Rachel Haot is the chief digital officer for New York City, heading the NYC Digital program. Mayor Michael Bloomberg appointed her to the newly-created post in 2011. Previously, Haot founded GroundReport, a crowdsourced news Web site based in New York. She recently answered some questions for the A Smarter Planet blog about what it takes to make a digital city. Here’s an edited version of the interview:
A Smarter Planet: Why did you accept Mayor Bloomberg’s offer to become New York’s first chief digital officer?
Haot: I had always been interested in the intersection of technology and government, so I saw his offer as a phenomenal chance to serve the greatest city on earth and to help to galvanize the momentum that I already saw building. Our goal at the start was to create the first digital roadmap that any city has produced, and to use that roadmap to make a difference in the lives of New Yorkers.
Here’s Haot talking about how to run a successful hackathon:
Haot: Thankfully, New York already is a digital city—but we have the potential to go much further. To fulfill that potential, we have developed a five-part framework, which is the basis for our roadmap. We believe that you need to be successful in all five areas if you’re going to be successful as a whole.
The foundation is infrastructure. You need to have a way for everyone to get online. Ideally, that means having high-speed Net access at the home, at businesses, as well as opportunities for public WiFi that connects people on the go.
The second piece is education, specifically science, technology, engineering and mathematics education. We need to help young people learn to use the digital tools that are available, and to give them the training they need to be able to help build the tools of the future.
The third piece is open government. The hope is that with increased transparency, people will trust government and government will be able to serve people better—and without infringing anybody’s privacy. The end goal is to leverage open data and open government to promote collaboration and innovation.
The fourth piece is engagement. We want to make sure that in terms of communication and service delivery, New York has a very user centric approach to engaging with citizens. We want to address you via the device or service that’s most comfortable for you. We want to make it easier for you to report a complaint or make a service request, and then we want to let you know when your issue has been resolved.
Lastly, we recognize the importance of economic development–building a digital industry. Those are the people who are going to come up with the innovations that help us to govern better and make the city work better. Also, they can create new jobs and contribute to the tax revenues that enable the city to deliver superior services.
A Smarter Planet: Why is it so crucial for New York to maximize its potential as a digital city?
Haot: The mayor frequently says we are the intellectual capital of the world and arguably the creative capital of the world. But we aren’t satisfied. We want that to reach even greater heights. So we’re creating a digital platform that leverages the entrepreneurial spirit of New Yorkers and enables them to become even more innovative and creative.
This isn’t just about promoting technology and a tech industry. We have a lot of industries in New York, and we want them all to modernize and take full advantage of digital technologies. We already have more digital jobs available in New York City than anywhere else in the country, but we want to do more. You look at financial services, real estate, fashion, entertainment and media. They’re all hiring for digital roles. They need that talent.
A Smarter Planet: What are the most significant accomplishments that NYC Digital has achieved so far?
Haot: One of the most visible and exciting things we have done is play a role in the We Are Made In New York economic development initiative. The first thing we did was to try to make sure everybody is aware of our tech sector—that there are thousands off tech companies in New York City and thousands upon thousands of jobs available. We featured some of New York’s entrepreneurs in their offices in a promotional campaign. All of our outreach funnels back to a Web site, which tells everything you need to know about launching a tech company or finding a job in tech. We describe all of the programs that the city offers and different kinds of resources–including grants to move and expand your business, opportunities to get free fiber-optic connectivity and access to government contracts for minority- and women-owned businesses.
The centerpiece of the Web site is Made In New York Digital Map. It’s a map of the five boroughs that shows where the tech companies are and which of them are hiring. It’s an interactive map that’s crowdsourced by the tech community.
A Smarter Planet: There’s a lot of concern about inequity in our society. These tech startup companies hire recent graduates of NYU and other elite universities. Are you doing anything to bridge between the tech industry and young people coming up who don’t have the same opportunities as those privileged students?
Haot: Absolutely. Increasing diversity across every possible metric in the tech sector is very important to us. And, fortunately, it’s also really important to the tech sector. So we’re working hand-in-hand with the tech companies to increase the number of young people who are exposed to this world and who are able to work in tech companies.
There are a few examples of what that looks like. First, the city was fortunate to receive a federal stimulus grant that was called the Broadband Technologies Opportunity Program, or BTOP. That program has achieved its goals. It helped us bring Internet connectivity to more than 300,000 households.
One of the programs served 12-year-olds in schools where 75% or more of the students were receiving subsidized or free lunch– an indicator of income level. Not only did they get subsidized Internet access at home, but their families got computers and technology training.
In fact, the city has served an extremely large number of individuals through digital learning programs. We have about 40 to 50 of them. No matter who you are, what age you are, or where you live, there are free courses at libraries. There ‘s a range of nonprofit programs that work with our public school students to provide tech training, as well.
