John Tolva in
one of Chicago’s
free Wi-Fi hotspots.
to listen to what
of the Chicago flag
hangs in Tolva’s office.
As the Chief Technology Officer for Chicago, it’s John Tolva’s job to be wired. After a global tour with IBM to help cities aggregate municipal data, he’s embracing a new role at the helm of Chicago’s tech initiatives. “It’s an immense privilege, but you need to be on your toes. I love it, and I love the city. I’m not a politics guy or a government guy, but I’m a city guy. To make change you can see on the street is totally worth it.”
A fourth-generation Chicagoan, Tolva married his college girlfriend, Robyn, and has three children. A natural academic, he earned a graduate degree in English from Washington University and a Master’s degree in Information Design from the Georgia Institute of Technology. Tolva started to pursue a Ph.D. in English, but the siren song of technology led him to a job at IBM. He credits his former boss Paula Baker for helping develop his professional skills. “Even when you think you can’t learn from someone, you probably can. She was an invaluable counselor and continues to be.”
Tolva initially impressed Mayor Rahm Emanuel while the future mayor was campaigning on an “L” platform on a December morning. During a brief conversation, Tolva asked Emanuel about open data, cost savings, and smart cities. The inquiry piqued Emanuel’s interest, and after taking office he asked Tolva to officially join the team. Says Tolva, “I wasn’t looking for a new job, but this was hard to turn down.”
One of Tolva’s top priorities is increasing accountability and transparency. “I want people in Chicago to be able to peer into the way the city works.” He launched the Open 311 app, enabling users to text photos of city structures or facilities in need of repairs instead of calling a service line. The goal of making it easier to interact with the city extends to the launch of the Chicago Broadband Challenge, which is democratizing access to free high-speed Internet in heavily trafficked public places, including Millennium Park. “We want digital natives to feel at home. There’s an economic bent to improve our residents’ lives and also rebrand Chicago.”
Tolva’s enthusiastic efforts to improve the city’s connectivity and infrastructure extend to the local technology community; he compliments its commitment to add 2,000 new jobs by 2015. “Tech companies locally are off the hook. New digital companies are being created daily. We have been ignored by the venture community for a while, but that’s changed. We have coastal firms opening offices here, and it’s great local investment. We’re going strong because we have the resilience of a diverse industry base.” Tolva credits the emergence of digital media, Web- and mobile-focused firms like Belly, MarkITx, and Food Genius, and the growth in the clean technology and bioscience sectors, as playing important roles in the local boom. “Chicago has the investment, infrastructure, landscape of customers, and centrality in the nation.”
In the midst of balancing large-scale projects and coordinating daily requests, Tolva makes time for one important and often overlooked task—listening. He checks on the city’s vital signs, from government-generated statistics to market information to Twitter updates. Tolva strives to change our culture and make it more reliant on data. “We want to highlight and develop systems to make people rely less on anecdote and gut instinct, and more on what the city is actually telling us. You can learn a lot by listening online.”