If you’re planning a beach day in Tel Aviv this coming summer, bring your laptop along – the wifi will be free for the taking. It’s part of what Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai is portraying as “a digital revolution” that the Big Orange will be undergoing in the coming months.
The ambitious plan, called “Digi-Tel,” will allow residents to do all municipal business online, from paying real estate taxes to filing requests for permits, license applications, and renewals. Not only that: Residents will be able get tailor-made information about events in their neighborhoods based on their preferences, reserve and pay for tickets to the theater and sporting events, sign kids up for school (and after-school activities), and avoid traffic by checking out up-to-the-minute reports on what streets are closed for construction and where an accident has just taken place. The project will even provide Tel Aviv residents with a discount card that will get them cut-rate admission to museums, plays, concerts, and more.
“We have a lot of young people here who are involved in the high-tech industry,” Huldai said at a press conference this week, introducing the program. “We have done a lot to encourage creative entrepreneurs to move to the city, including providing incubator environments for entrepreneurs to work, and working closely with the many start-ups that have opened offices in the center of the city. Now we want to marshal this talent to developing ways that will make life easier for residents. It’s part of our vision of making everything as accessible and open to residents as possible.”
Already, Tel Aviv has gone a long way to sharing: The city’s main website links to already-digitized, usually esoteric data, like building permits, city planning reports, protocols of city planning, building, educational and operations committees. Basically, any public hearing, meeting, document, plan, or other document or data is now or will soon be available free online, with individual apps to allow anyone to check out the information on their mobile devices.
More importantly, a city official said at the press conference, the municipality will offer developers an API (development platform) that will let them grab information from the various databases and use it in creative ways and with other web services. Thus, an app could parse the database of building permits and, using geolocation data, zero in on a structure a neighbor is working on in their backyard or on their terrace, to determine on the spot whether they have the permits to do so. Once all the data is brought online later this year, the city will sponsor a contest for developers, providing help to start-ups or entrepreneurs who come up with promising-looking projects. Residents will also be able to check out how much they owe for municipal taxes, school fees and permits, and pay online.
Besides the business side of Tel Aviv, Digi-tel also takes care of cultural needs. Residents who sign up will be issued a “club card” that will qualify them for all sorts of discounts on events in the city. The system will parse information daily about events, and alert residents to the specific events that they are interested in (residents state their preferences when they sign up), and about things going on in their neighborhoods.
There will even be an app that shows, in real time, where parking is available, giving residents a leg up on outsiders in finding one of the city’s most precious resources — a legal parking space on the street.
Armed with the information about events and how many will be attending, Digi-Tel will offer a last-minute discount ticket service, enabling residents to buy a half-price ticket to that evening’s play at Habima, for example, similar to the TKTS service in New York’s theater district. “We are not trying to discriminate against people from other cities, but it’s more likely that a Tel Aviv resident will be able to make it to a performance on very short notice than a resident of Haifa,” a city official said.
By contrast, the city will spread its largesse to all comers with its free wifi program. Dozens of industrial-strength routers will be set up in areas where the public congregates — beaches, malls, main streets, public squares. While lots of Tel Aviv cafes and restaurants already offer free wifi, “you won’t have to feel guilty about sitting down without ordering a cup of coffee anymore,” a city official said. Every great idea has a downside, she said. “One group that is very angry with this is the hotel owners, who charge their guests for wifi. I understand their feelings, but we are going through with the free wifi anyway.”
And, said a city official, in Tel Aviv free means free. “There are other municipalities that offer wifi, like in Paris, but there you have to start paying after ten minutes. Here, we will provide it free for whoever wants it, for as long as they need it.” It’s unlikely that the network will get overcrowded with residents who dump the home wifi connections they pay for and replace it with the free version. “The wifi they get at home will still be a lot faster than what we will be able to provide.” Still, the official said, the system is being set up to ensure that everyone is able to use the web, email, and other basic services, without a problem.
The city aims to sign up as many people to Digi-tel as possible, and in the coming months, sign-up stations will become ubiquitous (the sign-up for wifi happens when you connect to the network, a name for which they are still thinking about, officials said). While the city sees an eventual situation where it will be able to reduce manpower – cutting hours at service points, like offices for fee and tax payments – as more people use online services, Tel Aviv will go slow on limiting face-to-face access, Huldai said. “Our objective at this point is to provide as many channels as possible for those who require city services to get them, whether online or face-to-face. Eventually it’s possible that if the vast majority are using the online services, we will be able to think about reassigning resources, but there are no such plans right now.”
Digi-tel is an ambitious program, and like all ambitious programs, it is going to cost a substantial amount of money. Huldai, who just happens to be running for reelection this fall, isn’t worried about where to get it, though; even if all “retail” hours are kept at city offices, the city will still be able to save money on overtime, temporary workers, and other expenses, as more people use the online services. “It’s true that it costs money, but it is going to save even more money,” said Huldai. “In the end, we are all, government and residents, going to come out ahead.”