By John Tolva
When I left IBM just over two years ago to become the first Chief Technology Officer for the City of Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel gave me clear marching orders. I was to take the lead in setting high standards for open, participatory government to involve all Chicagoans. At the time, Chicago lagged behind other American cities in open data access and other digital city initiatives.Thanks to a lot of work and creativity by Chicagoans in government, non-profits, businesses and community groups—not to mention individuals–we have more than caught up. We achieved great progress in making city data available to all, in catalyzing an app economy and in improving digital literacy. Yet I feel that we have just scratched the surface of what’s possible when it comes to fostering participatory democracy.
The next steps will be even more challenging. We need to provide affordable broadband Internet access for all Chicagoans and give community groups and individuals the technology tools to mine the data we’re making available so they understand how the city works and can help shape its future.
Universal broadband access is essential for preparing Chicago and Chicagoans for the opportunities and challenges of the 21st century. It’s no less important than streets, power lines and rapid transit. When it comes to network connectivity, Mayor Emanuel wants Chicago to be the Seoul, South Korea of North America. That’s why we recently asked communications businesses to submit proposals for assembling a new fiber-optic network that will eventually reach into every corner of the city.
We believe that the city’s unused capacity and access to public infrastructure can be stitched together with privately-owned fiber that already exists but isn’t being fully utilized. The key is to capitalize on existing infrastructure as a means of lowering cost, so, as one example, we’re exploring the possibility of running fiber through the sewer systems—perhaps using robotic devices to do the dirty work. We learn from other cities. Vienna, Austria pioneered this approach and we think it could work for us, too.
Open data can be a huge game-changer for cities, but it won’t live up to its potential unless people have powerful tools for analyzing all the new-found data sets. Chicago’s government, on its own, can’t provide all the tools that would be useful, but there’s an opportunity for city government to work in concert with non-profits, corporations and entrepreneurs to get something going.
We have seen the power of civic cooperation already. Chicago’s five P-TECH high school/college hybrids for teaching science, technology and math got off the ground thanks to the combined efforts of the mayor’s office, the public schools, city colleges and IBM, Cisco, Microsoft, Motorola Solutions and Verizon.
Open data is the key to balancing power in cities between residents and decision-makers. Armed with the insights that software tools for interpreting open data generate, Chicagoans are empowered. They’re able to oppose or support proposals based on facts and analysis rather than rumors, fears and emotions. And they’d be able to take the initiative—helping to envision and create the city of the future.
I loved working for IBM for 13 years. I got to operate on the cutting edge of technology. But I love working for Chicago even more. Here, I get to harness technology to help Chicagoans make the most of their city.
To participate in a Tweet chat about The Digital City of the Future tune in Sept. 12 from 4 to 5 p.m. Eastern Time at #cloudchat. Participants will be Ariel Schwartz, Editor of FastCoExist; Abhi Nemani, Interim Executive Director, Code for America; and Chris Altchek, founder of PolicyMic.