Building the Digitally Networked Civic Arena, a Progress Report

February 10, 2012


MICAH SIFRY: Hi everybody. This is Micah Sifry from Personal Democracy Media welcoming you back to yet another in our series of on-going conversations with movers, shakers, thinkers, doers in the space where technology and politics and government and civic life all meet.

Today we are very excited to have joining us an old friend of Personal Democracy, Rachel Sterne, who we actually got to know back in the years when she was working the new media side of things at Ground Report but who now for more than the last year has had a really special and exciting role as New York City’s first Chief Digital Officer.

And today we’re going to be checking in with her to find out a bit more about what it takes to build a digitally-networked civic arena and to do it in what some people think of as the greatest city on earth.

I should mention that this call is being brought to you by our sponsors at Microsoft and we welcome their support.

As always, the way we structure these conversations is we’ll start out hearing a bit from Rachel to give us an overview on what she and the city have been up to in the space, then I’ll pepper her with some questions and then at about the half-way point, we’ll open up the call to people who are listening to ask questions.

I should mention that we really appreciate Rachel making the time. She’s got an incredibly busy schedule and we needed to shift the time of the call slightly to accommodate her and also we’re going to need to end 10 minutes early again to accommodate her for other meetings that she has to do. So, this call is actually going to go 50 minutes rather than a full hour and we’ll try and still leave plenty of time for folks who may have questions or comments they want to inject.

So, welcome Rachel and you know, why don’t you tell us what it’s been like and before we get into the meat of the progress report how you approach this new job and what you’ve learned in this first year since you came onboard at the city.

RACHEL STERNE: Great, well thank you so much Micah, and everyone who’s on the call and also thank you so much for accommodating my schedule, we’re all very busy so I really do appreciate that and I think it’s just such a great opportunity and as always I benefit enormously from these opportunities because we get a lot of great ideas. It is such an important part of how we developed the digital roadmaps, so I really welcome your questions, your thoughts, your suggestions or comments as we do year round, so thank you so much.

MICAH SIFRY: I should just add, I forgot, we’ll use the hash tag PDPlus if people want to Tweet during the conversation, and I’m going to add a new feature if people listening actually have a more convoluted question they want to toss into the conversation but don’t want to get on the call, you can just email me directly at msifry@gmail (Marsha, don’t put that in the Twitter stream) but I’ll be looking at my email to see if there are any things to add to the mix.

So, with that said, welcome!

RACHEL STERNE: Thank you, and I’m now following the hash tag, that’s good to know. And I re-Tweet it as well so people can join.

So, yeah, it’s just over a year so it’s really good timing for us to have this catch up and it’s been a phenomenal experience. I mean I just feel really fortunate and honored to be in this role because whether it’s looking at what the situation was five years ago or even what it’s like right now in other cities, I’m very lucky to be at a moment where there’s an enormous amount of momentum and interest and innovation within city government. There’s already a lot of innovations underway in developments, and so it really makes a lot possible. So, there’s a lot of energy and there’s a lot of really bright, smart people who are working really hard to make it all happen. So, that’s great and of course, in the greatest city on earth.

We also have such great support from New Yorkers who are intrinsic to this working for all our engagement goals. So, I mean I can give just an overview of exactly what this role is. Is that helpful?


RACHEL STERNE: So, basically this role and this office was created by Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Catherine Alberg, Commissioner of the Mayor’s office of Media and Entertainment back in 2010. And that office now, it encompasses the Office of Theater and Broadcasting, NYC Media, which creates content for the city’s five television channels and now NYC Digital, which our basic core goal is to improve the way we leverage digital technology to serve the public.


So, really every interaction between government and the public, how do we make that more rewarding, more meaningful, more efficient, more intuitive for everybody?

But to figure out exactly how we were going to go about doing this we started off with a 90-day report that became the city’s digital roadmap, which the mayor introduced in May, 2011. So, I began in January, 2011, and it focuses on four key areas and really it’s supposed to -- each level builds on the other.

So, it’s starts with a focus on access to technology, which is the foundation because if everyone can’t be using these technologies it really doesn’t matter how great they are. And that’s always very important to us in city government.

The next piece is open government, so how do we make sure we have a culture internally that’s open and strategically we’re very open. But also that from a technical standpoint we are revealing data and information in a format that enables developers to collaborate with us and cooperatively create new solutions that help to serve New Yorkers. And for the non-technical folks, making sure that we have data visualizations and access to information that supports whether you’re a journalist or an academic or special interest group.

