only the beginning. Within the next month, the team will launch a new Web site designed with Drupal, an open-source software program, (which powers Observer.com) that will make blogging available to senators and include applications for more public participation. Constituents will be able to post views on new bills and initiatives, as well as review and “vote” up and down on the ideas of others. The CIO team is organizing training sessions for senators and their staff on social networking platforms and how to pay attention to online feedback. Last week, they hired mobile specialist Nathan Freitas to create new phone applications that will allow citizens to get government news on the go. This week, they hired a Drupal whiz, Craig Leinoff, who worked as technical officer and contributor for Jewcy Magazine.
The group plans on creating a wiki—an editable, community-created online document—that will welcome ideas and suggestions from New Yorkers and other state government staffers on their road map to upgrading Albany.
“Technology has to be a strategic asset of every office, rather than something that is off in a corner,” Mr. Hoppin told The Observer. “There’s a lot of room for government to use technology for better transparency, better efficiency, better participation, but also empowering legislators to do a better job—but it requires putting technology at the center.”
Senator Smith and Mr. Aponte have put their faith in Mr. Hoppin to get the job done. “How do you undo decades of complacency in a couple of weeks?” asked Mr. Smith’s press secretary, Austin Shafran. “We have complete confidence in him. He’s opening up our eyes to whole new levels.”
“Malcolm Smith and his staff’s commitment to reorganizing Albany on a 21st-century platform, with a commitment to transparency for constituents, is the most significant political event in the past 30 years and has the potential to be not thought of as evolutionary but revolutionary,” said Mr. Rasiej, who is also technology advisor to online government watchdog initiative Sunlight Foundation. Mr. Hoppin and his team “have the right DNA to change Albany.”
MR. HOPPIN a Brookline, Mass., native, studied planetary sciences and environmental science, policy and management at Brown University and Berkeley. He was a tech entrepreneur in New York before he founded a local group in the draft–Wesley Clark movement, New York for Clark, in 2003. He joined Mr. Clark’s presidential campaign in Little Rock, Ark., and helped manage the campaign’s voter data and the nation’s first open-source campaign software volunteer program—called Clark Tech Corps. After Mr. Clark withdrew from the race, Mr. Hoppin joined the new-media masterminds behind Howard Dean’s campaign to help manage CivicSpace Labs, which developed open-source software to aid political and charity communities for online organizing and advocacy. The group’s work became “the godfather model for organizations like Blue State Digital,” the company that became famous for their new-media work with President Obama, Mr. Rasiej said.
So being right in “the belly of the beast” in Albany, as Mr. Rasiej put it, is new for Mr. Hoppin. He spends about two or three days a week in Albany, and the rest of the time with his team in Mr. Smith’s New York City office.
“These new technologies will help senators be able to post ideas and issues that they want more minds on. That shouldn’t be hard, that shouldn’t be a huge process or a discreet process, once you create it right the first time,” Mr. Hoppin said. “Conversations in the corner of the room are always going to happen. But things can be moved through technology and communication mechanisms so there are more opportunities to see what we’d like to see in terms of transparency and efficiency and accountability, improvements in process.”
Mr. Hoppin said that once antiquated software is replaced and new Web-based applications and training are in place, senators and their staffers will have more time and money to work among, and for, their constituents.
Mr. Rasiej added that by releasing raw data—stats, ideas, process paths and money trails—the government allows technologists, organizations and citizens to create new ways to present information that might be more useful than the senate’s official format. “Making a document available to the public in as real time as possible is the only way that the government fulfills their mandate for an openness and transparency and serve their constituents,” he said. These changes will not only refashion Albany’s image as corrupt and outdated, but also empower people, Mr. Rasiej said.
“People underestimate the power of data,” he added. “It’s like letting the genie out of the bottle.”
“For me, as a human being, that’s the most empowering experience I can have—is having the opportunity to really contribute to somebody or something that is really important to me,” Mr. Hoppin added. “If we all had that opportunity in our town, our state or from above, we’d all be enriched by that. We’d become more educated about our government; we’d become more empowered to exercise oversight into our government and contribute to our communities.”