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Chicago CTO Says Senior Municipal Staff are Changing the Way Cities Work

BY Nick Judd | Tuesday, June 28 2011

Chicago at night. Photo: Rhys Asplundh / Flickr

Mayors across the United States are tasking senior staffers with changing the way their cities work, Chicago Chief Technology Officer John Tolva said during an interview with Gov 2.0 advocates Adriel Hampton and Allison Hornery that was released today.

With city Chief Data Officer Brett Goldstein, Tolva said, he's in Mayor Rahm Emanuel's office. For him, that's a crucial point — and he says it's part of a nationwide wisening-up on the part of city executives.

"Just as Nigel Jacob at the Office of New Urban Mechanics sits in the mayor's office, just as Rachel Sterne sits in the mayor's office in New York, I think what you're seeing in the last 18 months is an understanding of city executives that technology and the kind of innovations that it can foment deserve a seat at the table, deserves a seat at his or her table, and yet having a tight connection to the more operational aspects of city IT."

The unique thing about the Sternes and Jacobs and Tolvas of the world is that they aren't focused on things like data centers or collaboration platforms, except when they are means to an end. The real focus is on updating the way cities do business to keep them competitive in the 21st century, Tolva said.

"Part of this is old-school business consulting, or business process transformation," Tolva said. "It has nothing to do with technology per se, except that we've been given the mandate to use technology behind the scenes to smooth out the process."

"If it was broken on paper," he said at another point in the interview, "it's probably going to be even more broken if all you do is digitize that process."

Jacob, a former software developmer, is Boston Mayor Thomas Menino's in-house innovation guy. At Boston's City Hall, he's focused on initiatives that seek to modify everything from urban planning to waste management to make them more transparent and interactive for citizens. Sterne's title in New York City government is chief digital officer — and she is the first person to hold that position. Working from the Mayor's Office of Media and Entertainment, she leads the charge on an initiative to change the way the city interacts online, consolidating its social media presences, making more intelligent use of new tools like location-based services, and positioning the city as a leader in the Internet age. As someone who is well connected in the city's burgeoning Internet technology industry, which is a priority for New York's Economic Development Corporation, Sterne is also one of the city's top ambassadors to Gotham geekdom. Whenever Mayor Michael Bloomberg appears at a New York-based tech company, Sterne is likely to be nearby. Both began in their current capacities within the 18-month timeframe Tolva identifies.

Formerly IBM's director of citizenship and technology, Tolva is well-connected in Chicago's technology world. His circle is the same one that encompasses Everyblock co-founders Adrian Holovaty (also a co-creator of the Python web development framework Django) and Daniel X. O'Neil.

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