The Woman Upgrading Bloomberg's Government: Rachel Sterne
Tuesday, January 25, 2011
Talking points for Mayor Bloomberg used to be printed on small, white, index cards. Last year, he repaved those cards with an iPad. During a City Council hearing into the city's botched snow removal efforts, City Council members vented their frustration…on Twitter.
In many ways, New York City government is embracing 21st century. But to critics, the city — capital of finance and media — is woefully behind other cities in incorporating modern technology when it comes to governance.
Enter Rachel Sterne, the 27 year-old founder of the GroundReport, an open-source journalism portal. On Monday, the city announced Sterne is now New York City's first chief digital officer, charged with, among other things, helping Mayor Bloomberg's administration adapt to the 21st century.
"My focus primarily is going to be on how can we use technology to better serve citizens," Stern said in an interview. "And more deeply enhance our services."
"At the most basic level, it's making sure citizens looking for information can find it and that they can be connected to the services and the support that they need," she said.
Sterne — who uses both a Blackberry and an iPhone4 — will issue a report in 90 days to outline the city's current use of technology and offer preliminary recommendations about changes.
Andrew Rasiej, a leading tech entrepreneur, praised Sterne's hiring and sees a lot of potential for her work.
"She embodies everything that is happening in the technology industry ," he said. "This is a city that was very successful in the 20th century using top-down, 20th century business practices to achieve a great deal of its wealth and power and its infrastructure is very much 20th century."
As Rasiej sees it, Sterne's hire is part of a movement in government.
"It isn't government 2.0 and it isn't really e-government. It's something we like to cal we-government," he said. That is " where citizens using the tools they have in their own pockets, their blackberries, their iphones, their androids, are starting to collect data themselves and build tools and applications that are useful for other people."
Here are a few examples Rasiej offered:
Manor, Texas, whose official city web site is hosted by word press, uses QR code on public facilities that allows citizens to do things like register for permits to use a baseball field while standing on the baseball field.
Another program is called SeeClickFix which, as Rasiej describes it, is a marriage between 311, Google Maps and Twitter.
In Washington D.C., the city budget was published "a machine-readable form" online in a way that allowed citizens to sort through it, see who was getting contracts, and measure the performance of city agencies.
Sterne said she wants to see more information in the hands of New York City residents.
"Using technology to directly communicate not just information that maybe is being censored by government, but that is otherwise prevented from reaching a mainstream audience…in many cases, that has lead to better policy, it has lead to pressure to push governments to make more responsive and responsible decisions," she said.
For Sterne, upgrading New York City government may not be so easy.
For one, Sterne's hire comes at a time when more questions are being raised about Bloomberg's management of city government and its information flow.
The CityTime project — which was supposed to save the city millions through computerizing it's payroll system — has exploded in costs and has been acknowledged as a catastrophe.
The botched snow removal over Christmas highlighted what critics said were inadequate communication channels between city agencies, and between city government and its citizens. Also, Bloomberg's refusal to disclose his location, or that of his top aides who were coordinating snow removal efforts, has led to calls for disclosing their whereabouts more frequently.
Also, earlier efforts to disseminate information collected by the city agencies met resistance from top aides to the mayor.
On June 29, 2009, City Councilwoman Gale Brewer of Manhattan's West Side hosted a hearing on her legislation that would compel city agencies to publish "raw data" it collects online.
Arguing against the legislation were Sami Naim, assistant counselor to Bloomberg, and Ariel Dvorkin, special assistant for policy and government.
They said releasing raw data would be too complex for most users to comprehend.
"You might have a thousand records that you can say in two lines. Our goal is to be as user-friendly with the public as possible," Naim said.
Later, he added, "It’s not how much paper can you put up on the Internet…“It’s more, ‘How much can you engage New Yorkers.’ ”
Naim and Dvorkin said the city should release only the information they saw the public requesting. Brewer said that was inadequate, since most residents don't know the vast amount of information the city collects, and could benefit by a more proactive disclosure of intel.
"A truly effective, digital strategy," Sterne said, "is accessible to everyone, to every single citizen. That's the rule of good usability, of user-friendly resources."
When asked to grade the city's current use of technology, Stene politely demurred. "I don't think that kind of thing is really constructive."
Azi Paybarah is the author of The Empire, a blog that covers New York state politics and governance.