Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Chatting with Mayor Bloomberg's Chief Digital Officer, Rachel Haot

New York City is one of the most digitally connected cities in the world. With so many tech entrepreneurs, online brands, social media enthusiasts, and even residents with something they'd like to say, it's no surprise that NYC is the only city in the country with its own chief digital officer.
Rachel Haot (formerly Rachel Sterne), who graduated from CAS in 2005 with a history degree, became the face of NYC's digital tech scene when she was named by Michael Bloomberg as Chief Digital Officer for the City of New York in January, 2011. Her team, dubbed "NYC Digital," works to promote digital engagement in New York City and support the aspirations of NYC's tech community.

In addition to working with the Bloomberg Administration, Rachel is the founder of GroundReport, a professor of Social Media and Entrepreneurship at Columbia University, and was recently profiled by Vogue as the city's "head nerd."

Arts & Science Alumni Relations: History and digital media are seemingly different fields. Has your history degree from NYU helped you in your career? 

Photographed by Sebastian Kim for Vogue
Rachel Haot: In some ways my degree in history has been a great tool for pursuing the career track that I have, which is in the intersection of technology and government. The approach of studying history is very analytical, and it’s an approach that can be applied to a lot of different career paths. For example, one of the first things that I did when I began the role of Chief Digital Officer was, I met with dozens and dozens of city agencies, I reached out to the general public, I interviewed tech entrepreneurs and start-ups, and from those experiences I developed the city’s digital roadmap, which is the strategic plan for fulfilling Mayor Bloomberg’s vision for NYC. But that process itself was certainly informed by a lot of the work that I had done in researching history and putting together documents and reports. 

My mission is to support innovation inside the government and outside, specifically by improving the experience of engaging with the city digitally and supporting the tech sector. And the first place you have to start is by taking stock of all the initiatives that we have going on today. What has helped some of those initiatives to succeed? And what has challenged other initiatives from moving forward? In many ways, that requires an analytical approach. It really did help to have the history background there because, at least in my experience, once you learn more about the back story of why something came to be, you can figure out the roadblocks that need to be removed to move it forward.

What is the best way to prepare for a career in digital media? 

Everyone has different learning styles, so I think it’s impossible to say that there is one best way for everyone. For me, it was launching my own start up because you learn so much. First, in terms of learning about digital companies, you learn about everything from taxes and payroll, accounting, revenue, all the way up to product design, user feedback, and customer service. In addition to that, in launching any kind of business, whether it’s a digital one or otherwise, you are forced to be a self-starter and forced to take responsibility for everything regardless of whether it’s in your skill set or not. The mentality of “the buck stops here” is very much true in launching a new enterprise. It teaches you to anticipate both challenges and opportunities before they happen. 

Can you talk about NYC Digital and some of the initiatives you’re currently working on? 

Absolutely. There is a wide array of projects. They fall into five main areas which build on each other. The foundation is access to the internet. The next part is technology education. The third piece is open government, which really comes down to open data and innovation. The fourth is engagement, and the fifth is industry. 

We have a wide range of initiatives in each of these areas. Access includes coordinating public wifi, or advocating greater connectivity for startups, such as through the NYC Fiber Connect Challenge. Regarding education, Mayor Bloomberg just announced today [Feb. 16, 2013] that an additional twenty schools will be providing computer science training to students in grades six through twelve. This also includes some of the initiatives in the administration to introduce additional world class engineering institutions at the post-graduate level in NYC, which will help us to cultivate and develop more engineers to fuel the next generation of tech companies. And open government—we work closely with our colleagues to maintain our city’s open data platform, and we help host challenges and hackathons that engage the developer community and the technology community in creating solutions to the city’s digital challenges. In terms of engagement, that’s one of the areas that we do most of our execution day-to-day. And that includes providing leadership and guidance to the city’s 200+ social media managers and digital content managers across all of our agencies. It includes training individuals in social media and providing guides and workshops as well. And probably the most tangible, day-to-day project we have going right now is the redesign of nyc.gov, the city’s website. That’s a major initiative for us because it hasn’t been updated for many years. 

Finally in industry, the best example of that is probably the initiative that we announced just last week with the mayor at Buzzfeed: “We Are Made In NY.” It’s a one stop shop to support tech growth in NYC for individuals of all levels—whether you’re a complete novice and want to learn the basics about email, or just getting online and using software, or looking to learn to code. Or if you’re a more seasoned entrepreneur, it will provide opportunities to find funding and grants to train your workforce, affordable workspace. There is really a wide range of opportunities. And it will also provide a way to find out which companies in NYC are hiring, and how you can get a job at those companies. 

So that’s really just a snapshot of our focus right now. And over the next 309 days, which is the number of days left in Mayor Bloomberg’s administration, we will continue to execute on this. Our main focus, again, is on the website, as well as on Code Corps, which is the volunteer tech initiative that the mayor announced in his State of the City speech. It will bridge the gap between the tech and government sectors and facilitate the development of tech projects that help to save lives, especially in emergency situations. Sort of like a national guard for techies, of course specifically in NYC.

It sounds like you have a lot going on. 

Yes, and you can find all of this on nyc.gov/digital

Is it difficult to manage all of these different initiatives with just five people working on your team?

