Walsh taps former Obama tech whiz to be digital czar
Computer nerd meets big government.
That sums up the high-tech story of Jascha Franklin-Hodge, who Mayor Martin J. Walsh tapped Wednesday to lead his administration's digital effort.
Franklin-Hodge, a 35-year-old South Boston resident, has a long digital pedigree, including stints that helped revolutionize technology and politics.
He was one of the digital masterminds who helped build a tech community that catapulted Barack Obama to the White House in 2008 and helped him stay there in 2012.
Now Franklin-Hodge, who cofounded Blue State Digital, is hoping to take his philosophy of empowering the public to City Hall.
"I saw the way in which we were able to engage a whole new wave of voters online during the Obama campaign,'' Franklin-Hodge said. "I saw the way we were able to really give people a sense of possibility and connection in the political process."
Franklin-Hodge said he will make technology access critical in the Walsh administration, and he will work to ensure that schools have adequate bandwidth for connectivity. He also plans to boost the current infrastructure so every neighborhood is properly wired.
In tapping Franklin-Hodge as the city's chief information officer, Walsh called him a vital link to his vision to enhance Boston's online service delivery. The mayor, who announced his new appointee with a YouTube video, said empowering city employees with effective digital tools and improving access to technology throughout Boston are among his priorities.
Franklin-Hodge will start at his new position on July 28. He will replace Justin Holmes as head of the Department of Innovation and Technology and oversee about 120 employees. Holmes held the position on an interim basis for the past six months.
"Jascha has directed large, high-profile technology operations, and I know he comes well equipped to help Boston continue its leadership as a world-class tech city," Walsh said.
Among his priorities, Franklin-Hodge hopes to usher in a new era of civic technology, a new concept in which the government embraces technology to make it more effective. He said Boston, with tech whizzes in the New Urban Mechanics initiative, is a national leader in this area.
Franklin-Hodge was born in San Francisco and grew up in Brookline. He was 14 when he took an office job at Software Tool & Die, the first dial-up provider, so he could get his feet wet in the field. He started stuffing envelopes and eventually got a chance to build his first website.
"I've been a nerd since I was a kid,'' Franklin-Hodge said. "It was a way to get involved with technology."
He got into MIT years later but took a leave of absence after one year to pursue his tech dreams. He moved to San Francisco in the late 1990s and landed a tech job at the start of the dot.com era. Fascinated by the way technology transformed the way people listened to music, he took on several other tech jobs, including as software development director for AOL's digital music division.
In late 2003, as Governor Howard Dean of Vermont was getting his presidential campaign started, Franklin-Hodge joined Dean's team. He said he wanted to use technology to build something meaningful. Although he failed to win the Democratic Party's nomination, Dean built a reputation and a following using technology.
"It was the recognition that this was before social networks, before our lives were being transformed by technology,'' Franklin-Hodge said. "I started to see the ways in which technology can connect and break down barriers."
It was a transformative moment, he said, and his motivation. He cofounded Blue State Digital in 2004, which specializes in digital strategies, and currently runs its Boston technology office. While there, he was recommended to help out Obama, then a senator from Illinois, who had his eyes on the White House.
"He knew he was going up against every establishment political machine,'' recalled Franklin-Hodge. Working on Obama's team "meant giving people the tools to take action. You needed to empower them."
Franklin-Hodge's company built an online tool that raised funds, spat out hundreds of e-mails, and pushed Obama onto the big stage.
Since 2009, he has advised Code for America, a nonprofit that connects technologists with cities to help government solve civic challenges and encourages innovation in government technology.