Chicago CIO's IT revival plan includes the cloud

The city's decision to use Microsoft's hosted email and office apps is the latest move in an effort to modernize IT operations.

Email is a commodity, says Chicago CIO Brett Goldstein, and that's why city officials have decided to shift to cloud-based mail services as part of a broad effort to improve IT operations.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel this month disclosed that the city plans to use Microsoft's 365 cloud services to deliver email and desktop applications to some 30,000 employees. The Chicago city government currently uses three separate internally managed email systems.

"I'm going to be getting better service, better functionality, at a lower cost. And that's particularly important when you are in municipal government," said Goldstein.

The city expects to save $400,000 per year over the course of its four-year agreement with Microsoft.

Government adoption of public cloud services remains low, however, making Chicago an early adopter along with some federal agencies and state and local governments in states like California, Wyoming and Colorado.

Research firm IDC expects use of cloud services in the public sector to grow 50% this year from 2011 levels, but that will still leave cloud usage in the government market at just 1.5%.

IDC analyst Shawn McCarthy said governments often overestimate the savings potential of moving to the cloud. "The savings that they could get don't always materialize," he said, in part because users often delay shutting down their old desktop applications.

In Chicago's case, though, the move to the cloud is just one part of a broader strategy for streamlining IT operations devised by a CIO with a background in government, the tech startup world and big data. "We need to be thinking like an enterprise," Goldstein said.

The goal is to move away from siloed, department-focused IT operations to an environment where economic data, public safety statistics and other data sets are pulled together to facilitate data sharing, he noted.

The city's goal is to build systems that support deductive and inductive approaches to analyzing data that may, for instance, lead to the discovery of previously unrecognized relationships, he added.

"Data is at the core of how we [will] continue to do government better," Goldstein said.

Chicago is trying to keep the cost of the massive project in check in part by using some open-source technologies, Goldstein said. The city's big data initiative, for instance, uses the open-source NoSQL database MongoDB.

"I don't believe in five-year ROIs," said Goldstein, adding that he prefers projects to have relatively quick paybacks.

Goldstein's background includes a stint as IT director at OpenTable during the early days of the online restaurant reservation service. He also served as IT director in the Chicago Police Department, holding the rank of commander, and as Chicago's chief data officer before becoming CIO last June.

He has master's degrees in criminal justice and computer science, and is pursuing a Ph.D. in criminology at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

Goldstein adamantly rejects the idea that government work is not as desirable as private-sector endeavors.

"One of the things that drives me crazy is this idea of 'good enough for government work' -- that is not OK," he said. "I am going to raise the bar really high. I don't want people pointing to IT as inhibiting business; it should be enabling business."

This version of this story was originally published in Computerworld's print edition. It was adapted from an article that appeared earlier on

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