Despite recent departure, Philly's civic tech office forges ahead
If you want to discuss technology in Philadelphia, Charles Brennan says 1234 Market Street is the right place to be.
Most people walk past the the city’s Office of Innovation and Technology (OIT) without giving it a second thought. It could easily be mistaken for a SEPTA building or an extension of the Lowes Hotel, yet much more goes on inside.
Philadelphia’s Civic Tech Director Aaron Ogle resigned from his position, leaving a somewhat gaping hole in Philadelphia’s civic tech and innovation team. Ogle announced on Twitter last week that he was leaving the city.
Some see Ogle’s departure as a shakeup for the civic tech division. OIT’s Chief Information Officer Charles Brennan said that, while the department is always looking new “technical talent,” Ogle’s vacant position may not be filled.
Nonetheless, Brennan says that Ogle transferred a great deal of knowledge before his departure, and the OIT is comfortable carrying out the work that he left behind.
“We are always looking for technical talent so that process will never stop. I believe we have a great deal of talent and knowledge of the city and city processes ... That knowledge will be brought to bear as we continue to design the city’s web presence,” Brennan said. “We are doing an incredible amount of work in looking at the user experience before we put something ‘live,’ to ensure that citizens and businesses who visit the City’s web sites can get what they need in the most efficient way possible.”
The OIT is so integral to the city that the Philadelphia Police Department can’t process a prisoner without its assistance. Just about all of the software used in Philadelphia government comes from the OIT, as well as computers.
“Everything that happens in the city from a technical standpoint actually happens here,” said Brennan, the OIT’s Chief Information Officer. “Every email sent in the city comes through here. We have 40 servers and all they do is handle email and there are millions of emails that are sent every year out of this building.”
Brennan, a former Philadelphia Police officer who worked through the ranks, found himself involved with the tech side of his career by “complete accident.” Back then, Brennan said, he did a lot of week by week work for the department that included long days and sometimes long nights.
He had just completed his first course in a master's degree program at Saint Joseph’s University when a “high ranking” police official offered him a job in the PPD’s computer unit.
Brennan knew nothing about computers, but was reassured that he didn’t need to know much.
(A complete lie, he found out later.)
But Brennan eventually decided to venture down to the computer unit, and found himself staying for the last 20 years of his career.
“I loved the IT world and was able to do things there that no other guy in the department could do or wanted to do,” Brennan said. That crime mapping technology that the PPD still uses today? Brennan says it was his idea.
Once leaving the department, Brennan found a consulting gig for the state of New Jersey on a project to equip NJ Transit with radios. Once he found out that Mayor Kenney was searching for Philadelphians to fill certain spots in a new administration he quickly applied for the position of CIO.
Kenney, he said, gave him a chance to come back to the city and work in a position that he felt was a perfect fit for him.
“I told him it was a job I always wanted,” Brennan said. “And now I have it and I’m here,”
Two months into the job, Brennan says that the real struggle for the city and OIT is trying to do new things with older technology until it can eventually be replaced.
“The city is almost like a time machine,” he said. “There’s so much of it out there that as the city moves forward that line gets bigger and bigger and we continue to try and do new stuff while keeping old stuff running. And the city when they buy things they keep them forever until they completely have to get rid of them.”
Such as the city’s payroll system. One of the big projects that is going on now, Brennan added, is a new system that the city has made several attempts of updating.
The code that’s running the payroll system now is over thirty-years old.
“Some of the code that is running in the building was written in the 1970s, it’s hard to believe that it’s still running,” Brennan said. “At the time that it was created we had plenty of people who could support that, but that language is long dead.”
It’s like Aztec, Brennan added. The arrest processing system, also largely outdated, is also a priority for the OIC. There’s a monumental effort to replace it.
“People might not know how hard it is to manage the prison system with an IT system,” Brennan said. “They [the prisons] need an IT system that says everything from the health of the prisoners, to where they are to where they come from. That system has to be replaced and we’re working on that.”
Brennan estimated that are around 100 projects or more that the OIT is currently working on or involved with, and he hopes to complete while in office.
Another initiative that the city is working on, is moving things to the cloud. Which is far more robust than what can be done in the city, Brennan added.
“I hope to get some of the things that were left for me done and make them better, and have pushed the city forward,” Brennan said. “Am I going to be able to do all of that and everything I want to do, no. But I hope to make this city a lot better when I leave."