Data AnalyticsStrategy Operations Jun 20, 2016

How Open Data Is Chang­ing Chicago

A Q&A with Chicago’s chief data officer about the power of big data.

Michael Meier

Based on insights from

Achal Bassamboo

Tom Schenk

Unit­ed States cities col­lect data on every­thing from report­ed pot­holes to bus rid­er­ship to munic­i­pal work­ers’ salaries. With all this info at their fin­ger­tips, they are per­fect­ly posi­tioned to take advan­tage of big data to improve their effi­cien­cy and ser­vice delivery.

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But some cities have even big­ger plans for the data they collect.

The City of Chicago’s Open Data Por­tal, an ini­tia­tive to pro­mote access to gov­ern­ment infor­ma­tion, makes over a thou­sand raw data sets pub­licly avail­able online. This allows researchers, tech­nol­o­gists, and aver­age cit­i­zens to con­duct any analy­sis they want. Online since 2010, the por­tal has grown to include reg­u­lar­ly updat­ed data from every city agency.

Kel­logg fac­ul­ty recent­ly vis­it­ed the city’s Depart­ment of Infor­ma­tion and Tech­nol­o­gy to talk big data on a trip orga­nized by the Pro­gram on Data Ana­lyt­ics at Kel­logg. After­wards, Tom Schenk, Chicago’s chief data offi­cer, sat down with Achal Bas­sam­boo, a pro­fes­sor of man­age­r­i­al eco­nom­ics and deci­sion sci­ences, to dis­cuss the evo­lu­tion of the por­tal and how data is dri­ving oper­a­tional change in the city and beyond.

This inter­view has been edit­ed for length and clarity.

Bas­sam­boo: Who are the audi­ences for the data portal?

Schenk: We see a lot of dif­fer­ent audi­ences. Some folks are inter­est­ed in trans­paren­cy — city salaries are the most viewed data set. We see aca­d­e­m­ic part­ners who use that data for research. There are what I call civic tech­nol­o­gists,” who are using that data to pro­vide infor­ma­tion or build civic appli­ca­tions. Non­prof­its and com­mu­ni­ty groups use that data to help inform what’s hap­pen­ing at the local lev­el. Tech­nol­o­gists use it to try to learn how to pro­gram and store data. Stu­dents and teach­ers use that data for class­room pur­pos­es. Mem­bers of the pub­lic use it to find out what’s hap­pen­ing around them. A lot of peo­ple ref­er­ence the data por­tal to look at crimes or oth­er activ­i­ties like busi­ness openings.

Bas­sam­boo: One of the biggest chal­lenges in deal­ing with big data sets is curat­ing them, mak­ing sure that they are prop­er­ly han­dled and that there are no mis­takes. The amount of effort that is need­ed to clean even one data set is one thing that peo­ple some­times appre­ci­ate only once they have done it. Can you talk about that process for the open data portal?

Schenk: What we pub­lish is the same data that city employ­ees use. We don’t clean the data. We sim­ply extract it and post it to the data por­tal. Clean­ing data can be quite a time sink. Try­ing to clean data before we pub­lish it would not be as pro­duc­tive as adding data sets to the data por­tal. Adding a data set increas­es what the pub­lic can do with it.

Bas­sam­boo: You want­ed to allow for more oppor­tu­ni­ties, rather than dri­ving peo­ple to use the data in cer­tain ways. How have you seen peo­ple using data dif­fer­ent­ly than you might have expected?

Schenk: One nov­el way is a web­site called How’s Busi­ness Chica­go.

On the nation­al lev­el, new home con­struc­tions and new busi­ness per­mits are lead­ing eco­nom­ic indi­ca­tors of where the U.S. GDP might be head­ing. It’s tougher on the local level.

We pub­lish all the local busi­ness per­mits on our data por­tal, and How’s Busi­ness Chica­go uses that data and some sta­tis­ti­cal analy­sis to try to give us an indi­ca­tion of where the local econ­o­my is going. When you com­bine that with oth­er indi­ca­tors, it’s some­what sim­i­lar to what we have at the nation­al account levels.

Bas­sam­boo: This open data por­tal is being used inter­nal­ly by the var­i­ous depart­ments at the City of Chica­go and also by the pub­lic. How are the data sets being used inter­nal­ly right now?

