Photo: Jonathan Reichental, CIO for the City of Palo Alto, has made dramatic strides in civic innovation in just three years on the job.

Nothing says democracy like an election – and no election is more relevant than a local one.

As more of the world’s people move into cities, the importance of how we run them is growing along with their populations. We were reminded of this on Monday when Waterloo Region voters – the minority who bothered to cast ballots, that is – elected the people who will guide our community’s progress for the next four years.

In doing so, we rejected the ideas of a small-but-vocal group of candidates who ran backward-looking campaigns, and instead chose future-minded leaders who are likely to carry on in the visionary spirit of their predecessors.

It’s a good time, then, to think about how Waterloo Region and its component cities can keep building on the momentum of the last four years, a momentum that has defined our tech community even as its biggest company, BlackBerry, undertook major downsizing.

One initiative we’ll surely be hearing more about is open data – a movement to make increasingly vast stores of government-held information accessible so that citizens and businesses can tap its value.

Few city governments have embraced open data as warmly as the council in Palo Alto, Calif.

That might sound like a no-brainer given Palo Alto’s status as the epicentre of Silicon Valley. But just three years ago, the fabled hometown of Steve Jobs was the tech equivalent of the shoemaker’s children going barefoot: City workers limped along on analog phones with buttons missing, and used clunky desktop computers running old and unsupported software, connected to a fraying network.

That’s when Palo Alto’s top bureaucrat, empowered by a supportive council, made a bold move and recruited Jonathan Reichental out of the private sector to be the city’s Chief Information Officer.

Reichental, who had a PhD in information systems, nearly 20 years of big-company experience and plenty of career options, was intrigued by the challenge of rebooting the birthplace of the world’s pre-eminent innovation corridor.

Awards, articles and accolades have been piling up since he took the job in December of 2011. Not only did Reichental update the city’s digital infrastructure, but he spearheaded an open data initiative that led to the world’s largest outdoor hackathon (5,000 attendees), development of numerous apps and the release of easy-to-read datasets on the city’s website.

I had the good fortune to sit down for a chat with Reichental at the Communitech Hub earlier this month, a few hours after he spoke at the CityAge conference at Waterloo’s CIGI Auditorium. A particular highlight of his presentation was his mention of PulsePoint, an app that uses ambulance dispatch data to alert CPR-trained bystanders when someone nearby is having a heart attack.

Given Waterloo Region’s similarly enviable concentration of tech talent, Reichental’s achievements have me wondering how tightly Waterloo Region’s newly elected civic leaders will embrace open data and civic innovation in the coming years.

Q – Palo Alto is the heart of Silicon Valley. What does the role of CIO for the City of Palo Alto entail?

A – I’ll give you a tiny little history of how I got to be there.

I have to say I was not looking to work in the public sector. I was with O’Reilly Media as CIO, working for Tim O’Reilly. Their headquarters are north of San Francisco in the wine country, and I did miss the city, so I probably knew there was going to be a move for me eventually.

I got this call from an executive recruiter and she said, ‘Would you consider being a CIO for a city?’ And honestly, my gut said ‘no, bye-bye.’

But I’m also open-minded, so I listened and said ‘tell me more.’

I recognized a couple of things. First of all, the city (of Palo Alto) realized they weren’t utilizing technology to deliver government in any sort of optimum way. And secondly, they realized they weren’t living up to a responsibility.

People assumed that Palo Alto would have state-of-the-art tech and use everything available to it, but it was unfortunately quite the opposite – very conservative, no innovation.

So, the city manager said it’s time to change this around and get somebody in who can meet both of those things; make us more efficient and lower the cost of delivering services, but also, what’s possible when you are the heart of the tech centre of the world, effectively?

The city council bought this idea. But then the next thing is, where you do you find that person? Who is that person?

The thing for me is, thankfully, I have lots of options. When you’ve got a good tech background and some good experience and you’re able to articulate ideas and a vision, there are options. The great people are hired by Microsoft and Facebook and Google in Silicon Valley, so (as a city) you’ve got that against you.

But to your question, I thought it was compelling for those reasons, and that defines what I do, which is, first of all, take on a challenge. The challenge is, can we turn this thing around? What can we do to make government services better? What can we do to empower our city staff workers with better tools?

I call that the meat and potatoes of running an innovative, efficient city.

And then, maybe 40 per cent of my work is experimentation and trying things that other cities maybe don’t have the appetite for, or don’t have the support for.

So my work is divided in two ways: leading and driving a typical IT organization and trying to get high performance in government, and balancing that with an innovation portfolio that drives things like the Internet of Things in cities; sensors, sustainability, energy provisioning, climate change, and transparency, of course.

