Wanted: Geeky, Wonkish Scribe for Chicago Mayor

I just happened to be at City Hall on Sept. 7 - the day Mayor Richard M. Daley announced that after 21 years of service he would not seek reelection in 2011.

Chicago will miss Mayor Daley. During his many terms, he's shifted Chicago's brand from a kind of Eastern European Gulag into a Paris on the Prairie. Yes, he's made some mistakes, which history will deal with harshly, but nobody could argue that the Mayor hasn't put in the hours and elbow grease on what has to be one of the most challenging jobs in the US.

It's important, though, that we quickly put behind the panic, grief and in many cases, elation, and ponder deeply what Chicago needs from our next Mayor.

I say we need a geek.

Wanted: Mayoral candidates who understand the power of data to improve government and empower Democracy. Must view city employment as public service and embrace Gov 2.0. Commitment to honesty and radical transparency a must. Collaborative, systems perspective means journalism can be viewed as a welcome partner.

Okay, maybe we need a geek with more than a little wonk and scribe in the mix, too.

People, this is the opportunity of a lifetime. Let's grab it!

I haven't been in City Hall for ten years. But I was visiting an old friend and my echoing footsteps evoked memories of my days as a mayoral aide - where I first learned that all information is not equal.

Information in the newsroom was treated like so many pennies to be tossed about. In Chicago City Hall, I learned that information was a highly valued currency. The ledger was gold-leafed and plated and the accounting means were hieroglyphic. The higher your sum, the greater your access. It took me a full year to crack the code and I was never expert at it. Later I yearned to take the intelligence I'd unearthed about the good and the bad of government back to journalism, where I'd seen the gaps in coverage. And I am still on that road today.

Chicago City Hall was oddly empty today and I was mourning that I was missing Gov 2.0, a conference in Washington. In my crystal ball, the futures of journalism and government place equally square and center to create a new kind of journalism and a different kind of accountability for government. Gov 2.0 is a tool for both of them. Journalism shines light to make the hidden obvious in the government data that surfaces the patterns of our policy decisions or indecisiveness. And we the people will have new tools for participating in our Democracy and in the way our government works.

This isn't science fiction; it's being implemented. For instance, San Francisco is putting all its data online in an open data initiative . And at City Camp Chicago last winter, I started to see a concrete shape in a possible Gov 3.0.

Gov 3.0 integrates government accountability into the mix. It cuts to the heart of tired political rhetoric of "waste" that blames the front lines for the corrupting influence that politics has on the structure and process of government services and delivery. For me Gov 3.0 includes online tools that will connect the front line with the decision makers in ways that will allow the workers to play a decisive role in changing their work environment. Government officials will be able to see the processes in place several levels below them in the hierarchy as described by public employees. The public will see them too. And journalists will be hard at work understanding what is actually occurring, vetting the false from the true and holding the feet of politicians to the fire to promote true change.

My hope is that this approach would allow government employees to put a spotlight on pervasive problems in their workplaces, encouraging accountability and emerging solutions.

My experience in government tells me that people don't like to go to a job where they are wasting their time. We have the tools now to create a new kind of government - the kind that works for those of us who work in it and for all of us, which it serves.

It is time.

When I worked in City Hall, I had my hand in all kinds of open data initiatives - that wasn't the name for them then. It was a tough place if your ideas were advanced. For instance, an innovative team at the University of Illinois had created the first Web "browser" called Mosaic and offered it to the City as a Beta. It took a long time to implement a limited version and the project manager in charge was was pretty much driven out of City Hall without Mosaic ever really being fully implemented, as I recall.

I met with a team regularly that was developing an interactive, interagency data map of the City that would show all of the different agencies, wards, libraries, schools, parks Congressional Districts. That map finally went live around 2003 - 7 years after I had left the City. The Planning Department had put it up and I was thrilled. It was kind of clunky, but it worked. But innovation in a big City like Chicago often undergoes a kind of death by paper cut. The problem with the interactive map mashup was that many of the boundaries in the City and County maps did not fully match. I loved this map but it wasn't up long. It disappeared soon after and so did the project managers. If it still exists anywhere, please let me know.

I wasn't a kid when I started working for RMD, as we called him. But I was idealistic. It's one personality trait that hasn't disappeared. I believed then as I believe now that the basic mission of government at all levels is to do good, to deliver essential services and enable a high quality of life for all of our citizens. I consider my time in government as my time in public service.

The early 90s were pioneer days for the Web. It was so easy to see how email and other tools could animate the expansive communication channels of the City with greater efficiency. One of the golden resources available to the mayor's executive offices were lists of block clubs, community groups, church groups, every flavor of activist you could think of that was hard at work making the neighborhoods of Chicago better or kicking up a storm for change. These lists of phone trees were activated through blast faxes and they proved to be highly effective in connecting neighbor to neighbor throughout the 1995 Heat Wave, which I worked on. It was in fact neighborhood connections that reversed the negative perceptions of the City's response during that crisis. And how did we know where to send people who called, needing help? We used lists collated by zip code.

Hail the mighty zip code. What would we do without it?

Gov 2.0 tools like EveryBlock and SeeClickFix are all about capturing data like those early blast fax lists by zip code and activating citizens, putting them to work on the problems at hand. We're seeing something resembling citizen journalism emerging on these channels as well as on the new partnership between Twitzip and OutsideIn, where you can receive tweeted information by zip code including deals from local commercial Web powerhouse Groupon.

What I must be missing by not being at the Gov 2.0 Summit. Sigh.

The zip code was the engine that drove crisis communications through all the mishaps in Mayor Richard M. Daley's early years like the Tunnel flood and the bridge that boinged. Now the zip code is relentlessly powering through data and delivering it to us block by block.

The offices of Richard M. Daley's administration taught me how valuable the currency of information could become. I also learned how poorly valuable information was communicated to the public by government and the media didn't do a great job either.

Now we have the Social Web, Gov 2.0 and a total reordering of journalism that could lead to a new paradigm of how information is delivered and used by Chicago City Hall and by us. Most important, City Hall information could be used to better serve our Democracy, to help us make it whole and civil again.

I like that. We the people of Chicago will need all the tools available to power through this fiscal crisis and emerge whole and victorious.

Let's not blow it. Let's elect a geek and scribe and wonk for mayor.

Follow the live feed from the Gov 2.0 Summit summit.