The third part of the plan is engagement, and that’s really where we do most of our -- the execution side of our digital work at NYC Digital. So, that is how do we improve every single digital channel that is connecting the public with the government, whether it’s, the city’s main website which has 27 million unique visitors a year, or whether that’s our 250+ social media channels that reach 1.5 million people a month. So, that’s another big piece.

And finally our last element in that plan is industry and that’s how do we recognize our thriving digital industry in New York City because ultimately they’re really creating a lot of the innovations that we’re able to leverage in the public interest. And we evaluate public / private partnerships on an on-going basis. They’re also really important to a sustainable economy in New York City, a diversified economy and creating jobs and creating opportunities.

So, that really outlined what we were going to focus on. We see it as a holistic approach because if anyone of those pieces aren’t there, it won’t work. And we know that we can’t just focus on the flashy iPhone app., we need to be make sure we’re reaching all New Yorkers in a very strategic way.

So, within that we have dozens of initiatives related to those four pieces, but that’s really the core of our plan.

MICAH SIFRY: Now how much of this is your responsibility to actually sort of guide implementation and how much of it is your responsibility basically to kind of just be the public face of the plan and then implementation really lives at the city agency level. You know, how accountable are city agencies to you or is it that you know, the plan is really -- it’s a question of the mayor’s office kind of driving and making sure these agencies implement.

We all know -- we’ve seen that at the Federal level the Obama Administration certainly had some very far-reaching goals in terms of making government more open and participatory. But the fact is is that government is this multi-faced organism and some agencies have been very receptive and others have been really frankly kind of resistant.

So, where does the accountability for implementation actually land and to what degree should we be expecting that to be your job or it’s more the mayor’s job.

RACHEL STERNE: That’s all really, really interesting questions and I think -- you know, it comes down to your approach to how you get these things done, basically.

The way that I would define it is that NYC Digital really is the city’s key digital advocate. So, as a whole, whatever’s happening across the city it’s our responsibility to come in and say, “From a digital perspective, this is what we would need to do to fulfill New York City’s potential as the greatest digital city in the world.” And we recognize that maybe there are other factors that are weighed against that or for it that we’re not aware of, but our responsibility is really to be that sort of in-house advisor, advocate on the policy side related to those initiatives.


What we really want to do is the city of New York employs just under 300,000 people and it does so much. And what we try to do is make sure that all these different digital initiatives, and especially those that touch the public, that’s really what we’re focused on is the digital initiatives that connect the public and the government making sure that they’re part of a comprehensive holistic approach, that they all fit in together, that things aren’t competing with each other but we’re all benefiting collectively from that growth together.

So, part of it is being those eyes and ears to coordinate across dozens and dozens of agencies with many different things going on to connect people -- if they’re going to launch new application and open source solution was already crafted with one agency, maybe another agency can be using that same tool. These are the kind of areas where we advise. On policy issues also, being that advocate to say, “This is really what we need to do to fulfill our digital roadmap.” And the roadmap has been really very helpful in helping us stay very focused and very strategic on those pieces.

So, part of this is we worked very, very closely with a wide range of agencies and then there are a few agencies specifically that we work even more closely with because they’re so closely tied to digital initiatives, one would be the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT), which for example is the tech lead on open data initiatives for the city of New York and open government initiatives.

But where we come in is to make sure that all that fantastic, phenomenal work is reaching the public, that we’ve got someone at every hack-a-thon that’s happening in New York City; that we’ve got externally APIs represented at our hack-a-thons; that we’re sort of connecting the dots to make sure that everything that’s developed is really reaching that public piece.

And then in terms of accountability, so our approach is very much more carrot rather than stick. The other piece there -- you know, we found that -- and this just you know, our approach is -- our goal is always to find is where are the interests aligned and then work backwards from that point. I think it’s a much more effective way of making people feel invested and really have them be invested especially when it’s new technology, which can be -- you know, it’s different. It requires time to develop those solutions.

So, we find that the best way to clear away any concerns or to really cut down to the matter at hand is to take a goal-driven approach and a data-driven approach to digital technology. So for instance, we get this question a lot from the press, “What do you do when you’re meeting with an agency and they’re skeptical about whether they should be using social media or they should be using digital media?” And we welcome those questions and that skepticism because we only want to be advocating if it is going to help them achieve their goals as an agency, and if it’s something that they have the resources to commit to. And that really removes a lot of the conflicts because if it is going to help their agency it’s in their best interest, and if they do have the resources then we’re happy to help them craft a strategy that helps them to get there.

