Episode 1

AI perspectives from a records commissioner | Pauline Toole, City of New York

Pauline Toole, Commissioner at NYC Department of Records, shares insights on AI's impact on her department, and the privacy concerns that come with it.

AI has a huge role to play in organizing and categorizing information for organizations. But how can privacy be respected at the same time? That is the challenge facing the New York City Department of Records and Information Services. Learn how Pauline thinks about ML and AI, and how she believes it can enhance her department’s work.


Topics discussed  

  • Pauline’s journey to becoming the commissioner of records.  
  • Overcoming the challenge of securing senior sponsorship for information governance in an organization like the City of New York.  
  • How the City is embracing AI, from a records and information governance perspective.  
  • The privacy concerns that the City of New York has, as it relates to handling private data.  
  • Pauline’s advice for peers who are listening.

Resources

🎧 FILED S01E11 Automating ugly freight in an evolving world | Cate Hull, Freight Exchange

📨 FILED Newsletter ChatGPT Is this popular new technology a threat to data privacy?

📨 FILED Newsletter Generative AI will offer up identifiable data if you ask nicely

Transcript

Anthony Woodward  

Hi everybody. Welcome to FILED. We have a super exciting episode today. But first of all, I am Anthony Woodward, the CEO, one of the founders of RecordPoint, and with me today is my co-host, Kris Brown. Hey Kris, how are you?  

Kris Brown  

Good. Anthony, how are you? How's things?

Anthony Woodward  

Yeah, no, it's good. It's good. As I said, we've got a super exciting episode today. You know, here at FILED we focus on the convergence of data privacy, data security, and data governance. But we have one of our most exciting and the customer we absolutely love working with City of New York on and representing the city is the, uh, commissioner of records, Pauline Toole.

Anthony Woodward  

Hi Pauline, how are you?  

Pauline Toole  

I'm good, Anthony and Kris, how are you guys? Good.  

Anthony Woodward  

Good. It's been an exciting time I think of everything that's going on in the world of data. Look, Pauline, it's so great to have you on and there's so many questions I know we all wanna ask, but I wanted to start out by really discussing one of the themes that I know we've been working very closely together on, around some of the data challenges at the City of New York and really dealing with those data challenges at what is a very, very large scale.

Anthony Woodward  

So, probably even to start, it'd be great for you to introduce yourself and, and the context of your role and the challenge that you're working on there.  

Pauline Toole  

Sure. So, I am Pauline Toole. I'm the Commissioner of the New York City Department of Records and Information Services.

Pauline Toole  

The agency has three functions to operate a municipal library, to manage the municipal archives, which are city government's historical records, and to manage records, contemporaneous records. And that third element of our work has been the absolutely most challenging in the nine years I've been in this office.

Pauline Toole  

And that is because, there are no centralized rules for records in New York City. Um, and we've been striving to establish them in a large part. That is because for 20 years, in the 20 years, it basically coincided when people stopped using selective typewriters and printing one copy of everything and putting it in a file cabinet in that same period of time when New York City agencies were using word processing and other platforms and word and whatever to create their documents and save them on servers or on disks or whatever.

Pauline Toole  

They were still printing them out and saving hard copy records. And so, the application of what are standard rules for managing born digital records? Have never been put in place or weren't put in place until fairly recently.

Pauline Toole  

So, that is one big challenge to sort of make things more standard. And the other challenge is that there's no real centralization, which might come as a bit of a surprise to people who think that, you know, government is just one bureaucracy that operates like a spider in the middle, sending out all the rules when.

Pauline Toole  

But that's not how it works. So, we do have one centralized technology agency, but they do not manage all of the records of city. They don't manage all of the technology structure for every city agency. Some city agencies have their own technology structures. There is little uniformity in how. These things are set up so when we working with RecordPoint are trying to set up a series of rules to manage all of this born digital content, the rules aren't the same, right?

Pauline Toole  

They make it more complicated. And a lot of what we've been doing over this first year of our project has been to pivot from one strategy and figure out where that works, and then pivot to the next strategy that's gonna work with a different technology structure. And it's interesting, and at the end of the day, when we look back several years from now, we will have transformed records management or data management in New York City, but it's a bit of a slog to get from here to the future.

Anthony Woodward  

No. Great. And I imagine it's an exciting journey though, that you're all in there and quite different to a lot of what are, you know, sorry, quite similar, I should say, to what a lot of organizations are dealing with. I'd be super interested to understand how you came to be into the commissioner role. Like what did you set out?

