With IT modernization plan, Chicago aims for more accessible, transparent and secure data

A new city initiative aims to modernize Chicago’s information technology systems, hopefully resulting in a smarter city that’s more user-friendly and mobile-enabled for all businesses. This article discusses the strategy behind this push for digital transformation

Dive Brief:

  • Modernizing Chicago’s information technology systems to reduce the cost and burden of receiving city services and improve data access is the goal of a new city initiative Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced in late June with the city’s Assets, Information and Services Department.
  • To lead the transformation, Lightfoot made two appointments: Nick Lucius, the city’s former chief data officer, in the newly created role of chief technology officer, and Kurt Peterson, who most recently served the city as first deputy budget director, as chief information officer.
  • Chicago’s approach as outlined in its 2021 IT Strategic Plan, which allocates up to $400 million for digital transformation, is the most modern and comprehensive among U.S. cities, government IT experts say.

Dive Insight:

Chicago, like many cities across the U.S., has for years struggled with paper-intensive systems, old computers and fragmented data.

This resulted “in a disproportionate amount of our IT budget being allocated for maintenance of old systems versus investment in new technologies,” said spokesperson Amanda Bolton in an email, responding for Lucius and Peterson.

The IT modernization efforts will accelerate the city’s transition into a user-friendly, mobile-enabled place to conduct business that will be accessible to all, Bolton said. So far, improvements have included paperless Freedom of Information Act request intake and processing, migrating various permits and license applications online, and creating public dashboards and open datasets for COVID-19, violence reduction, and lending equity.

An “innovation and solutions hub,” described as part of the IT modernization effort, will solicit ideas from employees and residents, enable greater collaboration between stakeholders and the city, and more rapidly test and deploy solutions, the city said.

A third part of the technology strategy is the Chicago Digital Service, a collective of technology-focused city employees and contractors led by Lucius that works on product management, civic design, data, software engineering, and security. The hope is that the digital service will model for other cities the use of technology for equity and accessibility.

The COVID-19 pandemic expedited the conversation about the need for better technology in local government, said Alan Shark, executive director of the Computing Technology Industry Association’s Public Technology Institute, a nonprofit advocating for better government services through technology. “Taking a holistic approach means looking at everything and saying how can we consolidate and take some burdens off various departments and help them do what they do best, which is serve citizens,” he said. Centralizing information technology to share common databases, delivery methods, and credentials benefits city residents, he added.

Chicago’s initiative builds on the 2020 launch of the Chicago Connected public-private partnership, which provides free high-speed internet to 100,000 Chicago households with public school students for up to four years, and the Chicago Digital Equity Council, which brings together community leaders, community-based organizations, government, and digital equity experts, two of the city’s existing efforts to address barriers to digital equity and reduce the digital divide.

Lena Geraghty, director of sustainability and innovation for the National League of Cities, said Chicago’s holistic approach demonstrates that investments in IT serve communities, not just digital departments. “The ability of cities now to draw a line between technology and data and real-world outcomes for communities is moving in the right direction.”

Geraghty highlighted the comprehensiveness of the city’s strategy. “Sometimes we’ll see one or two of these things happening in these cities, but Chicago’s plan is really well-thought-out and touches on components from internal operations to external services and relationship building,” she said. “Piecing together these different components in one holistic way makes Chicago unique.”

Federal funding sources have allowed cities to make these changes, Geraghty noted: American Rescue Plan funding can be used for modernization of security and IT systems through 2026, and communities might be able to access more funding streams from the bipartisan infrastructure law. Cities that have planned how to upgrade systems and processes not only to serve current needs but also to prepare for a technology-heavy future are in a better position to benefit from these potential funding sources, as well as from corporate and philanthropic interest, said Geraghty.

The estimated cost of Chicago’s strategic technology plan is $350 million to $400 million over eight years, but the plan states that such costs could be reduced and offset by reinvesting savings from modernization back into city operations. According to Bolton, $10 million in ARP funding has been allocated to digital transformation efforts.

According to Shark, within the last two years, Chicago has showcased the most modern and comprehensive approach to information technology compared with other major U.S. cities. “If they’re able to fulfill this, and it seems very reasonable to think they will, they’re ahead of the rest of the country in terms of approach and commitment,” he said, particularly in terms of open access to city data.

Bolton said Chicago is invested in ensuring such data access because an equitable government requires rigorous data collection, analysis, and sharing on race, age, gender, and other sociodemographic factors. “Data access,” Bolton wrote, “is fundamental to restoring trust in government. A transparent government allows for debate and progress.”

This article was written by Austyn Gaffney from Smart Cities Dive and was legally licensed through the Industry Dive Content Marketplace. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@industrydive.com.