Jessica Twentyman meets: Palo Alto’s open data evangelist

Jessica Twentyman Profile picture for user jtwentyman January 15, 2014
Jessica Twentyman talks to Jonathan Reichental, CIO of the City of Palo Alto, California, about how open data can build better communities - and why he’s taking that message back home to his birthplace of Dublin, Ireland.

Against a backdrop of budget cuts, competing political agendas and layers of bureaucracy that slow everything down, the one asset that government IT has in abundance is data - data about local residents and the communities in which they live.

In the right hands, says Jonathan Reichental, CIO of the City of Palo Alto, California, that data can be powerful, providing the foundation for new applications and services that make a real difference to peoples’ lives.

That’s the message he’ll deliver when he takes the stage at Dublin Castle this coming Friday, for the launch of Code for Ireland, a not-for-profit organisation that aims to bring together volunteer software developers and government employees to work on new projects. Alongside Reichental at the launch will be Ireland’s Minister for State, Brian Hayes, as well as Catherine Bracy, who heads up Code for America, of which Code for Ireland is an international member.

Irish roots

For Reichental, the trip is personal, as well as political. After 25 years in the US, his accent may be distinctly transatlantic, but he was born and raised in Dublin. His father and older brother still live there.

It’s a great time to be visiting Ireland. In mid-December, it became the first of the bailed-out Eurozone economies (which also include Portugal, Greece, Spain and Cyprus) to exit the rescue scheme engineered by the International Monetary Fund and the European Union, and to stage a return to the bond markets.

That’s not to say that its dark economic times are entirely behind it, but the technology sector, one of the nation’s few bright economic spots through its most difficult years following the 2008 property crash, is now the focus of high hopes, along with tourism and agribusiness.

Thanks to generous tax breaks for international companies, Dublin plays host to Facebook, Google and LinkedIn, as well as numerous data-centre operators. As Reichental points out, there’s also a thriving homegrown start-up community, fuelled by local incubators and talented computer science graduates from the city’s universities.

But the Irish government, he says, is still guilty of many of the inefficiencies that infuriate citizens all over the world.  With the gradual consumerisation of IT, he says, as people’s expectations of technology has risen, so has their willingness to engage with government, through digital channels. Mobile and social technologies, he believes, now have huge potential to increase political participation and civic engagement.

“Building strong, healthy communities today requires greater shared responsibility between community members and cities,” he recently wrote in a blog post. “The emergence of compelling civic technology can offer a platform for this collaboration to more readily occur.”

A case in point: the City of Palo Alto’s Palo Alto 311 mobile app, which Reichental and his team launched in June last year. Residents irked by potholes, or graffiti, or malfunctioning traffic lights, for example, can take a photo of the problem from their mobile phone and send it directly to the City, along with a service request. By tapping into the phone’s GPS and location services, the app is able to identify the exact location of the problem. Residents who submit these reports, meanwhile, can track their request from initial reporting to resolution using the app.

Public sector

This is Reichental’s first job in the public sector: he was previously CIO of publishing company O’Reilly Media and, before that, he was a consultant at PricewaterhouseCoopers. He happily admits that his decision to take a government job was received with surprise by his peers, and in some cases, outright dismay.

“I like to move fast, take risks and innovate. Everybody told me, ‘These are all things that government doesn’t do’,” he says.

To some extent, the naysayers were right: “Every cliche you’d expect is here. There’s a lot of bureaucracy. The machinery of government works against innovation and you have to work really hard to counter that.”

“But I’m an optimist,” he laughs. “I took a risk on the City. The City took a risk on me. The bet paid off.”

Of course, Palo Alto isn’t just any city, as Reichental happily condes. It’s home to some of the technology industry’s biggest companies, its most exciting start-ups and one of the world’s most prestigious universities, Stanford. Its population is largely wealthy and highly educated. “It’s a pretty special place,” he says.

One of Reichental’s first projects following his December 2011 appointment was the creation of an open data platform, where the City of Palo Alto publishes a wide range of machine-readable datasets - relating to demographics, public works, citizen survey results, and utilities, for example - for use by the public in general and software developers in particular. Regular hackathons, meanwhile, aim to help volunteers find new uses for the data hosted on the platform in solving local issues.

“This should be a key goal of government: to make data more open,” he says. “We created a platform that not only makes data available, but also easy to use, and, for our size, we got it up and running pretty quickly. It’s been one of the biggest successes of my tenure here and I’m really proud of that.”

It’s all about connecting “civic problems and civic solvers”, says Reichental - and that’s an idea he’s hoping will get a warm reception in his homeland of Ireland. A trial run of Code for Ireland, held in November at Facebook’s Dublin offices, was well attended, he reports, and participants came up with some good ideas, among them a business-location assessment app that will guide businesses on the best place to set up premises, based on zoning, available property and other businesses in the area.

“Government is very underserved by technology solutions - that’s a universal problem. That’s why the idea behind open data is so scalable: It’s just as relevant in Dublin as it is in Palo Alto,” he says. “We all interface with government and we all know the frustrations, whether we’re renewing our passport or paying a parking ticket. These are challenges for everyone, but for smart software developers, they’re also opportunities.”

A grey colored placeholder image