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John Tolva | Interview

After his DJ set, Chicago’s first chief technology officer discusses open data apps, the digital economy and sparking cultural change at City Hall.

Photograph: Andrew Nawrocki
HEADPHONE BOOTH Tolva goes for a spin in the DJ's nest at Villain's.

The city’s most politically connected nightlife event has to be the new Beat Research Chicago at Villain’s. The three resident DJs of the twice-monthly party in Printers Row spend their days walking the halls of power. Jake Trussell (DJ C) is creative director of World Business Chicago, the economic development organization chaired by Mayor Emanuel; Jesse Kriss is a visualization engineer for Obama for America; and John Tolva became Chicago’s first chief technology officer last April.

Earlier this month, Tolva, 39, formerly IBM’s director of citizenship and technology, took a breather after his hour-long set of dubstep and drum ’n’ bass to talk about updating Chicago to Government 2.0. A wholehearted technological embrace, he says, can greatly improve the public sector’s ability to serve the citizenry—and could resuscitate the economy.

On your blog, ascentstage.com, you wrote that 2012 is Chicago’s tech leap year.
The initial publishing of data on the portal last year—such as ten years of crime, restaurant health inspections and city contracts and payments—was a statement. But the world of quantified numbers will not tell you how the city’s working; informed narrative around those numbers will. In 2012, we’re focusing on building tools so people can make the data meaningful: map it, suck it into an app, write about it.

That’s why you ran the Apps for Metro Chicago development competition?
It was one way of goosing the community. People built over 70 apps. We published lobbyist data: who’s lobbying for whom, how much they spend. But it’s in a big database table. So four guys built ChicagoLobbyists.org as an amazing, accessible front end for all that data.

Do you envision lots of start-ups springing up around open data?
Absolutely. Open data is raw material that a company can build itself on. You can’t use SeeClickFix in Chicago right now, but in cities that release 311 data, you can use the app to see a map of service requests in your community. And it’s making money. These start-ups represent a new kind of civic engagement.

You recently debuted the buzzworthy Chicago Shovels, a series of winter apps and tools, including Plow Tracker. What’s on the horizon?
I’m excited about Open311 for Chicago. Via an app, you’ll be able to request a pothole fix: Snap a pic and send it. The app also shows you a timeline of where the request is in the city’s queue.

You’ve blogged about how open data begets transparent government which begets a better workforce because city employees are held accountable.
Government in general, not just Chicago, was reluctant to release data because they said, “Oh, the public will see we’re doing things inefficiently.” Yeah, that’s exactly why you should release it! Data wonks find inefficiency and yell about it. We’ll release 4 million rows of crime data and get an e-mail the next day saying, “There’s an error in row 10,074.” If you have that many eyes on something, the truth will get out.

Has the mayor ever pushed back: “Don’t publish this”?
No. There have been departments that have been less willing. It was tough for CPD to let go of crime data, but they did. There are 60-some Freedom of Information Act officers paid full-time salaries to fulfill data requests. Think about how much money [having that info online] would save the city. At least half my job is not technology; it’s culture change. It’s getting people to move away from paper. It’s getting people to move away from gut instinct and anecdote as the drivers of decision making and actually look at something that’s been quantified. That’s harder than merely building a cool website.

Beat Research happens first and third Wednesdays monthly at Villain’s (649 S Clark St, 312-356-9992).

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