Sree Sreenivasan will take over as the chief digital officer of New York City in October. The St Stephen’s alumnus has spent over two decades teaching journalism at Columbia University before taking over as its first Chief Digital Officer. He then served as the first Chief Digital Officer at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. He has also written for a range of publications including The New York Times. He is in India as part talking to people across the country about how to use social media better. Edited excerpts from an interview with Nandagopal Rajan:
What does the Chief Digital Officer (CDO) of a city do? What does the job entail?
This is an exciting development for cities. I am the third CDO after two awesome women. In my previous role (at the Metropolitan Museum of New York), I was the first CDO and in this case I am the third. 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. The Mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, posted a tweet spelling out my job—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. There is a level of clarity going into this job that has never existed for me before. I am super-jazzed, but also super-scared. If you are not scared, then you are not being challenged.
All of these have to be seen in the context of who I am serving. 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 experience. On that pendulum of experiences, how do we make sure your experience is neutral to positive to pleasurable as possible. That’s one of the big tasks. That, among other things, means getting more start-ups. How do we make New York, with its environment and its energy, the place where people want to have a start-up? Also, how do we get the big companies to stay in New York? By the way, these problems affect Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore, too.
The second thing is how we make the city more transparent in everything we do. 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 is also about attitude, aptitude and interest.
Is such a role coming to other cities and maybe corporations too?
I think so. I think they are great opportunities. No one has the right answers.
But how much does digital transparency work in a country like India where a lot of things happen offline?
That is something India will have to work out as it goes along. Are we really transparent in what we do? I think it starts from the top. The prime minister being out there, 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?
How do you see politicians using social media?
The fact that you can tweet to Sushma Swaraj that your wife has lost her passport is great. John Kerry is not doing that. But this is happening in India partly because processes are so complicated and VVIP interaction is really hard. What I like about it is that it is helping some people. What I would love is also to see how we are fixing the passport process. For instance, I saw in Kerala, there is an issue with garbage pick-up. So, if you are talking about 4G but burning your own garbage, then you are focussed on the wrong G. The digital has to be in tandem with real life.
Is social media in relation to a company or a government going to be more about complaint redressal?
It will be. No one really calls in to say ‘I love you’. I think the complaint process is going to be important, like this Twitter Sewa service. 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. 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. India, in the way it has leapfrogged technology, has enormous learning for the West.