Hardik Bhatt, Chief Information Officer for the State of Illinois, delivers a speech at the Chicago Hack Night, on 8th floor Merchandise Mart, on Tuesday evening.

VIDEO: Chicago Hack Night gets involved in Illinois’ use of technology

By Lucia Maffei

Hardik Bhatt needs help.

The Chief Information Officer for the State thinks that Illinois should complete “a 45-year journey in four years” to reach a level comparable to its peers in using technology to make everyday tasks easier for residents.

To accomplish this goal, Bhatt asked for the help of the participants in  Chicago Hack Night, a weekly meeting of technology enthusiasts at the Merchandise Mart.

According to Bhatt, the State of Illinois ranks third in terms of total spending in technology in the U.S. But when it comes to the outcomes, it ranks in only  the bottom 25th percentile.

This means that it’s not easy for Illinois residents to get a service from the state.

“We want to be able to renew our driver licenses very quickly. If you are trying to open a business, you want to know exactly every step that you have to go through and you want all the forms you need online,” said Bhatt during a 20-minute presentation at the Chicago Hack Night.

The website of the State of Illinois has a section called “Run a business.” However, the links provided – including the one called “Starting a business in Illinois: Handbook” – lead mostly to business news and data rather than to “how-to-do” information.

“Also, you want the state to be able to securely keep your information and reuse it,” added Bhatt.

Improving the quality of customer services through better data analytic practices is his main goal. According to Bhatt, there have been too many different systems to store information, causing duplicates and eventually slowing down processes.

Marian Cook, chief strategy officer enterprise IT for the State of Illinois, explained the roots of this situation: “In the previous administration there was the idea of pushing decision making out to the agencies. There was no collaboration or sharing.” She added: “We are now consolidating a number of the agencies, bringing together the data and the technology people, implementing government’s agreements to allow us to share data.”

Chicago Hack Night participants – students, data developers, software engineers, lawyers, employees of the State of Illinois and simply tech lovers – had different reactions to Bhatt’s words.

More than 100 people gather at the Chicago Hack Night every Tuesday evening. (Lucia Maffei/MEDILL)

According to James Salvator, 29, data analyst for a company in Chicago and Lake View resident, the speech was very informative: “As a data enthusiast, I don’t want people using paper when they could be using Excel. It’s never encouraging if your government doesn’t understand the future of technology and how to appropriately use resources that many of us know how to do.”

Salvator concluded: “It’s very scary to think about a state where things could be stalled for months because somebody lost the paperwork.”

Others had less positive opinions: “What we talked about was surveillance, not about how can we help people do better,” said Tim McGovern, 39, editor for the publishing house O’Reilly and Hyde Park resident. “There needs to be a little more focus on building a state for its citizens.”

Eureka Foong, 22, a PhD student in Technology and social behavior at Northwestern University, showed caution: “I like the initiative of building a more customer-centered technology, but I want to see concrete steps in this direction.”

Photo at top: Hardik Bhatt delivers a speech at the Chicago Hack Night, Merchandise Mart 8th floor, on Tuesday evening. Bhatt worked for Cisco Systems for almost 5 years before becoming chief information officer for the State of Illinois. (Lucia Maffei/MEDILL)