Yes, the thing that really guides us is the roadmap, and as I’ve said many times, we have an incredibly hardworking team, and that’s what makes it all possible. We’re only five people, but we probably do the work of about ten or fifteen. So I think that’s one of the reasons that people are sometimes surprised. What helps also is that we get a lot of support from the tech community, and we continue to make it easy for tech companies and individuals to help. One of the great things about technologists in NYC is they are so willing to help. 

During Hurricane Sandy for instance, we did a lot of outreach to get a sense of what people’s needs were. And nine times out of ten, when we reached out, they said, “we’re fine, what can we do to help?” Of course the one time out of ten that they were not fine, we did everything we could to make sure everyone was safe. 

Along that same vein, could you talk a little bit about how your office handled messaging during Sandy and Nemo, and if you gained any insights in terms of using social media in times of an emergency? 

We actually had a good opportunity to begin to develop our strategy during Hurricane Irene. We were able to apply a lot of what we learned there to Hurricane Sandy. We very strongly incorporated social media into our information strategy—and that’s especially crucial because a lot of times if you weren’t able to get a very strong internet connection or turn on the TV, you were able to get just enough signal to get a tweet or a Facebook status update. We made sure that we were on those platforms to provide up to the minute information on what was happening, and also to listen and respond to the needs of New Yorkers with as much information as we possibly could. 

People also responded very positively. Of course it was a very rough time, but even studies have shown from the Red Cross that supporting the needs of the public and making them feel like they are being listened to can really decrease stress and anxiety levels. 

And then we have an emergency protocol for social media in situations like Hurricane Sandy that we put into effect. Normally on a regular day, we want our agencies to be as autonomous as possible and completely independent in executing their digital strategies. But in the event of an emergency, that’s really not an option. That’s the one time that we will centralize those functions, because there is really no room for error. You just can’t have one agency tweeting one thing and another agency contradicting it. So in those situations we do use a centralized approach to content creation, and a more strict, but streamlined process for getting content approved in a timely basis. 

With so many followers on social media, you must constantly receive feedback from residents of the city, and I’m sure that sometimes you also get negative comments as well. Is there some sort of protocol for responding to negative tweets or comments through social media?

Typically if we get a question, especially if it’s related to a service request, we digitally route that to 311. Otherwise, if anyone is ever asking for specific information, we will provide it as quickly and efficiently as we can. In cases where we are receiving a lot of feedback, or if we see that something is trending, we will make sure that the information is forwarded to the appropriate agency and steps are taken. When there is a need for an exchange of information, we always respond as quickly as possible.

You mentioned before that access to internet is one of your main focus areas. Are there any steps being taken towards helping lower income residents take advantage of the city’s digital outreach? 

Yes, absolutely. That’s one of the things we highlight in the We Are Made in New York website. There are a large number of free and low-cost places where people can go to connect to the internet. We know that connection to the internet is very important, both in terms of just connecting with society, but also for economic growth and professional development. Most employers today, I think it’s above 75%, exclusively post job listings on the internet. Also, many of the processes for applying these jobs require some emailing. That’s not even getting into the number of jobs that require use of technology while on the job. 

One of the many services that are offered is through the libraries. There are three public libraries in NYC: Brooklyn Public Library, Queens Public Library, and the New York Public Library, and together they serve all five boroughs. Every branch of those libraries offers free wifi. Most of them offer computers that you can rent out for up to thirty minutes. They also offer courses in job searching and skill development, such as word processing, email, etc. So that’s one step. 

The city also is a participant in the federally funded BTOP initiative. That stands for Broadband Technologies Opportunity Program. That program ran for about two years and it served all low-income residents from senior citizens to sixth graders in providing them with low-cost internet access, training, and helping them to participate in the new digital ecosystem. 

And we have a number of wifi pilots and partnerships that are underway. They are always in public spaces, including public parks. Typically, they try to serve at least one low-income neighborhood or public housing facility to help New Yorkers get online. And we’re always trying to do more, but that’s a snapshot of what has happened so far. 

A lot of organizations find that, through social media, they learn a lot about their audience as well. Are there any interesting discoveries that you’ve made about New Yorkers through the city’s social media? 

That’s an interesting question. We’re constantly learning so much, and we do use analytics tools within each platform as well as third party analytic platforms like HootSuite. One of the things that’s also been interesting, since we are constantly meeting with social media providers, is we’ve discovered that New York City actually represents the largest user group of any city on almost every major social media platform, including Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Foursquare. New Yorkers like to stay connected, they like to interact, and they are not afraid of expressing themselves. They are very digitally connected, and it’s not necessarily a big surprise. Truly we are a digital city, and we’re seeing more and more people join in. I believe today we have over three million fans and followers across the city’s social media, which is unique. Month to month, that audience is growing, and it’s really quite impressive.  

Do you have anything else you’d like to add about your role or about your time at NYU? 

I think I would just say that a great thing about NYU is that you’re right there in the city. The city itself is an incredible learning experience. Just being here is absolutely one of the things that inspired me to pursue a career in public service and in municipal government. 

I also took two courses in metropolitan studies when I was at NYU, and they were incredibly inspiring. Just the spirit of service and the focus on public service and social justice is often very strong at NYU.

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