Cities have always had data, but its value was either misunderstood or ignored. Today, data is considered one of the key assets of any local government, and if there’s one person who has demonstrated just how important it has become, it’s Tom Schenk, chief data officer for the city of Chicago.
Since becoming CDO in September 2014, Schenk has built what was once a fledgling operation consisting of discrete programs into one of the best data analytics operations in local government. Relying primarily on open source software, Schenk and his team have established a rigorous and highly effective predictive analytics effort, including work on food inspection, predicting E. coli in Lake Michigan, forecasting West Nile virus outbreaks and an upcoming project that will predict lead poisoning in Chicago homes.
Schenk credits his skilled advanced analytics team with making predictive analytics both easier and more effective. “They have optimized the use of the city’s workforce, helping the city get ahead of problems and just improving the overall efficiency of the city. This is a skill set we had not really had before,” he said.
Next up will be the creation of a municipal ID for city residents. The key will be to make the card flexible and easy to use, but ensure that it doesn’t capture private information about the holder. Schenk admits the project is challenging because it goes against his inclination to piece together and combine data. Instead, “I’m having to reverse engineer and create a solution that doesn’t exactly do that,” he explained.
But it’s all part of what makes being a chief data officer in public service so fascinating for Schenk, who has long believed in the ability to combine data and analytics to improve decision-making and policies. Now he’s seeing his early vision spread as more cities, including mid-sized ones, add the role of chief data officer or the equivalent. “It’s been really exciting to see cities change dramatically with respect to analytics,” he said. “I do think we’re going to see more cities go in this direction.”