So, I don’t know if that helps to answer that question but especially on the social media strategy side, and we meet with dozens of agencies regularly about digital campaigns, digital initiatives they’re launching, maybe they’re developing application or maybe they’re just getting started on Facebook or Twitter and want to engage with their constituents that way. So, that’s part of our approach.

MICAH SIFRY: Well we see - I mean, and there’s an amazing list of agencies now that are actively using multiple social media tools -- Twitter, Flicker, Youtube, Tumbler, Wordpress, I see on here. I mean there’s clearly been a flowering of that kind of usage.

I wonder if you could point us -- what’s one of your favorite examples of an agency that is to your mind using social media to really develop a new kind of civic engagement. I know the plan has all these different moving pieces and we could spend time on the open government peace though honestly in many ways the city has taken some real leaps recently in opening up much more to both in terms of sharing data and in working with hackers.

But I’m curious about the more general public level of engagement because most people are not going to develop apps with city data build, maybe use some of them. But what I’m more curious about is where do you see -- what’s your best examples of a city agency that’s taking advantage of the two-way medium that these tools all enable to engage New Yorkers in a way that we should all pay attention to?


RACHEL STERNE: Sure, so there are so many examples. I don’t -- and I really do want to say that there’s innovation happening across city government and these hard-working people are really the ones who deserve all the credit for this --

MICAH SIFRY: (Overlapping remarks) Okay, you can mention more than one example of --

RACHE STERNE: Yeah, so I’ll start with Department of Transportation, which does a phenomenal job. So, a couple of examples; they have the Daily Pothole, which is the tumbler, which brings humor and transparency. They even sort of turn it into a comic book, it’s the, which is a blog that highlights what the city -- this past weekend, did you know they resurfaced 2,000 roads or something -- things along those lines, really staggering numbers.

They also launched a crowd sourcing initiative related to the coming Bike Share Program in New York City. So, if you go to there is an interactive map where you are able to request or suggest really that a bike share location be somewhere and you log in using social media and you can share it or you can endorse someone else’s. It’s really phenomenal. I think they had something -- tens of thousands of interactions with the map. And that was also developed using an open-source platform, home-grown start up, OpenPlan, which is a great example of public/private partnership.

Another example is the Department of Health’s NYC Quit Smoking page. It’s a great example of recognizing that social media’s not just another broadcast channel. It’s really -- what we’ve seen is some of the most successful examples of agencies on social media is when we create the space for the conversation to happen, we make sure that it’s supported by the resources that it needs -- whether those are links, information -- and then we sort of step back and let the community take over and have ownership.

So, NYC Quit Smoking for example has really evolved into basically a support group for people who are trying to quit smoking. And they talk to each other, they encourage each other. The city occasionally steps in, but it’s really just a supporting actor.

And then the last piece is two last ones because they’re really interesting, at least to me; 3-1-1 NYC -- so 3-1-1 has begun to respond to 311 service requests on Twitter, which is so exciting because they handle 19 million calls a year -- that’s usually 1:1 and it’s happening in a private context and when you’re putting it on Twitter that means that now the general public can be benefitting from every single one of those interactions.

And then finally, AddNYMayor’sOffice has the hash tag AskMike, so you can ask questions to the mayor, he chooses a few to respond to every Friday on his radio show and it’s just another channel where five, 10 years ago there was no way to make something like that possible and now you can directly be having a conversation like that.

MICAH SIFRY: One thing people listening may not realize is the extent to which New York City kind of has multiple layers to government because a lot of what you’re describing are the agencies that touch the city sort of horizontally across different kinds of services or in the case of the smoking initiative, health is something that cuts across.

But does the digital plan also include efforts to bind neighborhoods together or community boards in touch with their districts? Because you know, for a lot of people the city’s a big place and really what they’re interested in is the condition of their local school or the broken street lamp.

So, how does this get local and to what extent is that really not the mayor -- you know, the central kind of City Hall job but more in the hands of the community boards?

RACHEL STERNE: Well I mean there is an agency that’s devoted specially to that and they do a phenomenal job, so the Mayor’s Community Affairs unit, they -- and it’s interesting because over the past probably six months, it’s very different doing social media when it’s related to social services as opposed to in the private sector.

