May 23, 2013
Councilor Cheung, Members of the Cable TV, Telecommunications and Public Utilities Committee:
I write as a citizen who has been interested and appalled by the City’s inexplicable lack of interest in joining most of the rest of Cambridge in the 2nd decade of the 21st century. I also write as a former IT professional who has been a part of IT assessments, written and developed strategic plans, and has employed Gartner as consultants. I read the Gartner report as an informed citizen, aware of the particular issues of Cambridge and the strengths and weaknesses of the methodology of Gartner has employed.
Gartner gives Cambridge failing grades across a set of metrics with which it assesses IT departments. There is no explaining this away, no special pleadings that should make this acceptable. Gartner talks about this as the “maturity” of an IT organization but “maturity”, in IT terms, is a more polite way of assessing whether an organization knows what it’s doing. Gartner’s assessment comes down to “No, the IT organization does not know what it’s doing as often as one expects.”
Gartner’s answer to this, its strategic plan, is straight out of the enterprise information technology playbook: build a structure of governance to align the IT department with the City’s goals and needs. This is absolutely required and I would urge this Committee and, later, the whole Council, to provide full support to City staff as they implement this recommendation.
Gartner also notes that Cambridge has underinvested in Information Technology. Each time it is mentioned, the Gartner report includes a footnote with the City’s dissent. This indicates, at best, a reluctance to invest in IT as a strategic asset and, at worst, a philosophy of where the primary motivator is cost control. The Council should ensure that the City invests properly in technology.
Gartner, as well, provides a 180-day playbook for implementation of its recommendations. This plan is well-founded and reflects industry best practices. The Council should support its implementation and this committee should schedule a check-in half way through this time period to assess performance.
But Gartner’s recommendations are, as one would expect from them, rather generic. There are two key areas where the Council can serve to sharpen them for Cambridge.
First, the Council should insist that E-Gov Community Representative committee rise to the level of other Cambridge advisory committees. Its meetings should be announced in advance and meeting materials and minutes made available on the web. The operation of this committee should model the best use of technology to increase participation and civic engagement. The committee, like other advisory committees, should expand to include members who have domain-specific expertise in municipal technology. This might include members of Code for America, The Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston of the Harvard Kennedy School, or The Center for Civic Media or the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT, or entrepreneurs associated with the Cambridge Innovation Center.
Second, the Council should move to provide policy guidance to the City and adopt the principles of open data, principles that are the current guiding principles for the Federal government.
While the Gartner report speaks correctly of Information Technology being a strategic asset, information itself is an asset. Cambridge should manage information in a way that promotes openness and interoperability. Doing so will increase operational efficiencies, reduce costs, improve services, support City goals, and increase public access to valuable government information..
Making information resources accessible, discoverable, and usable by the public can help fuel entrepreneurship and innovation. For example, the MBTA made real time bus and subway location data freely available, creating an industry of application development at no cost to the tax or fare payer.
Aligning technology with values is not new to Cambridge. Cambridge is at the forefront of sustainability that, in turn, drives decisions about, for example, what sort of automobile technology to acquire, or how to design, heat and cool a building. Information technology is no different. There are always arrays of choices in implement computer systems, just as there are myriad cars to buy. Choosing an electric or hybrid car is a function of policy and values. Similarly, when it comes to implementing an information system, policy and values should drive an open choice.
For these purposes, “open data” means publicly available data structured in a way that enable the data to be fully discoverable and usable by end users. In general, open data will be
•Public. The City should adopt a presumption of openness to the extent permitted by law and subject to privacy, confidentiality, security or other valid restrictions
•Accessible. Open data are made available in convenient, modifiable, and open formats that can be retrieved, downloaded, indexed, and searched. Formats should be machine-readable (i.e., data are reasonably structured to allow automated processing). Open data structures do not discriminate against any person or group of persons and should be made available to the widest range of users for the widest range of purposes, often by providing the data in multiple formats for consumption. To the extent permitted by law, these formats should be non-proprietary, publicly available, and no restrictions should be placed upon their use.
•Described. Open data are fully described so that consumers of the data have sufficient information to understand their strengths, weaknesses, analytical limitations, security requirements, as well as how to process them.
•Reusable. Open data are made available under an open license that places no restriction on redistribution.
•Complete. Open data are published in primary forms (i.e., as collected at the source), with the finest possible level of granularity that is practicable and permitted by law and other requirements. Derived or aggregate open data should also be published but must reference the primary data.
•Timely. Open data are made available as quickly as necessary to preserve the value of the data. Frequency of release should account for key audiences and downstream needs.
•Managed Post-release. A point o f contact must be designated to assist with data use and to respond to complaints about adherence to these open data requirements.
Specifically, a policy like this would require the City to collect or create information in a way that supports downstream information processing and dissemination activities. This includes using machine readable and open formats, data standards. It also ensures information stewardship through the use of open licenses and review of information for privacy, confidentiality, security, or other restrictions to release. Additionally, it involves the City building or modernizing information systems in a way that maximizes interoperability and information accessibility, maintains internal and external data asset inventories, enhances information safeguards, and clarifies information management responsibilities.
Saul Tannenbaum, 16 Cottage St.
cc: Interim City Clerk Donna Lopez