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Open City

Marisa Paulson/MEDILL

Paul Baker and Derek Eder, two of the founders of Open City, point out the highest-paid lobbying firms in the city, graphically illustrated through their web application

Civic startup Open City makes Chicago more transparent

by Marisa Paulson
Jan 26, 2012

Chicago was in the midst of a snowstorm last Friday, and Laura Zumdahl was debating if she should venture out in her car. She spotted a technology brief on a Chicago news website, Gapers Block, linking to an online application called ClearStreets, which shows which streets have been recently plowed.

“It really met my need in the moment,” said Zumdahl, vice president of nonprofit services at Donors Forum. “It confirmed to me that none of the streets I was going to take had been plowed.”

Zumdahl said she was impressed with the interactive nature of ClearStreets, which allows you to see which streets were plowed within a time range you set and to search by your address or the address of your destination.

“It’s a little more visually appealing than the city’s plow tracker,” she said.

That ClearStreets application was produced in less than a week by developers Derek Eder and Forest Gregg. Eder, a developer at Webitects, and Gregg, a University of Chicago graduate student studying machine learning, noticed the city’s plow tracker tool, which shows where the snowplows are at that current time, and thought they could make it even more useful.

“We saw this site; we knew it was a good first step, but we knew there was more that could be done with that same data,” Eder said.

Eder explained they thought it would be a good idea to show where the plows have been instead of where they currently are, as the city’s website shows. Eder and Gregg heard that snow was in the forecast for Jan. 20., and sprang into action, completing the bulk of the programming and design in just one night.

By 11 a.m. on Jan. 20, just as the flakes were beginning to fall, ClearStreets was pulling data down in real time, doing calculations and updating the map with only a short time lag. It was ready for its inaugural run, and Eder and Gregg decided to tell everyone they knew about it.

In a matter of days, ClearStreets had more than 3,000 unique visitors and received press from the Chicago Tribune, Chicagoist and transportation blog Grid Chicago, in addition to Gapers Block.

Launching a new civic startup 

Eder thought the time was right to officially announce a new civic startup called Open City. Eder and Gregg, plus Paul Baker, president and co-founder of Webitects, Groupon software developer Jim Breen, Groupon engineer Chad Pry and Webitects designer Nick Rougeux formed Open City to bring highly skilled developers and designers together to complete more projects like ClearStreets based on open data.

Open data is data supplied by the government. Under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Chicago has made a big push toward increasing transparency by releasing hundreds of data sets through the city’s online data portal.

Eder said the group’s interest in creating applications from this open data started about six months ago, when the city released data sets about Chicago’s lobbyists. At the same time, an open data-centered Google Hackathon was announced at Google’s offices in River North, which Eder and his group used as a springboard to develop an interactive Chicago lobbyists application. A few weeks later, was live.

After Chicago Lobbyists was released, they noticed there were some missing pieces. The data was not specific enough to outline relationships citizens were interested in, like how much money Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. paid a lobbyist to advocate for a particular issue.

Open City reached out to Brett Goldstein, the city’s chief data officer. The city listened and gave them the additional data a few weeks later. Eder said this was something new, since it was much more challenging to get data during the Richard M. Daley administration.

“That was kind of a big deal that we went to them and we asked them nicely, then they said OK,” Eder said.

Chicago Lobbyists was Open City’s first big success, garnering attention from the city and across the U.S. Eder said the group began to think that they were doing something right, that they were onto something.

So did Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey, a Chicago Democrat who chairs the technology committee. Fritchey asked Eder and Rougeux if they could transform 18 years of county budget data into something useful for citizens.

Eder and Rougeux created, which allows visitors to clearly view budget breakdowns by year, by department, and by appropriations and expenditures.

Look at Cook was another smashing success, and other well-received applications followed. Yet no one at Open City had been paid for any of the web applications they’d created to make open data something more useful and attractive than a giant tabular file of numbers. Everyone was working on a volunteer basis outside of their full-time jobs.

“The big problem is you can’t get people to volunteer forever, even though we’re working on really interesting, exciting projects,” Baker said. “We have really high-skilled people, which I think makes us different from a lot of others.”

Finding a way to pay for it 

Consequently, the nonprofit educational organization Open City was born, so that the developers and designers creating these applications for citizens can get paid for their work, although they love what they do.

“Basically, things are screwed up [in the political sphere], and it’s what can we do as developers and designers to improve things. And one of the few things we can do is take what actually is going on and make it visible in understandable ways,” Baker said. “We want to turn low-information voters into high-information voters by letting people analyze what’s actually going on. That’s how we’re trying to help.”

More simply, Baker sees open data applications as “democracy education.”

Open City might even work for the city, if the procurement process is reformed. Open City responded to the city’s request for proposals for a Chicago lobbyist site, which includes a front-end that displays lobbying data and a back-end for lobbyists to register and pay annual fees.

Open City was already halfway there with, so surely they would have a shot at winning the proposal, right?

Their proposal was rejected, and Open City knew it would be. The city awarded an accounting firm that subcontracts web developers and designers the project instead. This was after Open City responded to the 152-page RFP (in the form of a PDF that was printed and scanned back into electronic form so it’s not searchable) and submitted five copies on a CD, as the city requested.

“That’s [the procurement process] the single biggest barrier for bringing Chicago government into the 21st century in terms of technology,” Eder said.

Emanuel announced procurement reform in the form of increased disclosure rules and reverse auctions in November, but the process has a long way to go before it’s friendly to tech startups like Open City.

Mark Headd said that civic companies nationwide are starting to see that these standard procurement rules weren’t set up with them in mind. Headd is a developer evangelist at Voxeo Labs, where he helps developers build open government and civic applications, and has built open government applications for major cities across the U.S.

“How we reconcile cities like Chicago with existing procurement rules is sort of an open question,” Headd said. “People are starting to realize it’s a problem.”

Despite the beastly procurement process, Headd said that Chicago is at the bleeding edge of how cities support new civic organizations with their most valuable resource: data.

“I think Chicago is in the vanguard of cities supporting open data,” Headd said. “And I think if you look at the administration, you’ll see some pretty enlightened officials. The folks that run the city of Chicago understand open data and support it.”

Eder said he hopes the abundance of open data encourages more entrepreneurs to start civic organizations like Open City.

“The city is releasing tons of data, all the time. In fact, they’re releasing so much data there’s not enough people building apps to even cover all of them,” Eder said. “There’s not enough people making sense of it. And that’s what we’re trying to do.”