Anthony Woodward  

Have a career and records. Is that something that just was thrown upon you? Is it, I think even Kris and I, we kind of discovered it even though it's been the bulk of our careers. How did you end up there, Pauline?  

Pauline Toole  

I was appointed to this role by the former mayor after spending 20 some years in city and state government creating programs that worked that weren't about records.

Pauline Toole  

And I really didn't think too much about records except those that I accessed to do reports or historical research. So, I was interested in this agency, not because of the records piece, which has become one of the Most important pieces, but because of the historical records in the municipal archives, and I realized that in that same 20 year period that I was describing where records weren't managed in the city, the city didn't invest in preserving its historical documents either.

Pauline Toole  

And so, there was a lot of catch up to do to sort of kind of clean that up. And make content more available to the general public online. And what archivists do is, I think you probably know, categorize things. They're typically not researchers. And when we've been able to build up a cadre of archivists and here at the same time, we're building up the records management piece and they coincide, they go together.

Pauline Toole  

And, which is why the agency has the records management piece because those. Records. Those data, those images, whatever, that have historical value, will end up in the municipal archives. And so, it should be seamless and we're making it seamless. So, that's why I wanted to make that work. And I was appointed.

Pauline Toole  

And then I learned about records management and I. Thought, this is pretty daunting. Why can't we just change things? And you know, nine years later we are changing things. But it's been a slog. And I will say one inspiration was learning fairly early on in my tenure that I. President Obama issued a national order to all of the federal government that they had to get their act together and manage digital records way back.

Anthony Woodward  

No, that's a great answer. That's fantastic. I know the, the program you are running has some pretty senior sponsorship in the city. I don't know, we talked about that in the past. Are you able to, to detail kind of even the level that. Of, you know, the mayor's office and other people being involved in trying to push that down and particularly thinking about what you're saying about Obama, you know, I think records really need that leadership involved, them know that's happening in the city.

Pauline Toole  

Sure. So, let's say in 2016, mayor de Blasio issued an executive order that set up a structure that required every agency to have a senior level executive to oversee records management and that person had to directly report to the agency head. So, that is really important, it elevated records within the agency.

Pauline Toole  

And then Mayor Adams appointed a Chief efficiency officer to look at what government. Does and what it could do better and the services it could provide, and each agency was asked to propose certain services. We proposed, of course, managing records for all city agencies and set some goals. They were embraced and we were one of a few agencies that was actually able to sort of begin that whole push toward efficiency.

Pauline Toole  

In our instance, managing records. So, we will have, in this fiscal year, which ends in June 34, different agencies involved in, uh, various stages of using the RecordPoint. Uh, platform to manage their born digital records and that required buy-in by the agency leader at each place, as well as the allocation of staff time to begin doing this.

Pauline Toole  

And then some agencies will be a hundred percent in by the end of the fiscal year. Others will still be sort of, In the beginning stages, but there's been a, a very strong embrace across the leadership of the city, which is really wonderful.  

Anthony Woodward  

Yeah, it's super interesting to hear, you know, that mandate from Barack Obama I think was an inspiration for a bunch of different organizations We certainly work with.

Anthony Woodward  

I know that your program in the city has some significant buy-in from the leadership there. Are you able to detail, you know, at what level the, you know, the mandate comes from and, and how that's being driven? Cuz that obviously really impacts these programs.  

Pauline Toole  

We have, we're one of those agencies that has really important responsibilities and no real enforcement authority.

Pauline Toole  

So, it really is a lot of carrot and no stick. And one of the features is we are able to fund this implementation at DORIS across the city. So, that is a sweetener for agencies. They don't have to put their own resources into the mix. And you know, I wasn't alone when I started. Unless you come out of a field that is regulated like the financial world, that requires a lot of strict compliance around records management or the legal world.

Pauline Toole  

I. People don't really know what records management is. So, having conversations with my colleague, leaders in the city about why this is important and how it's gonna help them reduce costs and be more efficient and eventually get their records that are appropriate to the archives as opposed to having them lost in a bunch of, you know, bites somewhere on some unnamed server has been, I mean, people understand that and they wanna support it and they wanna manage things and make government work so.

Pauline Toole  

That approach, and I will say at our own agency, which is a tiny little agency, we have the same issue, right? That's RI large in the city, but you know, we're incubating it here and are tackling the same issues. And so that's really helpful because the work we are doing internally transfers out and we can point to lessons.

Pauline Toole  

So, that's a lot of carrots.  

Anthony Woodward  

No, that's fantastic. How do you see your role then as rolling out these programs, as both the executioner of trying to gather up the material, but also the regulator of those agencies? Is that a difficult role to straddle in that process of that rollout?  

