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Chicago Civic Tech Group Invites Illinois Gubernatorial Candidates to Sign Open Data Pledge

Organizers hope to improve digital information sharing and other transparency efforts throughout the state government.

One of Chicago’s most prominent civic tech groups, Chi Hack Night, has invited candidates in the Illinois gubernatorial race to sign a pledge to support open data in the event that they win, subsequently posting a checklist of who has done so on its Website.

The group issued the invitation in early October via Twitter, and so far, two of the 10 candidates in the race have signed, with two others indicating they will soon. Derek Eder, lead organizer of Chi Hack Night, said the invitation is part of an ongoing effort to improve open data practices at all levels of government in the state — practices that are in much need of improvement.

“We have over the years become a bigger part of the political and tech communities here in Chicago, and we’ve done things to push for more transparency here at the local level,” Eder said. “Last year, we decided to push more for open data at other government levels.”

Eder praised Chicago’s city government for making strides in the area and beginning to release new data sets on a regular basis. Chi Hack Night, which boasts a membership of thousands of designers, researchers, data journalists, activists and developers, initially focused on improving open data practices for Cook County, within which Chicago is located. To do so, they invited candidates in the 2016 state’s attorney race to sign an open data pledge similar to the one posited at those running for governor. The eventual winner, Kim Foxx, signed and has made good, creating a new chief data officer position within her office and releasing data sets that were previously unavailable to the public.

Currently, Illinois has an open data portal and some open data legislation, both of which Eder described as wanting and often ignored. On the existing site, many state agencies — including the board of elections, the commerce commission, the department of corrections, the office of the governor and the state board of education, among others — have not released any data sets. And releases from other state departments are scant. The Illinois State Police, for example, have three data sets on the portal, one of which is a list of the addresses and phone numbers of its offices throughout the state, while the two others are 10-year histories related to firearm ownership, last updated in 2011.

As a point of comparison, nearby Ohio has extensive open data on its government website, including an interactive budget tool that provides financial info at a near-granular level, detailing annual reports on the state’s rainy day fund, as well as exact payments to specific suppliers and subsidies. Indiana also has a comprehensive digital information portal, one with an accessible design that makes it easy to find the most popular sets.

The pledge that Chi Hack Night is inviting candidates to sign is largely symbolic and doesn’t legally require the eventual victor to do anything. The idea, Eder said, is to get the state’s leadership committed to open data while also spreading public awareness.

The benefits of enhancing open data at the state level are potentially wide-spanning. For technologists like Eder and the more than 100 others who regularly attend Chi Hack Night’s weekly meetup, it opens far more possibilities for them to develop projects that benefit communities.

“We see the open data that governments release as a raw resource, and the more of it there is, the more possibilities there are,” Eder said. “There are a lot of data sets that the state has that are really hard to get.”

There are also benefits for the general public and civil servants. Improved open data means government that is more transparent and accountable. It also means that state agencies would have a centralized resource to find information that is presented in a clear manner.

Illinois is a largely troubled state, one that recently concluded a two-year stretch wherein the legislature failed to agree with the governor on a budget. Concerns about whether Illinois will be able to afford government pensions have been ongoing for even longer. Illinois faces the nation’s worst budget deficit, and there have been recent reports of billions in unpaid bills. This is all to say that Illinois is, indeed, a state sorely in need of better governance.

“This is an issue some folks might think is kind of a pet issue, or, given all the other things going on in Illinois, they’re wondering why we’re spending time on this, but I think this is a system-changing pledge,” Eder said. “It has the potential of having real system-wide change, change for the better. I’ve seen it happen in Chicago and Cook County, and I want to see it happen for the state of Illinois too.”

The two candidates who have officially signed are 37-year-old Chicago Alderman Ameya Pawar, and State Sen. Daniel Biss, a former mathematics professor. Pawar has since announced that he is leaving the race.

The two other candidates who’ve said they will sign soon are Chris Kennedy and Alex Paterakis. The remaining six candidates have not said whether they would either way. Emails to the campaign of Gov. Bruce Rauner were not immediately returned for this story, nor were those to J.B. Pritzker, arguably Rauner’s most prominent challenger.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.