The Center for Data Innovation spoke with Jonathan Reichental, the chief information officer (CIO) of Palo Alto, California. Reichental discussed some recent data initiatives in his city and some of the cities that have inspired his efforts around open data.
Travis Korte: Can you introduce yourself and talk about some of the things you’re working on right now?
Jonathan Reichental: I’m Jonathan Reichental, currently the chief information officer for the City of Palo Alto. I’ve been in a variety of technology leadership roles for close to 25 years. Most of my career has been in the private sector. I’m really enjoying serving in the public sector right now. It’s an honor and privilege. In my role as city CIO, my time is divided between traditional technology leadership, such as data center management, service desk, and infrastructure support, and exploring the application of innovation in cities. Our current priorities on the traditional side include creating a roadmap for our enterprise resource planning (ERP) needs and implementing a hybrid-cloud infrastructure. We have a long list of modernization efforts and support for department-led initiatives. On the innovation side, we are continuing to build out our open data platform which includes adding more datasets and making it easier for people to find value in the data. We are also focused on adding more services to our popular online 311 service.
Korte: Palo Alto also has an open data policy. Can you tell us about some of the ways people in the city are using municipal data?
Reichental: We’re very proud of our award-winning efforts in open government. In addition to seeing benefits in Palo Alto, we’ve helped inspire other cities to follow our lead. Many of the ways open data is being used can be invisible. Since open data is open to all, there is no reporting requirement. That is, people who use the data don’t need to tell us how they’re using it. We know that this characterizes a large portion of the user base. However, in the areas where we are familiar with how it is being used to provide value, these include integrating with third party providers such as BuildingEye and CivicInsight. These start-ups use our permit data to add value to their permitting and planning information services. A more recent use of our open data has been to take all our rich 311 data and to publish it in near-real-time overlaid on a map of the city. Finally, our open data policy includes publishing five years of city financial data. This is used by a large stakeholder group including internal staff. People want to know how their tax dollars are spent, and we want to make it easy to access. This kind of accessibility helps with decision-making and contributes towards building trust between the community and city hall.
Korte: How much of your success can be chalked up to the tech-savvy community in Palo Alto? Do you have any lessons you’ve learned as CIO that cities with less technological pedigrees can take away?
Reichental: Being at the heart of Silicon Valley does provide us with a slight edge, but it isn’t the core reason we’re successful. Our primary advantage is that we have clear vision for the role of technology in our city and we have the strength of leadership to carry it out. These aren’t characteristics we see everywhere. We recognized the value of city data early and we built a plan around it. We worked hard to convince others of the merits of our plan. Then we created a variety of platforms for people to participate in the use of data. These have included meet-ups, hackathons, and competitions. We’ve also welcomed the start-up community, established companies, and academics to engage with the data. In the end, success comes when there is a broad commitment to a vision and the courage to execute a plan against it.
Korte: What does the Palo Alto of the future look like if you succeed in your goals for information flows in the city?
Reichental: Data is a weapon of mass democracy. From decision-makers to decision-making; from software developers to city apps; from city staff to better services; when everyone has easy access to timely data, everyone benefits. This will take time and it’s likely it will be an on-going process. We’ll need to move from the novelty of open data to open data as a standard city operation. Success will take the form of people and systems accessing and interchanging data to make our city smarter and seeing it contribute to the good life.
Korte: Are there other cities you particularly look up to with regard to data initiatives? What are some of the lessons you’ve learned from these cities?
Reichental: There are many cities that are doing incredible things with data. The cities that are helping users make sense of data have already taken it to the next level. I like what is happening in London with their data store. We were also inspired by several cities to run an apps challenge to help people discover city data and city needs and to get a new generation engaged in public service. In terms of volume and diversity, San Francisco and New York City continue to push the envelope. It’s great to see cities also invest in talent by way of Chief Data Officers. From these people we’re beginning to see compelling strategies for city data. Often reporting to the Mayor’s office, they are also being given a mandate to get things done and to help tell the story of data value. Open data is in its infancy, so the really transformational work is ahead of us all.