Chicago - the First City of Open Data

by Blagica Bottigliero

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Last night, I attended the Open Government Chicago Meetup.  You may ask yourself, ‘There is an actual Meetup group about open government?’ Of COURSE there is. If you are wondering how popular the event is, space fills up very quickly. Over 100 people RSVP'd for last night's event and there was a waiting list. 

The topic of yesterday’s chat was more of a send off for Brett Goldstein, the first Chief Data Officer for the city of Chicago. I may not agree with the mayor’s policies on public education, but when it comes to transparency and data, I applaud his efforts. Mayor Emanuel specifically brought Brett in to focus on the idea of governing with real metrics, real data and actionable insights. 

Brett reviewed the numerous projects and data challenges he and his team faced in the last few years.  The first bold move Brett made was releasing crime data (Brett is a former Chicago cop who used predictive modeling for crime).  Not just three months worth of crime data, but multiple years worth of crime data. Many thought Brett was nuts.  How would city leaders be OK with the notion of releasing so much information? 

Because, according to Brett, it’s our data. Our public data. And he’s right.

Since the opening of the crime data kimono, Brett and his team released over 450 data sets. This data has since been used to create a myriad of popular websites like:

Was My Car Towed?

Chicago Lobbyists 

Chicago Councilmatic

In addition to making data more accessible, the Chicago open data movement is now a beacon for how city governments across the country function.  That's right, a beacon. For a town that has a history of closed-door politics and backs scratching backs, we’ve entered a new era of being comfortable with information being displayed in a new way.

But to the normal, everyday Chicagoan open data may not mean much.  Brett gave an example of how data can help fix a problem many of us may have, but don’t think too much about correlating trends.

What if the number of rodents in a neighborhood alley increased a certain number of days after someone phoned in a 311 call about an overly full garbage container? Could there be a trigger of sorts that counts down days like a clock? If the city knew rats would start to congregate at a garbage dump X days post the day the trash was supposed to be picked up, this would ensure that Streets & Sans teams would be on the job sooner than later.  Mapping 311 calls and the content of those calls is an example of how data can help a city run better.

Today, there are numerous meetups, hackathons and creative minds getting together and thinking about how all of this data can be presented in easier ways.  

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

I am incredibly proud of what Brett and his team did in just two years. Two. Brett is moving on to a fellowship at the University of Chicago. He leaves behind a heavyweight team, in addition to city workers folding in open data in everything they do. Every department, for example, has an open data coordinator. That's huge. 

If you are working for a city or municipality eager to get into the open data movement, we'd be happy to help you get started. 

Good luck, Brett!