Q&A with John Tolva, Chief Technology Officer of Chicago

John Tolva talks transparency, analytics and mobile apps.

John Tolva was appointed chief technology officer of the city of Chicago in 2011 when Mayor Rahm Emanuel took office. Before turning to public service, he worked on smart cities initiatives at IBM. Known for its emphasis on open data, the city of Chicago this year was honored with an award from the Sunshine Review, an organization dedicated to government transparency. Tolva spoke with StateTech Managing Editor Amy Schurr about transparency, analytics and mobile apps.

STATETECH: Describe the philosophy behind data.cityofchicago.org — the city of Chicago’s data portal.

TOLVA: The data portal contains the vital signs of the city and performance data on city services for measuring how the government is responding to the needs of its residents. The immediate reason for making it available was to build trust. But it also helps us measure what we are doing and helps us inform new processes and changes.

Chicago’s leading the way in using data for analytics. It’s more than just saying that the time to fill a pothole is declining. It’s taking huge amounts of data and using machine algorithms to look for patterns that a human being just could not suss out. For example, in working on food deserts we were able to yoke together transit data and grocery store locations to help inform where we targeted new development. Frankly, government isn’t great at working across silos, but looking at data across departments can help us do that.

The last reason for providing the open data portal is economic — open data is a raw material that businesses can be built on. It is the foundation for real applications that make people real money.

STATETECH: How have third-party developers tapped open data to benefit city residents?

TOLVA: The Chicago Transit Authority was one of the first to have real-time bus tracking and train tracking. They didn’t release an app; they released an API. There are now dozens of transit apps to choose from.

Some of the best apps are sort of head-slappingly simple, like “Was My Car Towed?” and “Sweep Around Us,” which sends text alerts to residents to remind them to move their cars the night before street sweeping. One of the more interesting was ChicagoLobbyists.org, which shows the flow of money in the lobbyist community. And a really neat project called “Mi Parque” is a 24x7 town hall for a Hispanic area of the city that’s getting its first significant green space.

For “Plow Tracker,” people said, “It’s great to see where the snowplows are now, but we want to see where the plows have been.” So the open data community stepped in with “Clear Streets.”

STATETECH: How will Chicago apply data analytics?

TOLVA: We’ve got a fully spatial internal data portal, and much of the city’s data has a location to it, so that permits us to tap it for situational awareness. For example, when a fire crew is called out to a building, they have on hand all the ways that that building has worked with the city — not just from a safety perspective, but business licenses and violations. The theme of this year is to make open data actionable and use analytics to make policy changes.

STATETECH: What’s the back-end technology behind this?

TOLVA: It’s built on a database called ­MongoDB, which is the back end of ­Foursquare. It’s open source, and we’ve been very open with our peer cities. New York and Boston are interested in what we’ve built. So many of the big ­cities share the same problems, and we’re ­always ­being asked to do more with less, so it seems like a no-brainer to share the algorithms and the code. We’re already doing that in small ways, and we speak almost every week with the IT leads in major cities. Municipal sharing of code is a real trend to watch.

STATETECH: What else is the city working on?

TOLVA: We’re thinking about the IT environment in terms of the technology that’s out in the street. You’ve got parking meters, bike-share stations, digital signage in bus shelters, all these Internet endpoints. Why shouldn’t we be able to open these up to allow access to the Internet from them? You may have this image of a person standing next to a trash can to get online; it’s not quite that. There’s a lot of networking in the street, and we think we can do something with that.

There are APIs that allow someone to write against the data platform, so why shouldn’t there be APIs that allow limited interaction with public objects? For instance, an app could link together the public bike share and the way-finding screens in the bus shelters so you have seamless journey planning. That’s new thinking about the city itself as a platform for interaction.

Read more about how Chicago is exploring emerging technology.

<p>Todd Winters</p>
Jul 16 2012