It has a whole new set of sort of challenges and I think great opportunities as well, but it’s different because sometimes -- if it is local or if it is personal or if it’s related to something that maybe people wouldn’t want to be publicly talking about something related to assist Public Assistance or Services, it just creates a whole new set of dynamics.

So, it’s something, again, we want to take a strategic approach to; it’s certainly not a one-size-fits-all and basically what sort of works in the private sector for marketing is not what’s going to work perfectly in that context.

So, one thing that we have been doing is we’re starting by saying -- at the community level and especially with communities that are less engaged maybe on some of these platforms or that digitally we want to have greater representation from -- is how do they use technology?

So, to that end HRA, which is the Human Resources Administration, they conducted a survey with their clients, these are individuals receiving public benefits and services, and they asked, “How often do you go on Facebook?,” “How often do you use a mobile phone?,” “Do you have a smart phone?” Things like that because before we even get to that point, we need to make sure that that’s where our energies are


best distributed, best invested. And the numbers are very surprising and we also look at the national surveys, we look at the PEW surveys and studies and things like that, but there are surprisingly few studies specific to New York City. And this was a great example of an agency being resourceful, it didn’t cost them any money, we didn’t have to pay an outside consulting firm and the numbers were amazing. It was something like 88 percent of individuals were using a cell phone every day, 70 percent were on Facebook. So, it was very helpful in enabling in terms of --

MICAH SIFRY: Is that study public?

RACHEL STERNE: It’s not public yet, but elements of it will be featured in the -- because it’s not a scientific study. It’s a survey basically that we did so we want to caveat it that way but we will certainly be presenting it in update to the digital roadmap in May.

So, anyway I know it’s more interesting to look at the quick examples, but we wanted to make sure that we took the right approach. So, basically we’re also talking to experts, having conversations with people in the space who really know about this stuff.

What we do know is very important to us is to build basically ambassadors and community representatives at the community level because we think this is a much better way of establishing trust and responding to the needs of the community. So, what we have been looking at is developing networks of digital ambassadors at the community level who are active in social media but also have credibility within their communities and approaching it from that perspective.

But we’re working very closely with CAU for example, with the mayor’s office of Immigrant Affairs, for example.

MICAH SIFRY: Is there a way for somebody to volunteer with the office if they wanted to be one of those digital ambassadors in a community that they live in?

RACHEL STERNE: I think certainly. We are not yet to the point where we’re in a position to launch these things, we don’t have a landing page or anything like that. But it is something that we’re exploring that we would definitely -- we’ll create that mechanism for people to say --

MICAH SIFRY: You could have an amazing summer internship program for lots of high school students with something like that.

I have a question here that was emailed to me from Vincent (Ducret?) who is a new media advisor for the French Government in Paris actually, and he wants to know, “If you benchmark other cities in terms of their online local engagement and if so, which cities?” And I think what he means is where else -- who else are you looking at as models for inspiration or as points of comparison so you can kind of track your own work against what your peers are doing?

RACHEL STERNE: Sure. Well I think -- I should know that I think New York City does have an unfair advantage and I think that -- and I just said this but I really mean it in all seriousness at the Social Media Week Kickoff -- that we are the social media capital of the country, if not the world, there’s a lot of presence in South America as you know because every time I meet with the social media platform they reinforce that there are more active social media users in New York City than in any of their other cities.

So, we already have that advantage of a lot of New Yorkers are online, which is part of why we are going online. This is the future of public communications and this is how people are sharing information, getting information, connecting with each other online.

But there’s a ton of great examples out there and we speak a lot with different cities. We talk to San Francisco, Chicago has a ton of great initiatives, John Tolva, Jane (inaudible) San Francisco --

MICAH SIFRY: You did a call with John recently, yeah Chicago’s great.

RACHEL STERNE: Right, Nigel Jacob and Chris Osgood in Boston are fantastic. DC is doing things as well. We also talk with Los Angeles. So, the nice thing about it is we all have aligned goals and even though


sometimes we have sort of a playful competitiveness, we do share lessons learned constantly, we’re speaking on a panel together about this very topic at South by Southwest.

So, there’s a lot of great examples out there. And then internationally great things happening in Rio, in Buenos Aires, in London has some really great initiatives underway.