Schenk: There was a lot of atten­tion in the press about the dif­fi­cul­ty that the City of Chica­go was hav­ing meet­ing its oblig­a­tions to do food inspec­tions. There was a clear oppor­tu­ni­ty for ana­lyt­ics to help inform those deci­sions. The Depart­ment of Pub­lic Health had very pro­gres­sive lead­er­ship that was look­ing to inno­vate in a num­ber of dif­fer­ent ways, so it was easy to reach out to them and make rec­om­men­da­tions about how we could do a bet­ter job oper­a­tional­ly on a day-to-day basis.

Bas­sam­boo: Can you talk a lit­tle bit about that link between hav­ing this great infor­ma­tion and fig­ur­ing out how to incor­po­rate that data into action plans?

Schenk: We look for the small changes that we can make and insert cru­cial parts of infor­ma­tion to improve the deci­sion-mak­ing process.

It’s impor­tant to us when we are doing the research project to min­i­mize the impact on the busi­ness process — that is, to not ask too much of the man­ag­er. If any­thing, we want to make it eas­i­er for that man­ag­er to do her job.

You wouldn’t want the man­ag­er to have to come into work an hour ear­li­er to do her job bet­ter, right? That’s ask­ing too much. But if she can walk into the office, sit down at her com­put­er, and have pieces of infor­ma­tion that she did not have access to before that make it eas­i­er for her to make deci­sions, that works.

Bas­sam­boo: When we talk about oper­a­tions, the ide­al orga­ni­za­tion works through col­lab­o­ra­tive effort rather than each depart­ment doing it’s own thing. Have you seen sce­nar­ios where peo­ple or orga­ni­za­tions have used the shared data to make bet­ter deci­sions collaboratively?

Schenk: Quite often there are large lines of demar­ca­tion between depart­ments. But there are encour­ag­ing con­ver­sa­tions hap­pen­ing. For instance, the Depart­ment of Pub­lic Health is using 911 data to look at opi­oid over­dos­es, which are an epi­dem­ic late­ly. With that data, the Depart­ment of Pub­lic Health can be proac­tive in pre­vent­ing opi­oid over­dos­es, where­as before they didn’t have access to the 911 data, so they didn’t have insight into where those over­dos­es were happening.

Bas­sam­boo: Are there ways in which you feel open data, and this plat­form, can increase trust in government?

Schenk: The action of post­ing data sets makes every­thing much more trans­par­ent and eas­i­er to access. In the past, some of this data might have been pub­lic in the sense that you could have request­ed it from us, but now it’s some­thing that you can get on demand.

By mak­ing data pub­licly avail­able, I think you change the type of dis­course that you have because you’re being proac­tive­ly trans­par­ent, not reac­tive­ly trans­par­ent. Your trust mod­el changes.

For exam­ple, if some­body came up to you and told you some facts about them­selves, about their life, with­out you even hav­ing to ask that ques­tion, you would be hard-pressed to call that per­son reclu­sive. Same thing here. Proac­tive­ly pub­lish­ing infor­ma­tion makes it hard­er to say that the gov­ern­ment is being reclu­sive — and that helps increase trust.

Bas­sam­boo: What do you feel is miss­ing right now from the open data por­tal that you would like to see?

Schenk: There’s so much. There’s so much that we do in the city that we have not yet tran­scribed on the data por­tal. We have a lot of non­emer­gency activ­i­ties that we need to pub­lish to the data por­tal. Some of those basic day-to-day ser­vices that the city pro­vides — that’s prob­a­bly one of the biggest blind spots that we have right now.

Bas­sam­boo: With peo­ple com­ing to the pub­lic por­tal and tak­ing that data to use, do you feel that there’s a respon­si­bil­i­ty to cre­ate a forum where their find­ings or results have an oppor­tu­ni­ty to be shared?

Schenk: It’s easy to reach out to us by email or by social media to share those results or ask ques­tions. It’s also easy for us to reach out. We are present at com­mu­ni­ty meet­ings — every Tues­day I’m at Chi Hack Night, which is a meet­ing of civic tech­nol­o­gists who are using the data por­tal. We also go to meet­ings with com­mu­ni­ty groups across the city to solic­it their input and tell them about what we’re doing. That’s a core prin­ci­ple that we have.

About the Writer

Fred Schmalz is the business editor of Kellogg Insight.

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