Mayor Emanuel touts expansion of Chicago’s open data effort, and this is why you should care

December 12, 2012

Mayor Rahm Emanuel signed an order this week to crack open the city’s digital information egg.

The Open Data Executive Order, signed on Monday, would expand and formalize Emanuel’s effort to open up the city’s digital information trove, which the mayor says will increase government accountability.

“An open and transparent administration makes it easier for residents to hold their government accountable, but it also serves as a platform for innovative tools that improve the life of all residents,” Emanuel said in a statement.

The announcement is a big step that didn’t get a lot of attention.  Actually, it got almost no attention. The Executive Order (No. 2012-2) formalized Chicago’s “open data” effort and set into motion the players and processes that will drive it.

According to the mayor’s office, the chief data officer (CDO), a position Emanuel created upon entering office, will coordinate the implementation of the order.

The CDO will convene an Open Data Advisory Group consisting of open data coordinators appointed from each Chicago agency, who will assist the CDO in establishing timelines for implementing the order, according to a release by the mayor’s office.

Up until Monday, the city’s policy has been organically grown. Now with the order, it has an official charter to emulate other cities’ policies – and grow what Chicago has already done.

In New York and San Francisco, legislation was crafted to effect policies and datasets that would increase transparency and quality of city life.

Much of that language and structure is present in Emanuel’s executive order (linked here).

“Data” means final versions of statistical or factual information that (i) are in alphanumeric form reflected in a list, table, graph, chart or other non-narrative form, that can be digitally transmitted or processed; and (ii) are regularly created or maintained by or on behalf of a city agency and are controlled by such city agency; and (iii) record a measurement, transaction or determination related to the mission of an agency.

Also, the order calls for the creation and appointment of “open data coordinators,” which emulates the practice of other cities. 

“The head of each city agency shall designate from within the city agency an open data coordinator, who shall (i) assist the city agency in implementing its duties under this Order; (ii) serve on the open data advisory group; (iii) upon request, meet with the open data advisory group to discuss any matter pertaining to implementation of this Order; and (iv) assist DOIT (Department of Innovation and Technology) in the preparation of the annual open data compliance report required under Section 8 of this Order and in connection with the publication of data sets.“

The order indicates that the CDO will determine the standards by which agencies such as the Chicago Transit Authority, Chicago Police Department, Chicago Public Schools, etc. will report their records. 

The mayor’s office said it will also engage with the public and outside experts on how to best implement and improve data sets. Currently, the public can suggest data sets that are not listed on the city’s data portal site.

Chicago’s open data push was launched by Chapin Hall and financed was financed through a $300,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation.

What now?

Cities have recently touted open data initiatives, but what exactly does that mean to citizens?

For one, greater access to information about how the city works.

You may ask: Doesn’t the Freedom of Information Act step in when you need this type of information?  The answer is yes, however some data sets are so large and updated so frequently that you would almost need automated reporting for it to be useful.

To put it into context, imagine the information-gathering juggernaut that is Facebook.  Millions of users input photos, status updates, geolocations to the social network and to applications such as FourSquare, Instagram and others. 

But for the techies: it’s millions of users entering billions and trillions of bytes of information, all of which can be correlated in data sets.

User | Tags | Caption/Status | Time | Date | Photo | Location | Comments

The social interaction and intersection of these “data sets” creates a construct that can be analyzed. Let’s say “trending.” Something new, right?

Now, imagine an entity that has the task of doing things such as educating children, policing streets, managing traffic, inspecting food or making the trains run on time.

And now have these individual agencies make pretty frequent status updates.  Most of this has been done for decades to manage personnel, logistics and budgeting.  But it was rarely opened up for public record.

When news media gets ahold of these data sets, we get all sorts of fun information on contracts, lobbyist activities, budgets, transit ridership, city employee salaries, receipt reimbursements by employees. (Did you know one of the most expensive items for reimbursements in the city is helicopter training?)

Employee Reimbursements

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The data sets save reporters from a lot of tedious record-gathering, or what typically meant pulling public records from various departments and photocopying a lot of documents. 

When urban planners, health experts and public policy wonks get ahold of the data, it makes it possible to actually create laws and policy based on trends and need. 

Do we need more protected bike lanes? Well, a handy map of bike crashes would help inform that decision.

Do we need more public park space for kids? Well, you can take a map of existing park districts and overlay it with census data on areas where births are on the rise.

When tech nerds get ahold of these data sets we get helpful mapping sites and mobile apps that tell us where to vote, where to register CPS students or zoning boundaries.

In August, former WBEZ intern, Matt Connolly, took CTA Red Line data to chart out annual ridership numbers by station. The CTA data was vizualized as such:

“By making more data available to residents and developers, we are better able to move past administrative and technical hurdles so that we can find solutions to the city’s most complex problems,” said Brett Goldstein, the city’s chief data officer and commissioner of the Department of Innovation and Technology.

Mobile apps on topics from transit to garbage pickup are often powered by an application programming interface, or API.  Apps utilize the data to tell you weather conditions based on location or when your next bus and train will arrive.

Many developers rely on the scraping of information from public APIs, and often, a municipality can save money and increase the likelihood of a private entity developing an app by making the data publicly available.

For city services, datasets would allow the Department of Streets and Sanitation to map out recycling pickup zones: one of the data sets released in tandem with the announcement of the order.  It would also makes available crime data, which the Chicago Police Department lists on their public portal site. That data is also utilized by sites such as the Chicago Tribune’s Crime in Chicago app or neighborhood news aggregator and forum EveryBlock.

The city is joined by Cook County and the state of Illinois in this effort.  In September, Gov. Pat Quinn issued a similar executive order for state agencies to collect and publish data on Last year, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle launched  All three governments are collaborating and publishing the work jointly on