Atlantic Cities

Chicago's Secrets, Revealed Through User-Friendly Apps

In mid-2011, the City of Chicago released a whole bunch of inside information about lobbyists onto its open data portal. Who paid them, what they lobby for, what parts of city government they lobby to — all in spreadsheet form, all there for the taking. So Derek Eder and some other civic-minded tech colleagues took, and before long they gave back, in the form of ChicagoLobbyist.org.

"It's essentially kind of like a Facebook for lobbyists," says Eder.

Shortly after that initial success, Eder and company formed Open City — a volunteer group of digital developers who transform Chicago's open data into user-friendly programs. Open City now offers 10 apps, ranging in subject from crime to business to snow-plowing, free for public consumption. With each project, the group tries to reveal something about city operations or improve life for residents.

"Open City's trying to do two main things," says collaborator Juan-Pablo Velez. "One is, move the needle on open government, which is to say, letting people understand how city government and the city as a whole work, and keeping it accountable. The other, making government more user-friendly."

Often Open City programs fulfill both missions at once. Take the ClearStreets app: the folks at Open City used GPS data released by Chicago tracking the paths of snow plows, and made a real-time map showing which streets have been cleared. The app not only tells residents whether they can expect a smooth path to work, it also serves as a reminder of the massive scale of the city's street-plowing system.

Some programs serve additional functions. The new 2nd City Zoning program, an interactive map that shows you how certain buildings are zoned, acts as a teaching tool for the public, as well as a handy resource for developers trying to figure out what to do with a particular property. Crime in Chicago, which tracks trends in various wards going back a decade, can inform the public conversation about crime and put individual tragedies into a larger context.

 

"Each [project] is a prototype that shows what can be done with this data," says Eder. "We hope to inspire people. Maybe there's a business that can come out of one of these apps. Maybe the city gets idea about how we look at a problem and they incorporate that into their system."

Eder and Velez say the data have come fast and furious since Rahm Emanuel became mayor. Open City makes all its projects open source, meaning anyone is free to copy the code and apart the program to suit their own needs — from other Chicago tech developers, to the Chicago government itself, to people in other cities. The end goal is to use urban data to foster innovation and spread information.

"We make all the data public so that urban researchers can go run it, so that policymakers or people who are starting to do data science in government can build on it, and so entrepreneurs can build on it," says Velez.

To that end, Open City also sponsors a weekly event it calls Open Gov Hack Night —an evening where tech minds and city officials and interested residents meet to swap ideas on using data for civic improvements. The event has grown from just a handful of people in the room to a few dozen. Eder sees the apps and the events as an ongoing advertisement for the power of putting municipal data into public hands.

"Not enough people are looking at all this data that the City of Chicago has released, and other cities as well," he says. "There's much more to dive into, and we're really just scratching the surface."

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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