So, really there’s a ton of really interesting things going on, we’re always paying attention to them.

MICAH SIFRY: That’s great. I’m going to take a pause here and just say since I do see a bunch of people listening, if anybody wants to pose a question directly now’s your chance, hit *6 on your phone and I will unmute you and invite you into the conversation. We’ll just take a pause to allow that to happen if anyone wants to jump in.

I’m also still checking my email if people want to pose questions through that or PDPlus as the hash tag for this conversation that we’re having with Rachel Sterne. Feedback is very interesting on PDPlus, people like the idea of the digital ambassadors.

RACHEL STERNE: I know, I’m noting it down on our digital roadmap outline. So, we have to get it approved and discuss it but I do think it’s interesting.

MICAH SIFRY: Okay, hang on one second. I see a person -- go ahead, you’re on with Rachel Sterne.

PARTICIPANT 1: This is Rob (inaudible) and I had a question about the city’s budget for (inaudible) government in online ventures.

What is the budget at this point and what’s the outlook? We’re in a tight economy and I guess I’m wondering not only about that but how do you measure return on that investment? How does it look for the city after Bloomberg for instance, too?

MICAH SIFRY: Oh, all good questions.

RACHEL STERNE: All very good questions, thanks Rob. So, yeah, so I mean this is -- core to our mission is we always want to be doing more with less, right? As you said, these are considerations we take very seriously.

I think the good thing about social media while it’s only as good as the resources in terms of sort of manpower and effort that you put into it, is most of these products are free of charge in terms of the actual cost, financial cost.

So, really the way that I would put it is that there’s no way to sort of identify a specific budget, it’s within each agency’s role; each agency’s purview to decide how much they do want to commit. But overall for social media platforms, for example there’s negligible if any cost, which is very, very helpful to us. That is also helpful as you mentioned to the sustainability looking on to at the succeeding administrations and following administrations, how do we continue and how do we set up a sustainable structure that can really continue?

And this is why first it’s great to be working with these platforms where there is no specific cost associated and also why we also take a strategic, goals-driven approach. And that’s how we measure our return on investment.

So, every time we meet with an agency they might be going 100 miles an hour and have a great idea and they just sort of want to get our thoughts on it, we actually say, “Okay, let’s start at square one and say what is your goal as an agency? Not even with this platform, but just in general, how do you measure success?” And back into, “How will this specifically help you measure that success?,” “How will this specifically help you achieve those goals and what will success look for?”

So, in each case it’s different, it can vary so widely. But that we found is very helpful in terms of proving that return on investment because if it’s not there then maybe they shouldn’t be doing that (sounds like: channel), maybe it should be something they’re shutting down or they shouldn’t have launched in any case. And it also helps them to really demonstrate internally why something’s important to an agency’s future.

So, all of those things really tie in together.

MICAH SIFRY: Right, Rachel, if you don’t mind my just interrupting; I think you kind of -- I mean Rob’s question was really about the open government, open data initiatives. And so it’s true that the social media platforms cost little to nothing other than a little personnel time, but opening up the data does


have at least some initial cost in many cases because city -- you know, the databases may be in formats that are not good for sharing, so you have to do some upgrading on platforms.

And secondly, we all know from past experience that there is resistance in many places to sharing this information because it can embarrass people and the upside is it can expose both good things that are going on as well as things that need to be fixed.

But should we be worried that this isn’t yet institutionalized in a way that would succeed this administration into whoever the next one is and what could we do to help make sure that it does get institutionalized?

RACHEL STERNE: I think those are really -- (overlapping remarks).

PARTICIPANT 1: I was just going to add to that, too on the same note is that what prevents hopefully the next mayor from, for instance, getting rid of your position entirely and just --

MICAH SIFRY: Right, well there’s always that. The public has to demand that it wants these things to stay, I think is probably the biggest part of the answer. Thanks Rob, I’m going to mute you now.

RACHEL STERNE: Yeah, and I think it also -- it should only really be there if there’s a hug need for it also. You know, ultimately everything will be disrupted by digital and we’re not there yet, but we do want to have it deeply, deeply integrated into lots of different functions.

On the open government side as you said, it’s a complex challenge and I think part of where we see the return on investment is that we see applications being developed that otherwise could be very costly. And the good example of this is the NYC Big Apps competition, which is a partnership between the New York City Economic Development Corporation and do it from the city’s IT and telecommunications agency and what that does is it creates incentives and it’s at no cost to tax payers so it’s really a good case study for how to do these kinds of things, so the jobs (inaudible) are made available.