And then, a piece that I’ve taken on because it’s important to me, is to talk about it and share the stuff that works well and share the stuff that doesn’t work so well.

Q – How long have you been in this role?

A – It’s a bit like dog years. I’ve been doing the role for six years and I’ve been at the city for three years. It’s a bit of a joke – three years at a city is like six years everywhere else, because you kind of do double time.

Say you’ve had a great career in the private sector. You could say, ‘I’m going to go to (work for) a city because things move slowly, and I can kind of chill out for a bit; ride it out for a few years and get a pension and maybe even retire, and life is good.’

You can actually choose that, but it’s unfortunate if you make that choice. Many people do; it’s not for me.

I went in and said, ‘I want to do something really impactful here. I want to make a difference. I want to see if I can do something that would change the game for our agency and other agencies.’

That means it’s demanding. It’s a lot of hours, and I spend a lot of time at the city.

So it’s been three years, but I do a lot more than 40 hours a week, let’s just say that.

Q – How receptive has the city bureaucracy been to a guy coming in from the private sector, with innovation on his mind all the time? Have you been frustrated at any point with impediments that might not exist in the private sector?

A – One of the success factors in any organization is the degree to which leadership has bought into a strategy and bought into the decisions.

So, if I came in and nobody was on board with this, this would be hell. It just wouldn’t work.

But because it was driven by a very strong city manager, who was hired himself because he was a big-thinking, strategic, change-the-game type of guy – and the city council are the ones who hired the city manager – I came in knowing I would get support. And that is a big, big piece of it.

I remember the interview process, and if you ever apply for a government job, the interview process is quite rigorous. There were several interviews, but in particular, I recall two panels, and the panels had about 10 people each.

There is an advantage to knowing you have other opportunities, because it makes you a little cocky. So, I went into the interview saying, ‘If it doesn’t work out, it’s OK.’ I didn’t go in saying, ‘I’m hungry, and this has to be me.’

So I went in, and I was a little bit comfortable and confident, and I started to hear a line of questioning around, ‘Well, it will be conservative’ and all that. And I remember simply saying, ‘If you want somebody who is conservative, who doesn’t take risks, who’s not going to be bold and annoy some people, don’t hire me. I’m not the right guy for you.’

I remember using those words, and putting them on the spot.

About two weeks later, I found out they wanted to hire me. Clearly, they did want that.

Maybe they didn’t realize what they were getting into. When I see bad hires, I call it buyer’s remorse; you actually hire this person for the very reasons that you’re now not satisfied.

If you hire somebody to be disruptive and risk-taking and you do those things and they don’t like it, well, whose fault is it?

It was tough, and it continues to be tough in many areas. I say to people, ‘Yes, I have the advantage of being the CIO of Palo Alto, but most times, the first answer is no.’

Most times, people say ‘that’s not going to work’ or ‘I can’t see how that’s going to work’ or ‘it’s never been done that way.’

And as I said in my presentation today, I’m going to get into a real good discussion about, ‘Well, why not?’

And then, when we establish that maybe there was a precedent set a long time ago, or the reasons don’t necessarily apply, then we get to the next question: ‘How might we do this?’

When we were concerned about opening our data, or we deployed an internal social networking product for the city – something that had never really been done before – the attorney wanted to challenge it, and for the right reasons.

I didn’t get defensive and start to argue about the problems. I said, ‘Well, how could we do it? What could we do? What sort of framework could we put in place to be successful around that?’

So, I don’t get any sort of free pass. I have to work really, really hard, and I still have to hear ‘no’ most of the time.

Q – What’s different at the City of Palo Alto since you came on board? What have you initiated that wasn’t there before?

A – There are two categories; the core services and then the innovative stuff.

Even if I didn’t do the innovative stuff, we have a pretty good story to tell.

For example, when I joined, there was an analog telephone system at the city. We have about 30 buildings and a little over 1,000 people, and I found and heard about people who had telephone sets that were missing keys.

One guy in particular, he had no 8, so whenever a number required an 8, he had to get somebody else to dial it and transfer it to him.

I remember talking about innovation during the first few days of my tenure, and people would say, ‘Jonathan, we don’t even have a working telephone system.’

I actually took that as a cue. I thought to myself, ‘If I can get the city a Voice over IP, state-of-the-art telephone system in short order, I’ll buy a lot of credibility. I’ll actually be able to move forward on my other agenda.’

The little detail about this, by the way, is that the dollars for the telephone system had been approved 10 years previously, and it hadn’t been done. So the money was there; I didn’t have to go to council and say ‘I need money for a telephone system.’ There was money in the bank, sitting there for someone to do it and actually create the environment in which that could be achieved.

