Safety at Night: How NYC and Brownsville Youth Created Tech-Enabled Ways to Increase Community Safety

By Ludovica Martella, September 15, 2020

“Tech often requires an examination of how it can be implemented without being intrusive to the community and without gentrifying it. You want to pertain all the qualities the community has while empowering them through innovation” — Henry Lam, Developer at Anyways Here’s the Thing, one of the two winners of NYCx Co-Lab Challenge

At the NYC Mayor’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer (MOCTO) we believe that Smart City initiatives are only smart when they are based on the needs of their residents. Often though, these initiatives can be perceived as top-down and tech-centric. To address such concerns, we created the NYCx Co-Labs program.

NYCx Co-Labs is a partnership between The Mayor’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer (MOCTO) and NYC Economic Development Corporation, announced by the White House as part of the Obama administration’s “Smart Cities Initiative” in 2015. NYCx Co-Labs is a framework for under-resourced communities to address self-identified needs by co-designing tech-enabled innovation pilots.

So how does NYCx Co-Labs provide tech solutions to solve community-selected issues? The program is divided into five stages: community engagement, field researcher, challenge design, pilot selection and pilot implementation. Once the winners are selected, they engage directly with the community by empowering their members to co-research, co-design, and co-implement solutions to local challenges, a process that democratizes and opens innovation.

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Brownsville, BK: the first NYCx Co-Lab

In 2017, Brownsville, Brooklyn, was selected as the first NYCx Co-Labs site. Brownsville is a neighborhood located in the eastern portion of Brooklyn. A creative and entrepreneurial community, Brownsville is home to many vibrant civic, social service, and community organizations. However, Brownsville is also the second economically disadvantaged neighborhood in Brooklyn and has suffered disproportionate safety issues.

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Map of Brownsville, Brooklyn

“The City of New York is committed to increase safety at night by empowering communities to transform and enjoy their public spaces. Our job is to support Brownsville residents as they leverage new technologies to create opportunities for youth to learn skills, share their ideas, and take over their own spaces. Ultimately, Brownsville voices make Brownsville safer,” said Oscar J. Romero Jr., Program Director of NYCx Co-Labs.

To kick-start the Brownsville NYCx Co-Lab, the program gathered 25 people representing 18 organizations to identify community needs. After eight community workshops and three public forums, two issues were selected as the priority challenges: one of these being safety at night, especially in some specific areas such as the Belmont Avenue Corridor and Osborn Plaza. Therefore, in 2017, The NYC Department of Transportation, The NYC Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) and NYC Mayor’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer (MOCTO) launched the NYCx Co-Labs Safe and Thriving Nighttime Corridors Challenge.

Through this process, the Brownsville Community Justice Center (BCJC)’s partnership with Peoples Culture and Anyways Here’s the Thing were selected as the two winners of the competition to solve the safety concern of Brownsville residents. BCJC is an initiative that seeks to prevent crime by investing in local youth and improving the physical landscape of the neighborhood. Peoples Culture is an arts collective in Chicago and New York working to reimagine shared narratives through collaborative art-making practices. Anyways Here’s the Thing is a design firm from Brooklyn, aimed at reducing the gap within the tech space. These organizations took part in two separate pilot projects: “Ville-luminate the Block Pilot” coordinated by BCJC and People’s Culture and “Night Lights Pilot” by Anyways Here’s the Thing.

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Outside the Brownsville Community Justice Center

Both of these pilots became the testing ground for Brownsville’s youth through the Young Innovators Program, a training program funded for two years (2017–2019) by BNY Mellon for a total of $200,000, in partnership with NYC Mayor’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer and The NYC Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City. This program is an initiative co-designed by BCJC, MOCTO, and The Mayor’s Fund to ensure that local youth directly take part in the City’s NYCx Co-Labs initiative and are able to benefit from the tech partnerships with the winners of the challenges while getting exposure to new investments that the initiative brings to the neighborhood.

Ville-luminate the Block Pilot

How did the winning pilots address the safety issue in Brownsville? First, Ville-luminate the Block, created and led by Brownsville youth under the leadership of BCJC and Peoples Culture, designed and installed a 3D projection system in Osborn Plaza on the Belmont Avenue Corridor. The pilot was launched on August 25, 2019 at the 4th annual “Be on Belmont” series. The series is a part of MOCTO’s Belmont Revitalization Project and BCJC’s efforts to transform an underused retail corridor into a thriving business district that promotes positive pedestrian activity and community resilience. Throughout the course of the summer, participants of the pilot learned skills in cutting-edge technology across tech sectors to address the lack of lighting in the corridor showcasing community created art and projects. “Technology is definitely a viable vehicle that can transform public safety issues: whether it is around lighting or creation of projection spaces, our community is safer now” said Bowie.

Anyways Here’s the Thing, Night Light Pilot

Second, the Night Light Pilot, coordinated by leveraging the design leadership of Anyways Here’s the Thing, augmented the existing street lamp posts along the Belmont Avenue corridor with programmable, networked, decorative LED light strips that respond to passing pedestrians with fluctuating radiance. As pedestrians pass under the lamps, the lights shine brighter and trigger other nearby lights, creating wave-like effects. The animations, which are also triggered by external data such as bus arrival times at the nearest bus stop, create an active, responsive atmosphere that subtly indicates the presence of activity, and reinforces the use of Belmont Avenue after dark.

To involve community collaboration, youth from the BCJC’s Tech Lab design their own lighting choreographies and learn coding to program the lighting system to contribute to the pilot, as part of the Young Innovators Program.

“These smart lighting pilots are innovative because they not only combine public safety, art, and community, but they also present government with a new approach to brightening neighborhoods after dark and spurring economic growth in local communities — all in collaboration with the neighborhood where these installations will live,” said John Paul Farmer, Chief Technology Officer at MOCTO.

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NYCx Co-Labs aims to elevate community voices to the center of the public policy design process. And the pilots in Brownsville are just the beginning of that process. “Technology creates new pathways and access to opportunities. We are happy to connect with people that might not necessarily have had access to it before and to create this accessibility across the board to be part of the economy which is a huge thriving economy, is a great achievement” said Jasmine Bowie, Deputy Director of BCJC.

Ludovica Martella served as a fellow at the New York City Mayor’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer during the spring and summer of 2020.

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