New York City's social services agency is its own software developer

Washington Square Park in New York City. (Getty Images)

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In developing the technology and data analysis necessary to shelter and feed the roughly 60,000 people who experience homelessness every night in New York City, the city’s Department of Homeless Services has largely become its own software provider, the agency’s technology chief said.

Speaking Tuesday during an online conference presented by enterprise open-source software company Red Hat, Ijeoma Genevieve Mbamalu, the department’s assistant deputy commissioner for technology, said the investment in software development started in 2016, after it was merged with New York’s Human Resources Administration to create a new parent agency, the Department of Social Services.

The new agency’s technology system, which Mbamalu called a “people-process technology framework,” is designed to build up the technological skills of employees who provide emergency services and to create new services, including chatbots and business intelligence tools in accordance with a new framework intended to make development and implementation more efficient.

“[The framework] needs to not only be able to drive not only the development of technology, but the implementation and delivery so that workers who are providing these services to New Yorkers night-over-night have the latest technology to do so,” Mbamalu said.

Mbamalu said a leading factor that led to the Department of Social Services overhauling its software development is that its predecessor agencies were reliant on legacy systems that lacked flexibility or scalability. Application development previously took between 18 and 24 months, and lacked standardized design rules.

To change that, Mbamalu and her team set standards, both for coding applications and for the design and user-experience elements of digital tools, like apps that social workers in conducting homeless counts. Developing a “common application framework” allowed different teams can work closely with each other and to take the best parts of different applications seamlessly, she said.

To ensure that its new design framework would actually benefit social workers, Mbamalu said the department invited the city’s partners to submit feedback. “Just telling us that you want an app,” for a certain service, like managing 311 incidents, she isn’t enough to inspire developers. Rather, Mbamalu said, the department wants to “leverage their expertise and intelligence.”

“All of that allowed us to ensure that we’re able to innovate much more iteratively and get things in front of our customers sooner than later,” Mbamalu said.

The agency’s overarching framework relies largely on open-source tools developed in-house to create applications and new software quickly, Mbamalu said. The agency also uses an agile framework with two-week sprints to develop software. A new business intelligence tool developed last year that allows social workers to pull up the agency’s data on their phones took just a year to develop, just half the time that it would have taken before. Mbamalu also said a chatbot that will help the app support team is currently in development.

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homelessness, New York City, Red Hat
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