Jonathan Feldman is Chief Information Officer for the city of Asheville, N.C. A rapidly growing and popular city, Asheville has been named a Fodor top travel destination. Under Feldman’s watch, the city has been recognized nationally and internationally, for improving services to citizens and reducing expenses through new practices and technology, receiving the International Economic Development Council’s Excellence in New Media award, the UNC Government Innovation Grant, and the Amazon “City on a Cloud” award. He is active in the IT, startup, and open data communities, was named a “Top 100 CIO to follow” by the Huffington Post, and is a co-author of Code For America’s book, Beyond Transparency.

How did you come to Asheville and how did the city come to have such a progressive IT approach?

Previously, I had been director of professional services for an IT infrastructure and security service firm in Georgia. In February 2005, Asheville was looking to transform the way that it was doing IT, and I had some ideas, which I presented to them That’s when I joined the Asheville team and using a collaborative approach, we rebuilt IT to be highly customer-centric. People see us as progressive because the thing that drives us is business results, not keeping the status quo. We're more than willing to toss our old way of doing things if it's good for the customer. To some people, that's progressive, I guess. 

What do you see as the value of social media for government CIOs?

It's really important to have trusted relationships if you want to get the straight scoop on what works, and what doesn't. There are dozens of vendors who will tell you that something works, and they can all produce three references who will say something nice. But having trusted relationships with practitioners produces a richer set of stories about what a given technology, practice, or product actually does in the real world.

Trusted relationships can begin in person, but others begin on social media. Social media allows you to interact with people who have a common interest, not just a common geography.

All of which is to say, I think social media broadens a government CIO's ability to grow trusted relationships with not only government CIOs, but with CIOs in other fields, as well as other types of thinkers and practitioners. Why limit yourself just to government relationships? CIOs in hospitality, banking, and manufacturing have some of the needs that government CIOs have, like better disaster recovery, for example.

What led you to get involved in open data, and what sort of results have you seen?

Open data is the automation of open records. That sounds simple, but it's profound. Instead of manually pulling records that are, by law, required to be disclosed, why not just automate the process so that you don't have to staff up to respond to these requests? Most municipalities can't staff up to handle the volume of requests—they use existing staff. The result is that request fulfillment is generally slower than the requester would like, and the staff that is responding has a high workload. Nobody wins. Open data solves that problem. Want the data? Go to the catalog and download it. Done.

But open data also has many beneficial side effects, including allowing people to build data-based businesses that create jobs, such as BuildFax.com, a business with a national footprint headquartered in downtown Asheville that uses open data to power its mortgage and insurance industry intelligence solution. Open data also allows civic-minded individuals to build useful apps for their community—like the Asheville City Budget app,  which Code for Asheville built with city open data—that otherwise wouldn't be built.


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