Open government in Chicago? Rahm's tech and data chiefs swear it's coming | Bleader

Open government in Chicago? Rahm's tech and data chiefs swear it's coming

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Among his many promises to change the way Chicago operates, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has vowed to bring an unprecedented level of transparency and technological innovation to city operations. "I understand that sounds crazy coming out of a City Hall office," John Tolva, the city's new chief technology officer, said in an interview in his office last week.

“Open, participatory government” is one of the top goals listed in the report Emanuel's transition team released shortly before he took office, and beneath this broad umbrella he’s pledged to create a searchable city budget, tools for tracking how long it takes to get licenses and permits, and smart phone apps for interacting with the 311 information system.

To government reformers, data geeks, and just about anybody else who's called the city to report a problem, these steps are long overdue. Other cities already share far more information with the public, and that in turn has spurred private-sector innovation that complements official city services. In New York, for example, you can now use an app to help find parking spaces. Closer to home, the Cook County board recently passed a law requiring open-government initiatives at the county level.

Of course, Emanuel’s friend and predecessor claimed to be an advocate of “transparency” too.

John Tolva
  • John Tolva

Last year, for example, Mayor Daley announced the city would start publishing details of every Freedom of Information Act request it received—but not the actual information requested or a log of whether the city was complying with the act. Daley and his aides denied the policy was designed to out the investigative efforts of annoying reporters, but something about the press conference was so funny that the mayor laughed his ass off through many of the questions.

But Tolva and Brett Goldstein, the people charged with carrying out Emanuel’s open government plans, swear the new mayor isn’t horsing around. Tolva (@Immerito on Twitter, in case you're wondering) arrived at City Hall after years of using technology for cultural and social outreach at IBM, while Goldstein (@ChicagoCDO) was tapped as the city’s chief data officer after four years at the police department, where he developed its “predictive analytics” unit, a controversial but much replicated system that crunches numbers to figure out where officers should be deployed.

Brett Goldstein
  • Brett Goldstein

In a lengthy discussion, the two repeatedly told me their boss is serious about open government and believes it can generate political reform and economic growth—though both were sometimes cautious about detailing what exactly they’re planning to do. Here’s how our conversation went down.

So have you guys been here long enough to figure out exactly what it is that you’re doing?

JT: We are still figuring things out, but the reason these two positions exist follows from policy objectives that have been out since the campaign. These two positions didn’t exist before, or at least not in this capacity, and certainly not situated in the mayor’s office. While I wouldn’t characterize the mayor as techie like some leaders, he absolutely understands the power of technology to facilitate change.

During the transition the idea was conceived of a chief technologist who was as tied into the policy side of things as to keeping the BlackBerrys running. But also economic development: there’s a portion of this role that’s evangelism and cheerleading and convening the really latent—I think just explosively latent—community of developers and investors. I’m interested in the thousands of people who want to be the next Threadless or Groupon.

Central to all of it is data—data for decision-making, data for transparency and accountability.


But this is about more than making government ‘transparent.’

JT: We’ll get past the phase of building trust through transparency—and then what? Two years from now—not even two years from now, six months from now—the time it takes to get a business license, people [will be able to] look that up. That’s fine—but where do you go then?

We are interested in looking at departments and services that you might not think are related to each other and analyzing them laterally to see if there are efficiencies to be gained and insight into how the city is used. Maybe there is some connection between rodent infestation and tree trimming—who knows? It’s never been looked at.


Does the kind of data you’re talking about exist? That’s been one of the questions people have had—the quality of the record-keeping.

BG: There’s substantial data. First of all, this is such a cultural change. We have a mayor coming in and saying, ‘Data is a powerful tool.’ This is very much different from the old way of, ‘We collect a lot of data but it just sits there. It sits in silos, it’s not brought together, it isn’t terribly meaningful, and it doesn’t inform decisions.’ This is a whole new day.

At the police department we found that our residents tell us things. I did a lot of work using 911 streams—looking at them spatially to predict where is the hot spot going to be, where are we going to have problems. When you take that and you say, ‘Okay, think beyond 911—think to 311, think to the web-based inputs, think to all the different agencies which are interactive with residents’—these are tools for finding out what is going on, what is emerging, where is the new problem before the problem becomes a reality.

When we’re looking at different neighborhoods, what hangs together? What has a statistical relationship? Is there a precursor to other indicators?


You want to do more than make the website look neat—though of course that needs to happen too.

JT: E-government is kind of a dusty term, thank god, that characterizes what the city has done—I think of it as the electrification of old processes. Same process—it’s just online. For example, it’s not that much less of a pain to pay your parking ticket online than it is to mail it in. A creative way of thinking of technology is, ‘How do we use it to prevent the ticket in the first place?’ I’m not at all interested in just electrifying these old processes.


