Conquer Chicago’s Mountain of Data With This Powerful Tool
Chicago just launched a new website called OpenGrid, which is the city’s attempt at parsing the avalanche of data it’s been collecting for the past five years. OpenGrid is a more usable evolution of the city’s Data Portal, a bare-bones website that hosts all of the publicly available information, which includes everything from building permits to noise complaints to city employee salaries (surprise: this is the most popular data set).
OpenGrid was developed over the past six months after Chicago government officials kept hearing that the data sets were too unwieldy to make use of. “We had people looking for certain kinds of data that we knew was on the data portal, but they weren’t finding it or finding it easily enough to make it usable to them,” says Brenna Berman, commissioner of Chicago’s department of innovation and technology. Indeed, the portal, while relatively clean for a government-designed site, read as a somewhat impenetrable list of information.
Berman and her colleagues wanted to make the data more visual with the goal of making it actually open. “We don’t tout a PDF as open data,” she says. “That’s just a document.”The crux of OpenGrid is a map. Though the city has nearly 600 available data sets, OpenGrid only makes use of 80 spatially relevant information sets that can be charted to a map. These are things like pothole location, building permits, road closures. Users can filter data by type and location by drawing a boundary around a specific area.
Berman explains that most of the data on OpenGrid is administrative data collected from city systems—like 311 City Services—that are already in place. In essence, these systems are pulling double duty as a civic service and a data funnel. Every time someone calls 311 to complain about noise level, that information is passed on to OpenGrid. Chicago has done a good job of supporting the developer community, which has created civic-focused apps based on the data sets APIs. Developers have built clever apps to show where snow plows are in real-time, if sewage water has been pumped into rivers and lakes, and more civically minded apps that track what legislation has been passed by the Chicago city council. For now, the data isn’t terribly compelling to the average person, though Berman and her colleagues say getting the wider community to use the tool is the main goal. It’s hard to imagine non-developers using OpenGrid on a daily basis to get a better understanding of their neighborhood—the data is still too narrowly-focused to feel relevant for most people.
That said, OpenGrid will no doubt become more interesting to the everyday user once it begins to host more, say, environmental data—the type of information we’re seeing recorded by Chicago’s Array of Things, a project that pulls in environmental data from street corners around the city. That’s not to say OpenGrid isn’t useful. Storing information in one place, and making it more accessible via a map interface, is a good start. But making data relevant to residents is going to require pulling all of the disparate pieces of information into a narrative that shows the average resident why he or she should care. Because it’s one thing to find the data—it’s another thing entirely to understand it.