Tech upgrades could save Chicago millions, a working group found

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As it faces a budget shortfall of more than $700 million, Chicago could recoup much of that gap by making upgrades to its enterprise technology, according to Gilbert Villegas, a city alderman who chairs a public-private technology working group formed last year with big tech firms like Google, Microsoft, AT&T and Cisco.

Villegas, who leads the Innovation and Capital Transformation Working Group that began meeting last August, told StateScoop on Friday that a “snapshot” analysis done by Google representatives on the committee showed potential savings of more than $225 million across different city agencies just by transitioning legacy IT systems to cloud-based storage and management systems. The analysis, performed using public data from the city, is just the first step in a “deep-dive” of policy and efficiency changes that Villegas said he thinks could help Chicago exit the coronavirus pandemic a smarter and faster-acting organization.

“Traditional IT is a costly and stressful way into meeting the needs of a city, so the way that we’re doing it right now — the cloud is just one idea,” Villegas said.

The working group, which also includes smaller Chicago-area firms alongside the international companies, was supposed to spend up to a year considering how to re-think Chicago’s use of connected infrastructure. (George Burciaga, the chief executive of Ignite Cities, a consulting group that recruited the working group’s corporate members, calls it a “big-thinking” group.)

But after delivering a framework for how to use technology to make the city more efficient to Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office at the end of 2019, the monthly meetings of the group quickly switched to dealing with the coronavirus pandemic and the fallout of shuttered city offices and Chicago businesses. That meant saving money wherever possible, Villegas said. Analysts from Google “maybe had a bit more free time” because of the pandemic, Villegas said, and identified the potential cost savings of a switch to cloud-based technology. For example, he said, the Chicago Police Department is required to store video for evidence and court cases. “Right off the bat,” Villegas said, Google identified that storing that much data on the cloud would be significantly cheaper than Chicago’s current method.

“That’s just scratching the surface,” Villegas said. “I’m of the opinion that if we were to put [a request for information] out and say ‘Hey, technology firms: this is what we do, how could we do it better with technology?’ We could save hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Villegas said he only learned about Google’s analysis last week, but has already floated the idea with Lightfoot’s office.

In October, Lightfoot proposed a controversial merger of the city’s Department of Fleet and Facility Management with the Department of Innovation and Technology to form a “Department of Assets, Information and Services,” also promising to name a chief data officer and a chief technology officer. She appointed Nick Lucius as CDO in December, but hasn’t yet named a CTO.

Villegas said Lightfoot should appoint a CTO as soon as possible to act as a liaison between the private sector and the mayor’s office, and to coordinate the implementation of enterprise technologies across agencies.

“We need to make sure that someone from the technology space recognizes that there’s someone in the mayor’s office that has the ability to take a look at ideas and implement them citywide, instead of in the silos that we’re in now,” Villegas said. “The way that we operate government hasn’t changed. Technology has. What we need to do is get out of the way of technology firms.”

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Chicago, cloud, coronavirus pandemic, Gilbert Villegas
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