Silicon Valley’s Irish CIO holds the keys to the digital city

28 Jan 2014

Jonathan Reichental, CIO of Palo Alto, California

Jonathan Reichental, the chief information officer (CIO) of Palo Alto, California, addressed an unusual gathering of 400 techies and civil servants at Dublin Castle recently.

While the room fizzled with good intent around using technology to provide better, more open and more trustworthy services for citizens, those citizens were at that moment coming to terms with the double whammy of Irish Water spending €86m on consultant fees and the €700,000 pension pay-out for the former CEO of the Central Remedial Clinic.

Reichental is a native of Dublin and graduate of the Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT). Palo Alto is the Silicon Valley neighbourhood of major tech CEOs, including Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Larry Page of Google and the late Steve Jobs of Apple.

“Tonight is a kind of historic moment,” Reichental told the second-ever Code for Ireland gathering, “something that has the potential for making a really positive change in Ireland.”

The idea behind the Code for Ireland movement is to have citizens, software coders, and local government work together to come up with apps and better web services to remove the frictions of day-to-day life in cities and towns.

The first Code for Ireland meet-up that took place at Facebook’s Dublin headquarters in November has already led to the start of three app projects, including an emergency app that shows where all the defibrillators in Dublin are located, a queueing app aimed at avoiding long waits at the motor tax office, and a business location assessment app that will guide businesses on the best place to locate based on zoning, available property and other businesses in the area.

Restoration of trust

Catherine Bracy of the Code for America movement also attended the Code for Ireland gathering. She said that across the world trust between citizens and government has been eroded over the last number of decades and open-data policies and joint innovation with citizens are a good way to restore that trust.

“The internet has democratised everything but democracy itself,” she said.

Bracy pointed to the website that was meant to launch Obamacare in the US – it collapsed on its first day. “It cost US$600m to build and it doesn’t work.”

Alluding to the debate that has raged around Irish Water, Bracy said: “This problem is endemic. Ninety-four per cent of US IT projects fail, are late and over-budget. This is a scandal and it is unacceptable. You guys have the power to come together and solve this problem in Ireland.”

Reichental said that if local government embraced open data by opening up hitherto secret data sets to entrepreneurs and coders, Ireland could open the doorway to technology exports aimed at resolving the US$3trn global financial headache that, according to consultants McKinsey, is caused by IT failures and inefficiency in government.

Reichental repeated this message the next day to secretary-generals of all State departments at a briefing organised by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), where he used to work.

Reichental immigrated to the US in 1996. He went to work with PwC and took advantage of every available opportunity to advance his learning and eventually became head of tech innovation at PwC. After that he become CIO at O’Reilly Media, the tech publishing house owned by Cork-born Tim O’Reilly.

After a number of years, a call came out of the blue from a recruiter exploring whether Reichental would be interested in being the CIO of Palo Alto. Intrigued, he met the city manager.

“If you had ever suggested to me that I would end up working in government I would have said that was never going to happen,” Reichental said. “The more I heard about what they planned the more I was attracted to the challenge. You could say they took a bet on me and I took a bet on them.”

Best digital city

Two and a half years into the role, Palo Alto has been named the best digital city in the US by size (75,000 citizens). Reichental had been told that if Boston hadn’t entered the fray, Palo Alto was in the running for the No 1 digital city overall in the US. Last July, Reichental also received recognition from the White House for ‘extraordinary leadership’.

Reichental said that upon entering the role, he sat down and wrote a four-point strategy: modernising the existing IT systems of the city of Palo Alto to cloud computing, better IT governance in terms of spending only on what is needed, consistent services for all citizens, and an overall vision to build a digital city.

“When I joined two and a half years ago, we were in bad shape. I started with quite a lofty strategy and I thought it would take five years but it only took two. It was really about getting things done, creating a central reporting system and having a motivated and accountable workforce.”

Asked about his views on how IT failures in government worldwide present a US$3trn economic opportunity for Ireland, Reichental said the key is open data.

“Think about it like this: a bunch of guys create a simple app like Snapchat that has Facebook wanting to buy it for US$3bn – think of the enormous market cap that could be created if a more credible, useful portfolio of apps that solve real-world problems and issues was to be created.”

He cited the energy market and the current debates around fracking and how open data will help citizens and decision-makers come up with a better outcome.

Another example is transport. “There is a global crisis regarding transportation and open data will play a massive part in terms of deciding and agreeing billions of dollars’ worth of projects.”

‘Something systematically wrong with these large IT projects’

Reichental said he is as frustrated as the next citizen of Ireland or the US when he reads of the high degree of failures and overruns in government IT projects.

“There is something systematically wrong with these large IT projects. What I don’t understand is how these projects run so deep and you could be midway through and go off course? The failure levels are unacceptable.”

Reichental attributes the problem in the US to the high degree of regulation around procurement. “We’ve regulated procurement in the US so much that bureaucracy is killing it.”

He said the key is flexible use of data to inform decisions and a smart move by government would be making good quality data available for citizens and entrepreneurs to come up with solutions to everyday problems rather than spending millions on a one-size-fits-all approach that may not work.

Reichental said local government needs to realise it serves the citizens and is not in a position of privilege or secrecy.

Open data is about accountability, Reichental added.

“We as a rule publish all budgets, register every cheque that is written, and open it all to public scrutiny.”

In the past, when the data was kept secret and required campaigning citizens and media to get that information, the information was viewed negatively, Reichental said.

For example, local newspapers publish the salaries of public officials every year. Before Reichental came on board that data was available only if journalists asked for it and it didn’t always come in a format they could read.

“Now (journalists) just have to click on a link and they can get the data on an Excel spreadsheet. The community deserves to know and there should be no barriers,” said Reichental.

Now such data is viewed positively since government decided to make it open, he added.

Before open data

Before Palo Alto opened up its data, Reichental said he felt like he was living in a fishbowl and he found it stifling.

“Over time it made me a better professional because I knew everything was open to scrutiny.”

He said this is something Irish public authorities need to embrace rather than fear.

“It creates trust,” he said. “Until we made our data open, the community felt that government had access to data they didn’t have and felt decisions were being made behind closed doors without their input. Data on the condition of roads shouldn’t be secret – everybody should have a right to that.”

In terms of his ambitions for the Code for Ireland movement, Reichental said he would like to see the not-for-profit movement spread across Ireland and a body of open-source software tools and apps be created that could be shared not only in Ireland but across the world to solve real problems.

Reading about Irish officials saying they can’t give out information in the newspapers doesn’t sit well with Reichental. Most of all, he would like for government in Ireland to open its data to its citizens.

“Why not? The only thing to fear is fear itself.”

A version of this article appeared in The Sunday Times on 26 January

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years