Katie Stanton brings Silicon Valley know-how to Foggy Bottom
An interview with the State Department's new director of citizen participation
Having served in senior positions at both Google and Yahoo, Katie Stanton’s résumé doesn't resemble one of a typical State Department insider. And that’s exactly why she is the department’s new director of citizen participation and special adviser on innovation.
The U.S government’s response to the recent earthquake in Haiti and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s focus on Internet freedom have shown information technology’s growing importance to U.S. foreign policy and international aid and development programs. These days, Foggy Bottom has Silicon Valley’s back, as illustrated by Clinton’s public request that the Chinese government investigate allegations that recent cyberattacks on Google originated in China.
Stanton, who was most recently director of citizen participation at the White House, will work with technologists and diplomats to harness IT as part of an effort the State Department has been calling 21st-century statecraft.
Stanton, who started at State Jan. 4, works for Alec Ross, Clinton’s senior adviser for innovation who is well-known for his work helping low-income people get access to technology. “It’s important to be able to get talent like this from Silicon Valley into the federal government,” Ross said of Stanton.
Last month, Federal Computer Week reporter Ben Bain spoke with Stanton, first a few days after she started her new position and then again at the height of the humanitarian crisis in Haiti. Here are excerpts — edited for length and clarity — from those two conversations.
FCW: What are your initial impressions, and what do you hope to accomplish in your new job?
Katie Stanton: My impressions so far are extremely positive…. We have these unprecedented challenges, but we also have these incredible opportunities, and by opportunities I mean technology…. There are so many different programs that we can leverage to help solve some of the most vexing problems — if it’s on health, if it’s on violence, if it’s on climate. So my goals over the course of the next quarters and the next years will be how do we successfully leverage these products and programs, how do we successfully scale them and how do we make them locally appropriate so we can achieve our foreign policy goals.
FCW: How much of what you are doing at a grass-roots level is about trying to convince people that they want to partner with you and how much of it is about getting technology into the hands of people?
Stanton: We’re lucky in the fact that technology already is in the hands of so many. There are roughly 4.6 billion mobile phones out there, and almost a majority of that is in the developing world, so that marketplace is already there. The challenge for us is how do we tap into it and help make that more useful…. We believe in the power of technology, we believe that technology can be used for good. It can also be used for evil, but it’s up to us. It’s our challenge to really stay ahead of it and do the best that we can to harness everything for good.
FCW: Having worked at Yahoo and Google, you bring a unique perspective to the State Department. Are you worried that some of what you bring from Silicon Valley is going to get a little Washington-ized — that it’s going to be a little harder here to make things move quickly?
Stanton: I’m not so worried about that…. We have the buy-in at the very top, President Obama. One of his first acts as president was [sending] this memorandum on openness and transparency and participation and making sure that all government does these things. So I feel that if the boss is behind it, you can go far…. At both Yahoo and Google, there was a lot of that type of DNA, and I’ve seen a lot of that here, too. I’m sure there will be frustrations, but there are also a lot of rules in place for good reasons. There are things that government has to do that the private sector doesn’t, so you just have to understand what those rules are and work with them.
FCW: How are you going to measure success?
Stanton: A lot of metrics — data, data, data. It’s very important for us to quantify and measure and be responsible. Every time we have a new product here, we need to know what are our metrics for success, how is this growing. And this is where I think my Silicon Valley experience is helpful because looking at this project as much as we would, say, for Yahoo Finance or Google News, or whatever that product is, we need to measure. We have a responsibility to our taxpayers, to the American public, to do the right thing, and to spend that money as wisely and efficiently as possible.
FCW: How has the State Department been using social media to reach out to people and coordinate relief efforts?
Stanton: The first thing we did was reach out to some of our mobile partners to create a mobile donation campaign, and we did that a few hours after the earthquake hit.… And in a week we raised over $25 million. This is really historic. I mean, this has never been done in any kind of mobile donation campaign, ever…. This went viral on Twitter and on people’s social networks.… This was a very simple way for Americans to give, and it really tapped into the huge swell of the generosity that Americans are known for.
The second is a project that we’re calling SMS 4636, which spells INFO [on text messages], and that project is a joint project on behalf of a number of nonprofits and private-sector partners.... Anyone in Haiti can send a short text message to 4636 with information and their location; that information gets routed to a Web-based platform that has a lot of volunteers who will read through all of those messages and quickly route [them] to emergency responders.
A third effort that we did is something called the "person finder," and our role there was convening a call with a lot of different developers and basically do-gooders [who] created these person-finding platforms on different Web sites.… If you’ve lost somebody, you’re in a panic, and having to go to 10 to 20 sites and then do a Bing search or a Google search for more sites, it’s frustrating. So what we put on the table was it would be great if we pool our efforts and consolidate some of these records.… So the developers created this gadget so we could all embed it on our different [Web] sites.... You can go to some of the top Web sites out there and find this information.
The last one is…called WeHaveWeNeed, and it’s basically a Craigslist for Haiti. The problem we’re trying to solve is that right after [the earthquake], all of our e-mail inboxes exploded and one of the observations we had was, "Wow, people from the private sector are so generous.… Everyone [is] offering amazing donations." And then at the same time, there would be e-mails saying, "Oh my God, I need this, I need helicopters, I need IVs, I need all these other things," and instead of having us manually try to match people, we thought we should have a Web-based platform…. We pitched the idea to a bunch of developers, they were totally excited, and they all worked together on this project…as a way during a time of crisis for donors to meet relief organizations who are needy for various things.
FCW: Did you have certain goals for the tools?
Stanton: Every product needs metrics of success. All these initiatives that we’ve been working on, we look at them as if these were at start-up, how would we measure it. We’re doing these things as very low cost and high impact. Hopefully all of these will be successful, and so far we’re batting a [thousand], which is great, but some will be more successful than others.
FCW: Were you surprised about the success of the text messaging campaign?
Stanton: You never know with some of these things when you launch how [they will] grow, and I think I was surprised at how generous people were so quickly and how the message caught on so quickly, and with the SMS info project the numbers of texts that we’ve gotten so far without any real marketing.
FCW: Have there been similar efforts to harness social media to respond to other emergencies such as Hurricane Katrina or the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami?
Stanton: My personal opinion is that the government’s involvement in terms of engaging with the technology community is historic. Coming from the private sector, I never saw the government attending these types of meetings.
FCW: Can you institutionalize these tools so they can be used to respond to future disasters?
Stanton: I hope so. There’s all this great goodwill, and it would be a travesty if we lost it, if we didn’t capitalize on it and make this sustainable…. What we need to do is see what works and institutionalize them and scale them.