And in addition to that EDC through a sponsor provides cash prizes for developers to create applications. And this year we had over 100 applications and all at essentially negligible to no cost to the city.

That’s a great return to the city and especially since there was input specifically from the public this year that was leveraged to show where are these resources best leveraged.

MICAH SIFRY: Are we actually building the skateboarding app for -- in subways because I thought --

RACHEL STERNE: I will, I mean that’s up to the developers. I actually haven’t gone to look at the -- to see if it’s in one of the admissions.

MICAH SIFRY: That’s too bad, that’s my favorite one personally.

RACHEL STERNE: I know, it was everyone’s favorite one. So, I think it’s a good point. I mean part -- we do have -- the data’s available right now and we are working on solutions that will enable it to be even more directly released by the agencies really at the point of where it’s being stored. We have to balance really huge considerations like security and privacy concerns that are very unique to a city government, obviously.

So, we do have a unique set of circumstances there but I mean if you look at the arc of how this has gone progressively every year and really this is a reflection of the mayor’s commitment to data-driven government, to transparency and to the great work at DoITT but every year there’s been more data available than the year before in more sophisticated formats.

For instance, this year by working with the (Socrata?) platform, the data’s available in API-enabled formats for the first time.

So, we’re confident that you’re just going to see this going in a better and better direction. You’re just going to see this more data, higher frequency of updates, more realtime, everything that people have been asking for.

And I think really what’s helpful to us is we’re looking for more ways to improve and expand our collaboration with the public and I think this is where -- all the people interested in this, people on this call, other calls -- can really be a great sort of partner in this and saying, “We have a real need for this in developing real solutions,” and also providing feedback and making it clear that this is important to you because it’s going to come down to who it is important to.

So, but I think we’re all in this together.

MICAH SIFRY: Sure. We have another call with a question looks like from the 3-1-2 area code. Go ahead, tell us your name and ask your question.

PARTICIPANT 2: Hey, my name is (Avishek?), so my question is you mentioned that NYC is the social media capital of the country, which is true in many ways. But there are still people who don’t have access to some of these tools, so what is your office and what are you doing in partnership with other agencies to overcome the digital device?


RACHEL STERNE: That’s a great question and that’s also why it is the foundation of our plan, and it’s the most important piece arguably. And it’s -- we speak to other cities and they see New York City as being so incredibly connected, how could we ever complain? But the truth is it needs to be completely acceptable to everyone in order for it to happen, so I’ll just speak really briefly to a few of the policy initiatives underway.

I think the most really game-changing one is through the Federally-funded B-Top Program, stands for Broadband Technologies Opportunity Program and that’s providing funding for three separate programs, which collectively are upgrading a number of resources that are the go-to resources that individuals who don’t have broadband at home use to get onto the internet.

Number one is libraries. Libraries has just become such an incredibly important resource especially to low income households that don’t have broadband or high-speed internet connections at home. So, we’ll be upgrading that. Currently there is free wifi in every branch of every -- you know, there are three library systems within the city of New York, but any library branch you walk into there is free wifi and there are computers that are available for use. People use these to apply to jobs because now this is an economic development issue. Now something like 80 percent of employers only post jobs online.

They also use it to socialize, to use Facebook because that’s how people participate in society today. So, these are both important uses.

In addition to that the funding is going to improve recreations centers that are part of the Parks Department. They are going to improving computer labs that are part of Public Housing developments so the New York City Housing Authority has a number of computer labs. They’re also experimenting with some light weight solutions such as a wifi -- it’s basically a mobile wifi hotspot that they create a van that’s -- I’m not sure if it’s deployed yet, but they’ve been speaking about this extensively that will go to different (inaudible) spots.

In addition to that there’s been a lot of exciting announcements for public wifi -- free public wifi in parks. So, there’s something like over 40 different locations in parks across the city now where you can have access to free public wifi through --

MICAH SIFRY: Let me try -- I know, there’s a lot going on. Let me -- we have two more people waiting to ask questions. Let me see if we can get those in quickly, we’re running out of time.

Okay, next person on, I don’t know if your name is Wendy, go ahead.

PARTICIPANT 3: It’s Rich Robbins.

MICAH SIFRY: Ah, it’s Rich using a phone that says Wendy on it.

