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L.A.'s New Chief Data Officer Sees Equity, Interoperability as Keys to Future

"The need to understand what is the safest way to make policy in Los Angeles is really set by data," Jeanne Holm told Techwire. "If you tune in to the mayor’s nightly news conferences, every news conference starts the same way: 'Tonight, we’re going to talk about the data.'"

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Jeanne Holm, the new chief data officer for the city of Los Angeles, is a familiar name -- not just to many in the IT community, but globally. She’s worked with the United Nations and the World Bank, and she was the Data Evangelist for the Obama administration. In addition, she’s been an instructor at UCLA for almost 20 years. Holm was named to her new role this month, having spent the last four years as the city’s deputy chief information officer, working under CIO Ted Ross, and as a senior adviser to Mayor Eric Garcetti.

Techwire talked last week by phone with Holm about her new role, her priorities and her vision. Here’s the exchange, edited lightly for brevity.

Techwire: What are your new priorities now that you’re CDO?

Holm: First, it’s really building that open-data ecosystem more strongly in Los Angeles. We’re looking at what data is being shared by departments and bringing more data forward. Maybe some departments haven’t thought about sharing, or maybe they haven’t been given time to put it into a usable way. A lot of times, departments collect data for their own internal uses and they may not think anyone else is interested. Part of it will just be adding more data, and then most importantly, the use of that data. So, we’ll be working more closely with the Chamber of Commerce and all of our business (partners), as well as our university partners … to find out what data they need and making it easier for them, too.

Techwire: Interest in the use of geographic information systems (GIS) and open data seems to be growing in state government. Is that also the case with the city of Los Angeles?

Holm: Absolutely, in fact, our city has two open data platforms. A lot of times when folks talk about using data, they’re really talking about more localized data: What’s happening in my neighborhood? How is this going to affect the number of trees in my neighborhood? Very specific kinds of issues. And the easiest way to get that data into people’s hands that’s understandable is on a map. … It really is a simpler way than just giving people generic numbers. We have a longstanding partnership with Esri and other GIS groups. And then there’s our Data Science Federation, which is a collaboration of 18 universities – and we just expanded that to support 193 other cities. A lot of our work there has to do with GIS data.

Techwire: You have a strong interest in global issues. Where does that come from?

Holm: I worked on a variety of international projects for NASA. I was there for 32 years and I spent (time) with the Obama administration in the White House doing work on and (being the) Data Evangelist, and I spent several years at the World Bank working throughout central Africa, and so I’ve got a longstanding (background) in the global use of open data, as well as (being an instructor) at UCLA and have been for 20 years, so a lot of my focus ended up around education.

I find that with Mayor Garcetti, he also has a lot of global interests: He’s the chair of the C40; he really has some pretty far-reaching ideas about education, open data and transparency. The work that we do really coordinates with the work of a lot of other cities. One of the projects was to adopt the sustainable development goals, which is a UN framework, as a city; normally, countries do that. And we provide open data on our progress toward those goals.

Techwire: Is there a trend in Los Angeles city government toward more use of open data?

Holm: We’re really on the upswing in a big way, and part of that is the pandemic. The need to understand what is the safest way to make policy in Los Angeles is really set by data. If you tune in to the mayor’s nightly news conferences, every news conference starts the same way: “Tonight, we’re going to talk about the data.” He’s very focused on the fact that we’re a city that’s governed by data and science to make the best public policy decisions.

The need for data around COVID is just so important. But irrespective of if we were having a pandemic, the use of data and our ability to understand the impact of public policy and how it’s having a positive result is really important, too. For example, I just recently won a $2 million grant from NASA for the city around air quality and a project called Predicting What We Breathe, and it’s looking at combining satellite data with the data from our smart cities sensors across the city and our South Coast Air Quality Management District to be able to predict not only what the air quality’s going to be like, but also to be able to look at the impact when we do city intervention – when we convert industrial to retail, when we convert a vacant lot to a park, when we do tree-planting, the effects of not having as much traffic on the streets of Los Angeles right now because people are staying home. All of this has an impact – and generally a positive impact. Part of what we’re trying to do is figure out how we can use data to determine what are the best solutions we can implement.

Techwire: How is your team structured?

Holm: There are three of us on the open data team, but we work with a lot of partners. The organization that I just left, the Information Technology Agency, I spent four years there building up a citywide data and predictive analytics team, and they continue on. They’re able to do a lot of data analysis and predictive analysis.

Techwire: Going forward, what’s your main focus as CDO?

Holm: I’m focused on digital equity. How do we make sure that people have equal access to technology, an equal understanding of the importance of that, Internet connectivity at home. I’ve been working with city departments for a number of years to bring 5G to Los Angeles. We were the first city in North America to be 5G, and part of that was from working with businesses, because we want to bring 5G and connectivity into our neighborhoods.

Techwire: What do you have to say to vendors?

Holm: We’re looking for vendors who are interested in coming forward with ideas about how we can move the city forward right now, and not just how do we get through the next six weeks. We’re really looking at post-COVID. How will things change? We’re looking at all these things that people might want to have different in the world ahead. Vendors who are interested in that equity discussion around connectivity, digital literacy, training education – we’re trying to find ways that help people who, even after the vaccine, may not feel they want to go back to the world the way it was. They might want to do electronic learning, or they may want to work from home. So we’re interested in companies that are looking at those kinds of solutions.

Techwire: Do you have a message for vendors or other regional governments?

Holm: First, digital equity is a big priority across the Southland – not just in Los Angeles, but as a regional issue. And think about data as the heart of the infrastructure. We think about roads, bridges and hospitals, but data is driving a huge amount of decisions and the ability of us to move forward smartly into the future. So the other thing I would suggest to vendors and to our collaborators across the Southland is this idea that our data needs to be acceptable, understandable and interoperable in a way that lets all of us make better regional decisions.

Techwire: Talk a little about interoperability and vendors. Is that a key?

Holm: Absolutely. It’s not just the product that people are providing, but it’s also the standards that people are using. Sometimes you see vendors come forward who have a really nice product, but they haven’t integrated the standards, so that when people upload data, it’s not available in an open API, for example. We really look to products that make it easier either to consume data from other systems or share data with other systems. Ideally, it’s something that’s understandable to other people.

Techwire: How do the CDO and the CIO relate and interact?

Holm: I worked for Ted before as his deputy, and we have a great relationship. The CIO’s role is very much about infrastructure operations in the city, making sure everything runs for 48,000 employees, and a lot of its focus is inwardly on the city operations – security and a variety of things. The CDO’s role is to look at all those divisions that are producing data and to work on some of the governance models around data management. Those two roles get highly collaborative. They’re very collegial and collaborative positions, and I think they’re very interdependent in some ways.

Techwire: Do you have a message for the IT community as a whole? 

Holm: I’d like to say thank you to all those folks working in technology -- all the vendors and the partners, who are doing their part to provide services and support during this time. It’s been heartwarming, and it says a lot for people who work in technology.

Dennis Noone is Executive Editor of Industry Insider. He is a career journalist, having worked as a reporter and editor at small-town newspapers and major metropolitan dailies in California, Nevada, Texas and Virginia, including as an editor with USA Today in Washington, D.C. He lives in Northern California.