Chicago’s data chief bids farewell

In final hours as Chicago’s first chief data officer, Brett Goldstein thanks staff, civic hackers

June 14, 2013

Chicago’s first data officer is departing public service for a job in academia.

Brett Goldstein, who has worked with Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s team since he was elected, is the city’s first Chief Data Officer and Chief Information officer for the Department of Innovation and Technology (DOIT).

Last month, it was revealed that Goldstein would depart the mayor’s administration for a position at University of Chicago.

On Thursday, he used a “hacker meet-up” opportunity to thank members of Chicago’s civic tech community for making his effort work, and took the opportunity to point out individual staffers by name and the role they had in Chicago’s data effort.

His group was tasked with consolidating the technical side of Chicago under one roof. Among those things: coordinating data and logistics for NATO, ramping up the city’s data portal, which included hundreds of city records, mandating reporting of data by agencies and creating tools to analyze and respond to citizens via 311 or social media.

“Data.cityofchicago.org has become the standard for data portals,” Goldstein said. “We get countless calls that say ‘Oh my God, how did you do it in Chicago?”

But his departure has raised questions as to whether his replacement will continue to open up city records and if information will actually be used by the public to apply pressure on politicians with facts and data.

Goldstein was first appointed by the Mayor to head up the city’s data effort in May of 2011, but after issuing an executive order in December of 2012, was made the city’s first Chief Data Officer.

“An open and transparent administration makes it easier for residents to hold their government accountable, but it also serves as a platform for innovative tools that improve the life of all residents,” Emanuel said at the time.

It was that sentiment that Goldstein was trying to echo as he stood before a room of civic-minded techies, many of whom have utilized the flood of data to create apps and websites to help Chicagoans understand their city better.

“This is your data,” Goldstein said to the crowd on the 22nd floor of a downtown office of the Chicago Community Trust, a group that provides charitable resources to communities.

The group’s partner the Smart Chicago Collaborative invited Goldstein to the talk.

(Editors’ note: WBEZ is a media collaborator with the Smart Chicago Collaborative.)

Behind the speech there were hints of philosophical beliefs — even hopeful tones of what would happen after his departure.

“How do we continue to foster this… Tim O’Reilly used the phrase: ‘government as a platform,’ I absolutely believe in the data portal as a platform,” Goldstein said.

To get at this requires a bit of background. Goldstein, an official empowered to open up Chicago’s information, (and has worked with the likes of New York City and others to do the same) was referring to a Zeitgeist tech world term.

The movement of “Government 2.0” grew out of tech conventions and terminology, to philosophical back-and-forth among industry leaders about standards that would set the stage for how people use the Internet, computers and eventually their mobile applications.

Among those subscribers was the recently deceased Aaron Swartz. Swartz founded Reddit and campaigned against political governance of the Internet. He caused stir after he released troves of federal court documents as well as a database of the Library of Congress.

There are some that see Open Government as a way to have people respond democratically to government through technology. They hope by freeing up government’s data vaults it will allow the public to keep track of government functions and information in order to hold officials accountable.

Whether or not that has happened, is up for a great deal of debate.

Last month, Crain’s published a scathing op-ed by Chicago writer Steve Rhodes.

He took issue with the mayor touting his administration as data-driven, when his actions on school closings, red-light cameras, gun laws and parking meter policies suggested otherwise.

Rhodes cited examples of how the available data ran against claims Emanuel’s office used to justify policies.

Goldstein, in his speech, often walked a line between talking about the technical and political.

He cited terms such as ETLs (Extract, Transform, Load), a technical method by which data moves from one city database like the Police Department into the data portal site, directly to the Internet.

“There isn’t a little dude in the basement of city hall vetting it. It’s just blocks of Java that update the portal, so that I can go away,” he said. “It’s actually harder to turn it off at this point, than to keep it on.”

Goldstein would not comment on whether his replacement was named and deferred to the mayor’s office.

But when asked about how data is and can be used in government, he responded as the role of the facilitator.

“I might have some expertise about what the data shows,” he said. “I might be able to use an algorithm to induce what I think might be an interesting treatment… How do we bring these things that are shown in the data and make them part of the discourse?”

“I want to make it easier so that data informs the decision-making process.”

 

 

Elliott Ramos is a data reporter and web producer for WBEZ. Follow him at @ChicagoEl

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