Health Advocates Weigh Data, Equity in Obesity Targets

Health workers review the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children policy agenda on Sept. 16, 2015.

Health workers review Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children policy agenda.

Childhood obesity is a stubborn problem to reverse in communities starved for cash. In a new five-year plan, Chicago health advocates put a priority on targeting funds and tracking results.

“We are not seeing significant improvement in disparities,” dietitian and food consultant Tracy A. Fox told the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children. The group outlined its policy agenda at a Sept. 16 meeting.

A decades-long rise in obesity rates has leveled off at 17 percent, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. “It’s a plateau at an insanely high rate,” Fox said.

The overall trend also disguises rising obesity rates among minorities. “For African-Americans in particular we are seeing pretty significant increases. So I think we have our work cut out for us,” she said.

“As you discuss your policy agenda for this coalition, I would think about always viewing what you’re doing through the lens of how this would impact disparities,” Fox advised. “If you’re going into a middle- or upper- income school and you’re making significant changes, that’s really cool and that’s really nice. But are you then widening the gap between what’s happening in the city with African American and Latino kids and white middle- and upper-income kids?”

The group is refocusing priorities as both city and state lawmakers consider one of its initiatives, a tax on sugary beverages.

“There’s an argument to be made, if you’re just looking to lower consumption, then where that money goes is maybe not as important as just raising the price of soda,” said executive director Adam Becker. Still, the group is pushing for proceeds to benefit public health instead of sweetening general revenues.

“The feasibility is not really a question anymore,” Becker said. “It’s more the political will.”

The City Council health committee in September considered a penny-an-ounce tax. But its chair, Ald. George Cardenas (12th Ward) has not committed to advancing the plan. A state tax on distributors gained Chicago and suburban sponsors but has not advanced in the Legislature.

“It shows momentum,” said Elissa Bassler, chief executive of the Illinois Public Health Institute. “It’s being seriously considered as a source of revenue to improve health and invest those revenues into health initiatives.”

As new policies gain traction, data analysis has emerged as a priority. “Just because a bill got signed into an act or an ordinance passed doesn’t necessarily mean the things you intended to have happen are indeed happening,” Becker said. “A lot of the real hard work comes when you have to then monitor where things are going.”

Obesity and overweight in kindergarten, 6th and 9th grades, 2012-13 (Chicago Public Schools)

Obesity and overweight pupils in kindergarten, 6th and 9th grades, 2012-13 (Chicago Public Schools)

For example, Illinois requires schools to take body-mass measurements, but the consortium wants the data tracked to identify areas in need. In the latest review of Chicago Public Schools data, roughly half of students were overweight or obese in 11 of Chicago’s 77 community areas.

The coalition of public-health advocates wants to build on recent legislative victories. Childcare centers in Illinois now must meet standards on physical activity, nutrition, screen time and breastfeeding. The group seeks to extend the licensing requirements to child-care family homes.

Less sugar and fat are now required in subsidized school food programs, along with more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean protein and low-fat dairy. The consortium wants to maintain the higher standards and expand a federal summer nutrition program, which reaches only 15 percent of eligible children in Illinois.

“We work a lot in school breakfast,” said Bob Dolgan, executive director of the Greater Chicago Food Depository. “And it’s surprising even in low-income school districts how few administrators think about the fact that they have children coming to school without a meal and not eating until lunchtime. How can they possibly concentrate and excel in school without a meal?”

The group also pledges to spread novel ideas such as doubled food stamp benefits at farmers’ markets, a loan pool to build grocery stores in food deserts, and a “baby friendly” designation for hospitals that support breastfeeding.

And it advocates plans to encourage recreation and make streets safer. “In the first several iterations of the transportation bill, there’s been a big shift of more money for walking and bicycling,” said Melody Geracy, deputy executive director of the Active Transportation Alliance. “It is still a microscopic grain of sand in terms of the overall transportation budget. Still, it’s a target” for cost-cutters, Geracy said.