Kris Brown  

Yeah, I, I will say that, you know, being involved in the Project Pauline and having an opportunity to speak with a number of those agencies, and you know, it's really interesting to watch how you are managing that carrot for the organizations.

Kris Brown  

Obviously, you know, it is helpful that from the Office of Efficiency perspective, you're able to bring in that funding, that's a huge sweetener. And I'm sure there's plenty of listeners who be like, well, you know, you know, that's a fantastic opportunity to push that into the, the environment, but also those cost savings and things.

Kris Brown  

As well that they will eventually, um, start to, you know, bear fruit with something else that I think we heard a lot of. I wanna move on very quickly and talk a little bit about the impact that technology is having in New York and certainly globally. AI is, you know, jumping in everywhere and, and I know, you know, I think we've had conversations before and you, you, you downplay, um, you know, I'm not a techie, but at heart the implications is the thing that, you know, I'd love to hear from you so, How's the city embracing ai, especially in your role?

Pauline Toole  

I am not a techie. I really like, I am a Luddite, to be honest with you. And, uh, left to my own devices, I'd be one of those paper people and I kind of am, but AI is really important, and it permeates so much. Then people don't even pay attention to, you know, sort of how they get directions to go someplace.

Pauline Toole  

It's all through ai. Right. And in, in the city in my role. Artificial intelligence will enable us to more quickly and accurately roll out the records or data management program because we're you, you guys all are, are developed it right? It will allow us to categorize records that are the same. So, rather than starting again every single agency to start from scratch, we can take the rules for identifying what is a receipt or what is a.

Pauline Toole  

Personnel record and apply those so that the second agency just rolls it out without having to sort of, you know, repeat the building the wheel. So, that's really critical, I think, to sort of have the, sort of the knowledge that compounds.  

Kris Brown  

Yeah, look, I, I think it's really, really interesting, especially in this record space.

Kris Brown You know, you've mentioned that the, the Office of Efficiency is very much trying to get more for less at the end of the day, like government's trying to improve its, its processes and services and having, and the opportunity to have, you know, walked the hall of records with you and have a look at some of that paper and, and even looking at the pieces that are being preserved.

Kris Brown  

It's a huge. Program of work that, you know, obviously is gonna pay dividends many, many years into the future. And it's a scale problem ultimately though, right? Like, uh, you know, there are so many documents and so many records being generated by these agencies. I guess that flies onto then a question around sort of privacy.

Kris Brown  

So, again, as an agency that's you're handling lots of public and private information, what are the data concerns that yourself or New York City have as it relates to private data?  

Pauline Toole  

Right. The private data in, records is governed in New York, or access to that. Private data is governed by the State's Freedom of Information law.

Pauline Toole  

It establishes several categories of information that do not need to be made publicly available, and some of it is things you would be, you would expect, such as, you know, a person's date of birth and address. And items that have to do with secure police operations and security. But other data, all is supposed to be made publicly available upon request.

Pauline Toole  

Um, and to that end, the city has a public data portal that has data sets about almost everything. And it, this is actually where AI could have a really interesting intersection to sort of, pull content from what otherwise would be divorced pieces of information and put it together in a way that helps to better inform local residents about different kinds of opportunities or services.

Pauline Toole  

And I think down, so that's the privacy, that historical records don't have the same issues with privacy, so we have online 13 million, I think, of vital records of birth, death, and marriage records that obviously show the date of birth or death or marriage and the people's names and their addresses, but they're of the historical nature, and so those aren't governed by the same privacy rules.

Pauline Toole  

But that's also where I think AI could have an interesting effect in. Accumulating content from these digital images and using it in a way to better tell a historical story about who these people were, who were getting married or were dying at a particular time. Sort of by reading the content, right, and then dumping it into a, dumping a term, putting it into a spreadsheet, and helping.

Pauline Toole  

Analyze it to tell the story. That is, I think, something that will happen in the not too distant future, and that will be really exciting.

Kris Brown  

Yeah, that's very, very cool.  

Kris Brown  

And yeah, again, having seen a lot of that stuff, it's a great opportunity for ai, but also a great opportunity for the residents of New York.

Kris Brown  

They're, yeah, they're going to get that value, but it, it's, the critical element to this is ensuring that the next generation of records are there and waiting to come across.  

Pauline Toole  

Right. And they're not gonna be vem, right? Mm-hmm. And they're gonna be bites. Yep. And how do you preserve the bites and yeah. And they're gonna be read differently and used differently.

