Innovating government: Silicon Valley’s CIO on open data and community building

Jonathan Reichental designed, developed and sold his first software program, an ABCs learning tool, at the early age of 11.

The tech maven’s early foray into the world of software innovation launched a 20-year career in the private sector, where he worked for U.S. media companies and financial institutions.

Reichental, who is originally from Ireland, took on a new challenge in 2011 when the civil service came knocking. He accepted a job as Palo Alto’s chief information officer, and quickly revealed his commitment to open data and cloud computing, and his appetite for innovation in a traditionally sluggish environment.

“The city took a risk on me and it’s sort of paying off,” he said. “Part of the reason I took [the job] is because I liked to dive deep into areas that I might not be an expert on yet. It gives me the opportunity to get in there and learn about it and really comprehend the scope of an industry.”

Interzone 2015

Jonathan Reichental
Jonathan Reichental created his first business at age 11.

Reichental is one of several tech trailblazers slated to speak at Interzone, an annual event hosted by the Canadian Cloud Council. Interzone will take place at the Fairmont Banff Springs in Alberta from March 11 to 13, 2015.

The conference will examine the blurring lines between disruptive startup subculture and enterprise technology, said Canadian Cloud Council CEO Robert Hart.

“The new order of information technology is prevailing,” he said.

“Once precious, expensive and scarce IT resources, controlled by a cartel of machines and processes, are now immediately and widely available to the common consumer. Innovation is now less about access to technology and more about the rapid convergence of art, science and global socio-economics.”

Pushing for innovative governments

Reichental works in the epicentre of California’s Silicon Valley, packed with aggressive entrepreneurs and promising startups. Two years ago, he championed an open data project that made city data available to the public, a move he believes encourages transparency and accountability, and should be copied by other governments.

“This was one of our big success stories,” he said. “There’s no part of any economy that isn’t affected by the abundance of data and our ability to analyze it. Data is one thing that governments have a surplus of.”

Reichental believes that a wealth of data that’s easily accessible will ultimately feed third-party innovation.

“Mobile apps today are all based on data [and] most of it is existing data,” he said. “Facebook works because it’s simply an interface for data provided by others. If we make all this data available as quickly as possible, it will be the third-party ecosystem, not the government, that will start to build, analyze and add the value to our community.”

Reichantal’s innovative ideas rarely go unrecognized. He won a best CIO in Silicon Valley Award and had his open data government work recognized by the White House. He’s also a prolific blogger and Twitter user.

Governments: Lots of potential, but slow to adapt

Reichental said he’s watched as different sectors like healthcare, energy and retail have abandoned their analogue origins and embraced the digital realm.

But many government agencies are still stalling, he said.

“There were these glimmers …where some government agencies were trying things as simple as updating their websites to make them more user friendly,” he said. “This is one of the last big parts of our economy that needs to be dragged into the 21st century, and that just seemed like an amazing challenge for me.”

Reichental’s doesn’t spend all his time innovating. Much of his day is spent ensuring the city’s IT is functioning. Emails are going through, the phones are ringing and data is protected.

“But 40 per cent of my day is spent with leading thinkers,” Reichental said. “I’m fortunate enough to be in Silicon Valley where I’m surrounded by people who think big. They don’t just think big, they do big.”

Part of thinking big is looking at how Palo Alto’s traditional systems, which are expensive and inefficient, can be reinvented to be the opposite. Thinking big is also about partnering with external organizations who can benefit from Palo Alto’s commitment to open data.

“We want to do work that not only is meaningful and valuable to the community of Palo Alto, but also be a model for other communities. And that’s where I really come from every day. I serve the city here first. That’s my core work but I also recognize that I have the privilege to be the tech lead for the community.”

Shawn Freeman
Shawn Freeman
I’m Shawn Freeman, an entrepreneur, personable geek and founder of IT services company TWT Group. I’ve worked on big and small tech projects, and have never let the corporate ladder dictate my path to doing what I love. I’m passionate about cloud computing and data security, and like to share my ideas in and on the TWT blog. IT should be the easiest part of your day. I’m passionate about exceptional IT services and being better, faster and more affordable than the big guys. TWT Group works with partners in oil and gas, accounting, agriculture and more across western Canada. Want to hear more? Email me at [email protected].

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