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Chicago Uses Tech, Resident Input to Improve Services

The map-based Chicago Recovery Plan was created with feedback from residents. It also allows them to track progress on city projects to create safe neighborhoods and drive equitable economic growth.

An RTA transit train moves through downtown Chicago.
Few cities have more thoughtfully or consistently considered the user experience when designing services for local communities than Chicago. From involving residents in the design phase to thoroughly incorporating tools and maps that allow exploration to transparency in procurement, the Windy City has led the way. And now that leadership ranges from 311 insights to how, where and why the city makes infrastructure investments.

While transparency is a core value for many urban administrations, it can be challenging to fully enact a method for complete visibility for residents; there are often technical challenges, barriers to engagement and difficulties updating information in a timely manner. Yet in Chicago, officials are breaking the mold with their new data tool, the map-based Chicago Recovery Plan explorer.

Launched in May 2023, the tool is “opening the books on neighborhood investments in a simple, accessible digital format,” Chief Technology Officer Nick Lucius said in a press release. This data transparency site accompanies and complements the city’s Recovery Plan document. The plan’s two main goals are to create thriving and safe communities and drive equitable economic recovery and, thanks to the map-based data tool, residents can measure and track the progress and impact of these goals. According to Lucius, the effort involved “painstaking, resident-focused research and development” as the approach needed to accommodate the multiple programs involved in the $1.2 billion invested in the city in a way that was accessible to residents.

A solution like this, which considers the context of its users, needs a city enterprise rather than agency orientation. In order to design the user interfaces of the Recovery Plan tool, Lucius worked with multiple city departments in 13 different service areas to gather and clean data on various aspects of the recovery work.

Chicago has a strong history of constituent involvement in user testing. I first met its Civic User Testing group, a 1,600-plus-member civic engagement effort that involves residents with public, private and nonprofit partners in the design and deployment of technologies, while writing The Responsive City: Engaging Communities Through Data-Smart Governance.

This constituent-first perspective has played out in Chicago 311 as well, one of the country’s most advanced systems that continues to increase its relevance to residents’ needs. Recent enhancements benefited from a partnership with a local alderman interested in improving constituent services feedback. Lucius’ team worked with the alderman to utilize his constituent knowledge and experience to remake its 311 mobile app to be more responsive. The app has new GIS features that allow residents to visualize both their own requests and those of others in their neighborhood on a map, along with the status.

As a result, a new city resources section allows those who live in or visit the city, as well as its businesses, to access programs and services beyond what is simply available on the web. Now individuals can use a mobile device to pay bills, request rent assistance, apply for building permits and more. The enhanced user interface, and in particular its mapping upgrades, make it easier for residents to engage with each other and the city. Alerts automatically display timely updates and information related to city services such as identifying the location of warming and cooling centers based on current weather conditions.

Cities understand that meeting resident expectations creates trust. Part of that obligation can be met if constituents understand the expected time for a request to be addressed. Chicago 311 can now provide estimates of completion time based on data from previous requests.

The Chicago story shows us that solutions need to be made with, and not just for, the community. Resident involvement needs to extend through development and never stop. Scrubbing out bureaucratic writing and replacing it with plain language needs to be a constant effort. And that effort needs to broadly incorporate as much relevant and timely information as possible and in turn distribute it in an easily consumable manner, like via mobile app.

For cities to provide usable and timely information they need a joint front-end development process and constant revision around what is most important to residents. Transparency means so much more than simply posting information. Chicago shows us the many aspects of this good design.

This story originally appeared in the September issue of Government Technology magazine. Click here to view the full digital edition online.
Stephen Goldsmith is the Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and director of Data-Smart City Solutions at the Bloomberg Center for Cities at Harvard University. He previously served as Deputy Mayor of New York and Mayor of Indianapolis, where he earned a reputation as one of the country's leaders in public-private partnerships, competition and privatization. Stephen was also the chief domestic policy advisor to the George W. Bush campaign in 2000, the Chair of the Corporation for National and Community Service, and the district attorney for Marion County, Indiana from 1979 to 1990. He has written The Power of Social Innovation; Governing by Network: The New Shape of the Public Sector; Putting Faith in Neighborhoods: Making Cities Work through Grassroots Citizenship; The Twenty-First Century City: Resurrecting Urban America; The Responsive City: Engaging Communities through Data-Smart Governance; and A New City O/S.