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Chicago Unveils OpenGrid Map System

Chicago’s new OpenGrid initiative aims to democratize open data by making accessing public information as easy as pulling up a Web browser and looking at a map.

This story was originally published on Data-Smart City Solutions.

How well do you know your city? Your neighborhood? Even your block? 

When it comes to public information, it’s a simple question without a simple answer.  Even with open data portals available in most major cities, it can be a challenge to find specific or relevant data in a sea of online lists, tables, and spreadsheets. 

Chicago’s new OpenGrid initiative aims to help resolve this dilemma by making accessing public information as easy as pulling up a web browser and looking at a map.      

On January 19, 2016, officials at Chicago’s Department of Innovation and Technology (DoIT) announced the arrival of what it calls the next phase of its commitment to open data.  OpenGrid, a map-based application built in-house by DoIT, provides residents with a way to visually understand complex municipal data, and more easily use that data to engage with the rhythm and flow of their city. 

With OpenGrid, Chicago is making its data more accessible to everyone—from residents, to businesses, to community groups.  The city also hopes to strengthen a collaborative relationship between these groups and local government in the process, and create a new model for open data that can be replicated in other cities and organizations.

How it Works         

“At the Department of Innovation and Technology, our clients are the residents and businesses of Chicago.  We’re driven by what they need, and how we can serve them,” Chicago CIO and DoIT Commissioner Brenna Berman explained during the announcement.  One of those needs is for open data searches to be more easily customizable by the user.

This is where OpenGrid excels.  Specifically, the application is an open-source geographical information system that supports situational awareness, incident monitoring, historical data retrieval, and real-time advanced analytics.  In short: users can pull up a map of their neighborhood and easily access a lot of city data for any specific area of the city at any given time. 

Since OpenGrid is, in a word, open, its target audience includes anyone who wishes to engage with data.    For example:

  • An individual resident may want to use OpenGrid to check on the status of a nearby pothole, see what the inspection scores of a favorite restaurant are, or know how nearby traffic closures may affect weekend plans. 
  • A small business or prospective entrepreneur could use the tool to identify nearby permits and licenses in a relevant area to better understand their local market.
  • A community group or neighborhood organization can use OpenGrid to gain more insight into the vitals of an area—which could range from 311 calls to crime to environmental inspections, depending on the organization—so they may gear or adjust their programming accordingly.
  • A student or academic researcher could use OpenGrid in myriad ways to better understand city data through space and time.  
Users can access all that data through multiple ways, too: OpenGrid runs on desktops, tablets, and phones, and can be accessed through any web browser.  Tom Schenk, Chicago’s Chief Data Officer and a key figure in the planning, development, and launch of OpenGrid, has even put together a tutorial so that residents may take full advantage of the application:

Open-Source from the Start   

Four years ago, Chicago built WindyGrid, a now-established open-source situational awareness tool that gives its employees the ability to see city assets, 911 and 311 calls, and other geospatial information on an interactive map in real-time.  WindyGrid was successfully piloted during the 2012 Chicago-hosted NATO Summit.  In 2013, DoIT then began rolling WindyGrid out to departments across the city.  It also ranked first in InformationWeek’s Top 10 Government IT innovators of 2013

Today, WindyGrid is regularly used by city departments to enhance city management.  For departments such as Chicago’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications (OEMC), it has been a crucial interoperability tool for monitoring and coordination during storms, other weather situations and special events.  


CDO Tom Schenk presents OpenGrid at a launch event. Photo by Sean Thornton.


Along the way, Chicago had plans to build a public-facing version of the application.  The City first articulated its plans to build OpenGrid and share its source code in its 18-month Tech Plan Update in mid-2015, which followed the city’s first long-term Technology Plan.  In the update, Chicago specifically stated that OpenGrid would be “the first open-source situational awareness system that other municipalities can use and build upon.”

Now, a year later, that application is freely available to residents, other cities, and any others who wish to take advantage of it.  OpenGrid’s coding and user documentation is also available on file-sharing site GitHub, alongside Chicago’s other initiatives that are free for others to replicate.  

