June 14, 2012 By Merrill Douglas
Despite turnover that has shaken up its ranks, an informal group of big-city IT executives known as the G7 is pushing forward with plans to establish a shared data repository that could become a foundation for multi-city apps and performance metrics.
In March, the G7 — short for Group of Seven — was poised to launch cities.data.gov, a publicly available platform which would house standardized data from its seven members: Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Seattle. Since then, upheaval in the group’s membership, along with a few other issues, has delayed the site’s release.
In April, two key G7 members announced that they were leaving their positions. Carole Post, CIO and commissioner of the New York City Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT), accepted a job as executive vice president and chief strategy officer for New York Law School. And Bill Schrier, longtime CIO of Seattle, joined e.Republic (publisher of Public CIO) to direct the company’s local government initiatives. Then in June, Chicago CIO Jason DeHaan announced that he was resigning, although the city continues to be represented in the G7 by CTO John Tolva.
The remaining members are committed to both continuing the group and launching the shared data portal, said current G7 member Jon Walton, CIO of San Francisco. Membership changes have been a regular part of the G7’s existence, he added, and offer a chance for the group to bring in new blood.
“I think the G7 will continue with a core group,” Walton said. “And if some people decide not to participate in the future, there are a lot of other good cities out there. We can find somebody to step in and take their place.”
Still, the G7’s evolving membership slowed progress on cities.data.gov, which the group intended to launch earlier this year on Socrata’s hosted Web platform, initially with data from Boston, Chicago, New York, San Francisco and Seattle. The G7 also is working out issues around standardizing the data from multiple member cities. Now, the group anticipates a formal launch of the data platform within the next two months, perhaps in concert with the federal government.
Since 2009, the G7 has been one of the more interesting developments in local government. Members have used the informal group to share ideas and work on collaborative initiatives. By 2010 the G7 had evolved into a series of regular conversations. “We have survived transition in a few cities and continue to move forward,” said Boston CIO Bill Oates, noting that the group holds a one-hour conference call every two weeks.
One Steps Out, One Steps In
Bryan Sivak enjoyed the collaborative spirit he encountered during his days as a member of the Group of Seven (G7). “It was one of the first times I had ever heard that peers in different and comparable organizations across the country took the time to talk about and plan for things that they could achieve jointly that would benefit everybody,” he said.
Sivak participated in the G7 while he was CTO of the District of Columbia. He left that post at the end of 2010, and since May 2011 he has served as chief innovation officer of Maryland. He said he’d like to see states engage in the kind of collaboration that the G7 is trying to achieve.
“Why aren’t we sharing infrastructure? Why aren’t we sharing implementation of systems?” Sivak asked. “Why do we each spend $100 million to implement the same systems?”
As a state official, Sivak hasn’t stayed closely in touch with the G7, but he has engaged in cross-jurisdictional activity with some of his former peers in the group. “I’m talking to the people in Chicago about leveraging some of the work they’ve done on their data warehouse for something we’re implementing here in Maryland,” he said.
Sivak’s successor, Rob Mancini, doesn’t participate in the G7, but the group has added Philadelphia Chief Innovation Officer Adel Ebeid, who joined in August 2011 by invitation.
“Of course I jumped on that, because we’re all trying to solve the same problems,” Ebeid said. “It was a no-brainer for me.”
For Ebeid, one of the most valuable aspects of membership so far has been the chance to learn from other members about best practices. “I have no problem stealing shamelessly and putting those things in place,” he said. “I don’t want to reinvent the wheel.”
Profiting from others’ successes and mistakes is vital in an era when government IT executives are under pressure to accomplish more with fewer resources, said Ebeid. “I get more out of the G7 in a two-hour conference call than I can get from doing five to 10 hours of research.”
“The G7 was always a personal thing, so when CIOs change there isn’t a structure for it,” Schrier said. In Seattle, he said, the city’s continued participation in G7 is unclear, and largely dependent on its new CIO once the position is permanently filled.
