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NYC Chief Digital Officer: upgrading a subway system is a lot harder than restarting a router

rachel haot

Rachel Haot is New York City’s first Chief Digital Officer, responsible for working alongside Mayor Michael Bloomberg to stimulate the city’s startup ecosystem, modernize age-old infrastructure, and encourage engineering education. Prior to taking public office, Haot founded GroundReport, a news platform which set out to democratize media and let locals publish news stories to an international audience. She was also an adjunct professor at Columbia Business School teaching social media. Haot took a few minutes to talk to The Verge about her favorite to-do app, the challenges of upgrading one of the world’s largest subway systems with Wi-Fi, and Mayor Bloomberg’s mantra that keeps her on task. You can find her on Twitter at @rachelhaot.

What are you doing right now?

I’m at work on a Friday night.

How do you typically structure your days? What’s a day in the life of Rachel Haot like?

I live in Williamsburg and take the L or bike to work. Typically I start with a breakfast meeting before work hours to connect with someone from the tech sector – a startup we are trying to support or a smart person we might partner with. During the day, I am often moving between meetings, about 50 percent with City government colleagues and partners working on City tech projects, and 50 percent with startups, organizations, and individuals in the tech community.

If I don’t have a lunch meeting, I usually eat lunch at my desk. I often have at least a public event or speaking engagement where I speak about Mayor Bloomberg’s digital roadmap or announce a new initiative. I try to cook dinner at home with my husband Max or friends whenever I don’t have an event in the evening. And of course, from morning to night I am responding to emails and on social media.

"I remember telling my dad that I thought AOL was easier to use. He worked for IBM, so he didn’t like that."

What’s your first memory of the internet?

Using Prodigy to play checkers. I thought it was the coolest thing. My father was always an early adopter of technology, so I used my first computer, a Macintosh, when I was about seven, and used IBM’s Prodigy at about eight or nine. I remember telling my dad that I thought AOL was easier to use. He worked for IBM, so he didn’t like that.

What music helps you stay most focused?

I don’t listen to music while I’m working, it distracts me. When I’m at home or out I like groups like Holy Ghost, Tanlines, Florence + the Machine, Fiona Apple, and The Pixies. I also love electronic music like Phoenix and David Guetta.

Managing "digital" for one of the world’s biggest cities seems tough. What apps / techniques / mantras do you use to stay organized?

Mantras – always focus on the results and data. That, I learned from the Mayor. I use a great to-do app, called 2Do, for iPhone. I check it constantly to make sure I don’t forget anything, and it lets you have multiple to-do lists. I also am addicted to Moleskine notebooks. I’ve probably gone through about 20 since I started the job. I make lots of lists.

"Always focus on the results and data."

When you look around NYC, what part is most desperately in need of a digital revamp?

The thing I hear the most from the public is Wi-Fi in the subways. It’s difficult when you have the oldest subway system in the world, and the only system with 24 / 7 nonstop service. Nonstop service makes it difficult to restart a router. But we have spoken extensively with the MTA, and they have plans in place to roll out Wi-Fi in every station. It’s already available through a pilot in Chelsea.

What other cities are doing digital particularly well? What can you learn from them?

We are constantly meeting and speaking with counterparts in other cities to share what we’ve learned and take notes from their successes. Chicago, San Francisco, and Boston are all doing fantastic things in open data. We also have spoken with Geneva, Buenos Aires, and London. Buenos Aires is a leader in open data, Geneva allows people to vote online, London has done a lot to catalyze its tech sector.

What’s the gist of NYC’s “Digital Roadmap”?

It’s a holistic plan, and it’s meant to build from a foundation and work upwards. Essentially, we lay out the building blocks: internet access everywhere and tech education. Then we focus on enabling the public and government to use these resources, through Open Government and Engagement. And finally, we support job creation and innovation through the tech industry. The roadmap is a recipe for modernizing our city in a strategic, inclusive way, and realizing New York City’s potential.

"It’s always possible to be strategic about when you connect, and the quality of your interactions."

What’s the most challenging or frustrating part of your work?

The biggest challenge is prioritizing. There are so many fantastic opportunities and great ideas, but we have to focus on a select number in order to achieve as much as we can within the administration.

What’s the best book you’ve read lately?

The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. It’s about urban development but is equally applicable, in a metaphorical way, to digital user experience design. For example, Jacobs writes about how successful urban design means that the same city street is versatile and multifaceted enough to engage, support, serve, and sell to different kinds of people at different times of the day – and this makes the street safer and more attractive, because there are always people around.

The same thing applies in the design of social media strategy and crowdsourcing initiatives: attracting a diverse range of participants to a Facebook page or hackathon has a similar self-regulating effect, ensuring a more constructive, respectful dialogue and caliber of engagement – and better results.

NYC seems to be pretty good at managing its Twitter presence across various government bureaus. How do you do it?

We encourage experimentation, but our actions are never arbitrary. In City government, we are always trying to do more with less – and this demands a strategic, data-driven approach. It also helps us to make more objective, results-oriented decisions about where to invest our energy and resources. We encourage agencies to try new things, but if the numbers show that it’s not working, we make a conscious step to change course. Mayor Bloomberg is a data-driven leader, our digital strategy reflects that approach.

What will it take to bring more women into the tech field?

New York City has more female startup founders than any other city. Whether it’s greater gender diversity or ethnic diversity in tech – which is a crucial need as well – a key ingredient is encouraging young students to pursue math and science education.

Do you ever feel a need to disconnect?

I think we all do. I have a job that requires constant digital connection. But it’s always possible to be strategic about when you connect, and the quality of your interactions.

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