Chicago's CIO doesn't believe in 'good enough'

Move to Microsoft cloud for email and desktop apps is based on 'thinking like an enterprise'

Email is a commodity, says Brett Goldstein, Chicago's CIO, and that's why he's moving it to a cloud.

The Windy City said Thursday it is migrating email and desktop applications to Microsoft's cloud services for about 30,000 employees.

This transition allows Chicago to consolidate three separate and internally managed email systems.

"I'm actually going to be getting better service, better functionality, at a lower cost, and that's particularly important when you are in municipal government," said Goldstein. The city expects to save $400,000 per year over the course of its four-year agreement with Microsoft.

But that's just part a broader strategy to improve IT operations in the nation's third largest city by a CIO with a background in government, the start-up world and Big Data.

"We need to be thinking like an enterprise," Goldstein said.

The cloud decision helps standardized IT operations, but is also part of an overall goal to move away from silo, department-focused operations and enable data sharing.

"I would argue that problems are in fact interdisciplinary," said Goldstein, and that means making it possible to bring education, economic, public safety other data sets together. His goal is to build systems that support deductive and inductive approaches to analyzing data that may, for instance, help discover unknown relationships.

In the case of a 311 operation, Goldstein imagines a system where data analytics are used to show how a certain event is a leading indicator for the next event. The 311 system is used for services requests, such as abandoned vehicle removal or to report street lights out.

In pursuit of its goal, the city was recently named a finalist in the Bloomberg Philanthropies' Mayors Challenge based on its "innovative proposal" to build a system that identifies real-time patterns for city agencies. There were 300 submissions competing for the $5 million grand prize and 20 finalists. The winner will be announced this spring.

"Data is at the core of how we are doing and going to continue to do government better," said Goldstein.

Many governments have trouble bringing about change to their systems because of upfront investment costs. But Goldstein said they are addressing cost issues in part through open source. The city's Big Data initiative is being built on MongoDB.

"I don't believe in five-year ROIs," said Goldstein. And any project has to have a relatively quick payback, he added.

Goldstein has a background in both data and police work, and was an early employee at OpenTable, the online reservation firm, as its IT director. He has master's degrees in criminal justice and computer science, and is pursuing a PhD in criminology at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

Before being appointed CIO, he was the city's chief data officer, and is a former commander in the Chicago Police Dept.

Goldstein adamantly rejects the idea that government work is second to the private sector. "One of the things that drives me crazy is this idea of 'good enough for government work' -- that is not OK," he said.

"I am going to raise the bar really high -- I don't want people pointing to IT as ever inhibiting business, it should be enabling business," said Goldstein.

State and local governments, such as Los Angeles, Wyoming, Colorado, as well as some federal agencies, are using public clouds for email, word processing and spreadsheets.

But government adoption of "pure play" cloud, something similar to what Microsoft and Google offer, remains low, so Chicago is still in early adopter category. IDC expects the potential government market using these cloud services will reach about 1.5% this year, a 50% increase from last year, said analyst Shawn McCarthy.

Chicago, and other government agencies that move to cloud services, typically announce substantial cost savings up front, but McCarthy says the potential savings can easily shrink.

One problem McCarthy sees is users lagging on shutting off older systems and making a complete transition. "The savings that they potentially could get don't always materialize," he said.

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed. His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

See more by Patrick Thibodeau on Computerworld.com.

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