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Conner Forrest/Medill

Derek Eder is one of the co-operators of Open City, a collective in Chicago.

App lifts veil on government policy for Chicagoans

by Conner Forrest
Jan 24, 2013


2nd City Zoning uses the "Maps" feature of Google Inc. to show zoning information.

The confusion surrounding government legislation may soon be a relic of the past for Chicago residents. 2nd City Zoning turns Chicago’s zoning ordinance into an easy-to-use web application designed to help users understand city development.

Derek Eder and Juan-Pablo Velez, hackers who operate a volunteer group of tech experts known as Open City, created the app. 2nd City Zoning allows a user to type in an address or intersection, or click on a district for its zoning information and compare it with other zone types. The app also offers simplified definitions of zoning terms to help users better understand them.

“Zoning is one of those things that is kind of hairy, it’s kind of wonky as far as subjects go; but, it’s so important because it actually drives the urban fabric for the city of Chicago,” Eder said. “It’s the rules you have to follow for the built environment in Chicago, and it’s very important for people to know about when you’re in certain situations.”

Open City builds apps that are completely open source, meaning the code behind the apps is given back to the Internet community for free use with no licensing or payment. The group has built about 10 apps so far and has another three in the works, all related to civic matters. Eder said the collective is apolitical and operates under these terms when building apps:

- It is built with open [freely available] data.
- It is 100 percent open source, meaning the source code is available for anyone to use and reuse.
- It is civic in nature.

“We’re interested in using technology to have data-driven policy making and bad-ass bureaucracy,” Velez said. He added that Open City wants to give context to legislation and it wants to use technology to “improve the interface between government and citizens.”

The app has the potential to affect many aspects of life in Chicago. Upon hearing the idea of the app, Brian Bernardoni, a realtor in Chicago, said that he thinks it is a positive sign and that it could interest people in development in Chicago.

“Most of the barriers coming into Chicago are regulatory,” Bernardoni said. While a business could be interested in coming to Chicago, navigating the zoning code can be tough.

Zoning issues in almost any major city used to require careful reading of thick documents riddled with legalese. The app is aimed at anyone who might need zoning information, but don’t want to hire a lawyer to go through the nearly 300-page ordinance released by the city. Velez said that the question they are trying to answer with this app is simple: “What can I do with this property?”

Eder said that the ultimate goal of the app, and Open City, is to illuminate specific aspects of government in the city of Chicago, explain what they do and why they matter to the city’s residents in hopes that people can have a “reasoned debate about what we are going to be doing with our city resources.”