How Chicago's Tom Schenk Jr. Has Become a Leading CDO

Schenk Jr. describes his work around open data as mainly “tactical,” with the policies and practices around privacy and data release more firmly established.

by Eric Bosco, Ash Center’s Civic Analytics Network / June 5, 2017
Tom Schenk speaks during the Big Data and Health conference at the Oriental Institute Friday, May 9, 2014, on the University of Chicago campus. Photo by Andrew Nelles

This story was originally published by Data-Smart City Solutions.

Tom Schenk Jr. knows that he could be making more money working with data and analytics in the private sector — he was once an investment banker and his technical acumen and ability to problem-solve could surely benefit any number of companies.

But Schenk Jr., Chicago’s Chief Data Officer, wanted to apply those skills along with his passion for policy because he is most interested in “making an impact” and “solving problems that actually matter.” In Chicago, he has done just that; the Windy City is among the cities leading the way in the smart-city age.

Schenk Jr. has led a number of successful initiatives, including the recently-released map-based open data application OpenGrid, an effort to digitally map the city’s underground infrastructure assets, and multiple analytics projects like the widely-praised food inspection forecasting model.

Schenk Jr. says that he is proud of the growth he has seen in his department and the overall data analytics capacity in Chicago over his four years at the helm. He oversees a division of 20 within the city’s Department of Innovation and Technology. About one quarter of his job is dedicated to what he calls “classical roles” like business intelligence and overseeing database administration, but incorporating data science as a key function of the department has been a major focus.

“I’m very proud of the work we’ve done embedding data science into what we do; we have a group of researchers and data scientists that we’ve grown internally, everyone is getting used to this,” Schenk Jr. said in an interview with Data-Smart at the spring convening of the Civic Analytics Network (CAN), a peer group of leading CDOs from U.S. cities.

 

The Array of Things and Internet of Things policy

Last fall, Chicago made headlines with its rollout of the Array of Things, an urban sensing project, and installation of hundreds of sensors on traffic poles across the city, which generate data on things like air quality and wind to monitor the city in real time. Schenk Jr. said the city is rolling out more “strategic projects” in concert with the Array of Things, including smart green infrastructure monitoring and smart streetlights.

And Schenk Jr. sees only growth on the horizon for this technology: “you’re going to see more and more departments, hundreds of different areas, using these sensors.”

“As technologies become cheaper, more and more people start to use them,” Schenk Jr. said. “And one of the things we’ve learned, talking to my colleagues here at CAN, is that this is where policy is going to matter most.”

Schenk Jr. describes his work around open data as mainly “tactical”, with the policies and practices around privacy and data release more firmly established. But he knows that the next challenge—the Internet of Things—will require the combination of technology and policy that shaped Schenk Jr.’s career path.

“When it comes to IoT technology, policy is going to factor in way more because privacy is far more impacted when it comes to IoT technologies than it is with open data,” Schenk Jr. said. “For the most part, open data doesn’t have to deal with privacy issues that much. They come up but it’s not overwhelming… for IoT it is totally overwhelming.”

Schenk Jr. said he and his team have already done a lot of work crafting the policy needed to deal with the many privacy issues around the Array of Things and that this kind of policy work will be a major focus for his team going forward for all city projects that involve the use of sensors.

In many ways, this is the exact kind of challenge that drew Schenk Jr. to his position in the first place. Beyond his technical skills, he has an academic background in policy, holding a Master’s in Economics from Iowa State University and lecturing on statistics and economics. “This is very natural for me, I always want to work on a problem that actually matters, and that’s what draws all of us into this discipline,” Schenk Jr. said. “And I was always fascinated and convinced that the future of policy was going to be data-driven and data-informed.”

 

The “collective power” of a peer group of CDOs

Schenk Jr. envisioned that the future of policy would be data-driven at a time when there was no such thing as a municipal Chief Data Officer. In fact, Chicago was the first city in the nation to hire a CDO, two years before Schenk Jr.’s arrival.

But now more than 20 U.S. cities have appointed CDOs, who have joined together to form the Civic Analytics Network, of which Schenk Jr. is the first chairman. Schenk Jr. sees a clear role for the peer network to influence not only the municipal data market but the future of data analytics in cities.

“This is the most classical of American activities; as soon as you get enough people together that are like-minded, form an association and try to use that collective power to influence those that are around you,” Schenk Jr. said. “And it’s that sort of classic action that we’re trying to take here with this group.”

He said the group’s work can include giving advice to other cities informally or speaking together as a group to advocate on critical issues. The network recently penned an open letter to the open data community advocating for the increased use of geospatial data and metadata, among other suggestions.

And Schenk Jr. said that a major focus for his year as the group’s chair will involve establishing a set of “core principles” that will facilitate a transition in representation from member cities should administrations (and CDOs) change.

“Communication and sharing ideas have been the buffer between the administrations, I want to make sure we have the policies and practices that help that,” Schenk Jr. said. “We’re really trying to establish that practice and policies so that the group can continue even without the original CDOs but so that the next generation can come in and have a template for what they want to do.”

A role like this – chairman of a growing network of leading Chief Data Officers – is characteristic of Schenk Jr.’s career thus far. The combination of technology- and policy-savvy that he developed in his studies is something he not only brings to his day job in Chicago but also to this CDO peer group, advancing data-driven government on a national scale and shaping the role of the CDO going forward.