In 2011, Rachel Haot became New York City's first Chief Digital Officer under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. In her tenure, she planned hackathons to help the city rethink the space used for payphones across the city and relaunched the city’s website, one with more than a million pages, serving millions of people in 70 different languages. During Hurricane Sandy, she helped coordinate hundreds of the City's social media staffers across various agencies to drive a 24/7 team sending consistent, accurate safety messages, correcting rumors and misinformation in real-time. Relationships with private companies such a Google and Twitter made it was easier for New Yorkers to find evacuation zones on maps and to see essential messages.
Today, she’s taken her skillset to the state level as New York State’s Chief Digital Officer and Deputy Secretary for Technology. Her job – to help modernize government – is no easy task. But Haot says solutions can be forged through transparency -- especially open data programs – as well as through collaborations between the public and private sector. "Digital technology is changing the way that people find information and connect with one another,” she says. “For government to be effective and relevant it needs to embrace these changes, and that's what our job is every day."
Q: New York’s a vast state – with farms and college towns and one very big city. How can technology make government relevant to all those people?
A: If you go to NY.gov now anywhere in New York State, you'll find a homepage that's been completely customized to you and to where you're located. You'll find things like emergency alerts and traffic updates, because transportation is a number one need for the public. Then you'll find job listings and job fairs close to you. After that you might find green markets and special attractions and sights you might see with your family. We're converting an organization that has not historically been known for customer service into one that's fully user-centric. That was the first update to NY.gov in 15 years. What we're focused on is how [to] create the best user experience of government.
Q: Even 6 years ago, New York -- the city or the state -- were not considered great tech hubs, but now this is a very competitive region. What’s changed?
A: In many ways, digital is disrupting industries far beyond tech. We may see an age when it's sort of laughable to consider it as its own vertical the way we do today, because every industry will be transformed and grow as a result of innovations in digital technology.
Q: What’s needed to keep momentum?
A: Infrastructure and talent. Governor Cuomo to date has already invested more than any other state towards universal broadband -- more than $70 million. In January, he made a commitment for an additional $500 million to equip our state with world-class broadband infrastructure. That is what’s going to be key in terms of not just our success in the U.S. but on a global stage.
We want to encourage [tech companies] to grow here. The Empire State Development Corporation powers partnerships with companies like Etsy, Square, and Vice Media. START-UP NY pairs tech companies with universities to help create that symbiotic relationship between academia and industry, and it also provides an array of tax incentives to those tech companies so their potential is maximized, and that includes no income and business tax to the state for ten years.
Additionally, there are incredibly exciting initiatives like the Cornell Tech Initiative, that's coming in New York City. The state of New York also has an impressive network of universities that produce very sophisticated engineers. Tech companies know that if they are setting up shop in New York they know they will have access to bright people.
Q: Your team launched the We Are Made in NY program. What lessons from that do you use today?
A: New York's greatest assets are its people. The tech community is incredibly collaborative and tightknit and supportive of one another. We learned that if there is a great story, just provide the platform for that to be told and allow there to be authentic outreach. We launched a map of where the [tech industry] jobs were in New York, and seeded that map with 600 listings. We thought we had covered all the tech companies in the city at the time, and then we opened it up for additional submissions and we received 1,500 more in the next 24 hours. So we really hit on something that resonated.
Q: How important is collaboration between governments large and small, and technologies to make innovation happen?
A: Technologists and innovators have a lot in common with government in that they want to improve the world. Governments need to ask for input. Technologists are creating a more efficient and productive world. We need to embrace those innovations in government if we're going to have a consistent user experience with what has become the norm in the private sector.
For collaboration on an ongoing basis, it’s good to have a really robust open data program. I believe we have hundreds of millions of data records available to the public. Specifically on health, we have some of the most powerful, robust health data available to the public and third parties. It's a great draw to developers and civic-minded private sector employees to learn about what the government does through the data and come up with tools and solutions based on what they find.
Q: What is the question every initiative needs to ask – and get answered?
A. How do we design government services around the individual? Once you look at it that way it becomes clear how to more effectively convey these services to the public. You have to first agree on who the user is that you’re designing for. It sounds pretty simple, but it's amazing how shifting that mindset and reminding everyone that we have to put ourselves in the shoes of the average New Yorker in terms of how they navigate and what they need from government makes an enormous difference.