Building One City: A Digital Transformation
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Building One City: A Digital Transformation

By Leena Panchwagh, Chief Information Officer, NYC Department of Buildings

Leena Panchwagh, Chief Information Officer, NYC Department of Buildings

From the towering skyscrapers that shape New York City’s skyline, to the mom-and-pop shops that line our main streets, to the apartment buildings and single-family homes that form our neighbourhoods, the Department of Buildings works with New Yorkers to promote the safe construction and maintenance of a built environment that includes over 1.1 million buildings and 45,000 active construction sites. Our core mandates are broad and significant: spurring economic growth by regulating the city’s construction and real estate industries, which contribute more than $60 billion annually to the city’s economy; promoting safety on construction sites so that every worker who leaves for the job site in the morning comes home safely at night; facilitating the development of affordable housing; improving energy efficiency and reducing greenhouse gas emissions; helping our buildings and neighborhoods withstand sea-level rise and other consequences of climate change; and much more.

But in the midst of a historic building boom, beginning in 2012, it became evident that the Department’s existing IT infrastructure was ill-suited to meet these core mandates. For example, our staff would receive paper applications and supporting documents and then enter the resulting mountains of data into the mainframe, green-screen applications. Our inspectors could be spotted around our city carrying reams of paper forms on which to record their inspection results – and they would then need to drop these forms off at the office for data entry. These and other time-worn practices made us dependent on massive amounts of paper records and manual data entry, giving DOB a lumbering reputation in New York City, where speed is always a high priority. In short, DOB was a prime example of how the public sector has traditionally lagged behind the private sector in delivering innovation and the latest digital services.

DOB’s “Building One City” plan seeks to fundamentally reform the agency and expedite the technological development needed to meet the critical challenges we face. Digital transformation, driven as a strategic initiative, is the cornerstone of the modernization plan and requires both the integration of digital technology across all department units and the participation of all our stakeholders, both within and outside our agency. Through this initiative, we are replacing archaic, disconnected systems and data sources, including more than 300 Access 97 databases; numerous Excel tracking sheets; and, most significantly, a 30+-year-old mainframe system that is challenging to maintain and modify in a timely manner.

The centerpiece of these reforms is DOB NOW – our self-service platform that will bring nearly all of the agency’s business online and into the 21st century. The system has four parts. DOB NOW: Inspections provides access to online scheduling, tracking, and notifications for enforcement and development inspections. DOB NOW: Build enables electronic job filings, permit applications, and more. DOB NOW: Safety provides online access to compliance filings, such as safety reports on elevators and boilers. Lastly, DOB NOW: Licensing provides online exam filing, issuance, and license renewal for journeyman plumbers, welders, and other tradespeople.

"DOB’s “Building One City” plan seeks to fundamentally reform the agency and expedite the technological development needed to meet the critical challenges we face"

The new system is being rolled out in stages – but so far, this digital transformation has already enabled us to:

Improve service for construction professionals, homeowners, and interested citizens alike. Our new platform allows stakeholders to do all DOB-related business and research online, and access previously opaque information in real time. DOB NOW also gives our staff the ability to process applications and conduct field operations electronically and via mobile technology.

Lower costs for developers, homeowners, small businesses by eliminating the need to make trips to our offices wait in line, and by standardizing our processes to reduce the need to pay intermediaries to interact with us. For the taxpayer, long term costs will decrease because the Department will no longer have to maintain an antiquated mainframe system.

Increase efficiency for both customers and our staff. For example, DOB used to receive about a million pieces of paper annually just regarding elevator inspections -- from which data had to be transcribed and inputted manually into the mainframe. Now that this information is uploaded automatically, this frees up staff to analyse the data, which in turn increases public safety. Besides, customers receive instant notification if their elevator-related compliance filing has been accepted, rather than waiting months as in the past.

The challenges facing our city are vast, and we must be equipped with the tools necessary to meet those challenges head-on. That means embracing technological improvements with both arms and innovating in lockstep with our ever-changing city.

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