Pauline Toole  

And we need to preserve them so people can do that in the future, and then get rid of the stuff that has no historical value and is just sort of costing money, sitting around doing nothing.  

Anthony Woodward  

Yeah.  

Kris Brown  

And, and then that's the other side, right? Like in doing good management, yes, you are now preserving the history, but it's also there's that efficiency element and yeah, we're, I'm very excited about seeing, um, you know, some of those outcomes as, as we progress to the project as well.

Anthony Woodward  

What do you see as the, the programs rolling out and, and there's a bunch of different processes happening at the city. Where do you see the future of these things going? Because I think it's really interesting to talk about the vem to bites, but I think, you know, when a lot of people still think about records today, they think of a Word document or a spreadsheet, but I think we all know sitting on this call that.

Anthony Woodward  

Yeah, even today, but yeah, a few years from now even those won't exist in the form that we see them today. So, how do you see that transitioning when what's actually happening is people are creating things from a lot of composite data to then create a new thing that needs to be stored as a record. Are you starting to think about that challenge and how that comes together?

Pauline Toole  

I think about it to the extent I'm thinking about the future state, right? Something, it's New York, we're not gonna be, man, I'm not gonna be managing that. But I do think that is where we're going. And I think part of the sort of concept of records is generational and those like. The younger people who are used to everything being digital, right?

Pauline Toole  

They don't expect to go and, uh, print out something. They wanna just share it all online or on their cells or, and so I think their concept of what is a record is going to be really in sync with. The kinds of records that we are creating and preserving appropriately today, and they will take this to the next level.

Pauline Toole  

And we just need to make sure that the foundation is there, is what I think. And I, I know, I mean, there's a lot of issues around how certain kinds of electronic data is created, like the data mining and, and it uses a ton of resources, right? It's not really good for the environment, so it's probably not a path we should be pursuing.

Pauline Toole  

But what are we gonna do and how are we gonna do it? It's, it's really interesting question, and we'll, by collaborating and getting our past content appropriately managed and available, people will be able to use that in the future.  

Kris Brown  

Pauline, let me, let me ask you a, probably a bit of a question more about the program and how it came to be. But what advice would you give to your peers? Either be they city records commissioners, be they information or data managers in other larger organizations you've managed to create, even from my own career, a something that I've seen very, very few times in that there is this real huge buy and a good understanding.

Kris Brown  

There's value attached to it. What's the advice for those peers who are listening, going. You know, how did this come to be, and I know you said it took nine years and you know, maybe you can cut through or help some of them cut through that, that nine years. But what's the piece of advice you could provide to the listeners in that sense?

Pauline Toole  

You have to build allies, right? Within your institution or within your government, depending, one of those allies needs to be your financial division. They need to understand why. Managing records is good for the bottom line, and then you have to be really patient because there's a lot of pieces to move along, and it's not just one thing that then everything is good.

Pauline Toole  

You have to sort of be able to see all the little pieces and try and put them together in a way that keeps making progress. Slow progress, but progress. So, if in the first year, you get one person at the budget office who thinks, yeah, we better look at this and figure out how it's gonna be helpful, and then the next year you have a manager and then you keep building.

Pauline Toole  

Then you end up with something that's workable. Very few things in my experience—very few governmental programs—and I think this is true about large initiatives in general, it's not really possible to achieve them overnight. You really need to have a long view and be adaptable. So, if you think you have one solution and it's perfect and you're not willing to look to the side and see what else could work, then you'll get trapped in something that's likely to be outmoded.

Pauline Toole  

So, in this particular project, we were pursuing a different solution until all of city government moved to MS 365 and we all went home during Covid and then figuring out how to manage records with this new environment, these new features totally changed our strategy. Um, so there needs to be some amount of flexibility in implementation because new things do happen, and you need to figure out how to put them together.

Kris Brown  

Yeah. I'm pretty certain that nobody's plan had a big pandemic in the middle.  

Anthony Woodward  

Oh. Do you see the, one of the problems that we encounter as people do record programs is that, that are running through, is also knowing. Where the boundaries of that are. So, it's one thing to start collecting and, and back cataloging and going through the process of working with the agencies, but it's another two.

Anthony Woodward  

You know, ultimately one of the points of record keeping is to capture the business transaction. And the best place to do that is, you know, very much inside that transaction. Where do you see the edge of your program, you know, as you go further, is it to get more embedded into the workflow? Of the agencies, or to be a little bit further behind that.

Pauline Toole  

Well, I see records management as a series of concepts or rules that needs to be embedded throughout every governmental institution. Not everyone is going to. Embed those rules in the same way, and there can be flexibility around that. There should be flexibility around that because you need to meet the producer of the transaction where they are, right?

