You are the data. The data is you.

When I was on the cross-country team at Gordon Technical High School, we had a running joke-slash-motivational line. After we warmed up, stretched, and started to get ready for the afternoon’s workout, someone would say, “where is the line?”. What they meant was, “where are we going to start running from?” More specifically, “where will we be when we know to stop running?”

The answer would come from someone else (it was a different person every day who asked and answered, but it was never planned). The answer was always the same: “You are the line. The line is you”.

Then we would all line up next to and behind the person who asked where the line was. Someone would set their watch, say “go”, and we’d start the run.

Running Under the Overpass

People often ask me if civic data, like the stuff available at is accurate. Tony Sarabia asked me this recently on his Morning Show. It’s a good question, especially from good journalist, because you should know your source. But the answer is that civic data is a messy manifestation of the agony and the ecstasy of the human condition: people crying out for help after being victims of crime, people submitting a service request because the lights are out on their block, someone pulling a building permit to turn a porch into a baby’s room.

When I look at PlowTracker or ClearStreets, I don’t see the fun icons or the crisp lines. I see hundreds of city workers who get into trucks and spread salt in dangerous conditions. That’s not just data. That’s human beings— our neighbors— doing their jobs; feeding their children. We can download raw data sets, send them through hoops and massage tunnels, load them on our own servers, and it’s not really ours.

Civic data is a civic treasure. Something that represents all of us. We talk a lot in government, philanthropy, and communications about “engagement”. There is nothing more engaging than a line in a spreadsheet that has us in it.

You are the line. The line is you.

Updates on Civic Innovation

I’m heading over to the Open Gov Hack Night, a group of passionate folks working at the intersection of open government, cities, and technology. Smart Chicago is a steady sponsor of these popular nights, providing the space for them at 1871, based on our seats there. Here’s some updates that I am going to share, and thought I would put them here for link-love safekeeping:

$15,000 in prize money for a state-wide winner of the Illinois Open Technology Challenge 

We are focusing on four areas of our state (Rockford, Champaign, Belleville, and the South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association) for this program. We have $75,000 in total prize money, and will award $15,000 to developers creating specific apps that meets that needs of each of the communities. The remaining $15,000 will be awarded by the Governor in a state-wide prize. Apps must use state-wide data from Complete details coming on January 30.

New data journalism radio series on WBEZ

I participated in a segment on the Morning Shift show with Tony Sarabia along with my Civic Innovation in Chicago colleagues Tim Akimoff and Matt Green. Listen for more data stories on that show. The entire Civic Innovation in Chicago project is made possible by a Community Information Grant from the Knight Foundation and the Chicago Community Trust. Additional support is provided by the MacArthur Foundation.

Hidden Civic Hacker

Last week I was in Rockford for the Illinois Open Technology Challenge and heard an amazing story of civic hacking going back to 1979. I wrote it up here.

Moar projects

I added some of my personal projects to the bottom of this spreadsheet of civic hacking projects. Add yours!

Open fare system?

The CTA is launching an “open fare initiative“. I think that means anyone can create a fare payment system that allows people to ride the train. Let’s do this!

Kicking off Civic Innovation in Chicago on WBEZ’s Morning Shift

On Wednesday, Smart Chicago Executive Director Dan O’Neil joined WBEZ’s Matthew Green and Tim Akimoff to talk about data journalism. Here’s the broadcast, which started with an amazing in-studio song by Dolly Varden:

Data journalism is the art and science of finding truth through big data produced by the day to day operations of governments and other large entities, then taking that day and using it to tell a story.  Data journalism also involves creating visualizations with data such as WBEZ’s gang map.

The Smart Chicago Collaborative is partnering with WBEZ to not only take part in data journalism, but also to raise awareness of the impact data has on our daily lives.

This will be done through WBEZ’s new data blog Day X Datum as well as by Smart Chicago’s efforts to support civic apps such as Chicago’s flu shot app and Second City Zoning.

Through this effort, Smart Chicago and WBEZ hope to connect the community to data and civic hacking efforts. Smart Chicago encourages those interested in learning how to use data to tell stories and solve civic problems are encouraged to contact the Smart Chicago Collaborative.


Turning Civic Hacking into Civic Innovation

The civic hacking community in Chicago has produced a variety of civic web applications based on open data provided by local government here in Chicago. These apps do things like show economic indicators in fun ways, let you know if your car was towed, and how & where to get a flu shot.

