Mark Wheeler endorses a reverse-pitch program to launch Philadelphia’s smart city efforts.

Jan 13 2020

Q&A: How Philadelphia CIO's Breaks Down Silos

Mark Wheeler integrates programs with help from his background with the city’s geospatial data office.

In January 2018, Mark Wheeler became CIO of Philadelphia. Prior to helming the city’s Office of Innovation and Technology, he served as deputy CIO and chief geographic information officer. In that role, Wheeler revitalized Philadelphia's geospatial data operations and fostered collaboration across departments for sharing location-based data.

Philadelphia initially hired Wheeler in 2010 as a city planner for the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, where he contributed to public outreach, land use and public facility planning. In an interview, StateTech asked Wheeler about Philadelphia’s smart city planning and the importance of geographic information systems in all city IT operations.

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STATETECH: You’ve been CIO of Philadelphia for two years now. What’s been your focus so far? 

WHEELER: My main focus has been on improving our security posture in the city and making sure that we’re investing in that and coordinating properly with all of our departments on necessary change control measures as well as new investments we require.

For example, this year we completely replaced our firewall and our VPN platform. We were not on bad footing, but it was time to look at the marketplace and look at new vendors, assess situations and modernize. We’re very happy that it was a highly successful process to switch and replace. Like many other cities, the security of systems and security of data is top of mind for our team members.

Also, we can be better in terms of delivering projects on time and within budget by looking at more agile procurement and implementation methods instead of going all-in with a single monolithic approach, then trying to just turn that on one day and turn the old system off.

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STATETECH: It’s fascinating that you specialized in geographic information before you became CIO. Everything that happens in a city is driven by geospatial intelligence. How much better prepared are you because of your background? 

WHEELER: Cities have to be able to make decisions that are informed by good data, and they have a wealth of data that sometimes gets siloed in departments. The biggest struggle I hear my counterparts dealing with is unlocking the silos and making that data available for informing decision-making and raising awareness.

In Philadelphia, we unlocked our location data among departments a very long time ago. And we have an outstanding level of cooperation by people on the technical side and the business operations side when it comes to spatial data. They understand that at their core, geographic information systems are about data integration and revealing new ways of looking at a problem or a situation.

Philadelphia CIO Philadelphia CIO
They understand that at its core, geographic information systems are about data integration and revealing new ways of looking at a problem or a situation.”

Philadelphia CIO Philadelphia CIO

The challenge has been to formalize that process instead of doing it ad hoc. We’ve been super successful. And we’ve been slowly expanding the process to more nonspatial work, and that’s proving to be a little bit more challenging than I thought. We don’t always have the same model available, where there is a small analytical team that has been using GIS for a long time. Whether they prepare maps or not, they recognize that 90 percent or more of the data they have to work with has a location component. For municipal departments that use client-centered data, they might have more control over privacy and sharing information because of privacy laws.

Essentially, we say that your source of record is your source of record. Manage it however you want to. Upgrade it whenever you want to. Add tables, delete tables. But when you commit to sharing with our central data warehouse, that becomes the enterprise authoritative version. And if you’re going to change within the enterprise authoritative version, you have to initiate a change in control. We have to know what the change is going to be and why it needs to happen. Then we have a small team of people investigate all of the dependencies that change may trigger — dependencies on that data for which that change could have a negative effect.

If we don’t see any negative effects, you get a green light. Refresh your data into the warehouse. If there is a problem, we negotiate it.

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STATETECH: Philadelphia has some smart city projects coming up, and it’s an exciting time for the city to enter this space. What have you planned for the next year or two? 

WHEELER: Our plan for the year is to formally launch our reverse-pitch program, which many cities have modeled successfully. Our take on the reverse-pitch program is that it’s also going to serve as a formal process or gatekeeper for all of our departments in city government that want to engage in smart cities. Collectively as a government, we want to have conversations with potential service solution providers and do it in a way where we all understand the benefits, where we all have to support each other in the pilot, and then scale it up. In doing so, we are not overextending our resources and we’re not committing each other to work that we don’t have the capacity to do or that would conflict with another pilot.

So, when potential partners file grant applications and they are looking for us to test a solution, we have the same procedures to follow, so we know the commitments, the funding strategy, the resources to utilize and the time frames. Our smart cities director and staff will manage that. At some point, we’re going to need to commit more resources to it, because this could really be a high-functioning program for us.

Photography by Colin Lenton