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Chicago CDO to Leave Government

After two years, Chicago Chief Data and Information Officer Brett Goldstein is leaving the city to accept a fellowship with the University of Chicago, where he will explore new opportunities for government and technology.

After two years of leading technology projects in Chicago, Chief Data and Information Officer Brett Goldstein is moving on; the city announced on May 29 that on June 14, Goldstein will leave his position to pursue other opportunities in the tech sector, including a fellowship at the University of Chicago.

"Brett has been a driving force for Chicago's tech community, creating a smarter, more nimble and more responsive government,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in a statement. “Under his tenure, Chicago has become a more data-driven city and a leader in innovation, and his work will allow us to continue to make Chicago a better place to live.”

Goldstein, pictured at left, was responsible for building the city’s open data program from something small to a system that now includes more than 400 datasets and millions of points of data.

“It’s the biggest open data program in the U.S.,” Goldstein said. “We’re really proud that when people talk about open data now, they point to Chicago as the example -- of not just the example of how to do in quantity, but how to do it right. We’re really proud of serving the mayor’s goal for transparency, but at the same time, it’s served the research community and made inroads with economic development.”

Big Data Achievements

Other cities and even organizations around the world look to Chicago’s open data efforts as a benchmark, Goldstein said. And looking beyond open data, the city is also proud of its big data efforts, he said, in a project that started in his office called WindyGrid.

A map-based analytics platform, WindyGrid provides decision-makers at every level of government in Chicago access to what Goldstein called, “the story of where.”

“This was our innovation,” he said. “You probably hear complaints where people say, ‘We can’t get at the older data because it’s in the archive.'"

But Goldstein argues that that’s not how government should be doing business. "You need to have the data you need to make the right decision immediately,” he said, adding that by bringing together all spatial data from disparate platforms, city officials are able to do two things: They can see what’s going on in a given location right now and they can view that location’s history.

Government stands to gain something big by harnessing Big Data, Goldstein noted. Having a tool like WindyGrid allows a government to move from a reactive model to a proactive one. “By finding the patterns, seeing emerging trends, and being able to get at them, that’s really what we built with WindyGrid,” he said.

The city built WindyGrid using the open-source MongoDB for big data, Goldstein said, adding that sometimes building a custom system is the cheapest, fastest and most effective solution -- as was the case for WindyGrid. “We were able to create a best in breed solution that’s really the first of its kind in government at a minimal cost,” he said.

In other cases, however, purchasing technology as a service is the better option, he said. When it comes to things like e-mail and ERP systems, there’s little reason to reinvent the wheel, which is why Goldstein said he led the city toward the mayor’s goal of a cloud strategy for all employee email and desktop applications -- a move that saved an annual $400,000, according to a city press release.

Let the Government IT Research Begin

Goldstein said he’s been fortunate to lead a career that has been a string of passions. Before joining the city of Chicago, he worked for seven years for OpenTable, the online restaurant reservation service. “I loved my time in government, I loved the startup world," he said, "but I also have enormous respect for academia."

Goldstein is the first to accept a new fellowship position at the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago (UC). The fellowship -- which is a partnership between UC, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Harvard University -- is called the Fellowship for Urban Science. Starting July 1, Goldstein will spend the next two years exploring new ways to marry data and government.

“How do you make cities smarter by merging data?” Goldstein said. “How do we apply mathematics and computer science to understand how cities work so we can move to a proactive, rather than reactive, model?”

As he leaves the city, Goldstein said Chicago will continue to be one of the places that “does gov tech right.” And the team now in place, he said, is very exciting. 

“When I came over here, the mayor and I agreed on a couple key principles – this idea of ‘good enough for government’ does not work in Chicago. This idea of ‘government needs to be 10 years behind’ makes no sense," Goldstein said. "He told me to come over here and bring the same sort of startup culture and standards we had at OpenTable to Chicago, and that’s what we put in place -- and the team here is ready to push the mayor’s vision forward.”

As for who will take Goldstein's place? "The mayor will make an appointment in the coming weeks," he said.

Chicago downtown image via Shutterstock

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.