Cook County, Ill., officials hope a new open data website will transform public perception of government accountability — and help the community move past a long history of corruption.

Launched in September, the site provides public access to data sets ranging from a list of county foreclosures to the annual salaries of various county employees. Users can create reports, maps and visualizations of the data and share their findings via e-mail or on blogs and social media sites.

The development may be a surprise to some given Cook County’s scandalous reputation over the years. A 2010 study by the University of Illinois at Chicago called the county a “dark pool of political corruption,” revealing that nearly 150 contractors, employees and politicians have been convicted on corruption charges since 1957.

The open data portal was mandated in a county open government ordinance that passed unanimously in May. Officials hope the increased emphasis on transparency signals a new era for the county and ultimately renews the public’s trust.

“When I was sworn into office in December, I said that this is the time to open Cook County government to its citizens; to make county government work for its residents,” Toni Preckwinkle, Cook County board president, said in a statement. “This site puts those words into action.”

As of Oct. 12, more than 174 unique data sets were available for use. The open data site operates on the Socrata cloud platform, which is also used by the governments of Chicago and the state of Illinois.

Cook County CIO Greg Wass said it was important for the county to use the same platform so it could share data easily with its governmental partners. The county developed the open data Web portal’s landing page, but the data itself is hosted in the cloud.

Wass said the county paid $30,000 for 18 months of hosting, which includes redundancy and disaster recovery.

Prior to the open data website, people would have to either do random searches on agency websites to find information, or request it directly from the county. The problem, according to Wass, is that those methods required a person to know a specific name of an individual or generally know what the requestor was looking for.

“What open data is about is quite contrary to putting a search function out there — it’s to put the whole data set out and let developers create an app or let the public search directly and have access to the entire data set ... as one file and let people do with it what they want,” Wass said. “That’s a really different type of ethic than what we had in the past.”

Data on the site is culled from more than 40 different county departments, including an ordinance-mandated three data sets of “high value” from each agency, which Wass defined as items county officials considered to be the most interesting or most often viewed. He said more than 130 payments to and contracts with vendors are also available on the website.

Eventually the individual county agencies will be tasked with continually populating the site with new information.

“What we’re moving toward is letting the agencies, after some training, post their own data sets and to have a person in each agency designated as the owner of their data,” Wass explained. “We think that’s the best practice for getting accurate and timely data sets [online].”

Public Participation Is Key

The open data distribution isn’t a top-down hierarchy. Residents using the information are able — and encouraged — to spread their findings to others in a variety of interactive ways.

In addition to social media sharing, the public can also rate the usefulness of data sets from a range of up to five “stars,” contact county officials for more information, or request that a specific data set be added to the available pool.

“I just had a request for a data set yesterday and have received about five requests from the public in general,” said Sebastian James, Cook County’s deputy director for new media. Additional requests have come from the press and a handful of face-to-face meetings. “It’s nice to see that the expectation I had of public interaction ... is actually coming true.”

Users can save the visualizations or reports they generate on the site — although an e-mail address is required to use that function — and submit them for possible inclusion in the database. James said he has added between 15 and 20 user-created items to the site since its launch last month.

In addition, James explained that the site really hasn’t required much additional communication on the part of the county on how to manipulate and use the data. The site features eight video tutorials to walk people through how to create various reports and maps.

He added that last week a person made a separate visualization of sheriff salaries in the county, while another user pulled out foreclosure data for three or four specific suburbs.

“I put out tweets about the new data sets ... It seems to have been all that’s needed to get people’s curiosity about what else can be done with the data,” he said.

Wass agreed and although he admitted it’s a challenge to just put out the raw data out there, the county tries to give users enough information in the metadata and description of each data set to explain what it is the public is looking at.

He was careful to stress, however, the importance of not having the government put its own spin on the information.

“The philosophy behind this is, the public and developers who build mobile apps and Web-based applications know better than we do what they want to show,” Wass said. “So this is, in a sense, a public-private partnership. For the public sector, [we] put the data out there in as clean, accurate and timely format as possible. For the developers and research analysts, [they] do their own visualizations and analyses of the data and provide the story.”

Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1998, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y. He's also a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and competes in regional tournaments throughout Northern California and Nevada.