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The city as a data-driven ecosystem: A Q&A with Allan Frank '76 '78 '79G

Allan Frank is Chief IT strategist and cofounder of The Hackett Group, an intellectual property-based services firm specializing in benchmarking, research, business transformation and technology consulting with a global client base that includes 93 percent of the Dow Jones Industrials, 86 percent of the Fortune 100, 87 percent of the DAX 30 and 51 percent of the FTSE 100. Frank’s many citations include the Computerworld Premier 100 Award. InformationWeek named him one of the top 10 U.S. technology innovators and Philadelphia Tech ranked him with the region’s top 10 technology leaders. Frank served as Philadelphia’s first Chief Technology Officer from 2008-11. He holds a B.S. in accounting (1976), MBA (1978) and M.S. in computer science (1979) from Lehigh.

Q: What role did you play as Philadelphia’s first chief technology officer?

A: There was a tremendous need for a real transformation to get the city’s technology up to par. There were over 40 agencies and I had responsibility for IT across all of them. I had to come up with a five-year strategy and plan to modernize the operation and develop a set of programs. Plus, we needed remedial technology investment. So I developed a holistic program across the city to improve and expand technology within the context of the mayor’s overall goals of efficient government, public safety, thriving community and economic development.

Q: What were your main accomplishments as CTO?

A: First, we undertook a technology modernization program, everything from upgrading networks and servers to putting in new business applications. We worked on the tech sector, the startups, the creative sector, and supported collaboration with programs like Open Access Philly that bring together people across the broad tech communities. We also developed a consortium between the city and a number of not-for-profit institutions to deal with the digital divide and put computers in the hands of people who can’t afford them. The consortium delivered about 5,000 computers across the city and also outfitted buses with computers to give people access.

Q: How is IT changing the way cities are managed?

A: It’s changing every aspect of city management. One interesting example that has broad impact across multiple services is this notion that everything in a city—every building, tree, street, street center line, pipe and piece of fiber—can be geocoded in geographic information maps. There are two million trees in the city for the parks and recreation people; thousands of buildings for building inspectors. How do city workers take care of all that? They can do it with geocoded maps. When a fire bell rings, firefighters can locate the type of house and the nearest hydrant and respond in minutes. We have all the data. It’s just not connected.

Q: What kinds of cultural, procedural or technological change does the “Internet of Everything” require of municipal government?

A: I saw my role not so much as government in the traditional sense but as leading an entire ecosystem of people, institutions, technologies and data. Technology is a “must have” capability in order to “run the railroad” of a city, but today it is also a key enabler to innovate new services and capabilities to serve citizens. The “Internet of Everything (IOE)” is really another way of describing the connectedness of people and things that has come about as computers, networks and software have become ubiquitous. A city is, in fact, the ultimate use case of IOE. Inside city government during my tenure there was a growing recognition of both the connectedness of everything and the power of Internet-fueled technologies. Today, cities are a living lab for leveraging the IOE to create a better world. Let’s remember, inside government today there are many “millennials” who get it, and although we say the wheels of government turn slowly, when it comes to the use of technology, there is a growing recognition that the power of the Internet can change how government operates for the benefit of all.

Q: How can universities work with industry and government to connect citizens to services and information?

A: I see a natural affinity between academic institutions and cities. We continually engaged with many olleges and universities and all for different purposes. With Penn, it was to provide consulting and advice to our leaders on how government operates. With Temple, it was to engage youth to help them look at the city differently and create apps that solve real problems for citizens. With Lehigh, we had a project with the Philadelphia School District to train principals.

Q: How can technology be utilized to protect our cities from cyber and physical attacks?

A: As the fifth largest city in the U.S., Philadelphia is clearly a potential target for both cyber and physical attacks. There is a lot I cannot discuss about how technology can and is being utilized to protect the city. During my tenure, I was heavily involved in a number of very critical initiatives including deployment of hundreds of video surveillance cameras, creation of unique data-driven intelligence gathering capabilities, upgrading of networks, and the deployment of unique emergency communication capabilities. Even our water is monitored on a real-time basis. All this information tells us physical security is really about situational awareness, “knowing” what’s going on and responding in real time. It’s complicated and challenging, and it’s getting harder every day.

Q: Can you trace the development of analytics from its early roots to today?

A: The U.S. Department of Defense developed the Internet to allow scientists to share their work. In the 1990s it was put to commercial use through browsers that could traverse large databases. By the time we got to the 2000s, firms like Yahoo! and Google understood you couldn’t make a computer big or fast enough to answer any query on the rapidly expanding Internet. They solved the problem by creating a solution that can scale data and search analytics by leveraging thousands of cheap commodity computer servers across the Internet and by creating software that breaks the analytics problem into thousands of parallel tasks that can be performed across the thousands of servers simultaneously. Today, this technology can be leveraged by any company or institution. It’s called HADOOP and sometimes also referred to as a “Big Data” capability. That, in effect, is how we got to where we are today: Vast amounts of data, Internet-enabled through a global network of servers, powered by technologies and Internetscale applications.

Q: Analytics is about interpreting multiple flows of data in real time. How do “smart cities” successfully navigate data and separate noise from meaningful insight?

A: A city is veritable fountain of data. Every traffic light, building, tree, vehicle, crime, business, even our water supply generates critical data. There’s a tremendous amount of data streaming in cities in real time—numbers, words, geocodes, audio, video. To separate meaningful data from the noise requires sophisticated computer science.

We’re getting better at it, but it’s a never-ending challenge. However, I believe that most cities today see data analytics in all its forms as a key enabler.

Q: How do open data initiatives influence the vitality of “smart cities”?

A: Open data is about transparency, democracy. It’s at the pulse of urban life. Philly now has a dedicated role for the director of open data. Their Open Data website covers nearly everything that goes on in the city— art, culture, the budget, elections, policy, the environment, food. It lets you visualize the school budget or trends in your neighborhood. You can find out about tax delinquency, energy consumption, city contracts. It’s invaluable to citizens and businesses. It encourages enterprise in the city. It’s a great use of analytics.

Q: How can higher education help prepare students to thrive in a data-infused world?

A: IT touches everything and everybody. There’s business, data science, computer science, statistics. It’s incumbent on universities to make sure we see the connection points. That’s where innovation comes from. Lehigh has always understood that you innovate by looking at the edges of disciplines. Solutions to our problems, innovations to move us forward, are in pattern matching. In any discipline, I always encourage people to look outside for new ideas and perspectives. That’s what we need today.

Q: You also have skills and background in business. How important is that in managing cities?

A: To find a better way to do anything you start with a specific goal and work backwards. I’m one of those people with one foot in business and one in technology, so I’ve always had this back and forth. There’s a tremendous interest around analytics in the commercial space—finding revenue, pleasing the customer. Everything is driven by a specific purpose. City government is similar—you do everything to solve a problem.

Q: What attracted you to step away from your successful entrepreneurial and consulting career and go into municipal government?

A: I saw the city as a “sandbox.” It was an opportunity not just to deal with typical IT problems like keeping servers running, but to make a real impact. Philly is a city with more than 1.5 million souls geographically spanning over 170 square miles. I have often said there are not two flavors of cities anymore, ones with computers and ones without. Governments, schools, homes, businesses and institutions are all enabled by technology. In short, it’s a key enabler for everything today. That thought is very intriguing and very attractive to me.

Interview by William Tavani