Getting To Know Chicago Through Open Grid

Jan 20, 2016   |   Adam J. Hecktman

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City government open data portals go a long way to providing transparency, accountability, and the foundation for civic technologists and community organizers alike to tackle challenges in the urban environment. If city data portals provide vehicle for that data transparency, Open Grid provides the vehicle for the true democratization of the data and the analysis lit up by that data.

There is nothing wrong with city data portals. These portals provide lists of data sets that government entities have made available to the public to download and use as they will. Data portals are great when you have a clear picture of the problem you want to solve, you know what data you need to solve it, and you are comfortable using a data portal.   Open Grid is great for those users too, plus everyone else.

Open Grid is an open source platform that allows residents to look at a map of the city, draw a space or drop a pin around an area, and find out what is going on in that geography by adding data maintained by the city. It is a tool meant for the masses, in that will allow the public to navigate Chicago’s open data in a very intuitive way.

As an example, if you want to know what construction is going on in your neighborhood, drop a point on the map, give it a radius, and add the building permits data. Want to know what the weather will be like when that construction starts? Overlay the weather map on top of it. Want to know what the city government has done for you lately? You can see the closed 311 requests around your neighborhood. As City of Chicago CIO Brenna Berman said, “Open Grid lets residents of Chicago know their community deeply”.

Why is the city undertaking this? It is about taking civic engagement to a whole new level. By creating a user interface that makes it easy for the casual web user to see what is going on in their neighborhood, their business place, or the entire city in an easy way, data visualization and analysis is being opened up to the non-technical resident and business owner.   According to Dan O’Neil, Executive Director of Smart Chicago Collaborative (who is hosting the site), “it is about creating a common understanding to make important decisions…this is not about technology. It is about technology having real impact for real people”.

Chicago Chief Data Officer Tom Schenk, Jr. also stresses the everyday user. “Open Grid allows residents to do more with Chicago’s data”, he noted while launching the product at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Electronic Visualization Laboratory:

Open Grid is being positioned as a tool to facilitate collaboration between city government and citizens. Beyond that, the development of the product itself was a collaboration. Dan O’Neil called it a “communion between residents, developers, and government”. In addition to Smart Chicago Collaborative, the city partnered with Argonne National Labs, the University of Chicago, the folks on the Plenar.io project, and Chicago-based U Turn Data Solutions (who I met for the first time at the launch). They also leveraged some funding from the Mayor’s Challenge from the Bloomberg foundation.

The city is not waiting for perfection to roll this out. It is live with a good number of data sets available for residents to explore. Similarly, the city is not waiting to get opinions and contributed thought power. Tom Schenk is presenting it tonight to Chicago’s civic tech community at Chi Hack Night, and has already started getting feedback from of that community on Slack. Being an open source project, it can be leveraged by cities around the country. This is the beginning of something big. Something collaborative.

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Adam J. Hecktman
Adam J. Hecktman

You may recognize Adam. He’s a regular on TV, you can hear him on the radio, he’s penned numerous articles and is the co-founder of the Chicago City Data Users Group. But some of Adam’s most important work is done behind the scenes in his role as Microsoft’s Director of Technology and Civic Engagement for Chicago. Tech giants, universities and government leaders turn to Adam for guidance on all matters technology, and he happily obliges, helping Chicago overcome challenges and capitalizing on new, exciting opportunities.