Albany’s King Geek

l reagan 0 Albanys King GeekA 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.”