City of Calgary CIO: “It’s important to invest in our infrastructures.”

The City of Calgary has its eyes on the future. Its technology team employs over 400 people and manages $300 million of city technology assets and delivers business system solutions, data management, telecommunication infrastructure, and distribution services to realize this vision for the Alberta-based city.

CanadianCIO spoke with Heather Reed-Fenske, CIO for the City of Calgary to discuss how her team works to integrate technology into literally thousands of municipal operations and processes.

Describe your leadership style.

My main goal is in being able to support my teams so they can be solutions-focused and service the many business units that we work with every day. I’d say my number one priority in terms of my leadership style is to really cultivate IT leaders and staff so they can deliver business results for our City services.

City of Calgary CIO Heather Reed-Fenske
City of Calgary CIO Heather Reed-Fenske

Being CIO in Calgary must be a challenge. What’s it like, and how do you juggle all those conflicting demands?

I think in IT, governance plays a big role. We have a corporate technology  committee which I chair. It’s made up of directors from each department and that’s how we monitor and approve projects that are going forward. We also bring some of our technology strategies to that group — we have seven main departments at the city — and we are working with each of them right now to create their own technology investment portfolios.

How do you work with the mayor and elected officials in determining IT strategy?

I’d say our Council is very open and they have been very strong in seeing that investments in technology really help support City services. Part of my role is to make sure they feel comfortable in asking questions about technology in plain language. My role is to translate technology strategies, what they mean for City services, and the benefits to our citizens. I’ve been in this role for a year and really felt the openness of Council. I’ve offered to provide strategy briefings — including our fibre optic infrastructure and digital strategies. I think it’s about spending time so that they understand; they are certainly open to having one-on-one meetings so that we can give them an overview. One of the challenges for any CIO is helping people understand what enterprise IT looks like. It’s not just your desktop or device. There’s a lot of moving parts that keep a city our size moving — there isn’t a single service, dollar, asset that is not supported by technology.

What are some of the ways people in the city are using municipal data?

We have a couple of pushes: We have an open data catalogue for public and staff. I think that’s pretty common for all municipalities. One of our pushes is around analytics and the use of data in terms of data-driven decision making. We have had work in place for many years around business intelligence (BI) and helping business units derive real-time intelligence to help make decisions. The next step is helping them understand they can collect data sets from a number of different areas or applications and data sets they might not have thought of putting together in the past. 

What has been the best technology decision you’ve ever made? 

I brought to council a fibre optic infrastructure strategy. That was approved unanimously by our Council in 2015. It’s really about self-reliance in terms of building out our own fibre optic network to be able to meet the demand for city services. Our demand for connectivity is growing exponentially, so we know that as we build out the smart city infrastructure for the future, we are going to need that connectivity everywhere. We took a plan to Council to help them understand what that future looks like and why it was so important to invest in this infrastructure. That was approved unanimously and we were able to get some support and investment to build that out. 

Are there other cities you particularly look up to with regard to data initiatives? What are some of the lessons you’ve learned from these cities?

When I think about data — open data and how it’s being used — I would say that New York City is one example, in terms of their open data portal. It seems pretty advanced; I think that they have 1,200 data sets and examples of apps that I believe has been done by the community using that data. There seems to be quite the community there that are engaged in that. 

Do you have any lessons you’ve learned as CIO that cities with less technological pedigrees can take away?

For us, we think it’s important to invest in our infrastructures. We are planning for the future. So we want to ensure that we aren’t missing opportunities to build out communication infrastructure when we can and that are aligned with the city’s construction activities. That’s really important for us — to always be thinking longer term. We want to ensure that the generations that come behind us or the IT staff that come behind us have the tools and infrastructures in place to build the city. And also another one is investing our staff: the municipality is here for the long term. I’m pretty sure there will be a City of Calgary 100 years from now so it’s really incumbent upon those of us who are in leadership positions today to make sure that the people coming behind us have the skills they need to be able to keep moving us forward.

This interview has been condensed and edited. This article first appeared in the June 2016 issue of CanadianCIO

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Ryan Patrick
Ryan Patrick
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