There are lots of reasons why civic hacking works here in Chicago— a rich baseline of data and technology, an engaged developer community, real discussions with government about policy and data, and the support of institutions are all important factors.

But what we’re missing most is sustained engagement with the residents of the city of Chicago. That’s how we can turn mere hacking into real innovation. The magic combination of government, developers, and community members is what we’re after.

First, let’s take a look at what’s working in the civic hacking world.

A rich baseline

Chicago has a long history of public data projects. I outlined a lot of this in a 2011 blog post, “Incomplete Take on the History of Open Data in Chicago”. Examples come from journalism (the Tribune’s 1986 series “American Millstone: An Examination of the Nation’s Permanent Underclass” used data to back up the narrative), government (the Chicago Police Department’s groundbreaking Citizen ICAM (Information Collection for Automated Mapping) database, and pioneering groups like the Illinois Data Exchange Affiliates.

Other elements include a recent history of influential data projects like Adrian Holovaty’s 2005 Googlemap mashup, Chicago Crime, which helped lead to the Googgle Maps API, Harper Reed’s 2008  “unofficial” Chicago Transit API, which helped unleash a slew of innovation around transit apps internationally, and the work of the Chicago Tribune News Apps team, which set a new bar for data journalism and created useful generic tools upon which other hackers can build.

An engaged developer community

A central component of the civic hacking scene is Open Gov Hacknights started by Derek Eder and Juan Pablo-Valez. They run the hack nights every Tuesday at 6:00pm in space provided by Smart Chicago at 1871 in the Merchandise Mart building. Beginners are welcome, and there is a continuity of work, as people share their progress from week to week.

Government that cares

There wouldn’t be much civic hacking without the support of government. Huge troves of state, county, and city data can be found at Government officials and workers like are critical members ot the developer community. This past Tuesday, Kevin Hauswirth from the Mayor’s office stopped by to talk about OpenGovChicago has hosted presentations from Chicago CTO John Tolva, State of Illinois CIO Sean Vinck, and staff at the County Clerk. This month we’re working with the Ilinois Department of Employment Security.

Support from institutions

I’ve come to appreciate the key role of institutions, underpinning and financing this work. Thanks to them, we provide civic hacker community a guaranteed space to work at no cost to civic hackers. We provide server space for many of these civic apps. Our Civic Innovation in Chicago project is a good example. The project is funded by a Knight Community Information Challenge grant provided jointly by the Knight Foundation and The Chicago Community Trust. The MacArthur Foundation provides additional funds, as well as strategic guidance, for our work. This allows Smart Chicago to directly pay developers like Derek Eder, giving day-job pay on what used to be a nights and weekends pursuit.

What’s currently missing? The people.

All of this is great. Two important components for civic innovation, government and developers, are here in force in Chicago. But dozens of developers looking at each other in conference rooms over pizza is never going to lead to making lives better in Chicago without the active involvement of real residents expressing real needs and advocating for software that makes sense to them. The good thing is that Chicago has assets in this area as well.

We have a long history of citizen-led battles for just policies that are informed by data. Consider that the fight against redlining was centered in Chicago:

Following a National Housing Conference in 1973, a group of Alinsky-style Chicago community organizations led by The Northwest Community Organization (NCO) formed National People’s Action (NPA), to broaden the fight against disinvestment and mortgage redlining in neighborhoods all over the country. This organization led by Chicago housewife Gale Cincotta and Shel Trapp, a professional community organizer, targeted The Federal Home Loan Bank Board, the governing authority over Federally chartered Savings & Loan institutions (S&L) that held at that time the bulk of the country’s home mortgages. NPA embarked on an effort to build a national coalition of urban community organizations to pass a national disclosure regulation or law to require banks to reveal their lending patterns.

Everyone loves CTA Bus Trackers apps, but few people know that the GPS satellite technology making that possible is the result of lawsuit brought by a group associated with the Americans Disabled for Accessible Public Transit. Their case, Access Living et al. v. Chicago Transit Authority, required “installation of audio-visual equipment on buses to announce bus stop information to riders who have visual impairments or are Deaf or hard of hearing”. When you hear the loudspeaker system announce the next street the bus is stopping at, you have defacto data activists to thank.

We need you. Your city needs you. Write me at Call me at (773) 960-6045. Get a mitt and get in this game.