August 13, 2016 1:21:00 am
It is an unlikely post, but, yes, New York City has a chief digital officer (CDO). In fact, former St Stephen’s College alumnus Sree Sreenivasan will take over as the third CDO of the city in October. He has been tasked by Mayor Bill de Blasio to make New York “the most tech-friendly, the most transparent and most digitally equitable city in the world”.
“Those are such simple instructions, so clear, but also so scary. He did not say make New York ‘one of the most’ …, but he said ‘the most’ and knowing New York that is a huge challenge,” Sreenivasan told IndianExpress.com during a visit to the New Delhi earlier this week. Sreenivasan has spent over two decades teaching journalism at Columbia University before taking over as its first Chief Digital Officer. He has also written for a range of publications including the New York Times.
“This is an exciting development for cities. I am the third CDO after two awesome women. The Mayor’s office has already built a very good digital playbook which is very helpful. It could be a good road map for India too, especially a city like Delhi. I think there is also a lot to learn from India,” says Sreenivasan, who was till recently the first chief digital officer at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.
However, he says that the level of clarity he has going into this job has never existed for him before. “I am super jazzed, but also super scared. If you are not scared, then you are not being challenged.”
So what does the job of the CDO of a city entail? “New York has 3,00,000 employees, 8.5 million residents, 4.5 million commuters and then the 55 million visitors. All of them interact with the city in many ways. You could have a positive, negative or neutral experiences.” He says his job will be to ensure that the experience is neutral to positive to pleasurable as much as possible. “That’s one of the big tasks.”
Another big task for him will be to get more startups to the city. Quite a task given that startups prefer the west coast more than the east. “How do we make New York, its environment and its energy to be the place where people want to have a startup. Also, how do we get the big companies to stay in New York. By the way these problems affect Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru too,” explains Sreenivasan.
His other challenge will be how to make the city more transparent in everything it does. “The last thing is the biggest challenge of all. How do we make New York city digitally equitable? The world’s richest and poorest people stay within blocks of each other in this city. How do we make it interesting, fair and right all over New York. Digital equity is looked at from the perspective of race and business, but it also about attitude, aptitude and interest.” New York is already setting up 10,000 Wi-Fi stations across the city to make it more equitable when it comes to connectivity.
Sreenivasan thinks the post of a CDO is a big opportunity for other large cities. But digital transparency will have to be worked out according to each city and its requirements. “Are we really transparent in what we do?” he asks in the context of India. “I think it starts from the top. The Prime Minister being out there are using all these tools is very good, but does it also translate to middle management? If you are dealing with Sushma Swaraj all the time that would be one thing, but you are not. You are dealing with the passport officer, the gas agent … are they doing it?”
The trouble here could be that social media ends up being a complaint redressal mechanism for governments. “It will be. No one really calls in to say I love you,” he says, adding how the complaint process is going to be important with services like Twitter Sewa. “How does social media become a listening service. I look at my job as the chief listening officer of New York as much as chief digital officer,” he says.
Sreenivasan has his agenda planned out for when he takes over in October. “I need to listen for ideas, for what’s working … travel and hear ideas and bring them back. Because no one has a monopoly on good ideas, no city does.”
The goal of the Digital Playbook
New York’s Digital Playbook looks to improve constantly the delivery of city services, embrace government transparency, generate genuine civic engagement, and make New York the most user-friendly and innovative city in the world. The city is dedicated to better serving and engaging its residents, businesses, and visitors.
The Playbook outlines intentions for how residents experience city services. It describes how digital strategy will increase equity and help all New Yorkers participate in the political, civic, and cultural life of the city.
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