Story URL:
Story Retrieval Date: 4/17/2015 11:34:07 AM CST

Top Stories

Julie Davis/MEDILL

Tom Kompare's flu app hosted on the City of Chicago's website.

Chicago civic hackers: Saving the world takes more than open public data

by Julie Davis
April 23, 2013

One year after organizing the volunteer group Open City, Chicago civic hackers said they need more than open data to create successful apps.

Chicago has been a leader in the trend to make civic information easily accessible to the public – a move hailed as a panacea for civic problems – but volunteer app developers are saying  civic-app development has its limitations.

“Technology is not going to fix any social problem that I can think of. It can address some, if it is coupled with good policy, if it is coupled with good marketing,” said Juan-Pablo Velez, co-founder of Open City.

Hackers and city planners agree that the city’s policy has become much friendlier since Rahm Emmanuel became mayor. Since 2011, the city has made data such as crime statistics, traffic congestion, building permits and others available online through their data portal.

Yet Susana Vasquez said “releasing data doesn’t equal open government.” Vasquez is the executive director for LISC Chicago, an organization that supports neighborhood development through grant funding.

Simply releasing data or even producing an app does not necessarily mean people will have access to information they need, she said.

“We want to bring neighborhoods into the conversation and bring you all into the conversation,” Vasquez told app developers last week. “There is a big gap in terms of trust for government and understanding the data can solve a problem and not be a burden. There is a lot of mindset shifting going on in neighborhoods.”

Open City has been at the heart of a growing civic app development movement in Chicago. Over the past year they’ve met weekly to collaborate on app development and to talk with contacts around the city.

And yet, “Civic hacking is a hobby,” said Velez.

Open Data’s assessment of the role civic apps can play has given way to conversation about what conditions bring about programs that are most useful to the public.

Velez identified four aspects of planning a successful app: identification of problems, access to familiar technology tools, familiarity with the data sets, methods for publicity or promotion.

He said identifying problems that apps could solve is a challenge for volunteer developers. “This is not trivial. It actually takes a ton of time.”

The group has struggled to find ways to engage Chicago residents.

In addition, once an app has been created, the developers struggle to get it to the people who can use it.

The volunteers identified an app created during last winter’s flu epidemic as a successful model.

The goal for the app was clearly defined from the outset. Public health representatives actually reached out to Open Data asking for help creating a tool for the public. The representatives were familiar with the data, making it easier for the developer to understand how to use the information available.

Tom Kompare, the app’s developer, used Google mapping tools to create the app. His familiarity with Google’s platform made it easy to develop the app quickly.

Once it was created, public health representatives and the city helped push it to the public. This example models Velez’s four key ingredients for a successful app.  

The flu app will be the first app product tested through Smart Chicago Collaborative new program. The collaborative is a technology focused civic organization that is launching a Civic Users testing program to help civic hackers test their products

Christopher Whitaker, of Smart Chicago Collaborative, has been working with the civic hackers at Open City since its inception. “Are we asking the right questions, solving the right problems?” Whitaker said. “Everyday Chicagoans needs more than building toys.”