eCommunity Service (or Amazon Mechanical Turk for the Public Good)

My Strida parked at our Brainstorm Corner @ NYU-Poly Varick Incubator

Last week, after wrapping up our successful debut at SemTechBizNYC, I spent the whole day at Midtown Community Court, serving my one day of community service for biking on the sidewalk.

Ever since we moved into the NYU-Poly Varick Incubator, I’ve been biking to work and was still familiarizing myself with the city’s extensive bike lane network when I was flagged down by a cop late August.

My route took me through the MeatPacking district and in trying to avoid a small section of cobblestone paving, I often took a short 200-feet detour on a sidewalk…  Bad idea!

Apparently, that spot was a speed trap of sorts for urban bikers – a lot of bike commuters I’ve talked to since have been caught in the same area.  Anyway, the officer wrote a ticket and told me to report to the Midtown Community Court to plead my case.

And that I did.  Sitting in the community court was an experience by itself as it allowed me to witness how NYC was also innovating in using the justice system to educate its citizens.  Even though I sat in that court the whole day, I didn’t mind it at all – inasmuch as I hate to admit it – it was like being in a live taping of  “Judge Judy“. :)

And when my turn came up, my case was decided in less than a minute.  I stood in front of the judge along with the court-appointed public defender.  The judge looked at me from head to toe and gave me one day of community service to atone for my biking infraction.  That was it!

They then sent me up to the sixth floor to meet with a social worker who’ll brief me about my commitment.  This being my first time, I asked the social worker as soon as I sat down in her office if I can put my computer skills to use for the city.  And she actually bursts out laughing as soon as I said that, commenting – “That’s a unique one!  I’ll remember you for that!”   Well at least, I put her in a good  mood, and she quickly presented me with a contract and accommodated my request that I fulfill my commitment later than usual since I told her that I had a big project due on the 17th (the last day of SemTech).

And I actually looked forward to it!  After the hectic preparation of cramming the demos for SemTech, I could use some time outdoors. ‘Twas a perfect NYC autumn day and I didn’t mind flexing some “non-mental” muscles in public service – cleaning parks, getting rid of graffiti, and sprucing up some neglected corner of the city, as I reflect on the just concluded conference.

But I ended up just spending the whole day sitting in a room idling the time away along with some other New Yorkers doing “time” for all sorts of minor infractions ranging from illegal street vending, farebeating, vandalism and  public urination.

Our crew manager for the day was the ever-smiling Luis (“Today will be a good day!”), and he told us that since some other crew managers were assigned to other security-sensitive tasks and he’ll have to baby-sit other community service crews in the same room.  Our crew will basically have to sit on our buns the whole day. Yay!!!

But then again, the rules prohibited us from using our smartphones or any other electronic devices for that matter and we were only given some reading material about the community court itself to pass the time.  One guy was even brazen enough to ask Luis if there were any playing cards, and Luis promptly retorted with a smile – “This is Community Service.  Not Community Gambling.”   I even offered to do a tune-up his computer as I overheard him talking about his ‘puter problems as we were starting the shift. (he passed, he said they have people who do that)  ‘Twas like being sent to detention!

But after reading all the material about how the Midtown Community Court was a unique NYC innovation itself that was getting copied around the world, and looking around the room with all that potential “cognitive surplus” nodding off, I had a “Eureka” moment!  Why not use all this talent to good use in the City’s Digital Initiatives!?!

Particularly, its landmark Open Data Initiative!

We were sitting idle in a room that was full of mailroom paraphernalia.  Apparently, some NGOs and non-profits pitch projects to the Court for the community service crews to work on, and a common request is to stuff mailers for these non-profits.  Why not have these same people, a lot of whom are literate, computer-savvy professionals  put their skills to good use cleaning up and massaging the city’s Open Data portal?

Am I crazy or what?


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