In your first week you shared some tax increment financing data in a new way. A couple years ago, after much cajoling, the city posted PDFs of the previously secret TIF budget projections. Now there’s a sortable database.

BG: You can write code against it now. You can write code on the fly to any of the data sets and then you can write your own app.

As we post more, I think we have the type of community where people are going to jump in and find some interesting things, an inductive approach where people are going to say, ‘Wow, this is valuable.’ It’s a great opportunity to raise the bar and do more without everything having to come from the inside.

JT: I recently read that the weather industry—the Weather Channel and all the apps and stuff—is a $1.5 billion industry. Weather data wasn’t always standardized or published. When the National Weather Service was created, which was essentially an open data organization, it gave rise to all of this stuff.


But let me pause on the subject of TIF data for a second. What else can we expect to see? Alderman Scott Waguespack and former Alderman Manny Flores led the passage of a TIF transparency ordinance a couple of years ago—they wanted to get a range of information online in a searchable format. But most of the data mandated in the ordinance isn’t online, and what is there is mostly in the form of old PDFs that are incredibly cumbersome.

JT: I can’t speak to the mayor’s full plans on TIF reform—they’re much bigger than just publishing data. But machine readability—the ability to do something with this data—we’re going to expand on that. A really obvious next step is geoservices—mapping. These things were born to be mapped, and I’m comfortable telling you we’re working on that. In general we’re waging warfare with any kind of PDF.

Part of it, though, is a two-way dialog. We’re not just the publishers of this stuff. You might have noticed on the TIF page that there’s an area for feedback. We greatly want to enhance the city’s website as a platform for communication, and not just a glorified suggestion box. We’re looking to the community as well as the reforms that go through City Council to guide us in what our next steps are with TIF data.


Brett, you come from the police department, which has traditionally been stingy about sharing information. Can we expect the same kind of transparency and innovation when it comes to crime data?

BG: I’m really going to defer to the superintendent on the big-picture piece. I do know that one of the ways I was able to be successful at the CPD was through academic partnerships. We had relationships with Carnegie-Mellon and the Illinois Institute of Technology, and these were new types of things, collaborating with academia, using some cutting-edge algorithms.


You were lifted up as an innovator in the use of data at the police department, but there’s a wider dialog going on about community policing, community-police relations, and what role members of the community play in preventing and fighting crime. People want to know what kind of access they’ll have to police data and how your work relates to them.

BG: The work relates—we’re a city. The word you’ll keep hearing from us is ‘silos’—we’re trying to break down silos. You can’t consider a problem in a given area without entering into the variables of public safety. It’s the same as if we’re considering permits, 311 calls, 911 calls—these all come together to help us make the best informed decisions for whatever part of the community we’re looking at.

JT: I’d say the reverse is true too—the modeling of public safety will be greatly enhanced by trying to look at the totality of how the city is being used, bringing education data in, land use data, and the like.


You talk a lot about 'analytics.' Just to be clear, what exactly do you mean by that?

BG: ‘Analytics’ can be as simple as the comparison between two different values—what did you do this week verses what did you do the prior week—to advanced things in the realm of predictions: ‘Based on leading indicator X, we anticipate a higher probability of a given outcome.’ And what John and I are doing is the whole realm. If you have to make a resource decision, where are you going to apply it? If you have to do more with less, what is the best [return on your investment]?

JT: What I told the mayor is that this is not artificial intelligence—silver bullets will not be mined from this. But it will help us ask much better questions.


Accessing information from the city has often involved going through the FOIA process, which has created all sorts of issues about what should be available and what isn’t.

JT: It costs money to process a FOIA request. That’s low-hanging fruit, it seems to me. There is still confidential data—health data, personal safety data, things like that—and I’m not going to overturn boats for that.


But we could potentially get rid of some of the cumbersome FOIA process if more information was readily available.

JT: Uh huh. I’d love to be able to quantify that—what the city spends processing FOIA requests.


Are you guys serious? You have a lot of big plans, but this isn’t the first time we’ve heard a mayor and other public officials promise transparency and ask for our ideas.

JT: I want more than ideas. A citywide brainstorming session can’t go on forever. That’s what I was going to ask you—if your readership is at all interested in the kind of startup culture and economic development pieces we are. I want people to make things. If all I can do is to convene the parties to help that, that’s fine. But I also think that we’ve got data to give them, and part of it is attitude—if a small company is thinking about building here, I want them to see a city government that has internalized the nimbleness that has characterized their culture.

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