New York City DoITT spokesman Nick Sbordone said the city remains committed to open data and will continue its involvement in the G7. But the nature of those activities will be determined by Post’s replacement, Rahul N. Merchant, who was named citywide chief information and innovation officer in late April.
Walton acknowledged the G7’s lack of formality may have drawbacks. But the pluses far outweigh the minuses, he added. “The G7 is a little bit unique in my mind, and the reason I like participating in it is that it’s informal it’s not really institutionalized. It doesn’t have a set charter, bylaws or strict rules we run it by. It’s the type of forum that doesn’t easily exist for CIOs of large cities.”
Members say the group remains a vital mechanism for collaboration and information sharing. “I think it came into being because large cities saw an opportunity to do interesting things that were similar in needs and benefits to all the cities,” Walton said.
Because IT executives in major cities struggle with many of the same challenges, the G7 provides a rich support system, sharing insights on everything from contract negotiations to dealing with tight budgets to meeting the demands of the executive branch.
Once over the hump of its launch, the new data portal offers intriguing possibilities. For software developers, it opens the door to applications based on data from multiple jurisdictions. Such tools will become particularly valuable if local governments beyond the existing G7 membership start adding data sets to the portal, said Schrier. Consider, for example, a software developer in Seattle who writes a smartphone app that displays all recent incidents of crime within six blocks of the user’s current location. “That app in Seattle would work in any other major city throughout the country,” he said.
In addition, uniform data sets from cities across the nation would help citizens make apples-to-apples comparisons on conditions in different cities. And they would let city government leaders make direct comparisons among their peers on metrics such as how long it takes to fill potholes. “The shared knowledge is always eye-opening, and it helps move and shape the bar that we strive for when we deliver those basic services,” said Post, shortly before she left her New York City position.
Ultimately the current members of the G7 say they want to reach the point where they collaborate on applications. Some members already have been sharing applications in ways that G7 participants would like to practice more broadly in the future.
One important example springs from Boston’s engagement with Code for America, a fellowship program that assigns young programmers to work on applications for city governments. Among the products of that engagement was Adopt a Hydrant, an online app that lets Boston residents volunteer to dig out specific fire hydrants when it snows.
Chicago borrowed this code to develop a similar application, Adopt a Sidewalk. And the same concept could be applied to everything from schools to tornado sirens.
There are many more opportunities for this kind of code sharing, said Oates. “We’re just scratching the surface. But at least we’re seeing some evidence of how these things can work.”
Another item on the G7’s agenda is a project to help with a new Technology Innovation Task Force recently formed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM). The G7 has close ties to that effort: Antonio Villaraigosa, mayor of Los Angeles, chairs the USCM; Edwin Lee, mayor of San Francisco, chairs the task force. The G7 has been working with Lee to develop a charter for the task force.
It’s important for the G7 to form alliances with larger groups of city leaders, Oates said. “Those kinds of alignment are going to help us think about how to scale all these things we’re doing.”
Opportunities also exist to collaborate with states and the federal government, Oates said. “I think [the G7] serves as a great model as we go from just sharing best practices, which is what we did in the first place, to actually enabling this collaboration and doing things that have a bigger impact.”
The G7 already reaches beyond the local government sphere through the continued participation of Chris Vein, former San Francisco CIO and now deputy CTO for government innovation in the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. G7 members say Vein often still participates in the group’s phone calls, particularly when the group discusses issues with a federal component.
Speaking earlier this year at e.Republic’s Beyond the Beltway event in Washington, D.C., Vein said he envisions the federal data.gov portal ultimately housing state and local data feeds. This summer’s formal launch of cities.data.gov could be a step in that direction. G7 members say the new platform will begin to consolidate multiple city data feeds, and continued dialog with the federal government could lead to even greater movement toward a comprehensive government data portal.
“The old way where everybody stood up their own portal, and then it was up to end-users or private companies to figure out how to navigate multiple sites that is becoming logistically unmanageable,” Walton said. “I think the idea of cities.data.gov is that if you want to put your data someplace where it can be easily accessed across multiple data sets, here’s one place where you can do it.”