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How Open Data is Transforming Chicago

In the past three years, the Chicago Department of Innovation and Technology has grown their open data portal into one of the largest and most dynamic models of open government in the country.

In only a few years’ time, municipal initiatives to open up public data have gone from drawing-board ideas to tech policy fixtures. According to, 39 U.S. cities now have their own data portal.   Moreover, these cities are starting to enact policies around open data—and the number doing so is growing. Open data’s fast rise is already transforming how residents interact with their cities, and we’re only still in the early phases of the movement.

This is especially true in Chicago, a city that has rapidly expanded its open data activities the past few years. Since 2010, Chicago established a robust data portal and issued an executive order mandating routine releases of government data. It’s also experiencing a surge in size and activity from its civic hacker community, comprised of individuals who use their tech skills to help improve cities. By comprehensively looking at what Chicago’s done—and where it’s going—we can see what the continuing evolution of open data looks like for a major American city.

Beginnings: The Data Portal

Chicago’s Data Portal was created to increase government transparency, make government data accessible to residents, and encourage the development of apps and tools that can enhance the lives of Chicagoans. The site currently hosts over 900 dataset variations with information on City services, facilities, agencies, and agency performance. These sets are presented in three main formats: tabular (which offers spreadsheet views), GIS (which offers map views), and API (which is used for software development). Since its inception three years ago, the Department of Innovation and Technology (DoIT) has grown the portal into one of the largest and most dynamic models of open government in the country.

The Portal’s earliest beginnings were in May 2010, when the Daley Administration added FOIA request logs, statements of financial interest, and other records to the City’s regular website to make them more accessible. A year later, this small set of data became a major focus for the Emanuel Administration. The site earned its name, a separate website, and a new level of commitment, as called for in the new mayor’s 2011 transition plan.

Within a month of Emanuel’s inauguration, the City’s lobbyist data, building permit data, budget and finance records, and other key data was released, along with a plethora of GIS location-based information. By September 2011, the City of Chicago released all its crime data dating back to 2001—the largest municipal data release of its kind in history.

Prior to this release, comprehensive crime data was only publicly available in requested aggregate forms that were prepared on a monthly basis. Incident crime data going as far back as 90 days was also available on the Police Department’s CLEARMAP geographic data system. Now, all crime data over the past decade is not only listed, but includes what address, police beat, and city ward the incident occurred, as well as its case number.

The crime data’s granularity increases the potential for long-term criminological studies by experts. It can also potentially lead towards more informed crime prevention initiatives.

Beyond the Portal: Expanding Open Government Initiatives

While the Data Portal is Chicago’s primary vessel for releasing data, DoIT has sought to offer multiple data resources for Chicago. In February of 2013, the City of Chicago joined Github, the open source code-sharing website which allows  users to upload, view, and edit each other’s files.

Github provides a welcome complement for more experienced techies who wish to analyze and experiment with municipal data. Chicago’s “repository,” or collection of files, includes APIs for 311 service requests, bike rack and sidewalk locations, and municipal twitter streams.

One of Github’s key features is its users’ ability to “fork” files – or copy a repository from one user’s account to another. With this capability, users can fork City data to improve upon it—allowing Chicago to essentially crowdsource for better, more accurate data.    

To encourage the applied use of municipal data, Chicago has also hosted hackathons and other open-data events. In 2011, one of the largest of these events was Apps for Metro Chicago (A4MC).  A4MC, a first-of-its-kind contest hosted by the City, County and State, encouraged the development of meaningful and sustainable apps using municipal data.

Several products from the event have moved on to become successful startup companies.  Contest winner SpotHero, for example, found success by helping users find and reserve parking in given locations. While originally built for Chicagoans, SpotHero has expanded its model to other cities and metro areas nationwide, including New York and Newark, Washington and Baltimore, Boston, and Milwaukee. 

From Portal to Policy

In December 2012, Mayor Emanuel issued a rare Executive Order that mandated city agencies to publish public data sets under their control, and update them on a regular basis. The Order also called for the creation of a Chief Data Officer (CDO), who would develop datasets and further the mission of the Data Portal and open government.

Emanuel also made it clear to the City’s departments that data transparency is a top priority for his administration: In addition to the Portal, the CDO is required to regularly convene an Open Data Advisory Group consisting of coordinators from each City agency.

Chicago’s first CDO, Brett Goldstein, was appointed in June of 2011. As CDO, he oversaw a rapid expansion of the portal. Goldstein also developed innovative new products for the City, such as the WindyGrid situational awareness tool, which is now operational citywide. Goldstein has since stepped down from his CDO post, but the City will appoint a new CDO in the near future.

Open Data in Chicago: Today and Beyond

More than two years into Emanuel’s first term, and three years into the first opened sets of data, Chicago’s Data initiatives continue to grow. The Data Portal, with hundreds of thousands of views, has become an essential tool for many residents, professionals, and tech developers. In 2013, new major data releases included energy consumption data and food desert data for Chicago. 

In addition to growth, however, both the Data Portal and Github are steadily transforming to meet the needs of users that consume their information.

In September of 2013, DoIT released a crucial new API on Github to make it easier for programmers to analyze Portal data. Called “R-Socrata,” the API takes Socrata-formatted data from the Data Portal and converts it into an easily usable form for “R Package,” an open-source tool that programmers use for statistical analysis. In other words, this means DoIT has made it significantly more convenient for programmers to statistically analyze Portal Data. 

DoIT also wants to make it easier to view multiple datasets in the same space. For example, if a person wishes to compare location information on the city’s 570 parks and 11,000+ bus stops, two separate queries would need to be made—a side-by-side comparison is not currently possible.  DoIT plans to change this soon to continually enhance the user experience. 

Chicago also wants ensure its residents are fully aware of the City’s open government initiatives.  In January 2013, the City launched Chicago Digital, an online resource that helps connect Chicagoans with innovative digital tools and technology initiatives built from municipal data. To date, more than 30 successful apps have been featured on Chicago Digital.      

Despite these accomplishments, there’s plenty of room for growth and improvement. While Chicago’s open data initiatives are still evolving, they mark the start of a smarter, more open, and more data-driven era for the city.  
This story was originally published by Data-Smart City Solutions.

Noelle Knell is the executive editor for e.Republic, responsible for setting the overall direction for e.Republic’s editorial platforms, including Government Technology, Governing, Industry Insider, Emergency Management and the Center for Digital Education. She has been with e.Republic since 2011, and has decades of writing, editing and leadership experience. A California native, Noelle has worked in both state and local government, and is a graduate of the University of California, Davis, with majors in political science and American history.