At a second event on OpenGrid’s launch day, Schenk noted this point.   “By being an open-source project, we can collaborate,” Schenk told a crowd gathered at Chicago Hack Night, a popular civic-tech meet-up held in the city’s Merchandise Mart building.  “If there are any bugs, let us know.  If there’s anything you’d like to add, let us know.  If we can make this better, let’s do it together.  We hope to work with you soon.  OpenGrid isn’t just for residents who live downtown; it’s for people—everyone—across Chicago.” 

Partnerships Work  

OpenGrid itself was not built by the city in isolation; on the contrary, it would not have been possible to build without a wide array of partners. 

One of the most basic facets of building an application like OpenGrid is to have a source (or multiple sources) of data to pull from.  In addition to leveraging the City’s data portal, DoIT partnered with the University of Chicago’s Urban Center for Computation and Data (Urban CCD), whose Plenario initiative serves as the primary database that supports OpenGrid.  Plenario, developed by Urban CCD, is a cloud-based open-source data hub that allows its users to access, combine, download, and visualize disparate sets of data all in the same place.

Yet in order for DoIT’s OpenGrid and UrbanCCD’s Plenario to interact, additional software—also called a service layer—was necessary.  Enter the Smart Chicago Collaborative, a local civic organization that focuses on improving residents’ lives through technology. 

Smart Chicago’s work focuses on three main areas for residents – increasing access to the internet, enhancing digital skills, and expanding the use of meaningful city data.  For Smart Chicago Executive Director Dan O’Neil, supporting a program like OpenGrid is a natural fit. 

“A collaborative union between developers, residents, and government – that’s what Smart Chicago is about, and that’s what OpenGrid is about too,” O’Neil noted at the application’s launch. “This is why we’re on it.”  To build the service layer, Smart Chicago commissioned UTurn Data Solutions, a local IT consultancy focused data storage and Cloud computing projects.

Smart Chicago is also helping ensure that OpenGrid is effective in its mission to enhance transparency efforts between the city and the public. One of Smart Chicago’s marquee programs is its Civic User Testing Group, or CUTGroup.  CUTGroup participants, which include residents from all corners of the city, are compensated to participate in focus groups that test civic websites and apps.  The program has given developers numerous insights and has led to the improvement of many local apps, including the EveryBlock iPhone App, FoodBorne Chicago, and the Chicago Health Atlas. CUTGroup will be testing OpenGrid to help DoIT refine the tool and learn how residents can most benefit from its work.

OpenGrid was also funded in partnership with Bloomberg Philanthropies. Bloomberg, a leader in supporting and promoting urban innovation, is a key funder of Chicago’s data work. The city’s SmartData Platform for predictive analytics was one of the five 2013 winners of Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge, which supports innovative ideas that have the potential to spread to other cities. OpenGrid’s open source development provides the opportunity for cities across the country to replicate and leverage this work to enhance their own open data and transparency efforts.

OpenGrid as a Replicable Model

In Chicago, residents, businesses, and other local organizations can enjoy a wide range of uses when accessing  But what about cities or organizations that wish to have a similar graphic information system and situational awareness tool for their own? 

With its source code available for anyone to use, OpenGrid can also serve as a low-cost business intelligence tool for governments, non-profits, and even corporations that wish to take advantage of its capabilities.  To accelerate its viability as a replicable model, Chicago entered OpenGrid into Amazon Web Services’ City on a Cloud innovation challenge. 

Amazon’s competition calls for governments to submit entries of initiatives that use cloud computing to transform the way they interact with residents.  As a late 2015 entrant, OpenGrid won the “Dream Big” award for a large city, which has since bolstered the project with added cloud computing resources. As Amazon Web Services is a widely used platform worldwide, OpenGrid's win is yet another key step towards making OpenGrid easily replicable anywhere.

With Amazon, GitHub, and a host of open-source tools, Chicago and its partners hope that OpenGrid’s value goes beyond the city’s residents, to other cities and organizations that stand to benefit from replication.  It’s a point that Chicago’s Chief Information Officer emphasized during OpenGrid’s official launch as well.

“We see OpenGrid as becoming a new source for insights,” Berman said.  “We see OpenGrid as accessible, adaptable, adoptable, not just for Chicagoans, but for any city or anyone, anywhere.”