Incomplete Take on the History of Open Data in Chicago

In light of today’s official open data launch by Cook County, I wanted to do a top-of-the-head post about what I know– and what I’ve heard from people who know more– about the history of open data in Chicago.

Data journalism has long been a main driver of the open data movement. The current (and most sophisticated) incarnation is the excellent News Apps Team at the Chicago Tribune. Stories like those in the Tribune’s 1986 series American Millstone: An Examination of the Nation’s Permanent Underclass used data to back up the narrative. The Sun-Times’ Pulitzer-winning stories about the impact of shootings is partly a result of their dogged efforts to get data.

Government technology workers themselves have been at the center of every open data project I can think of. Complete GIS (geographic information systems) data, including all street segments, applicable address ranges, and shape files for the city limits and other relevant boundaries, have been available for download on the City’s Web site for years. One-off databases like the long-running license lookup tool maintained by the State of Illinois Department of Financial & Professional Regulation is another example of existing data that has whetted appetites.

Chicago has been a leader in the publication and display of crime data going back 15 years. The Chicago Police Department launched their Citizen ICAM (Information Collection for Automated Mapping) database– a mapping program inside police stations to run on PCs running Windows 95 based on MapInfo 2.0 software. Later renamed CLEARMap (CLEAR stands for Citizen Law Enforcement Analysis and Reporting– my goodness, governments love acronyms that make words and near-words), this is the data that fed the groundbreaking ChicagoCrime.org. Here’s a fascinating 1996 report by the National Institute of Justice lauding the program:

Without the painstaking work of the GIS professionals at the City’s technology department, and the 1993 creation of CAPS (Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy), there would have been no data with which to create any Chicago crime-oriented projects. Which is not to say that CLEARMap was an “open data” project– it just so happened that the data was open.
Open data in Chicago was also driven by nonprofits like the Metro Chicago Information Center (MCIC). Here’s them:
Founded in 1990, Metro Chicago Information Center (MCIC) was created by members of the Commercial Club of Chicago to collect demographic and baseline data on social policy and human needs on a regular basis in order to create a more complete picture of the 7-county metropolitan Chicago region, thereby empowering the nonprofit sector with critical information to make better strategic development decisions.
  • Society works best when information is generally available
  • Government works best when information is shared across divisions
  • Web technology gives unprecedented opportunities for making data available
  • Ensuring access to public data requires clear guidelines on how, when and with whom data is to be shared
THEREFORE, we seek to advance the coordination of and access to public information.
The County deserves a lot of credit for getting a mitt and getting in the game on open data. Their work is creative and thoughtful. The simple “Make the Tough Choices” tool indicates to me that open data is just one part of an overall commitment to engage with residents on how to solve our problems. Because they have to. Look at Cook– the budget exploration tool from Commissioner John Fritchey– is another example of something created to inform and engage. Now all we need to do is get informed and get engaged. Because we have to.
Slightly stretching the Chicago connection, the Open Data movement got succor when some dude from Chicago was elected President of the United States. On his first full day in office, he published Executive Orders with regard to transparency and open government. This substantive work continues, including this week’s launch of the Open Government Partnership as a major part of our country’s foreign policy.
This is where it’s at– open data as a key component of other, essential policies and modes of interaction among governments and the people they serve. That’s why these efforts by Cook County– all done in the context of other data released by the City of Chicago and the State of Illinois– represent a great step forward. There is a nascent cohesiveness to open data in Chicago. Government policy, markets, consumer needs, and developers need to be in synch for us to go beyond mere data. Groups like OpenGovChicago– started and nurtured by many of the groups and people represented in this history– is one place where we gather to trade ideas. Join us!
Also: what did I miss? Let me know below.
UPDATE, 9/24/11:
Another data-informed series was the Tribune’s “Chicago schools: ‘worst in America': an examination of the public schools that fail Chicago” from 1988 (h/t@richgor).
UPDATE, 9/25/11:
Data intermediaries like those who are part of the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership have also been there from the beginning. One example from 1987 is a consortium called the Illinois Economic DataBase (reffed here). It included the University of Illinois Chicago Center for Urban Economic Development and corporate partners like the Federal Reserve Bank, People’s Gas, and First National Bank of Chicago. They tried to get data out of the Illinois Department of Employment Security and data on economic activity, that would help local governments understand their economy better. MCIC President Virginia Carlson was a part of the consortium while at UIC, and she reports that the IED published hardcopy data for a year or two in the late 80’s early 90’s, but stopped thereafter.
– via VL_Carlson via her excellent post “Getting the Digital Goods“, wherein she writes of this time period, makes a good case for nonprofit primacy in this sphere, and reminds us that the publication of “statistical data — data that surveyors and researchers collect through observation and experimentation”– lags.

About DXO

Executive Director of Smart Chicago Collaborative. Some dude on the Internet. Ethics: http://goo.gl/qxnUC

7 thoughts on “Incomplete Take on the History of Open Data in Chicago

  1. Dan – thanks for this – great job of integrating the various moving pieces. What strikes me is a meme that peeks out from this – open data is as much a matter of political will as it is a technological problem. And that’s never changed.

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