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By Sean Thornton

In the past few years, many big cities have revolutionized their use of municipal data.  Rather than serving as a static archive, municipal data is becoming a dynamic tool for government transparency, efficiency, and innovation.  In no place is this truer than in Chicago, where advances in open data and big data analytics under Mayor Rahm Emanuel have helped the city emerge as a leader in data science and open government.    

Before his inauguration, Emanuel set an ambitious agenda that specifically called for technology to lead the way for more government efficiency and transparency.  The Chicago 2011 Transition Plan, a 71-page document that laid out the new administration’s key goals and strategies, included provisions to use an open data model to publicize city records and to centralize and consolidate many of the city’s internal service operations. Now, two years into his first term, the City has made significant progress towards achieving this new course.  A key vehicle for this progress has been the city’s Department of Innovations and Technology (DoIT) and its innovative leader, Brett Goldstein. 

DoIT was previously known as the Department of Business and Information Services; it was reorganized to add innovation to the charter in 2008.  Brett Goldstein, DoIT Commissioner and the City’s Chief Data and Information Officer, is the primary force behind the Department’s increased innovation duties under Mayor Emanuel. 

Brett Goldstein

Goldstein and his department have made strides in delivering upon the new direction the city is taking with technology.   “One of the reasons that the Mayor chose me for this position,” Goldstein says, “is that we both believe the old saying of ‘good enough for government’ doesn’t cut it anymore.  There’s no reason we can’t be as advanced, innovative, and efficient as the private sector or any other sector.”

Goldstein spent seven years in the startup world working at online reservation company OpenTable before moving to Chicago in 2006.  He then got a job with the Chicago Police Department, where he founded and oversaw the CPD’s Predictive Analytics Group, which applied big data analytics to analyze patterns and improve responses.   In May 2011, Goldstein became the city’s first Chief Data Officer; in June 2012, he was then appointed to his current role as the city’s Chief Information Officer and Commissioner of DoIT. 

One of the Department’s key deliveries on the Mayor’s inaugural mandate has been the massive expansion of the city’s Open Data Portal.  While the Mayor’s transition plan focused its initial open data efforts on making the city’s budget more accessible, the Data Portal has since expanded to include more than 900 sets of data, such as information on crime, licenses and permits, transit schedules, performance metrics, and lobbyist data.  The portal is an ongoing project for DoIT, with new datasets continually added.    

At the moment, however, two of Goldstein’s key priorities revolve around consolidating city IT services and developing initiatives that use big data and predictive analytics. 

The first priority, consolidating city IT services, is a monumental task.  Like most big cities, Chicago’s many departments have operated for years in silos, and have kept their data and IT operations isolated within their sectors.  On January 3rd, 2013, the City announced a major step to tear these silos down: it would migrate its desktop applications and email for 30,000 city employees across all city departments onto Microsoft’s O365 cloud operating system.  The move to the Cloud—a key element of service consolidation—would save Chicago’s taxpayers $400,000 annually. 

Furthermore, Goldstein notes that getting out of email management means that more energy can be directed towards his second key priority: creating smarter government using big data. 

As CIO, Goldstein has been leveraging open-source tools for big data analysis such as MongoDB, a database system which stores big data, and Hadoop, a software framework used for creating big data applications.    By bringing the city’s vast amounts of data into a shared, easily accessible space, data can be mined and analyzed in order to make the city more effective.  Moreover, by working to do this through open-source technologies, Goldstein and DoIT are ensuring they use a cost-effective approach.

Ultimately, Goldstein envisions DoIT’s data science initiatives as parts that can eventually lead into a comprehensive data platform.  This platform would be used as a holistic interface to understand the city in its entirety, providing leaders with a tool that can analyze millions of lines of data in real-time and helping the City make smarter, earlier decisions to address a wide range of urban challenges.

Goldstein also sees his department’s use of predictive analytics and open data not just as a tool for government efficiency, but as a potential catalyst for improved quality of life.  Some improvements are evident today: Chicago’s startup scene has already capitalized on the city’s Open Data Portal as a tool for making meaningful apps that improve citizens’ interactions with the city. 

These game-changing approaches to using municipal data are exactly the kind of large-scale thinking that Goldstein and Mayor Emanuel share.  As both these leaders close in on their second year of a new Chicago government, they’ve done a good job of giving the term “good enough for government” a whole new meaning.

About the Author

Sean Thornton

Sean Thornton is a Research Fellow for Data-Smart City Solutions.  Based in Chicago, Sean serves as a researcher, archivist, and documentarian of the Chicago Department of Innovations and Technology’s efforts to build a smarter, more efficient city government.  He also provides Chicago’s Chief Information Officer with research and communications support. Sean holds two Masters’ degrees from the University of Chicago, in Public Policy and Social Service Administration, and a Bachelors’ Degree from DePaul University in Psychology and Political Science.  During his time at the University of Chicago, he gained experience in the city’s public, philanthropic, and nonprofit sectors.

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