Rakesh Dubbudu: My stay with Smart Chicago Collaborative

Editor’s Note: The following post is from our international fellow Rakesh Dubbudu. Rakesh spent a few weeks with us learning about civic innovation in Chicago. Rakesh works as an open data advocate in India as one of the co-conveners of the National Committee for People’s Right to Information.


Before I arrived in the USA, I was unsure of the learning & exchange during this trip. Though my interest centered on good & effective governance using technology & data, I was unclear about the specifics. During the orientation in Washington DC, I came to know that I would spend three weeks in Chicago with the ‘Smart Chicago Collaborative’. It was time for a quick google search to check what Smart Chicago was doing. I understood a little about Smart Chicago’s work.

I’m in Chicago for more than 10 days now and there has been quite a bit of action in these 10 days. I will start with the learning and things that impressed me the most.

Smart Chicago Initiatives

It took me quite some time to understand the projects that Smart Chicago is currently doing. Out of all the projects, ‘Chicago Works for you’ stood out for me for multiple reasons. For one, this is something that every modern city needs. The ‘Open 311’ is replicable since issues faced modern cities are more or less similar.

Another initiative that caught my attention was the ‘Civic Works Project’. Open data will really be useful when applications that make use of this data are built. This project in a way achieves that goal. Multiple applications were developed using the data provided by either the city or the county. Some of the applications might be relevant only to the American context, but nevertheless, the ideas could be worked on to suit the context of a particular country. Foodborne Chicago, mRelief, Convictions in Cook Country, Expunge.io are some of the interesting apps developed using the data. These may not have ready application in some other country, but the ideas are worth looking at.

The ‘Chicago Health Atlas’ is another project that can easily be replicated. Public health is an important issue world over and such data at the fingertips helps policymakers and the executive plan better. I believe that the health atlas has numerous applications both at the macro and micro level.

The work with the ‘Cook County Open Data Portal’ is another interesting project. Counties and cities having their own open data portals are very relevant for India since the open data culture is still nascent back home. I would definitely take it up with my local government back in Hyderabad about the need to have a city data portal.

It is also surprising that a team with just three full timers has been able to drive these things. It is an interesting model of building an eco system with consultants & relevant organizations.

As I kept meeting more people and understanding more about the open data, the original question that I am grappling with for a few years now became more relevant. How do make ordinary citizens ‘Date Literate’?

Visit to the Knight Lab

I learnt about the ‘Knight Lab’ in one of my discussions. It was very interesting to note that the lab was also working towards developing tools that can make data reading easier. Rather, it was also trying to answer the question of ‘Date Literacy’. I met with Joe Germuska of the Knight Lab and had a very fruitful discussion about data and its use. I was pretty impressed with all the tools developed by Knight Lab for data journalism and I believe that in such tools and presentation lays the answer to the question of ‘Data Literacy’.

Attending the Open Gov Hack Night

I had been to hackathons back I Hyderabad. Something that always bothered me was the lack of diversity in the group that would land up at the hackathon. More often, you find only coders in these hackathons who may or may not have the social perspective to develop potential applications. My experience at the OpenGov Hack Night was refreshingly different. It was heartening to see technologists, people in public service (administration), domain experts come together. I spoke about the Right to Information Legislation in India and had enriching interactions with multiple people.

Back home, we are working on a portal to take data closer to people. And in this context, data literacy and how to make data more useful to the common man on the street is a vital question for me. Am yet to find a convincing answer to it, but I learnt about a few ways & means of taking data closer to people. Am hopeful that by the end of this visit, I will find an answer to this question.