The group’s five-year plan retools an agenda set at a 2010 conference of local advocates. Policy-focused members shared a draft this spring with the group’s executive committee. Becker said national advisors provided details on policy specifics. Lurie Children’s Hospital, where the consortium is based, checked for conflicts with its own positions.

“You all as a city are probably farther ahead than a lot of even big urban cities in terms of really trying to come together with a unified agenda,” Fox told the group.

The policy document says political support is “particularly threatened” for federal health supports such as Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health. The CDC program pays for health screening in Chicago minority communities.

She advised local advocates to talk up their victories. “The more evidence base you have, the better,” she noted, but success stories from the front lines are more likely to engage lawmakers.

Local policy strategists suggested that closing gaps in outcomes will require wider access to preventive care. “Reducing disparities isn’t the same as creating equity,” said Joseph Harrington, regional health officer for the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Chicago Early Learning Finder at ChiHackNight

mReliefChicagoEarlyLearningFor the August 11th #ChiHackNight, mRelief, the City of Chicago’s Cara Bader and our own Sonja Marziano talked about the new Chicago Early Learning Finder.

The Chicago Early Learning Finder lets Chicago residents see if they are eligible for Early Childhood Programs through either the mRelief website or by texting “Hello” to 773-377-8946.

The finder works by having residents answer short and simple eligibility questions. Once completed, the finder recommends three locations based on the resident’s eligibility and preference. When the resident selects the location they want it will connect them to the Early Childhood Learning Portal where they can kick off the enrollment process.

Smart Chicago has run the Early Learning Portal since 2012. In 2013, they worked with the Azavea team to integrate SMS messaging into the portal.

At the time, here’s what Azavea had to say about the project.

“An interesting challenge the design team will face in the upcoming work will be to refine the SMS interface to the application. During the usability tests and demos of the application, we’ve received a lot of excited feedback about this feature. It provides a way for users to access the data behind the application by sending and receiving text messages. There is a dearth of resources that describe good user experience (UX) design in the realm of SMS interfaces, so through the examination of existing SMS products and iterative redesign, we are looking forward to learning some of the tricks to creating a great SMS user experience.”

With mRelief’s experience with screening for social services, they were the perfect fit to help residents understand the different options for early learning childhood programs. This is one of the largest screeners that mRelief has ever built. Here’s the timeline that they used to build the Learning Finder.


The City of Chicago paid mRelief to do this work— one of the first civic startups in Chicago to conduct business directly with the city.

To find out more about mRelief, you can visit their website at

The 606 Advisory Council converts to Park Advisory Council

606_mapLast November we hosted an OpenGovChicago event on park district advisory councils. As OpenGovChicago founder Joe Germuska put it, this was part of our ongoing effort to “learn more about existing microdemocratic systems in Chicago”. More:

In dozens of locations, several times a year, citizens get together to make their local parks and schools better, or to better understand the public safety situation in their beat. We’d like to meet the people who are active in these processes, and also people who would like to participate but are not managing to get involved. Maybe there are ways that software can help these groups gather and distribute information, to learn from their peer councils around the city, and to involve citizens who aren’t able to physically attend the meetings.”

Since that meeting, we’ve continued to help gather and maintain info on Advisory Councils. Here’s a mega-spreadsheet. Many people have contributed to this— please add any info you know!

The 606 Trail is the City of Chicago’s newest park. The park district opened last week after almost a decade of work between the community and the city.

Originally, the 606 was originally a 2.7 mile elevated train line called the Bloomingdale Line that was abandoned in 2001. Train traffic on the line had been slowing since the 1990s and the City of Chicago had brought residents of the Logan Square neighborhood together to propose an idea to turn the train line into a greenspace.

That result of that discussion was the formation of the Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail – an all-volunteer organization formed to advocate on behalf of the local community around the Bloomingdale Trail Project. Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail then partnered with The Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit, to help bring together a coalition of groups to make the 606 a reality.

Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail is now an official Park Advisory Council.

For more information on how you can get involved in Park Advisory Councils, check out the Park District website here.