Within my first year, I said, ‘I’m going to have a new telephone on everybody’s desk by the end of this calendar year.’ And even if it wasn’t plugged in, I was going to have a new telephone on everybody’s desk.

Everybody got the Voice over IP system and it was a big success. In every building we have a state-of-the-art telephone system. It’s a game-changer.

We put in place enterprise-grade Wi-Fi for all city staff, so we’ve essentially untethered people from Ethernet cables.

We’ve almost migrated everybody to laptops.

When I joined three years ago, everybody had desktop computers. Today, they have Windows 7, the current version of Office, laptops, VPN. And everybody has the option of a 27-inch screen, and two if they want.

One of the things that brought great joy to me was when we got a new development services director, and he’s in one of our newer buildings. I went to his office and he had a clean desk, with a laptop, iPad, smartphone, two screens and a Voice over IP telephone.

Every one of those things I brought to the city in my strategy, and I said, ‘Had you joined the city a year before I got here, this desk would look an awful lot different.’

I also led the charge to rewire the entire city. So, we pulled out some old, rat-chewed cabling and replaced it with Category 6e Ethernet throughout the entire city. It was significant on-your-knees, up-in-the-ceilings work. We got third parties to do it.

We got caught up on many, many upgrades, like our permitting system.

We deployed a brand-new 911 system, so the police now have a state-of-the-art 911 system.

We replaced all the computer systems in all the police cars, and we’re just finishing the project to do that in all the fire trucks.

There are well over 100 major infrastructure things.

If I just stopped there, I think people would say that’s a pretty good set of achievements – equipment, connectivity and the basic tools.

The city had been running Windows XP – an unsupported version of Windows – and in terms of Microsoft Outlook, they were running different versions, old versions.

There were a lot of improvements in the data centre; we went from having regular outages to now having basically 100-per-cent uptime.

On the innovation side, I completely strategized with the city managers and others, and created a vision for open government that didn’t exist. So, from scratch, I was the one who came to the leadership table and said, ‘We’re going to kick off an open data strategy.’

At first, people looked at me like, ‘What are you talking about?’ They didn’t even know what this means. Open data? They hadn’t even heard of the term.

So I started from scratch; found a vendor and started to deploy datasets.

In January this year, we declared “open data by default. That was done in two years, from when people didn’t know what the word was, to being one of the leading models for transparency in the United States.

We partnered with a company to do a system for making our information around budget and actuals available, and it won both a local and a national award from the government CFOs’ association of the United States.

Q – So you’re not just doing a data-dump, but are actually packaging the data to make it more understandable to people?

A – Yes.

Now, you can just do an export if you want to, and get lots and lots of rows and columns. Or you can click on salaries – fire salaries, police salaries – and compare year-over-year and stuff.

So it’s really easy.

Q – I’m guessing there aren’t names attached to those salaries. You don’t name the city officials, do you?

A – Yes, we do. We give everything; the salary, the health-care costs, vacation, all that stuff.

Our salary information for every employee is detailed.

It was weird for me, because I came from 20 years in the private sector, and this stuff was secret. In the United States, nobody shares their salary. It never comes up.

Then I got into this environment where you totally have to reveal everything, and you really give up quite a lot of privacy. I thought, ‘That’s going to be weird,’ but I actually like it, because it takes it off the table.

All my managers know how much they all earn, and if I give a person a little bit of extra money because they have extra responsibilities, everyone knows that. It is what it is; you don’t have to be jealous.

That (open data initiative) is, to me, a very thrilling achievement, both to get the recognition locally and nationally – and actually, internationally – but to see the benefits; companies being built around this data; the level of discourse changing as we begin to think about the value it brings both to our democracy and also to the entrepreneurs and innovators in our community, and broader.

By the way, on balance, we now have over 50 online services. We’re a city of 65,000 people, and we have 50 online services.

Q – What are some of those services?

A – These are services to the citizens. You can do almost the entire permit process online now, from putting up a new fence to putting an extension on your house. That’s all automated and web-accessible.

Q – So you don’t have to go down to City Hall and stand at a counter?

A – Sometimes you do, but more and more now, you don’t. You can pay a parking fine, get a pet licence, pay your utility bill.

Some of this is not exactly changing the planet, or sexy, but they run the gamut.

I was talking to the city manager when I first joined, and I said, ‘How will you measure whether I am successful or not in the first six months?’

He said, ‘Can you get our new website deployed?’

We had our old, existing website, which was fairly archaic, and we had this new site that was being developed. There was a community group advising on it, and we had a vendor, and they just couldn’t get it live. So he said, ‘If you can get that live . . .’

