San Francisco Chief Technology Officer Gina Tomlinson is building municipal IT worthy of Silicon Valley.
by Aaron Lazenby, May 2011
When Gina Tomlinson joined the San Francisco Department of Technology as chief technology officer in 2010, she was surprised by what she found. This golden gateway to Silicon Valley was suffering from many of the same ills thwarting less-renowned municipalities—antiquated systems, antiquated processes, and limited technical skill sets.
But Tomlinson, with IT experience in both the public and private sectors, is determined to bring one of California’s oldest cities into the twenty-first century. “When I came here and I got the lay of the land, the environment, and the culture, my goal became how to get San Francisco to a level of technical standards to compete with other cities within the state,” she says.
Profit spoke to Tomlinson about the challenges she faces as she consolidates and modernizes the city’s enterprise IT infrastructure, expands the city services available to citizens, and manages IT for one of the most tech-literate cities in the United States.
Profit: When you arrived in your current position of CTO, you found IT structure, processes, and procedures you describe as being well below what you expected. How do you begin to tackle that as an IT executive?
Tomlinson: It’s a tough path. The first thing we did was a very accurate, very detailed deep dive into the infrastructure—into the belly of the city—to see where the vulnerabilities and the holes were, identify opportunities for us to bolster the infrastructure, and insert technology to improve processes.
We went to various city agencies and business units to learn about their business. We visited all 60 agencies in the city to learn what they do and how their infrastructure works, and to understand their dependencies on the city’s core data center and core systems. So, the first thing I did was understand the business—understand the lay of the land.
One of the things we’re working on now is relocating from our old data center. This is a huge culture shift and a departure from the norm for the city. So, the first task was to relocate our data—our core, the heart of the city—and move that into a structurally sound, secure, highly rated data center facility.
That’s a huge feat. Any organization will attest that it’s kind of like a heart transplant.
Profit: Is it important for you to understand the end user, whether it’s a citizen or a city employee?
Tomlinson: Absolutely. I think for many technologists, we only think about the technical feasibility of what we’re implementing. We often struggle to grasp how viable a solution is for the customer or the user. We’re only considering whether a project is a very good technical thing to do.
The mind shift we had to take here at the Department of Technology for the city was to not implement technology just for the sake of implementing technology. For several reasons, we really needed to touch the business—talk to the business. The primary reason for this is that the taxpayers fund us, so we want to make sure we are implementing solutions that our constituents can truly use day to day. There is no glory in implementing technology no one uses.
Profit: How does centralizing IT help the city and citizens of San Francisco?
Tomlinson: As an example, right now we are working with an Oracle solution for our criminal justice system here in the city. Currently, there are several disparate criminal justice systems. There’s the San Francisco Police Department, the sheriff’s office, the district attorney’s office, emergency management offices, and so forth. They each have systems and data sets that they use to do their day-to-day work.
Right now, with the disparate systems, it can be a challenge to understand if an offender has a case somewhere in the sheriff’s department or has a case somewhere in the public defender’s. That information isn’t as readily available across the board as it should be.
We’re really combining all the data sets from those criminal justice areas and pulling them into an Oracle back end, so each of those criminal justice agencies can have the same accurate, updated information. So if an offender has multiple offenses, that information is readily available to all criminal justice sites and agencies, as needed.
It’s a huge opportunity for us to leverage Oracle in a very customer-facing way, ensuring for the citizens of the City and County of San Francisco that if an offender is arrested or has an interaction with any of our criminal justice agencies, each agency has an appropriate awareness of that offender. Our plan is to have this system officially up and running by 2012.
Profit: The data sets you are working with must be quite large.
Tomlinson: Yes, lots of data! For example, we have Oracle implementations at our Metropolitan Transportation Authority [MTA]. They’re using Oracle as a back-end data warehouse for a lot of the parking and metering data from the smart meters around the city. The parking meters are one of the biggest revenue points for the MTA.
That data warehousing back end at the MTA allows the department to leverage the entire business intelligence suite of tools that Oracle provides to do dashboards, trend analysis, and other data mining. Also, they can export that data into other tools—other MTA business systems and systems that could be used in other areas of the city.
We also have an initiative called DataSF that mirrors the Obama administration’s OpenGov initiative of open government and access to data. We literally peel the lid off, so to speak, of many data systems and data sets in the city that are deemed most of interest to the citizens: for example, bus schedule information, library information, city hall information. Citizens are able to download the data sets, and we’ve found that they are being innovative and creating all kinds of apps for the Android smartphones and the iPhone. They’re using that to develop their own systems and applications, do their own development, and later generate revenue out of those sites.
Profit: Does that reflect the tech-literate population of San Francisco? How do you formulate your IT strategy with them in mind?
Tomlinson: Absolutely. By some accounts, San Francisco is the number one social-networking city in the country. San Francisco is a very mobile city. Mobility is critical to a lot of citizens here. We needed to ensure that many of the services people utilize every day—city hall, the library, and other city agencies—are made available online.
To do that, we need to develop a robust infrastructure to port current “in-person” types of transactions to online transactions and decrease a lot of paper and process we have today. So we knew we had to lay the foundation by developing and building a strong core data center to enable these new services.
We now have that core data center, and we have the core foundation. We can do things like increasing access to online forms and services. So, we’ve really set ourselves up with a framework to build on, and we did that at the behest of many of our citizens here in the city. They wanted more availability and accessibility of services online, and we’re beginning to do that. This is a huge first step for us.
Profit: How has the recession and budget crunch impacted the way you run your organization?
Tomlinson: Certainly in the past three or four years, the recession has driven many changes in strategy and process. I think innovation and productivity comes from strife and hard times. When we have to be more focused, more stringent, and more disciplined, we find more-creative ways to do things. This is one of those times.
In San Francisco—which has a very socially and politically conscious citizen base—citizens want to see where and how their taxpayer money is being spent. They don’t sometimes mind spending the money, as long as they see a return on that investment. So we really need to make sure that we are doing the right things and have tangible evidence of how we’re using their funds. I feel strongly about that.
Again, I think it’s critical that IT managers in local governments understand the needs of the core agencies that run the city, so in the process of implementing technology they work to fine-tune and cut some of the fat.
Profit: How does improved IT efficiency impact the workforce of the city?
Tomlinson: I think the initial shock of implementing new technology does give people fodder for thinking that it replaces people. But for a city like San Francisco, which as I said is very people conscious, we cannot implement a technology that takes the position of abandoning the worker.
With the technology we implement, we want to make sure it’s technology that uplifts the city employee, teaches them new skill sets, gives them an opportunity to learn a whole new work methodology or a whole new way of thinking. That’s often a challenge.
San Francisco is a city that embraces history. We embrace our historic buildings. We embrace the historic cable car. We embrace the old Victorian homes. So it’s a delicate dance between embracing and respecting history while still trying to drive us forward into new technology. We want to re-engineer the way a city worker works—the way they do their job every day. We don’t want to eliminate that job; we want to repurpose it into something more strategic, something that will grow workers’ technical maturity and skill set.