Rachel Haot: Making a Better World with Technology

“In God we trust; everyone else, bring data.”

By Ilene Dube

These words, from former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, continue to be a guiding maxim for Rachel Haot, who was New York City’s Chief Digital Officer from 2011 to 2013.

These days, as Chief Digital Officer and Deputy Secretary of Technology for New York State, Haot’s role is to develop digital products, programs and policy. Her team has re-launched the official state website, NY.gov, its first overhaul in 15 years, and she is committed to making government more accessible to better serve all citizens, regardless of income, age, ability or language. 

“My passion is the intersection of technology and public service,” says Haot, who was named one of the city’s most influential women by Gotham Magazine in 2013. Fast Company cited her as one of the 100 Most Creative Persons in Business. She was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum and has been recognized as a “30 Under 30” and “40 Under 40” leader by Fortune and Forbes.

One of Haot’s biggest challenges is setting priorities and staying focused in a state that handles more than 250 social media accounts. “If you look at a state like New York, the sky is truly the limit,” she told Tech Republic. “There is unlimited potential in terms of the projects and initiatives we can launch, and the ability for technology to improve our operations. But (in only so many hours in the day) we need to make decisions and set priorities about where we’re going to invest our energies.”

While the common perception is that government workers cite reasons why something can’t be done, Haot sees it as her responsibility to find ways to make it work, bringing her start-up mentality to government. Both people who work in government and people who work in technology share the dream of making a better world for all, she says. “And people get excited about technology as a way to make their lives easier.”

In designing a website, the most important thing is to make it work for the user. “Many government websites began as tools to serve journalists or internal users,” she says, but an effective government website must serve all constituents. “And by looking at data, governments learn about their constituents and what government services are important to them.”

One current objective is promoting the state’s $1 billion plan to make broadband accessible to every New Yorker and all businesses by 2018. More than 50 percent of New York State schools do not have adequate internet speed. Her target is 100 megabytes per second—and by that standard, more than 38 percent of Manhattan is currently underserved. “It is the foundation of a connected society,” she says, comparing internet access to running water, electricity and the interstate highway system—“the backbones of a civilized society.” Presently, New York doesn’t even rank in the top 10 states in connection speed, something Haot considers completely unacceptable. Broadband investment helps create new jobs and improve economic vitality, she says. High speed internet attracts tourism and adds to the desirability of New York City as a place to live.

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Standing six feet tall, Haot is not only brilliant, beautiful, articulate and poised, but fashionably dressed—she’s been featured in Vogue—and has the sensibility of an entrepreneur. She’s been called Superwoman, is a skillful negotiator and fearless trailblazer. When named Chief Digital Officer of the Year by the Chief Digital Officer Club in 2014, club founder David Mathison said “Rachel is equal parts inspirational leader, loyal staff member, responsible and accountable colleague and dedicated public servant. She can easily simplify complex topics, and accomplish challenging tasks, all with alacrity and her signature style and grace.”

And with all that, friends describe her as “really nice.” To unwind, Haot practices yoga, plays with her son and takes pictures with her iPhone that she uploads to Instagram.

Social media, she says, is transforming the way government communicates with citizens. “We use it a lot to keep people aware, be transparent in new ways, and be more relevant to people who really live online and get a lot of their news online” Haot told the Huffington Post.

Her favorite feeds to follow: I Love New York, U.S. Department of the Interior (for its photographs of the national parks) and Humans of New York.

With more than 54,000 Twitter followers, Haot’s Tweets reveal frequent speaking engagements for talks about women in technology and STEM fields. She supports the governor’s policies on such issues as combating wage theft, health hazards for nail salon workers, and fair pay for fast food workers. She re-tweets about there being more female tech workers in New York than in Silicon Valley, and her camera focuses on sites such as Prospect Park, beach scenes with dramatic skies, architecture, spring blooming trees, New York’s bridges, and aerial views of the boroughs. The photos show a love affair with the city.

On Facebook (where she’s followed by more than 300,000), we learn that Haot supports New York State’s ban on fracking‑‑“Thinking of my son, and of generations to come;” she believes libraries are more important than ever; and we see photos of her handsome husband and son. Rachel, 31, married Maxime Haot in 2012—the wedding was streamed live for those who couldn’t attend. Maxime is a Belgian American who founded Livestream, a company that allows users to broadcast live video on the web. Together the Haots, who live in Brooklyn with their son, have appeared on lists of New York media power couples.

Born in Manhattan, Haot grew up in Brooklyn and Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. Her father, Paul L. Sterne, retired as the managing director for corporate development at I.B.M. in Armonk, N.Y. Anna Sterne, her mother, is Director of Clinical Services at Unlimited Care, Inc..

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Rachel got her first Mac at age 7 and developed her first website when she was 13. Summers were spent as an au pair in France, volunteering on a Native American reservation in Montana, and interning for then District 1 Councilman Alan J. Gerson. It was during a stint as an intern for the United Nations that she discovered the potential of democratizing the internet, which led to her interest in blogs and creating a citizen journalism site. Haot earned a bachelor’s degree in history at New York University.

In 2006, she founded GroundReport, a global crowdsourced news startup, and served as Chief Executive Officer until 2010. In 2008, she founded the digital strategy consulting firm Upward, and later served as an adjunct professor of Social Media and Entrepreneurship at Columbia Business School.

Remember pay phones? Once a primary means of communication, the city had 35,000 in the 1990s. Haot was part of the city’s team that launched the Reinvent Payphones Design Challenge in 2012, a competition that rallied urban designers, planners, technologists and policy experts to create physical and virtual prototypes to imagine the future of New York City’s public pay telephones.

From more than 125 submissions, designing everything from Wi-Fi hotspots and charging stations to alternative energy sources and community art installations, were drawn 11 semifinalists and six winners.  “We’re in the midst of a tech golden age, and New York City is the most innovative city on earth – and constantly reinventing itself,” said Haot.

One of her first major challenges came in 2011 during Hurricane Irene. Government websites see peak traffic during emergencies. Then 28, she hunkered down in City Hall with a MacBook Pro, a BlackBerry, and an iPhone as wind and rain lashed the city and millions of New Yorkers holed up with bottled water, flashlights and transistor radios. To keep citizens informed, Haot mobilized the city’s Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, Tumblr, Crowdmap, as well as the city’s own website. At the time, New York was the only U.S. city with a chief digital officer. Social media, she said, is transforming the way city government communicates with citizens.

“I’m lucky to be able to work toward making a difference,” she says. “It’s beyond my wildest dreams.”