To me, that was a fairly low bar, but he really did want it to go live, and I did get it live within the six months.

It was more art than science, and we actually used lean methodology, which is to release an early beta, iterate, pivot. And people were very pleased, because we got a lot of feedback as we released it.

Q – When you were talking today about how companies have made apps such as PulsePoint using open data, do you engage those companies, or do they just grab the data and run with it?

A – We did both.

My vision is that people just do it. They don’t need encouragement; government is a facilitator, but at the end of the day, here’s the data, mash it all together, go and make money, build a business and employ people.

It does need encouragement, though. A little bit.

I have hosted, and the city hosts, a variety of events. We have meetups, and we’ve had hackathons.

Last year, we did an event, which I hosted, called CityCamp Palo Alto. It was a celebration of civic innovation, and it was going to be in downtown Palo Alto.

We ended up shutting down whole streets, actually, and inviting lots of people and vendors to participate.

We wanted people to hack.

We commandeered real businesses and said ‘bring developers in.’ We had a clothing store that moved the clothes to the side so people could sit in there and code for the day.

And 5,000 people turned up.

It was the largest outdoor hackathon ever, in the world. And I was pretty beaten up; I mean, it was tough to pull something off like that.

The tagline was Come to Inspire and Be Inspired.

The whole point was that I wanted, and the city wanted, to introduce people to a new way of thinking about government, and about innovating government.

So, it’s the impetus; it’s actually one of the ways in which we can convene innovation.

Then, this year, I created and hosted an event called the Palo Alto Apps Challenge, which lasted from February through June 1, and it was really like an American Idol-style competition. You had to enter.

(Typically) a city or an organization will elicit ideas and say, ‘We’re going to do an apps challenge on energy data – come up with some sort of energy app.’ And most people actually can just enter the idea, and they get thousands of ideas.

We didn’t get thousands of ideas, because you had to enter and build it. I made it a requirement.

Ideas are cheap, and people have lots of ideas, but ideas and people prepared to build them are worth something.

I had people who called me up and said, ‘Jonathan, I have a great idea, but I see the rules require us to build it. I’ve never written a line of code in my life and I wouldn’t even know where to start.’

I said, ‘Don’t worry about that. Get the idea in, and I will connect you with developers. I will point you to free app development capabilities that you can get off the web.’

On our website, HackPaloAlto.org, there are 40 development environments that you can use. Half of them are free and half of them are premium.

In this particular example, it was a retired lady, and she says she wants to do an app around making it easier to know about animals that need adoption. Sadly, in many places, animals are put down because no one will adopt them, and the trick is to have every animal adopted so that you never have to do that.

And it’s not necessarily because people don’t want animals. They don’t know how to get one and what they are.

So, she said ‘I want to build an app.’ And I said, ‘It’s a cool idea, sounds great, enter it, and if you’re selected as one of the finalists, I’ll find a way for you to get development.’

I was not a judge. We had an independent judging panel, and they were selected.

And now she panicked.

We had this big announcement outside City Hall, where I was at a podium and we did it Oscar-style; you know, open the envelope, ‘and the winner is.’

Their idea was called Adopt Me!, and I opened it up and said ‘Adopt Me!’ And she says, ‘Yay!’

So people were mingling afterwards, and this 17-year-old girl who is into developing apps wants to be connected with an apps finalist. So I said, ‘Come on, come on’ and introduced her (to the woman with the idea).

They got talking, and I walked off. And of course, they started developing together.

About a month later, they had 16 people working on this, just by word of mouth. Remember, this is a lady who had no idea she was going to create a business or a line of code.

We had three winners and they ended up being one of the winners. And today, that app is finished and deployed, and being used in animal shelters all over the Bay Area.

I was asked to speak at an iOS developers’ conference in Palo Alto recently, and I invited them along to tell their story. They tell me that now they’re getting calls from all over the world, from animal shelters that want to use their app.

Q – Our community is about to embark on building an ecosystem around open data. How will companies create commercial value out of this?

A – There are a couple of ways I look at this problem.

Some of the most amazing businesses that exist today had no clue how they were going to make money when they had the idea. It just seemed like a great idea.

So, I often say – because I coach lots of startups – I tell them, don’t worry too much about making money today unless you have to. But, assuming you’ve got a bit of cash flow and you’ve got some support, really focus on the great idea. Focus on an amazing idea, and then later, you’ll figure out with other smart people how to monetize this thing.

That’s one general theme, and maybe you talk about the same thing here.

The other thing I would encourage startups who are using government data to do is ask government leaders what the problems are.