Parks Take Active Health Role at Obesity Conference

LaSalle II school

Children play at LaSalle II school, 1148 W. Honore.

Health workers treating obesity in children are looking beyond what they see in clinics, to what’s at play in Chicago parks.

“Can you imagine camping in Chicago within 15 minutes of downtown?” said Zhanna Yemakov, Chicago Park District conservation manager. At the quarterly meeting of the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children, Yemakov outlined park plans for the roughly 1,000 acres of Southeast Side brownfields now among park holdings.

Other speakers addressed the city’s playgrounds, plazas and pocket parks. “Our focus is what we call a socio-ecological approach, where we look at all the factors that influence childhood obesity at all levels,” said Adam Becker, CLOCC executive director, after the June 9 conference. The focus extends beyond individual cases to family, community and the broader social and political environment.

Chicago Health Atlas

Chicago Health Atlas: Diabetes hospitalization per 10,000 residents, 2011

A 2013 city study finds Chicago Public Schools students have above-average obesity rates – 48.6 percent of sixth-graders were overweight or obese. In 8 of the city’s 77 community areas, fewer than one-third of students fell outside the healthy range; in 15 communities, it was about half.

Overweight and obesity do carry long-term risks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In children and adolescents, they include cardiovascular disease and elevated blood sugar levels that can lead to diabetes within a decade.

Obese children also are more likely to become obese adults, with higher rates of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, cancers and osteoarthritis. The Chicago Health Atlas charts variations by neighborhood in several such adult conditions, including diabetes, high blood pressure, and breast and colorectal cancers.

“If you’re focusing on one you’re not going to solve the problem,” Becker said. “We try to measure impact as best as we can, but with obesity it’s just so complicated. You can’t just say A equals B. The lines are very indirect.”

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City of Chicago Tech Plan Update

city-of-chicago-tech-planAt Techweek, City of Chicago Chief Information Officer Brenna Berman announced an 18-month update to Chicago’s Tech Plan.

Chicago’s first Tech Plan was first launched in 2013 and laid out a strategy to establish Chicago as a national and global center of technological innovation.

Since it’s launch, Chicago’s civic technology community has made significant progress towards the goals of the tech plan.

As a civic organization devoted to improving lives in Chicago through technology, Smart Chicago is proud to be heavily involved in the implementation of Chicago’s Tech Plan.

Here are some highlights from the update.

Next Generation Infrastructure

Chicago is working with internal and external partners to improve the speed, availability, and affordability of broadband across the city. The City is preparing to create a Request for Proposal for companies to design, construct, implement, and manage a gigabit-speed broadband network.

In addition to broadband infrastructure, the city is also working to digitally connect it’s infrastructure. Part of this includes the launch of The Array of Things project which will place network of interactive, modular sensor boxes around Chicago collecting real-time data on the city’s environment, infrastructure, and activity for research and public use. (You can listen to their presentation at Chi Hack Night here.) You can already get up to the hour updates on beach conditions thanks to sensors maintained by the Chicago Park District. The Department of Innovation and Technology has loaded the information onto their data portal.

Make Every Community a Smart Community

One of the major efforts of the civic technology community in Chicago is closing the digital divide in every neighborhood.

Much of the work in the coming months will focus on Connect Chicago. This citywide effort, led by Smart Chicago in partnership with LISC Chicago, Chicago Public Library, World Business Chicago, and the City of Chicago’s Department of Innovation and Technology aligns citywide efforts to make Chicago the most skilled, most connected, most dynamic digital city in America.

Here’s more from the Tech Plan about the program:

As part of this initiative, program partners are creating a profile of a fully connected digital community that can be used as a benchmark and will provide best-practice toolkits and other resources to help all Chicago communities reach this benchmark.

If you’re interested in getting involved in  – you should reach out or join the Connect Chicago Meetup!

Another big part of the City’s strategy to close the digital divide in Chicago involves the Chicago Public Library. Libraries around the city already function as public computing centers and now they provide Internet to Go – a program where residents can check out laptops and 4G modems so that they can access the internet at home.

