Community empowerment through open data in Chicago - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Community empowerment through open data in Chicago

The City of Chicago is using data to empower communities, strengthen communication with government, help serve the needs of residents, and act as a bedrock for emerging businesses.

Working in local government I must hear the phrase “doing more with less” every other day. And it’s true: our resources are constrained. But there’s one thing we have more of than ever and in Chicago we’re making the most of it. It’s big data from a big city, the vital signs of a vital place. 

Chicago is using data to empower communities, to strengthen communication with government, to help serve the needs of our residents, and to act as bedrock for emerging businesses. 

Data-informed decision-making is at the heart of Mayor Emanuel’s leadership in Chicago. We’re using the very latest in machine-learning and predictive analytics to help design interventions that promote a more livable, safer city. But it’s not just about government decisions. We publish hundreds of data sets on every aspect of the city — and update most nightly — to provide our residents with timely information that’s useful. Want to see the progress report card for your child’s school? Find out when your street will be swept? Learn about the least traffic-heavy streets in the city? It’s all in there. 

But data alone isn’t sufficient. It needs to be made actionable.  

Here’s one example from last winter. As part of a seasonal preparedness effort, we developed a suite of applications called Chicago Shovels to make it easier for Chicagoans to deal with snow and ice. To help answer the persistent question “When will my street be plowed?” we developed PlowTracker, an easy way to get a GPS fix on the hundreds of City plows moving up and down the street grid. This reduced calls to our 311 center and proved educational for residents curious about how we adjust our plowing strategy based on conditions. Another application, Adopt-a-Sidewalk, used data about the city’s public way to encourage residents to “claim” their sidewalks (and their neighbors’) for shoveling. Residents could use the tool to share supplies, ask for help, and even “compete” to see how much snow they could remove. 

Just recently, Chicago also launched Service Tracker — the first 311 system in the nation that offers residents online, “UPS-style” tracking of how their service requests are progressing. This helps dramatically simplify and improve what can sometimes be complex bureaucratic processes. Check up on a pothole service request, for instance, and you will see when it was inspected, which departments were part of the work, and of course when it was fixed. This reduces the chance of clumsy “hand-offs” between departments and better sets resident expectations. Built upon Open 311 in partnership with the Smart Chicago Collaborative and Code for America, ServiceTracker — like PlowTracker — starts with transparency and leads to better processes.  

But the best story of all is what the community of civic innovators outside of City government is doing with the data. For instance, the City and several partners ran the first-ever “Apps for Metro Chicago” competition. The Metropolitan Planning Council sponsored a special placemaking award that led to the development of a unique application called Mi Parque. An all-female team of developers created this mobile application for the Little Village community, which allowed residents to be deeply engaged in the planning process of the conversion of a Superfund site into a new park. Bilingual and bi-directional, Mi Parque used city data to engage residents and planners in an ongoing conversation about what the park could be. 

The City of Chicago views data as a platform for innovation. From real-time transit feeds to block-level data on public safety, we’re providing the raw materials for residents to more seamlessly interact with the place they live. This platform is also a jumping-off point for new businesses and social enterprise. One digital startup incubator here called 1871, which hosts weekly hack nights around civic challenges, is home to the first for-profit business built atop Chicago’s data. It’s an indicator of a vibrant, civic-minded business culture propelled by open data. 

Data alone won’t solve all the problems in our communities. We need greater technology literacy, more open applications and a responsive urban information architecture. But an involved community informed with data is much closer to asking the hard questions that solutions require. I’m proud to help champion that change.


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