Chicago: The City Becomes the Platform

The city of Chicago is not messing around when it comes to its open data initiatives. When Mayor Rahm Emanuel took office last May, he named open government as a goal of his administration. In August, Alex Howard of O'Reilly Radar reported that since taking office, the new team had released two new sets of data per week. In September, the city posted data relating to more than 4 million crimes online in a searchable database. And this week, as we enter the heart of winter and a new year, Chicago has announced a suite of online tools at chicagoshovels.org for Chicagoans doing battle with snow. There, residents will be able to track snow plows (and, the city hopes, observe the fair distribution of those plows around the city), claim sidewalks they will shovel, and share shovels with neighbors. The mayor's office announced the project with this explanatory video:

Where is the corruption, the intrigue, in a city renowned for its corruption and intrigue? Chicago's online effort is a reminder of the kind of work and logistical coordination that is the bread and butter of city government. And while opening up spreadsheets of data may not be dramatic, the effects of Chicago's initiatives will improve the city's services in two real and important ways. First, it's easy to see how a site like chicagoshovels.org will be just plain useful when a snowstorm hits. Residents will use it to see which streets are plowed and plan their days. They'll coordinate with their neighbors and help out those who aren't up for shoveling. Second, and no less important, opening up data will have an effect on those in government too, who know that those snowplows better be fairly distributed around the city, because the data will show it if they aren't.

Chicago has big plans for the year ahead. John Tolva, the city's Chief Technology Officer, blogged that they are now working on a platform that will aggregate a range of block- and community-level data that will allow them to make predictions about neighborhood trends such as foreclosure, crime, and unemployment, and then use those predictions to make smarter policies and deliver them better. "This is our moonshot and 2012 is its year," he writes.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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