Pauline Toole  

Because they shouldn't have to change the way they do business in order to manage the records that should be seamlessly. Uh, A part of the process. So, I think I see it being built in and our agency offers the framework for that, right? These are the general rules, and you need to apply them. And if you do it that way and you're successful, that's terrific.

Pauline Toole  

But if you want to do it this way, this might be even better 'cos then you'll have peers across institutions. But yeah, that's our approach.  

Anthony Woodward  

No, that makes sense. No, absolutely. What do you see as the evolution then of that? Is there a stage two or a stage three beyond the current approach, or do you think once we've got that and that's such a big pie to eat anyway, that that's really the goal?

Pauline Toole  

It has to be evolutionary, right? As the number of connectors changes, right? As different kinds of content are being created and, and managed. So, who knew we would be doing Teams, right? Mm-hmm. Who knew all of that would be sort of a record that then had to be managed and either, uh, discarded appropriately or retained appropriately, you know, and so there will constantly be an evolution as, as different formats are used to create records.

Pauline Toole  

To your point earlier, and I, I just think it, the big thing is having people retain this belief that records management is important and that at every city agency they need to make sure that their strategy conforms to the best rules of the road and is working.  

Anthony Woodward  

Fantastic. And I suppose just to summarize all the conversation here, you know, what feedback would you have for us as vendors in the industry and you know, what are the things you'd like us to be doing better to help you and your peers out there?

Pauline Toole  

I don't know that I can really answer that so well, except that I've recently been receiving these newsletters that. Have information about records management and data science that are really interesting. And I think more of that is helpful because for someone like me, not a records manager or a technologist, it makes me think about things differently.

Pauline Toole  

They're easy to understand, so you don't have to be an expert. Um, and I think that that's great and more of that is good and maybe more peer-to-peer sharing as a way of communicating. I think there's a history museum or archival institution in England that's using the same technology and might be good for our team and their team to have a conversation, uh, and see what we're doing differently, what we might have in common, what lessons can we learn.

Pauline Toole  

I mean it's, it really is all about sharing information and the more you know, the easier it is to figure out where to go.  

Anthony Woodward  

No, fantastic. No, thanks for the feedback. And I think the newsletter you're referring to is the FILED newsletter that we sent around, is that correct? Yes. Yeah, yeah, yeah. But I just wanna get the plug in there.

Anthony Woodward  

So, I'm interested, I suppose just to elaborate on that point. What other sources do you tap on to get information around your data management and those things? I mean, are you, are you an avid reader of a particular blog? Is there a particular podcast you also listen to that you'd like to plug in here?  

Pauline Toole  

No, I'm afraid I'm not.

Pauline Toole  

We have a history blog based on the city government's archives that I like, and I sometimes write for that, but otherwise I just pop into question and see what comes out and look at different kinds of responses and sometimes they're more technical and sometimes they're really simple and I try to weave between them, but I don't, there's no particular institution that I follow.

Anthony Woodward  

Look, I really appreciate your time Pauline, and it's been a fantastic conversation. We are very humbled and honored to have the opportunity to be working with New York. I know how much our team, very much enjoying working with your team and uh, it's a fantastic project. So, thank you for coming on the podcast today and, and thank you for the opportunity to work with you. I don't know if there's anything else you wanna add?  

Kris Brown  

No, as I said, I, I still am gloating, uh, Anthony, he hasn't had the chance to have a good look around yet, but I'm still gloating it, the opportunity to wander around in the hall of records and I was very much geeking out in there.

Kris Brown  

There's some very, very cool stuff, but even in the, the building itself, some of the maps and other things that are up on the walls, it's if you're a New York resident and you have the opportunity, I would absolutely recommend to get in and, and have a bit of look as an awful water history in there.  

Anthony Woodward Thank you very much.

Anthony Woodward  

Isn't that the lobby for New York for Law and Order? Don't we Don't. Most people have already seen that. Yes. Yeah, yeah. Yes,  

Pauline Toole  

Yes, yes. They shoot it here. It's kind of fun, it’s very cool. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah. Thank you very much for having me and I will echo what you said. We, our small team really enjoy working with the RecordPoint folks who are really great problem solvers.

Pauline Toole  

And we've not hit a brick wall yet, so that's great.  

Anthony Woodward  

Terrific. Thank you. Thank you for the time and this has been FILED. I'm Anthony Woodward. Please follow us on all the socials, Twitter, Facebook, and obviously here, uh, for your, you know, checking here for the next podcast. Thank you very much for tuning in.

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