Good News!!! The Smart Chicago team is moving and now will be co-located with the City Digital Team at UI Labs. As such, our individual emails will be changing to:

Kyla Williams 

Sonja Marziano

Denise Linn     

Leslie Durr       

Our new mailing address is 1415 N. Cherry Avenue Chicago, IL 60642 and general phone number is 312.281.6900.

Please check our website at or follow us on twitter @smartchicago for more updates.

We appreciate your patience during this time of transition.

Toward a Municipal Ping Service

pingThe death of RSS (Real Simple Syndication) has made the Web less fluid. This is not a good thing. The good thing is that American cities are uniquely positioned to make a dent in this trend.

The popularity of this recent tweet by my colleague Harper Reed is a good indication of yearning for a generic subscription system for content updates:

Alongside the demise of RSS is the rise of proprietary timeline systems like Facebook and Twitter. This is a poor substitute because 1/ the systems are not universal and 2/ those systems are closed to aggregation, remixing, and analysis.

Cities can be at the center of part of a solution. 81% of people in the United States live in cities & surrounding suburbs, and this number continues to grow. This approaches some level of universality of experience, since interaction with businesses in these places make up a large percentage of the American experience. This includes every school, restaurant, coffee shop, parking spot, store. It covers nearly every review on Yelp, every check-in on Foursquare, any post of Facebook that relates to a business or organization located in a specific place.

Each municipality has rules, regulations, and processes governing the creation and maintenance of businesses. More importantly, each municipality has issued each business a unique ID (a “handle”) to which it can be referred, but never is. Whether it is a building permit, a liquor license, or a certificate of occupancy, there are amazingly detailed records on every business in every city of size.

These handles could be used as a trusted reference point for all other services. The overall repository of these numbers can then serve as a central, trusted repository for all other services to reference.

What if every review on Yelp, every Google Places page, every Facebook post that referenced a business, had this unique ID embedded in it in some way? And if all of these systems allowed for all of this disparate data to be aggregated into a complete view of the place? What if you could reference a location when making a service request? “The snow in front of Business 127 hasn’t been shoveled in three days”. Or, as a private business, you could lookup everything a city knows about a place. If it could be integrated with existing services  like Open Table (“new tomatoes delivered to Restaurant 77. That means that the Fried Green Tomatoes special is on the menu”.) Unlimited.

It could be the trusted external source, not owned by any proprietary system. And it could be a platform upon which cities can start using their public data stores in more meaningful ways.


Smart Chicago and the Concept of “Patient Centered”

Health Data LiberationWe have a number of health programs here at Smart Chicago, all of which are run by my colleague, Kyla Williams. In working on these projects, I’ve come across a number of intriguing concepts, just like one would in any sub-speciality. Chief of these concepts, for me, is “patient-centered”.

To me, a phrase like this is a tell. Any time an industry, company, or organization starts talking about “user-driven”, “customer-focused”, or “patient-centered” strategies, it is an indication that they’ve not been driven, focused, or centered in that direction in the past.

I’ve spent the majority of my career in the world of developing Web sites. In that sub-specialty, the idea of being focused on users is pretty much all there is. If you don’t have users, if you’re not making something that appeals to them and serves their needs, you’ve got nothing.

I don’t have any particular insight into the healthcare industry, since I’ve never worked in it. I can tell you from personal experience as a consumer of healthcare and as a general observer of pop culture, however, that I’ve never felt that patients were at the center of the experience.

Patient portals seem designed to deliver as little information as possible and optimize for medical professionals. Exporting information to give to other caregivers is cumbersome. Integration with email is weak— you have to log in to the system to get even the most innocuous information, like the details of a visit you just scheduled over the phone.

In 2015, we are embarking on and expanding a number of initiatives designed to get us deeper into the patient-centered trend. Our CUTGroup methodology is a recognized as a leading way to gather and act on the feedback of regular residents. The Smart Health Centers model, where we help place trained health information specialists in clinics to assist patients in connecting to their own medical records and find reliable information about their own conditions, is deeply patient-centered. Our Health Data Liberation Meetup Group is at the conceptual forefront for patient control

We think we have a lot to offer, and we’re excited about the work to come.


