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One On 1 Profile: NYC Chief Digital Officer Rachel Sterne Brings City Government Into 21st Century

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The city's first-ever chief digital officer, Rachel Sterne, has for a year worked with more than 250 government agencies, managed the city's social media and digitally spread information to New Yorkers, and still says the position is her dream job. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following One on 1 profile.

It's not easy keeping up with the latest in digital technology. But for the city's first-ever chief digital officer, Rachel Sterne, it is critical. Be it Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Tumblr, Hootsuite or CoTweet, she speaks the lingo.

As Sterne explained at a social media conference, she works with more than 250 government agencies, helping them to manage social media and digitally spread information to New Yorkers.

"NYC Media has an iPhone app that allows you to geolocate where you are, that can bring up shops and boutiques, you can bring up restaurants, all across the City of New York," she says.

In a broader sense, the challenge of Sterne's job is to bring the city into the 21st century, using the latest in digital technology and social media.

"This is the reality. The way people find information and share information and connect with one another is changing. And for us to be relevant in government, in the public or private sector, you have to be acknowledging that. And you have to be embracing those changes and leveraging them in a way to achieve your goals," Sterne says.

Sterne already had some established tech cred when she took on this job in 2011. She created the international citizen journalism website GroundReport.

That led to public speaking engagements around the world, her own tech consulting practice and a part-time digital marketing and social media teaching position at Columbia Business School.

Then Sterne read a blog post about the mayor creating a new role in the New York City Mayor's Office of Media and Entertainment.

"I thought it sounded phenomenal, such an exiting opportunity that really married so many things that I'm passionate about — technology, government and New York City," says Sterne.

Her first task was to create the city's first-ever digital roadmap. She was given 90 days.

"It was an incredibly exciting time because how many times do you have a chance to say, 'We have the most amazing sandbox, the most amazing canvas in the world to build this digital strategy, New York City.'"

The aim is essentially to get New Yorkers more information more quickly, either through the website, various mobile applications or any social media site.

A prime example is Hurricane Irene. Sterne was holed up in City Hall, using the latest in digital technology, trying to fight Mother Nature.

"[The Twitter handle] '@NYCMayorsOffice' became such a crucial tool for getting information out there. There were hundreds of thousands of tweets with that handle," says Sterne.

She says the city's digital roadmap is designed to give more New Yorkers access to technology, make government more transparent, improve the sites that connect to the public, celebrate tech startups and entice more to come here.

But does every city agency need a Twitter account, a Facebook page and other connections to the new digital landscape?

"Social media is not a cure-all," says Sterne. "Sometimes we actually advise launching a new Twitter feed or Facebook pages because maybe the resources aren't there in-house or it doesn't make sense for what they're doing."

Sterne grew up in Brooklyn, then Westchester, always surrounded by technology, because her father worked for IBM.

"There were always gadgets and computers, various equipment. We always had Internet connections. We always had the fastest that were available," says Sterne.

Her mother was a nurse who at one point ran for State Senate.

Sterne's teenage years came just as the Internet was exploding in the mid-1990s, so she didn't wait to enter the tech world.

"The websites I was creating when I was about 13, and I sort of briefly tried to start my first start-up in high school, as well, with some friends from my high school that would be sort of a web design and development company," Sterne says.

Sterne's second day at New York University was September 11, 2001. The experience gave her education a broader purpose and led her to participate in a series of service projects, including a stint on a Native American reservation in Montana.

But the opportunity that changed her life was an internship with the U.S. mission at the United Nations. One experience with then-Secretary General Kofi Annan proved particularly inspiring.

"There was truly a hush over everyone in the room. They're usually their on their Blackberrys or they're conferring with one another even while people are speaking. But really, you could have heard a pin drop," says Sterne. "And he basically explained, he said there is an urgent situation in Darfur right now and we need some action by this group."

Sterne was disappointed by the lack of response. So after college at NYU, she used personal savings and some family money to start the citizen journalism platform GroundReport.

"If more people knew that this was happening and they could hear about in the voice of people who are experiencing it, instead of a dry, third-party report from a wire service, then maybe they'll feel that sense of urgency too and they will urge their elected, our elected, officials to do something about it," says Sterne.

GroundReport, which still exists, put Sterne on the digital technology new media map, but it didn't go as far as she wanted.

"GroundReport was a phenomenal experience. I really had hoped it would probably be a much huger site, more widely trafficked, but this is part of the learning process," she says.

Sterne shares her West Village apartment with her fiance, who is in the same field. She often finds herself speaking to peers who live in the same digital reality.

But might this 24/7, brave new digital world prove frustrating to the long-time city employee who started long before Facebook and Twitter?

"We don't look at these technologies as an end in and of themselves. They are a means to an end, they are a means to achieving whatever your agency's goals are, whatever your role is in serving constituents," says Sterne. "We have found when we take that approach, people are comfortable with it."

Sterne is quick to credit the many colleagues who have helped her in her first year. She is clearly comfortable in her role, which she calls a "dream job" and she sees it as the right position at the right time.

"It was no longer a question mark that government needs to be embracing these new technologies and be modernizing, which I don’t think was the case five years ago. And I saw that it was the right timing and the appropriate timing appropriate and right timing for both of these things to come together," says Sterne. ClientIP:, UserAgent: CCBot/2.0 ( Profile: TWCSAMLSP