John Tolva: “The City is a Platform: Chicago’s Technology Transformation”

As part of the GovLab’s regular Ideas Luncheon Series (see our notes on previous speakers Brian BehlendorfJoel GurinDeborah Estrin, Geoff Mulgan and Erik Johnston), John Tolva visited the GovLab on November 15 to talk about his experience leading the City of Chicago’s technology transformation as its first Chief Technology Officer under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and to sketch his vision for the future of open government.

Before joining City of Chicago, John Tolva worked at IBM for over 13 years. In his most recent capacity there, he served as the Director of Citizenship & Technology where he led the City Forward project, a public analytics site for city data worldwide, and was a leader in their “smarter cities” practice advising mayors on how to take advantage of new technology.

He came to work for the new Mayor’s transition team and was tasked with writing the job description for Chicago’s first chief technology officer. His recommendation was that the role of the CTO be to establish city-wide technology and innovation priorities, interface with the global technology industry, and contribute to a modernized, streamlined, city IT system. His recommended list of candidates didn’t include his own name, but he was soon identified as the ideal person to help turn Mayor Emanuel’s interest in technology into action at the local government level. The core of his mandate was to set high standards for open, participatory government for all Chicagoans.

During his tenure John spearheaded the development of the City’s technology plan, helped lead efforts to bring high-speed broadband service to underserved areas of Chicago and promoted the deployment of free wi-fi in key areas of the city as an example of the type of technology-enhanced city the Mayor had in mind. He credited the leadership of Mayor Emanuel in promoting the ethos of openness, something John said was instrumental in fostering the kind of bottom-up activity that would make such a vision sustainable.

John spent the day at GovLab speaking with our research team, project teams and GovLab leaders about his experience and perspectives on open technology approaches to local governance. He took as the theme for his luncheon address the idea of the “city as a platform” for promoting civic innovation, fostering digital inclusion, promoting the growth of the local tech industry and managing public infrastructure.

Providing public data openly through the City’s data portal was greatly enhanced through the official API (application programming interface). This allowed developers to tap into the portal and receive a continuously-updated stream of data, a feature that changed the City from being a static provider of data to being a platform for application development. This change, from government as a provider of the user experience through an application, to the provider of the source data for others to build upon is at the core of the “city as a platform”.

In promoting civic innovation, the idea of the “city as a platform” translates into how the city is using open data as the raw materials for generating economic activity and having citizen services created by getting out of the interface development business. Rather than create the services itself, government provided the platform and the tools (including the APIs and documentation) for private sector developers to come in and build applications and services on top of that infrastructure. As governments often do not have the resources or motivation to build those interfaces, John advised that this is where much of the opportunity in open data lies: “The most amazing stuff has been built not by government, but has been built by others on the ‘city as a platform’.”

A prime example is the Chicago Transit Authority’s (CTA) “Bus Tracker” and “Train Tracker“. The CTA’s data is provided via an API that others can build upon. Examples such as Buster and QuickTrain highlight a hybrid model of citizen service that provides a better experience for residents. Working with Code for America in 2012, “Open 311” was developed as a standard for making legacy municipal customer service systems available as a platform for third-party development. And the recently launched Data Dictionary houses over 175 public databases from the city’s agencies in an easily accessible platform.

Digital inclusion – another of his themes – has been fostered not just through the roll-out of broadband and free wi-fi, but through the use of open data as a public engagement mechanism, supplemented with “hyper local” data and citizen knowledge.

After 2-½ years as a top technology advisor to the city – “about a year longer than I had first intended” – John recently returned to the private sector and has taken on a number of roles including as an advisor to Code for America. When asked in the concluding Q&A session to compare his experiences in the public and private sectors, he was an enthusiastic supporter of public service but promoted the idea that there be greater flow between the two sectors – than public service not be seen as a life choice, but as an effort to make a contribution when and where the opportunity arose.

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