Data is just a geeky word for information – and information is power, especially when individuals and organizations figure out how to use it to evaluate, discuss, and address the trends, positive or negative, in their communities. So it’s welcome news that metropolitan Chicago is freshly awash in “open data,” i.e., information once unavailable to the average resident now at the public’s fingertips on sites such as the City of Chicago’s Data Portal and Cook County’s newly launched “Open Data” web site.
But what to do with all these facts and figures? The Metro Chicago Information Center’s Apps for Metro Chicago (A4MC) contest, now in its Community round, exemplifies what can happen when governments open the door on their data. With four governmental agencies and 175 data sets to plumb, web developers participating in Chicago’s first-ever apps contest are tripping over themselves to create a mobile app that best turns raw data into an online experience that helps people more fully enjoy and engage with their communities.
Open data means more than just being able to create or use a cool app, however. Abundant open data – particularly when presented in a meaningful way, for instance this map of foreclosures in Cook County – means people have more opportunities to make informed decisions about their communities. A few examples:
At Metropolitan Planning Council’s (MPC) Sept. 15 roundtable on reforming Tax Increment Financing (TIF), Carole Brown, chair of Chicago’s TIF Reform Task Force, explained the task force’s recommendations for making the TIF program more transparent and accountable. Among them is the use of open data:
The City should establish benchmark metrics for TIF performance and publish the outcomes for each TIF on an easy-to-use web site. Metrics should go beyond funding allocations and property wealth growth to performance and outcomes of those allocations. For example, for each TIF, the City ought to track how many jobs have been created/retained, the total amount of private investment compared with public investment, number of affordable housing units created, number of people receiving quality job training, and property value growth.
Why does this matter? Well, some 30 percent of Chicago is TIFed, and up to this point residents in a TIF – who are essentially donating a portion of their taxes to support development in that TIF district – have had very little information about how it is performing, where each disbursement is going, and even exactly how much of their taxes are being diverted. In this case, open data equals greater accountability.
In addition, as someone who, prior to joining MPC, spent years working to protect tenants’ rights, I love the example from Washington, D.C. of a local organization that records all foreclosure notices filed with the city – which, thanks to the open data movement, are now publicly available – and shares that information with housing counseling groups. Those groups, in turn, can and do inform tenants at an early stage that their building is in foreclosure, and help them plan accordingly for new housing rather than being blindsided with an eviction notice. In this case, open data equals greater preparedness.
Finally, open data and Placemaking make quite a dynamic duo. In the aforementioned A4MC apps contest, MPC is offering a special $2,500 prize, sponsored by IBM, for the best Placemaking app, which best helps people find, create, sustain or share vibrant public spaces. What could an app like this do? Perhaps a community group could use an app to search for vacant land that is best suited to be transformed into a public park. Or maybe a neighborhood association or group of residents could use an app to find the area’s best open spaces – malls and plazas, boulevards, riverwalks – at which to organize a block party or its own Dinner in White. In these cases, open data equals more vibrant public spaces, which make our region more attractive and our lives better.
Kudos to the City of Chicago, Cook County, State of Illinois and MetroPulse for ushering in the era of open data – not with a trickle, but rather a torrent of information.