PARTICIPANT 3: Yeah, my wife’s name. Hey guys, so Rachel following up on what you said about both the digital ambassadors and about how you’re looking to the tech community to help you, what things are there that the community could do to help you be more successful and to help advancing things in the New York tech scene and with what you’re trying to do?

MICAH SIFRY: Okay, hang on, hold that thought. I’m going to get the other person asking a question on as well.

PARTICIPANT 4: Sure, this is Antoine Wallace calling. And I had a question actually about the opportunity costs and the return on investment of being centralized in the mayor’s office versus having a diffused system across the government in terms of institutionalizing an implementation.

So, I was just trying to appreciate -- what was an acceptable rate of return on investment? And what have some of the opportunities and challenges to being centrally localized in the mayor’s office?

MICAH SIFRY: Okay, both great questions and with the last five minutes on the call Rachel, I’ll let you take them in either order you want.

RACHEL STERNE: Okay, great, so I’ll just start with Richard’s question, which is such a great question. We always want people to be helping and we really do see -- we hope everyone realizes that we at least see the developer community and the public -- the New Yorkers across our city as being our partners in making the digital roadmap a reality in fulfilling that potential.

So, there are a number of things that anyone can do to start, just to be engaging everyone’s welcome to go to media where you can find a list of the different ways that you can connect using social media with city government.

You can also see a list of the initiatives that we have underway on, if you look at the digital roadmap section as well as the developer community section.

In general, if you are interested in partnering with the city there’s -- you can email us at and we evaluate public/private partnerships on a number of different criteria but you know, basically recognizing where New Yorkers live online and what their needs are and then also looking at initiatives along those lines.

And we are also -- we were not able to announce at this time -- but we are also putting together some listening sessions that will be focused on the four core elements of the roadmap including education, which we’ll be adding as a 5th pillar to our plan for 2012. It was part of the access before. It wasn’t that we didn’t think it was important but now we just think it’s so big it needs its own section. And we will be publicizing those listening sessions and those group meetings through the @NYCdigital Twitter account as well as to our newsletter.

So, you can sign up for our newsletter on to stay in the loop. We’re going to be rolling out a whole Get Involved section that outlines specifically how people can help because we get this question all the time, thankfully, we’re very fortunate. So, that will help to address that.

And the second question which I think was sort of -- what’s the strategy of being centralized versus being de-centralized and the advantages and dis-advantages. And I would actually say we’re more of a sort of federated approach so the agencies at the agency level have enormous autonomy.

We’re really here just to be a support to them and an advocate for them, so specific to social media but really any digital media initiatives we also have -- we have an internal newsletter that goes out to the agencies. We have a committee that’s called The SMART Committee, Social Media Advisory and Research Task force that’s made up of representatives of some of the social media rockstars from across the city that --

MICAH SIFRY: I’ll bet everyone wants to be on that one!

RACHEL STERNE: (Laughter) Yeah, I know. Well it’s grown, it’s certainly grown, but it’s a 15 person group right now. And every month we talk about new platforms, we get things approved for use by our legal colleagues. We’re able to deploy things very quickly and this is why today things like Instagram and Sound Cloud are approved for use for social media use for the agencies.

But in addition to that we really encourage autonomy on the agency level. We do provide guidelines to make sure that as a city we have a consistent voice, that we’re constantly serving the public in a consistent way, that we demonstrate professionalism, respect and just a number of sort of style guidelines and also that we’re -- when it comes to information especially in emergency situations and other things like that, that we’re all on the same page.

So, we do have -- we’re really sort of a coordinating body is how I would describe it that provides support to the approximately 200 individuals who are digital content producers across the city and we do that through summits, seminars, office hours, workshops, newsletters and other resources we provide.

MICAH SIFRY: Wow, amazing. Well let me say I’m sure we could go on longer with more questions and at the same time I can also hear with everything you’ve been describing to us how much -- how many plates you have spinning and how much clearly in just one year the digital engagement and footprint of the city has expanded.

And thank you Rachel for continuing to be a leader here and as well as a wonderful guide and also a person with an open door that folks can reach out to and share ideas with. Good luck with your work going forward.

Folks, you’ve been listening to Personal Democracy Plus, we’ve just finished our discussion with Rachel Sterne, New York City’s first Digital Officer.

This call as I mentioned at the beginning, was sponsored by Microsoft.


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