By Eileen Isagon Skyers
This interview accompanies Rhizome’s 9th edition of Seven On Seven, a conference series that pairs innovative artists with creative technologists to introduce wholly new concepts or prototypes. Ahead of the conference, I connected with Rachel Haot, managing director at 1776, and former Chief Digital Officer and Deputy Secretary for Technology of New York State. View the full list of Seven On Seven participants here.
Eileen Isagon Skyers: You’ve talked about your work with 1776 as an opportunity to work with technology that changes the world. Now that you’ve been working with the global incubator for some time, can you speak a bit more broadly about how you’re able to foster startups, and prepare organizations to address some of these more pressing challenges we’re facing (like healthcare, energy, education)? Can you also share a bit more about what some of the startups and organizations are innovating over at 1776?
Rachel Haot: There are over forty-five startups in the 1776 NYC community, and they all work on solving complex challenges that impact essential needs. These include startups like Re-Nuble, that are creating fertilizer from recycled food waste for organic, and hydroponic, produce, to Bonbouton, a smart textile that can be placed inside shoes or casts to detect insulin levels of diabetic patients. There’s also Dagmy Motors, which is building a powerful, affordable electric car for the masses; Aero Analytics, which provides drones with computer vision that can detect structural flaws in construction sites; and StellarEmploy, that uses proprietary algorithms to better match so-called “unskilled” hourly workers with jobs in industries like fast food with notoriously high churn rates to improve retention.
EIS: As the first ever chief digital officer for the technology of, well, New York, you championed initiatives like public wifi, the universal broadband program and ny.gov’s first relaunch in over a decade. I would, first of all, like to thank you, and also to ask you about what kind of wherewithal and resources it takes to overhaul a government website, not just for design, but for usability, engagement and practicality? How can we apply this kind of thinking to other services that we often need to access online?
RH: Designing for different access and ability needs is core to any digital tool that serves a critical public need, like nyc.gov or ny.gov. Some might find it cumbersome to have to meet additional accessibility requirements when it’s already challenging enough to design a new digital product, but it’s actually a huge gift. In every scenario that we have made changes to serve a specific user group, the product has improved dramatically—for everyone. It’s a useful tool, a valuable discipline, and always makes products better. It’s just better design. For example, to serve the visually impaired, you need to have high contrast, easy-to-read typefaces and larger text, all things that are best practices anyway, and go back to the data-driven Ogilvy on Advertising research. And for those who use screen readers, you need to make sure that any word contained in an image is also described in an invisible text tag. Interestingly, the same things that help a screen reader also help search engines like Google to more effectively index and surface your content. Same goes for serving folks with slow internet speeds. Your pages should load as quickly as possible anyway. There are many more examples, but the outcome is always the same: designing for the differently abled, those who read different languages, and households with slow internet connections always improves your product.
EIS: Speaking from experience, what industries do you feel are going to have the most impact on essential human needs in the next decade or so, and how, or where, does art fit into that equation?
RH: What a fascinating and beautiful question. At 1776, we focus on eight critical industries that are both the most challenging, and have the most potential to impact essential needs: cities, education, energy, food, health, money, transportation, and security. Art needs to weave through all of them, or why are we living in the first place? Every critical industry is experiencing enormous transformation due to technology, and art allows us to interpret that change and its impact, and communicate the spiritual and emotional change it affects. At 1776, we don’t take a moralistic position on innovation—it is happening whether we want it to or not. But art can interpret the meaning of transformation, and help people make their own emotional and psychological sense of what is going on around them.
EIS: What was your first impression of DIS? Had you familiarized yourself with the collective prior to Seven on Seven?
RH: I had heard of DIS, but was not well versed before I met them. My first impression was how warm and collaborative Lauren [Boyle] was, as she was the first member of DIS that I met. As an art world outsider, it can feel like entering a foreign country to engage in this type of project. I was surprised by how accessible and approachable they were. As I’ve come to learn more about DIS and their art, I love that their work has a slightly dystopian bent and a sense of humor, and lightness, about the intense changes happening in society. I also love their early internet roots, references, and aesthetic, which I identified with immediately. There was something instantly familiar in that.
EIS: Do you think that you’ll be able to bring some insights to the collaboration, either from your previous work at GroundReport, or with 1776, currently?
RH: I am honored to be a part of this project, and will do my best to bring my experiences to the collaboration. More than anything, I’m excited to learn from DIS, the process, and the other projects. I’m excited to take a completely different approach to thinking about technology, and hope I can bring that back to my work and life.