Increasingly we’re connecting young people across the five boroughs with internships. It’s a great opportunity for kids to have their first professional exposure, and we’re now targeting some of these placements in the tech sector. This summer there will be about 300 young people who are placed in tech companies.
A Smarter Planet: What do you believe will be the essential technologies to support a digital city in the future?
Haot: Mobile is going to play an extremely important role. Today, already, about 25% of our traffic on our Web sites comes in via mobile devices, and we expect that to increase. So we’re gearing our digital engagement strategy around mobile.
Data analysis and predictive analytics are becoming increasingly important, as well. We recently appointed a chief data analytics officer, Mike Flowers. He and his team bring together various different data sources from within the city. They’re doing a lot of work to integrate data from different sources. Using data this way, for example, we might be able to predict when a building is at a higher risk to firefighters and potentially reduce firefighter injuries.
A Smarter Planet: Did you use digital resources during Hurricane Sandy?
Haot: Absolutely. Digital media and especially social media became incredibly important during Hurricane Sandy. There were dozens of people across the city working around the clock to communicate with constituents. We had so many people who were in areas without power and access to TV news. If they were able to walk to an area with electricity to get a WiFi signal on their laptop, that was often their primary mode of getting information to and from the outside world. So we used social media extensively. The mayor also streamed about ten different press conferences that he did during the weekend. And we really saw huge impacts there.
We were listening, too. Through social media were able to really get a sense of what New Yorkers’ concerns were and where we should allocate resources. We sent regular reports to the various operational agencies so they could act on that information.
A Smarter Planet: As a young entrepreneur before you took this role for the city, have you had any problems adapting to the city government culture?
Haot: Fortunately first we have a mayor who himself is an entrepreneur, a technologist and an innovator. He believes in the power of data-driven management and success. That’s true of a lot of other people in city government. It was very exciting for me to discover when I joined that there’s an enormous amount of innovation happening across the city.
One of the first things I did in creating the city’s digital roadmap was I met with dozens and dozens of essentially digital innovators at various different city agencies. I was really blown away by what they were doing. Everyone has things in play that were exciting.
It became clear quickly that NYC Digital didn’t have to do everything itself. I saw that we could be an advocate for innovation, support those initiatives that were working, analyze the results, see where we could get the biggest return on our investment and move forward.
We created a SMART committee, our Social Media Advisory and Research Taskforce, which is made up of digital innovators from across various city agencies. We meet once a month to talk about innovation. Then we share best practices and suggest new tools.
A Smarter Planet: Have you met resistance from city agencies that are reluctant change, or that want to go their own way and not work with you?
Haot: We have a very goals-driven digital strategy. When we meet with an agency to talk about their digital strategy, we start by asking, what’s your desired outcome? How can we reach out to your constituents online? And how do you measure success? And then we back into talking about digital tools and practices can help them achieve their goals.
We find that when we ask those questions and structure it that way, we always end up aligned. We’re never in a position where we’re pushing an agency to do something they don’t want to do or don’t have the resources for. If they want to be completely autonomous and do their own thing digitally, we have some basic city guidelines that we share.
Beyond that, we do want them to be autonomous. We do want them to be running their own digital thing. That usually means that there’s buy-in at all levels of management.
We discovered that if you can make it easier for an agency to do its job, they’re going to be interested. That’s what we found with hackathons. We held the first hackathon on our own. For the second one, one of the agencies approached us about hosting a hackathon around sustainability and green apps. We thought it was a great opportunity to demonstrate to the other agencies what you can get when you work with NYC Digital.
So we really worked very hard over several months to organize this hackathon, bring in partners, bring in prizes, et cetera. We asked the agency to think about what are the apps that they would love to see created out of this collaborative process. That got them thinking in a totally new way. They came up with all kinds of new ideas. And they also released dozens of new datasets that they hadn’t made public before. They saw that the additional datasets would help the developers to build the app that they wanted to see created.
A Smarter Planet: How do you coordinate your digital strategy with Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the Port Authority and other regional organizations?
Haot: As you know, those are separate from the city, but we are usually in pretty close contact at least with the MTA. We share information with them and they have come to some of our SMART meetings. After Hurricane Sandy actually we conducted a postmortem with the various social media managers and digital content creators from Consolidated Edison, MTA, FEMA and other organizations that were involved. We all shared best practices and developed our relationships with each other.
A Smarter Planet: If there’s one lesson that you think other cities that are just embarking on digital strategies could learn from your experience, what would it be?
Haot: The key thing is having a goals-oriented approach. Start by asking how you define success as an organization, or a city, or an agency. And then work backwards into that goal by deciding what you want to do. That helps to avoid a lot of gratuitous launching on a platform for the sake of launching on a platform. It means you’ll be able to show that ROI when it comes time to prove the value of the enterprise.
Follow Haot on twitter @rachelhaot; follow The City of New York on twitter @nycgov and on Facebook; and follow the NYC Subway Service @NYCTSubwayScoop.