Rachel Sterne: Using data, digital, and social in the city that never sleeps
- May 2012
- Interviewed by CMSO Forum
“We want government to be a platform for innovation. In the days leading up to Hurricane Irene, we opened up data about city geography to the community. When Irene was close to hitting and the mayor issued the directive to evacuate certain neighborhoods, visitor traffic spiked to our sites and severely slowed us down. But because we’d released the data earlier, a number of companies such as Google, NY Times had gone ahead and developed evacuation maps. We reached 10 times as many people that way as we would have.
We just passed open data legislation as a way to make available everything that we possibly can in terms of API-enabled data. In the same way that Facebook and Twitter have developed APIs, we want to tap into the developer network to create solutions. We’ve released 800 data sets from various city agencies.
“New Yorkers are creative and are not shy about sharing their views, which is great and helps to explain how we’re seeing increased success with social media.”
Most recently there have been two 311 APIs (311 is New York’s “information hotline) to show recently opened and closed service requests over past 5 days.”
To be responsive, it’s important to decentralize
“We’ve embraced this more decentralized approach because the city has more than 80 agencies and commissions. They all have different goals and are working on different initiatives. So it’s impractical and unhelpful to be monolithic.
The health department, for example, has done a great job with digital engagement through its NY quit smoking page on Facebook. It’s been a good place for discussion and it’s owned by the group not govt-sponsored. The Department of Transportation has a Tumblr blog called the daily pothole, which brings a little humor and also provides metrics and transparency. On March 11, for example, 1,900 potholes were filled. We also launched a crowd-sourced map for people to recommend bike share locations. People can pin a flag on the map to suggest where a bike share station should be. Different departments have different customers and constituencies, so we need to be decentralized to be responsive.”
Three factors in helping build a digital New York city government
Find pockets of innovation: “When we did research to develop our digital roadmap, we discovered all sorts of pockets of innovation throughout city government. People were working on apps, or sites or databases that either helped citizens directly or helped the agency do a better job serving our citizens. But it’s hard to work in isolation; you need a champion. We sought out those pioneers and formed a Social Media Advisory and Research Taskforce (SMART). This group is made up of 15 members elected every six months by social media managers across the city. During that time, they’re responsible for helping to manage citywide social media feeds such as Facebook and Twitter. But it’s a concrete way to recognize and celebrate them.
Listen to the public: It’s also been critical to get input from the public in building our digital road map because that helps eliminate a lot of the subjectivity when it comes to making decisions about what to do, where to spend money or allocate resources. We can say, “Here is what our customers are asking for, and we need to respond.” Change is already happening, and we need to respond.
Get active leadership support: A determining factor in the success of our digital efforts has been leadership support. Mayor (Michael) Bloomberg’s tech background obviously has been helpful because he’s been a vocal proponent of using data to improve city government. Both the mayor’s office and city hall have made it clear that innovating is a priority.”
How social is changing government
“New Yorkers are creative and are not shy about sharing their views, which is great and helps to explain how we’re seeing increased success with social media. On our social properties, we have 1.6m people and it’s growing quickly. At the current rate, our social traffic is going to surpass our site traffic (2.6m unique visitors/month) in a year or so.
What that means is that social is increasingly becoming an opportunity for government employees to have a direct relationship with constituents in a way that’s faster and more responsive than on static web site. Public service announcements over social, for example, have become a great way to engage the public. It really reflects how differently people are consuming content and information.”
The role of the Chief Digital Officer (CDO)
“In the private sector, companies hire a CDO to put focus on digitalizing the business model, improve customer experience, and develop customer delivery. We’re doing something very similar for New York City. As CDO, my primary responsibility is to figure out how to use technology to better serve and inform that public. In practice, that means we’re improving access to technology, developing an open government that uses data to enable collaboration, optimizing the constituent experience at every digital touch point, and partnering with the private sector in ways that help serve New Yorkers.”
Submit a comment
Comments chosen to be published may be edited for length and clarity and will appear along with your name and details, but not your e-mail address. We will use your e-mail address only to send you a confirmation copy of your comments and to notify you if we publish them online. We value your feedback and will consider it carefully. Nonetheless, we receive so many comments that we cannot acknowledge all of them.