Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Technologist’s Case for Rahm: A View from the Inside and the Outside

The Technologist’s Case for Rahm: A View from the Inside and the Outside

Brett Goldstein
In the past few months people have criticized Mayor Rahm Emanuel for being direct and uncompromising, and for unapologetically challenging the status quo.  

I agree with those people and believe that is the type of Mayor Chicago needs.

Only a Mayor with those characteristics could have brought Chicago a groundbreaking open data program, a vibrant technology startup scene, a growing technology sector, and a higher standard for the use of technology and data in government.

Chicago’s technology landscape has transformed over the last four years. Some of this transformation I viewed up close through a unique lens as the city’s Chief Data Officer and Chief Information Officer and I’d like to tell you what I saw.  

Open Data: The Democratization of Data

At present, there are nearly 600 data sets posted on the City of Chicago’s Open Data Portal for the public’s perusal and consumption. In 2011, when Mayor Emanuel was elected, there were simply a handful - a weak and token program.  

Mayor Emanuel was the first to create the position of “Chief Data Officer”, and he made it clear during his first cabinet meeting that transparency and open data were going to be part of how we did business - not just political rhetoric.

Chicago’s Open Data Portal, with its superior level of transparency and open data has set a new  standard that other cities now strive to live up to. Data is automatically exported straight from the city’s operational systems on a periodic basis, and is made available on the Portal in ways that make it highly usable for technologists. When lecturing academically, I often joke that there is not a “little man in the basement of city hall” who is responsible for vetting the data as it goes out to the portal -- but rather blocks of software code that distribute the data. While I joke about it, it is a critical and salient point.

The most viewed data set on Chicago’s Open Data Portal is “Employee Salaries,” which before Mayor Emanuel’s administration was only available through a FOIA request and likely provided in PDF form. The next most viewed datasets in the past year included: “Affordable Rental Housing Developments,” “Building Permits,” “Crimes from 2001,” and “Food Inspections.”  You even have data sets such as the “Problem Landlord List” available in machine readable form.

Open Data has become so much more than the Mayor’s original vision of transparency. It serves constituents ranging from academics to civic hackers, to community organizations. This data has empowered research and business in ways we have never seen before.

Innovation and Entrepreneurship: A Cinderella Story

One of the most critical and formative parts of my life was the time I spent as an early employee at a little San Francisco based company called OpenTable. My job was to bring OpenTable to Chicago and help the company expand out of its fledgling start in San Francisco.

When I first came to Chicago in 1999, there was not much of a technology startup scene on the “third coast”. When I explained to people that I worked at a technology startup in Chicago, I would get confused looks that clearly said, “Isn’t that a California thing?” Although Chicago became a major market for OpenTable, it wasn’t until the last four years that the startup scene truly arrived in here.

In the past four years, Chicago has become a vibrant startup community. At this point, one digital startup launches every day, $5.6B in venture capital has been invested in Chicago area startups over the past five years, and successful technology startups like GrubHub, CareerBuilder, Groupon, and Orbitz all call Chicago home. Since its opening in 2013,1871 has grown into one of the top 10 business incubators in the world.

Beyond the traditional accelerators, we are seeing novel ideas like Impact Engine, founded by my old friend Chuck Templeton (@ctemp) whose mission is to incubate socially conscious but for-profit startups.

Digital employment has grown from 33,000 in 2012 to 49,000 in 2014, and there are now more than 2100 digital companies in Chicagoland. There has also been tremendous growth in the digital economy, which went from $700M in “exit value” in 2012, to $5.5B in “exit value” in 2014.

With Mayor Emanuel’s leadership, Chicago has thrived as a technology hub where people can study computer science at top universities, work in the technology sector, meetup with other technology enthusiasts, and give back to their communities through technology.   

A Data Driven Administration

When I first joined the Emanuel administration as the Chief Data Officer (and later as the Chief Information Officer), there were many assumptions and stereotypes I had to work to change.

First, I was besieged by people telling me that things couldn’t change and that they had always been that way. They said we could not use data in the way of Google, Amazon and Facebook to make our city better and smarter as we would never see people with that skillset working in government.

What I found to be true instead is that there are enormously talented people who work in technology for the City of Chicago, and that with the opportunity and access to the right tools and techniques, they can more than meet any challenge. Mayor Emanuel also brought on talented technologists from the private sector, who joined his administration to help make Chicago the new standard in government technology.

Second, I would hear two phrases that would always drive me mad:

Good enough for government work

Technology in government will always be 10 years behind the private sector

This was the status quo that Mayor Emanuel was up against. Under Mayor Emanuel’s charge, Chicago changed the game in the use of data in government operations. WindyGrid, a real-time operations management system that brings the City’s spatial data together to inform decision making, is a concrete example of this change.  This innovative application, built out of the city’s Department of Innovation and Technology in 2012, leverages open source and existing software licensed by most cities to make government smarter.

A collaboration with the city’s Streets and Sanitation Department led to a new way to route crews baiting rodents, which was based on a predictive analytics algorithm.  A critical point in the use of data came with the $1 million award from Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayor Challenge for Chicago to build out a citywide real-time predictive analytics platform, a project that is ongoing today.


Change like this doesn’t come without an uncompromising and unapologetic Mayor. I am proud of how far we have come as a technologist’s city in the past 4 years and I want our acceleration to continue.

You should care and you can make a difference.


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