The Participatory Approach to Open Data

In the beginning, government data was stored on pieces of parchment and kept in bureau. Only the government employees knew where all the documents were thus giving us the word: bureaucrat.


Today, government is different. Now cities across the country are putting government data on data portals that can be accessed by anyone and everyone. Not to long ago, if governments put an PDF online it was considered open government. Now it’s a punchline.

Having vast stores of government data is great, but to make this data useful – powerful – takes a different type of approach. The next step in the open data movement will be about participatory data.

Systems that talk back

311 Service Tracker Chicago

One of the great advantages behind Chicago’s 311 ServiceTracker is that when you submit something to the system, the system has the capacity to talk back giving you a tracking number and an option to get email updates about your request. What also happens is that as soon as you enter your request, the data get automatically uploaded into the city’s data portal giving other 311 apps like SeeClickFix and access to the information as well.

Given the fact that it used to be that no information was sent back when you reported something to 311, but it’s not participatory. There’s no room for feedback in the current system. That may change soon as the City of Chicago is putting out a bid for a new 311 system that “provide a holistic, transformative solution to help the City of Chicago provide world-class resident relationship management services.”

Participatory Legislative Apps

We already see a number of apps that allow user to actively participate using legislative data.

At the Federal level, apps like PopVox allow users to find and track legislation that’s making it’s way through Congress. The app then allows users to vote if they approve or disapprove of a particular bill. You can then send explain your reasoning in a message that will be sent to all of your elected officials. The app makes it easier for residents to send feedback on legislation by creating a user interface that cuts through the somewhat difficult process of keeping tabs on legislation.

At the state level, New York’s OpenLegislation site allows users to search for state legislation and provide commentary on each resolution.

At the local level, apps like Councilmatic allows users to post comments on city legislation – but these comments aren’t mailed or sent to alderman the same way PopVox does. The interaction only works if the alderman are also using Councilmatic to receive feedback.

In the end, legislative data tends to lend itself community discussion – that’s the way the legislative process is supposed to work. But what about data that’s not generated by elected officials?

Crowdsourced Data

Chicago has hardwired several datasets into their computer systems, meaning that this data is automatically updated as the city does the people’s business.

But city governments can’t be everywhere at once. There are a number of apps that are designed to gather information from residents to better understand what’s going on their cities.

In Gary, the city partnered with the University of Chicago and LocalData to collect information on the state of buildings in Gary, IN. LocalData is also being used in Chicago, Houston, and Detroit by both city governments and non-profit organizations.

Another method the City of Chicago has been using to crowdsource data has been to put several of their datasets on GitHub and accept pull requests on that data. (A pull request is when one developer makes a change to a code repository and asks the original owner to merge the new changes into the original repository.) An example of this is bikers adding private bike rack locations to the city’s own bike rack dataset.

Going from crowdsourced to participatory

Shareabouts is a mapping platform by OpenPlans that gives city the ability to collect resident input on city infrastructure. Chicago’s Divvy Bikeshare program is using the tool to collect resident feedback on where the new Divvy stations should go. The app allows users to comment on suggested locations and share the discussion on social media.

But perhaps the most unique participatory app has been piloted by the City of South Bend, Indiana. CityVoice is a Code for America fellowship project designed to get resident feedback on abandoned buildings in South Bend.

CityVoice takes the abandoned building dataset and tags each one with a property call-in number. Residents then call the number and leave a voicemail commenting about how they feel about the property. Do they want the property to be demolished? Do they want it left alone so somebody can buy it? And what reasons? What’s the context?

The CityVoice provides a great platform for residents to participate in the process of deciding what buildings get demolished or left standing. Because the input is done by phone, residents not comfortable with the internet can still leave feedback. You can watch the South Bend Fellows talk about their app here:

While the civic innovation community has created a number of apps that make it easy to understand government data, the next phase should be taking this data and using the data to facilitate dialog between decision makers and residents.

There are a number of areas that are prime targets for this kind of app including public safety and participatory budgeting.  At the basic level, government data is all about the people and we look forward to seeing a more participatory approach to this data.