The City of Chicago and the civic tech community is also heavily focused not only access, but on digital skills. The Chicago Public Library’s Cybernavigator Program is set to be expanded and Chicago Public School is working on implementing computer science curriculum at all schools.

On our end, Smart Chicago is working with Get In Chicago to run a youth-led tech program this summer. The conceptual model for this program is “youth-led tech”, which means teaching technology in the context of the needs & priorities of young people. Youth will learn how to use free and inexpensive Web tools to make websites and use social media to build skills, generate revenue, and get jobs in the growing technology industry. They will also learn about all sorts of other jobs in tech— strategy, project management, design, and so on.

Effective Government

The City of Chicago’s Department of Innovation and Technology is also making great progress in using data to help city government be more efficient and effective. One of their first projects, WindyGrid, is a geospatial Web application designed by the City’s Department of Innovation and Technology that strategically consolidates Chicago’s big data into one easily accessible location. WindyGrid presents a unified view of City operations—past and present—across a map of Chicago, giving City personnel access to the city’s spatial data, historically and in real time, to better coordinate resources and respond to incidents.

The City of Chicago will be open sourcing the project later this year on their Github page.

That’s not the only open source project that the city has on the books. Chief Data Officer Tom Schenk Jr recently spoke at Chi Hack Night to talk about their new system to predict the riskiest restaurants in order to prioritize food inspections. The system has found a way to find critical food safety violations seven days faster. Aside from the important aspect of less people getting sick from foodborne illness in the City of Chicago, there is another very important aspect of this work that has national impact. The entire project is open source and reproducible from end to end.

Since the release of the Tech Plan, Smart Chicago has been working with the Chicago Department of Public Health on the Foodborne Chicago project. Foodborne listens to Twitter for tweets about food poisoning and converts them into city service requests.  The Tech Plan update has some results from the project.

A study of the system, published by the Centers for Disease Control, found that during March 2013 – January 2014, FoodBorne Chicago identified 2,241 “food poisoning” tweets originating from Chicago and neighboring suburbs. The complaints identified 179 Chicago restaurant locations; at 133 (74.3%) locations, CDPH inspectors conducted unannounced health inspections. A total of 21 (15.8%) of the 133 restaurants reported through FoodBorne Chicago failed inspection and were closed; an additional 33 restaurants (24.8%) passed with conditions, indicating that serious or critical violations were identified and corrected during inspection or within a specified timeframe.

Chicago’s open data portal is also getting expanded as part of the updated Tech Plan having grown by more than 200 data sets over the last two years. Chicago was the first City to accept edits to select data sets through the City’s GitHub account.

Open311 is also getting an upgrade with the city undergoing a procurement processes to build a new 311 system. As part of the process for upgrading 311, the new system will go through user testing through the Civic User Testing Group.

Civic Innovation

A big part of the city’s strategy around civic innovation is supporting the work of civic technologists here in Chicago. As part of the Tech Plan, Smart Chicago will continue to provide resources to civic technologists like developer resources, user testing, and financial support to civic technology projects.

The Tech Plan also calls out our work with the Chicago School of Data. The two day experience was wholly based on the feedback we received from dozens of surveys, months of interviews, and a huge amount of research into the work being done with data in the service of people. If you missed the conference, here are some of the key takeaways.

The Civic User Testing Group also plays a part in the Tech Plan and has recently been expanded to include all of Cook County.

Chicago Chief Information Officer Brenna Berman stated that Chicago has the strongest civic innovation community in the country. A large part of that community has been the Chi Hack Night, now in it’s fourth year with attendance now reaching over 100 people regularly.

Technology Sector Growth

One of the most thorny issues for civic technologist is the issue of government procurement. One of the things that the city has been doing is meeting with different groups to talk about ways the city can make it easier to buy products and services from smaller business and startups. (You can see Brenna Berman’s talk at the OpenGov Chicago Meetup here.)