I see too many startups who think the idea is kind of cool; they develop it and then they go and ask me if it’s a good idea. You should have asked me before you developed it.

I had a startup in my office in just the last 10 days. It was a terrible idea, and they had hired people.

When I say terrible, it was too hard to understand. Maybe they’ll have the last laugh and create a billion-dollar business out of it, but what I mean by that is, we have 100 ideas that we know of, right now, that need to be solved. Come to us, ask us, and we’ll give you the data, which is available through open data.

The best case is that it should have no dependency on government. It’s too hard for a startup to sell something to government; you’re going to be sitting around for a couple of years before you can issue an invoice and get paid. It’s too hard, and government does not move at the speed of startups yet.

So, figure out how to commercialize it independently of the government agency.

People will pay for great ideas.

We’re in an interesting place right now. If I look at my portfolio of smartphone apps, I don’t really pay much, if at all.

At some point, I probably should be paying for one or two of them, just for giving me a lot of value in my life. And as I talk to more people, I’m finding out that people aren’t necessarily using as many apps, but the ones they really love, they’re prepared to pay for.

WhatsApp is maybe an example of that.

It’s going to be a small payment, but because it’s such an incredible utility for most people, who love it, they’re prepared to pay the dollar it is per year or per month.

So that’s the advice I would give: Focus on the idea, and find out existing problems.

Q – What’s it like to be CIO for a city like Palo Alto? Are you bumping into famous tech CEOs on the street all the time?

A – There isn’t a lot of bumping into people. Some of these folks are just concerned about their own safety.

On the positive side, Mark Zuckerberg is one of the wealthiest, most successful people in the world today. On the negative side, he can’t really go to his favourite café anymore and just kind of chill out.

So, that’s a tradeoff.

When Steve Jobs was alive, it was a tradition for him to walk downtown and people would see him.

He lived in a gorgeous home, but for a multi-multi-billionaire, it was modest, and people used to say ‘hey Steve.’

Our city manager, when he first moved to Palo Alto, they both had their favourite restaurant, and Steve Jobs had his table where he would sit with a couple of buddies, and people would see him there.

Because he was so integrated into the community of Palo Alto, this was accepted.

But what I will say about the community is, the networking is off the charts. I’m so privileged to have the invitations I get and the places I go and the people I meet.

And it’s not just the Technorati, if you like. They invite senators, and people from DC, and other executives from other large industries, and it can be quite intimate.

That’s an opportunity most places don’t have, and I’m always blown away personally at how privileged I am to have that exposure.

The last thing I would say is, I can call people and they will take my call. It’s not something you take advantage of, nor do you do it very often. But more often than not, where I have had to connect with the CEO of a big tech company, because I wanted to use their building or wanted to see if their developers could come to an event, they are, like, ‘Absolutely, we’re doing this with you, and we’re just desperate to find a way that we can give back to Palo Alto.’

I mean, they all get a lot from Palo Alto, as you can imagine.

Q – So there is goodwill to be tapped in those companies that have had good experiences in Palo Alto?

A – Yes.

When the State Department was going to have the city manager do a jaunt to New Zealand, he was going to do a deck, and he said, ‘Jon, I want one of your quotes.’

And I said, ‘This is a culture of yes,’ and it actually worked really well.

It’s very unusual to hear no to anything. Part of it is, when you’re a government official, people feel a little bit more obligated. But when I first joined and people would come to my office and would make suggestions, I’d say, ‘Yes, I’ll do it, yes.’

I suddenly had this spinning door in my office and said ‘Whoa, everyone says yes. And if everyone says yes, I’ve got a ton to follow up on, and they’re all going to be calling me and sending emails. I said, ‘I’d better just stop and be really selective.’

It sounds like a folklore story. You don’t believe it until you’re there, and it actually is true.

So there is this yes going on all the time, and you have to be really selective.

But it also creates an environment where everybody needs something from it, so it doesn’t necessarily groom great relationships and friendships. It grooms great business contacts, but everybody’s in it for some reason, so you have to be aware of that and realize that everyone’s being nice, and they’re all saying yes, but there’s something in it for them.

Anthony Reinhart is Communitech’s Director of Editorial Strategy and senior staff writer. View from the ‘Loo looks at the issues, people and events that shape Waterloo Region’s technology sector.

About The Author

Anthony Reinhart
Director, Editorial Strategy
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Anthony Reinhart is a veteran journalist who left the Globe and Mail to join Communitech in 2011. Tony has covered everything from crime, politics and courts to business, the arts and sports, and his writing has won numerous journalism awards. He is Communitech's Director of Editorial Strategy and senior staff writer.