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3 Reasons Chicago’s Analytics Could be Coming to Your City

Chicago CIO Brenna Berman discusses the city's SmartData platform, which provides a template for local governments to craft predictive analytics systems of their own.

As the third largest city in the U.S. at 2.7 million residents, Chicago is known for many things. It has its trademarked windy weather, deep-dish pizzas and that iconic piece of Americana known as Wrigley Field, a ballpark that turns 100 this year. Yet today, the 237-square-mile metropolis is on the eve of another possible milestone, one that might be heading to cities across the U.S.

Recently Chicago unveiled its new predictive analytics initiative, dubbed the SmartData Project, that's aimed to serve the city with data-driven predictions and insights for its many departments and services. The platform is connected to WindyGrid, a hub housing information from every department in real time and gathering about 7 million rows of data per day. The SmartData Project — through its publicly available open-source build — is meant to be a template for cities to craft predictive analytics systems of their own.

The project is funded by Chicago and was initially accelerated with a $1 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge.

Championing the WindyGrid’s SmartData project is city CIO Brenna Berman, a former data analytics expert at IBM. Berman said the analytics platform, an initiative enacted by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, is intended to become a transformative tool as it is methodically integrated into staff workflows and used to fix troubles before they begin. Possibilities for predictive analytics are diverse, but common examples in governments worldwide include forecasting traffic congestion, utility usage in facilities, flood depths during storms, potential resident health-care needs, urban planning, resident migration and the list goes on.

After speaking with Berman for a feature in Government Technology's April issue, here are three reasons why Chicago's SmartData Project may be found in U.S. cities in coming years.

1. It’s Free (Sort of)

Likely the biggest draw of Chicago’s predictive analytics platform is that it’s open source, meaning the program’s code is free to copy, alter and reproduce. This is a huge win for cities that opt to use the platform. They don’t have to reinvent the wheel with their own teams of data engineers, programmers and IT contractors. It’s also a major reason, Berman said, why Bloomberg Philanthropies decided to get behind the project.

“Part of why we’ve taken this approach — of one, making the entire platform open source, and two, building a user interface that’s accessible to a lay user who is a non-data engineer — is so other cities if they’re interested can leverage the SmartData platform and build something like this of their own,” she said.

Of course, as any city manager or CIO may expect, this isn’t to say the program is without costs. Its deployment, installation, customization and staff training will call up expenses. However, with the free template, much of the marathon has already been run.

2. Its Use Case Is Compelling

The term “risk averse” is a common description attached to governments regardless of their domain or jurisdiction. The public sector dreads liabilities and is repelled by risk — in many cases for good reason. As such, the term “use case” is another phrase often found in the municipal lexicon. Governments love use cases because they show what’s possible and alleviate fears with real-world examples. Related to initiatives and projects, they can offer the necessary proof-before-purchase selling point for leadership.

WindyGrid is an active and ongoing use case, well documented and with city officials who are open to offer pointers. Chicago is currently working with the platform to create predictive analytic pilot programs within each department. Beyond bragging rights, Berman said each pilot is meant to be a tool embedded within a department’s standard workflow.

“It’s important to us to always deliver real business value to our departments and the residents of Chicago,” Berman said. “So the selection of any project always involves the department that will house the project.”

Berman’s team at Chicago’s Department of Innovation and Technology has already successfully implemented a predictive rodent control project. Identifying garbage complaints as key indicators, Berman said the city can statistically predict that for every garbage complaint submitted there will be a related rodent complaint within seven days in same spot. Linking the two complaints, service crews can solve both problems simultaneously.

3. It’s Scalable

The last major benefit of Chicago’s analytics platform might be its scalable design and user-friendly interface. The SmartData Project was engineered to be something that could be replicated by other municipalities. Its open-source architecture is part of this, but equally so, is its ability to be used by the average office staffer and across departments.

“We’re building the user interface to be queryable by someone in the department who is not a savvy analyst or data user because we need to find a way to make analytics become available to the non-data engineer,” Berman said.

While Chicago enjoys access to a three-person team of data engineers, Berman said she understands that cities don’t always have such luxuries. This means IT innovation, like analytics, must be driven by staff who don’t have special expertise in tech. As a result of this way of thinking, the SmartData Project has been designed to be as simple to use as possible so staff members from all departments can put its data to work.

“That [user-friendly access] gives me a lot of hope,” Berman said, “because every city is trying to solve similar problems and we all have limited resources.”

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.