As part of the Tech Plan, the City of Chicago is taking this on directly. Here’s the quote from the Tech Plan:

This summer, DoIT will release a Request for Qualifications for start-up and small-sized companies to join a new pool of pre-qualified vendors eligible for future City procurement opportunities. Companies who are deemed qualified will be placed into a pool and receive access to City contract opportunities in the areas of software application development and data analytics.

To further decrease the barriers facing smaller-sized companies in competing for City business, the City has modernized its insurance requirements to allow for pooled insurance plans. Start-ups that are members of an incubator, such as 1871, or smaller companies that come together for a group insurance plan, may now meet the City’s insurance requirements as a group. Insurance requirements were identified as a barrier to conducting business with the City in a series of listening sessions conducted over the past year with these companies.

This is a huge opportunity not only for civic tech companies, but it will enable the city to take advantage of the innovation coming out of these companies.

You can read the full tech plan here.

The City of Chicago unveils predictive analytics model to find foodborne illness faster

city-of-chicago-tech-planCity of Chicago Chief Data Officer Tom Schenk Jr spoke at last week’s Chi Hack Night to talk about their new system to predict the riskiest restaurants in order to prioritize food inspections – and has found a way to find critical violations seven days faster.

Below, we’ve put up the slides from their presentation as well as the highlight video:

The problem with the way that most cities conduct food inspections is that by law they have to inspect all of them. However, the number of restaurants far outweigh the number of inspectors. In Chicago, there’s one inspector for every 470 restaurants. Since they have to inspect them all, the normal way of doing this is random inspections. However, the team knew that the residents wouldn’t get foodborne illness at random restaurants – they would get sick from those few restaurants who don’t follow all the rules.

The Department of Innovation and Technology partnered with the Chicago Department of Public Health and staff from Allstate Insurance to see if they could use analytics predict which restaurants would have critical violations. (Side note: It’s a brilliant move on the part of the City and the Allstate to contribute volunteer hours using something that actuaries specialize in.)  Some of the data sets used to make these determinations were:

    • Establishments that had previous critical or serious violations
    • Three-day average high temperature (Not on the portal)
    • Risk level of establishment as determined by CDPH
    • Location of establishment
    • Nearby garbage and sanitation complaints
    • The type of facility being inspected
    • Nearby burglaries
    • Whether the establishment has a tobacco license or has an incidental alcohol consumption license
    • Length of time since last inspection
    • The length of time the establishment has been operating

 All of the data, with the exception of the weather and the names of the individual health inspector, come directly from the city’s data portal. (Which builds on the city’s extensive work in opening up all this data in the first place.) When factoring all of these items together, the research team was able to provide a likelihood of critical violations for each establishment, which was developed to prioritize which ones should be inspected first.

In order to test the system, they conducted a double-blind study over a sixty day period to ensure the model was correct.

The system has gotten rave reviews and coverage from a number of publications and entities including Harvard University, Governing Magazine, and WBEZ’s Afternoon Shift.

Aside from the important aspect of less people getting sick from foodborne illness in the City of Chicago, there is another very important aspect of this work that has national impact. The entire project is open source and reproducible from end to end. We’re not just talking about the code being thrown on GitHub. (Although, it is on the city’s GitHub account.) The methodology used to make the calculations is also open source, well documented, and provides a training data set so that other data scientists can try to replicate the results. No other city has released their analytic models before this release. The Department of Innovation and Technology is openly inviting other data scientists to fork their model and attempt to improve upon it.

The City of Chicago accepts pull requests as long as you agree to their contributor license agreement.

Having the project be open source and reproducible from end to end also means that this projects is deployable to other cities that also have their data at the ready. (Which, for cities that aren’t, the City’s also made their OpenETL toolkit available as well.)

The Department of Innovation and Technology has a history of opening up their work and each piece they’ve released (from their data dictionary to scripts that download Socrata datasets into R data frames) builds on the other.

In time, we may not only see Chicago using data science to improve their cities – but other cities building off the Chicago model to do so as well.

You can find out more about the project by checking out the project page here.