John Tolva, chief technology officer of the city of Chicago, recently spoke with StateTech Managing Editor Amy Schurr about the city's IT initiatives. Here, he touches on cloud computing, broadband and social media.
STATETECH: Have you been exploring cloud computing?
TOLVA: There are some things about government that make it a little more difficult to embrace the cloud — record retention, disaster recovery, things like that. But they’re not insurmountable.
Our public schools are moving to Google Apps, and we’re looking at how we could scale that to the city itself. We feel that there are many areas of IT business that we just don’t need to be in anymore; productivity software is one of them.
STATETECH: What is Chicago’s Digital Excellence Initiative?
TOLVA: Right now, it’s primarily digital literacy. We have after-school training and a program called Everyday Digital aimed at adults. Broadband doesn’t matter if your communities don’t know the benefits that can come from it.
The mayor has announced something called the Chicago Infrastructure Trust, which is basically a bank that can accept private investment for transformative infrastructure projects. We have an energy retrofit project in the neighborhoods. It’s a public-private partnership in a new way — not the sale of an asset or even the leasing of an asset, but a joint investment with return on a project.
This has emboldened us to look at municipal broadband again. In 2009 we applied for broadband infrastructure funding. The grants all went to rural areas, but it gave us the legwork to know what anchor institutions we would want to hook up, where the fiber is located that the city or our sister agencies own. This project will be the backbone of the next wave of digital excellence.
STATETECH: The smartphone is the only connection that some residents have to the Internet, so it seems like that would make mobile apps especially important.
TOLVA: When people say the digital divide doesn’t exist because everyone has a smartphone, that’s not true. Internet access through smartphones is gated by a very few providers, it’s not broadband speed, and we know that just owning a smartphone doesn’t mean you are using it to access applications or data. So I don’t think that smartphone penetration is a good proxy for Internet use.
Even cell networks are wired at some point. We’re interested in broadband for coverage reasons, for affordability reasons and for economic development. The new economy thrives on connectivity, and we want Chicago to be as attractive as the next place in luring and keeping businesses here.
STATETECH: What about the city’s website and mobile visitors?
TOLVA: We are redesigning the city website for mobile traffic first. It won’t be too many years before we think it’s quaint to interact with government by sitting in front of a computer.
More philosophically, the focus is on the APIs and platforms like Open311. We are saying the app developers will come and they will build. We saw this with “Plow Tracker,” we have seen it with the [Chicago Transit Authority] and very shortly, we’ll turn on the Open311 API.
STATETECH: How does Chicago tap social media?
TOLVA: The mayor utilizes it fully. We’re very interested in what we can learn in the aggregate. If you really want to know what’s happening on your train or bus, you go to Twitter because it’s a real-time pulse of what’s going on. We see that as the ultimate data stream to mine for kicking off service requests. If four or five people in a constrained geographic area are tweeting about a tree being down, that should launch a service request without intervention.
We’ve got a system for classifying tweets, but it’s a tough problem because of synonyms, slang and the unstructured nature of tweets.
The human side of social media allows the mayor to have Facebook town halls and two-way interaction with residents and businesses. We had a project over the winter called “Adopt a Sidewalk” to promote neighborliness. It was built off Boston’s “Adopt a Hydrant” code, so that’s an example of municipal code sharing. Two years ago during a blizzard, you saw amazing displays of neighborliness, where people would come together to shovel alleys and sidewalks. So technology as a social facilitator is important to us.