Code for America: City of Chicago Edition

October 21, 2014 by Nate Williams

I had a chance to attend an excellent meetup of the Chicago City Data User Group last week, which focused on Chicago’s contribution to the Code for America Summit:

The Code for America Summit is THE annual convening for civic technology. This year’s summit (which took place in San Francisco in September) saw 800 government, tech, and civic engagement leaders from dozens of cities to talk about ways to make their cities work better. Civic-minded technologists, designers, community organizers, and entrepreneurs heard best practices, discussed emerging ideas, and showcased the latest tools being used in this space.

Christopher Whitaker opened the session and shared the story of Code for America and the integral role Chicago has played since the beginning. It’s a really cool movement that has grown to over 50 cities across the U.S. and continues to expand.

Much of the local open data movement had its start with the efforts of the Smart Chicago Collaborative. A key ingredient was also the willingness of the City of Chicago to open up city data and make civic data available publicly. Interestingly, the city followed a bottom-up approach, with a committed effort by city IT staff members to make data sets available and advocate open data in their own right.

Another great Chicago initiative is the Open Gov Hack Night, which is well attended and strongly supported by the local data science community. Some of their projects include Open 311, which makes it easier to report city issues, the Chicago Crash Browser, which tracks hot spots for bicycle crashes, and a lot of other great development work.

And it seems these efforts are getting noticed – recently, the Midwest was selected as the first Code for America Brigade region.

Code for america brigade logo

Four additional projects were highlighted at the meetup:

Large Lots (Demond Drummer from Teamwork Englewood and Derek Eder)

Chicago owns over 10,000 vacant lots across the city that are not producing any value for residents. Earlier efforts to make these lots available to community residents involved a lot of red tape and fell short of expectations, so the city wanted to take a new approach and sought help to launch a pilot project.

Working in collaboration with Teamwork Englewood, the civic tech community all pitched in and created Large Lots (in about a week!) that was a big success – the community response was 5x what the city expected. With some further work, the team streamlined the application process and a second pilot was launched. A key takeaway from this was to “work with, not for”, that is, to understand existing issues with stakeholders, not trying to solve issues in a vacuum. Also, as a result of this bottom-up innovation, the team saw how technology can enable civic policy to scale.

Large lots logo

Open ETL Utility Kit (Tom Schenk, Jr., Chief Data Officer of the City of Chicago)

The Chief Data Officer of Chicago, Tom Schenk, presented on a recent city IT initiative to streamline one of the pain points with delivering the city’s data to the public – extracting and refreshing the source data on a regular basis. Currently, Chicago makes over 600 open data sets available through a heavily trafficked data portal. The city originally used an assortment of custom scripts to update this data, but this approach was difficult to maintain. So the city has developed a more flexible and scalable Open ETL Utility Kit to replace these custom scripts.

Because ETL is a major obstacle and cost for other open data initiatives, Chicago wanted to share this work to make it easier for other cities to create their own data portals. So in keeping with the approach of open data projects, the city has made the source code and documentation for this new ETL toolkit freely available. The Open ETL Utility Kit is all open source and available on GitHub.

Plenar.io (Derek Eder from DataMade)

One of the things about civic data, is that much of it relates to space and time, so unless these data sets are displayed in a map-based or time-oriented way they can be hard to visualize and understand. To tackle this problem, DataMade created Plenar.io in collaboration with the University of Chicago Urban Center for Computation and Data to be a hub for working with open data sets from around the world. Exploring data is really just the starting point; the idea is that Plenar.io can be a foundation for developers to build specialized applications. It’s currently in alpha, but it’s pretty slick and worth checking out.

Expunge.io (Cathy Deng from DataMade)

Did you know you can expunge your juvenile arrest records? Some kid may have made a dumb mistake growing up, then got things together. However, their arrest record can have a very serious impact later in life when trying to get a job. Well, even if you knew that, how would you take care of it? Expunge.io helps people do this in a way that is both easy and accessible. It’s the “low hanging fruit” in the civic data space that can have a huge impact on people’s lives. Check out Cathy’s slide deck, her Code for America presentation and, of course, let folks know about the app.

Expunge IO public service announcement

Really great stuff happening with open data and data projects for social good! I’m delighted to be in Chicago, where so much of this is happening right now.