Meet Boston’s New Chief Digital Officer
It’s fairly easy to see that Mayor Marty Walsh is making digital assets a top priority during his time in office, something that’s evidenced by the roll-out of a pay-by-phone parking ticket program in conjunction with a local startup, and his choice to give constituents open access to certain city data.
His latest move, however, came in the form of hiring a point person to his cabinet to focus on all-things Internet-connectivity. Last week, Walsh announced that he was bringing Harvard Business School graduate Lauren Lockwood on board to handle City Hall’s issues when it comes to online access, and make tapping into department services seamless for residents seeking permits and other pertinent information.
Lockwood, 28, will assume the role of Chief Digital Officer on December 3, and work with the Chief Information Officer and the digital engagement team to create a “digital vision” for Boston with a focus on three core areas: digital media, digital services, and digital engagement.
Although her start date is a couple of weeks away, Lockwood already has a preliminary plan in place. We reached out to the city’s first-ever CDO to talk about what’s next for Boston, and how she thinks the relationship between residents and city service departments will change with the introduction of new technologies and web-based programs.
Congratulations, first off.
What’s the first thing you’re hoping to do when you step into your role?
I’ll be starting in early December, and I think at the very beginning I’ll be meeting with a lot of folks on the team. I will be in listening mode for the first few weeks, before we start taking inventory on what’s been done so far. There’s been an incredible foundation already laid in terms of open data initiative, there are a lot of programs now I need to become a little better with to understand what are digital assets are. I’ll speak with the team, get sense of where things stand currently, and then we can start to [see] what we can improve.
Any long-term goals you’re hoping to bring to City Hall?
It’s hard to say. Specifics will come with time. I feel very strongly about this incredible opportunity that Boston has. The community in Boston is extremely savvy, and there’s an incredible amount of talent right now in City Hall to work on things. The Mayor has been good about digital being a cornerstone of his time in City Hall. I think there’s this incredible opportunity in front of us to increase what citizens expect from City Hall, and I think success will be making the city even more connected than it is already.
How will your position help shape how things are done now?
They have made a lot of the right steps to get the ball rolling, but there are a number of different ways we can make life easier for citizens. Whether it’s filing permits, getting information you need from the city’s website—I think one of the biggest opportunities is two-way communication that digital affords. Really using different media channels at our disposal to both better inform citizens, and also hear from citizens. What the exact format it takes we will have a better sense of that over time. I would love to see a lot more two-way communication in government.
There’s been talks of new technology, and digital assets that the city is rolling out. If you could pick one thing to introduce to the city, what would it be?
There are so many on that list. One of the things I have mentioned, and one of the first things people will look at, is the city’s website. Organizing that in a way that makes it easier for people to find what they are looking for is going to be one of the first things I look at. There will be some other big ideas, but for now that’s one of the more tangible things that will be near-term.
What would make the website easy to navigate?
From some of the experience I have had prior to going to school at [Harvard Business School], and also working at City Hall, has just been this relentless focus on the end-user. So whenever you’re developing a product you start thinking about what the user is using the product for. And then you figure out how to make that easy for them to navigate. We, I think, need to start with what people are using the website for, and then how to make the information they are going for much easier to find. For example, if someone is moving to Boston, and that’s a common [use], then we need to understand how to get that information better to citizens.
How important is it to work with residents and workers in the city on developing new ideas digitally?
Extremely important. One of the really exciting things about working in City Hall is just the incredible amount of diversity you have in your user base. You probably have a certain demographic you are trying to reach with a certain product. With city government you are getting to touch everybody’s lives—there’s a huge opportunity there, but it also does demand you hear from everybody that uses your system. I think it’s critically important to be talking to people who are on the front lines. We are going to be developing an app, or a system for building permits, for example, you better be speaking with people in the building permits’ office.
It seems like this is a good time to take on this role in Boston, given all of the innovation that’s happening here.
Right now, there is such a tailwind for innovation. There are so many great thinkers out there right now working on innovation in different kinds of areas that can be applied to do a lot of stuff. I think it’s an interesting time to be involved in this, and the people right now in City Hall, and working for the city, are just so talented, so it’s a pretty good opportunity [for me].
What do you think is going to be the most difficult thing to reimagine, or innovate?
That’s a good question. I think each thing we take on will have its challenges. The first problem we are going to have is just prioritizing what should come first. Even since this has been announced, people have been sending feedback my way—which is great—but it makes you aware of the different pain-points people have. The most difficult tasks will be just figuring out how to prioritize these, because you want to address ones affecting a lot of people. Just figuring out which order they go in, and what order you put them in will be the new key challenge.
The Office of New Urban Mechanics is doing a lot of interesting things. Will you be working closely with them?
They really have. They have done some remarkable things for quite some time. I am well connected with [Nigel Jacob] and [Chris Osgood]. I will expect to work alongside them, but they also have their plate full working with other city groups. But I do expect I’ll collaborate with them quite a bit.
Last question: where will Boston be in the next five years in terms of innovation and digital assets?
Five years is such a long time!
How about two?
That’s more tangible. One thing that’s very exciting is that Boston already has this reputation for being digitally connected, that we are already building on the tailwind. So the opportunity over the next couple of years is just tremendous. But I think that there are a lot of initiatives that have been put in place that have not been utilized. Those investments, I think, will bear more fruit as we start building digital tools around them. Open data becomes more interesting if you’re capturing more data, and it is more interesting if its testable for users. So some of the initiatives already in place, you’ll see them more prominently. I think in the next couple of years I see Boston as a frontrunner, and we will continue to be a frontrunner, and it would be exciting to see Boston as a model for what it looks like to be a digitally connected city.