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NYC's First Chief Digital Officer Speaks Out

Rachel Sterne, previously a consultant and entrepreneur, aims to make the city more transparent and accessible.

by / February 25, 2011
New York City already has a number of successful transparency initiatives underway. Photo by Jessica B. Mulholland. Jessica B. Mulholland

To improve communication with residents and businesses, New York City hired its very first Chief Digital Officer, a role that aims to enhance transparency through digital media. Though only in the position for a few weeks, Rachel Sterne already has started gathering feedback to create a 90-day report that details the city's online strategies. The report ultimately will look at ways the city can enhance its digital footprint, streamline its existing social media mechanisms and explore public-private partnerships.

Sterne says her first weeks have been very exciting, noting that New Yorkers are eager to access government services and important information online. "Across the city, many agencies are already active online and have a genuine interest in innovation and connecting digitally with citizens," she said. In an e-mail interview, the Big Apple's first Chief Digital Officer discussed her background as it relates to her new post, her viewpoints on transparency and social media, and her vision for open government.

In what ways has your background, both education and career-wise, prepared you for this position?

Prior to this role I was an entrepreneur and a consultant in the digital media industry. I founded GroundReport, a citizen journalism platform that crowdsources news and opinion from around the world, following my internship with the State Department's U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York. In addition to issues like platform development and content partnerships, I had to address challenges inherent to crowdsourcing and social media, such as cultivating a user community, maintaining a respectful tone of discourse, designing editorial workflows, and scaling verification systems. This experience is relevant to initiatives that encourage input and ideas from the public via digital platforms.

As a consultant, I have worked with startups and nonprofits to establish goals, develop timelines, and execute a results-based digital media strategy that increases visibility and aligned with business goals. This aligns with the need expressed by city agencies for internal social media coordination, best practices training and measurement.

Finally, throughout my career I have helped create business partnerships in the digital media space; this dovetails with the role's focus on public-private partnerships that help the city innovate and launch new initiatives at no cost to taxpayers.

Rachel Sterne
Photo courtesy of the NYC Office of Media and Entertainment

I know you're just beginning your 90-day report detailing the city's online strategies, but can you tell me what your thoughts are going into this? Do you already have some idea as to what you'll find and what your recommendations will be?

We are starting the 90-day report with no preconceptions. We've already begun to gather feedback from city agencies and citizens through both face-to-face meetings and online platforms such as Twitter, Quora, Tumblr and Facebook. To create the report, we will continue to work with stakeholders and gather metrics to provide a comprehensive look at what the city is currently doing and opportunities to build on these achievements. Regarding suggestions, we hope to leverage the resources we have to serve more citizens, and develop public-private partnerships that help us meet goals without expending funds.

What sorts of public-private partnerships do you think are valuable?

Public-private partnerships are valuable because they allow the city to work with established and emerging industry leaders to launch innovative initiatives at no cost to taxpayers. Building on the success of the efforts of the Economic Development Corporation, we see great potential in public-private partnerships with digital media startups, technology corporations, educational programs, incubators, and entrepreneur community organizations, and we will be exploring all of these avenues and more.

As Chief Digital Officer, what is your vision for New York City in terms of openness and transparency?

New York City already has a number of successful transparency initiatives underway, and has made it clear that supporting openness and transparency are high-priority goals. The city has made over 350 datasets available to the public through the NYC DataMine, and has encouraged independent developers to build applications through its celebrated NYC Big Apps competition. Working with the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications and the Economic Development Corporation, I hope to support these existing initiatives and continue to help developers and city agencies work together. Openness and transparency initiatives such as Big Apps not only support innovation, but also create useful city applications without using taxpayer funds.

You've said that your goal is to help New York City become the world's most innovative city through technologies that help citizens and enhance the quality of services -- can you tell me what that looks like?

Successful technological innovation is simple and easy to use by everyone, regardless of level of access or digital literacy. Our goal is to simplify and improve the lives of New Yorkers and city agencies through coordination and elegant, lightweight solutions.

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Jessica Mulholland Former Web Editor/Photographer

Jessica Mulholland served as the Web editor of Government Technology magazine from October 2012 through September 2017. She worked for the Government Technology editorial team for nearly 10 years.

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