Block Party: Inside Chicago’s Open Data Ecosystem

March 10, 2015 2:29 pm PST | Open Data

Learn what powers Chicago’s thriving open data community, at the Socrata Customer Summit. Chris Metcalf, Director of Platform, hosts Q&A with Derek Eder.

Eder first shares the roots of Chicago’s awesome open data scene. He explains how he got hooked on developing civic applications, from capturing the inside story on influence via his app Chicago Lobbyists, to creating practical access to snowplow tracking with Clear Streets. Eder then discusses the growth of Chicago’s open data organizations, as well as how they’ve influenced city government’s own structure. “There’s a very virtuous, positive feedback loop that’s happening, between the civic tech community and government,” citing how the weekly Open Gov Hack Night has become important in the official Chicago Tech Plan.

Maximizing return on hackathons

Metcalf starts the Q&A off by asking Eder to cover the pros and cons of a hackathon. “It has its place – it’s really good in kickstarting a community,” Eder comments. “But I found that every hackathon that you try to have after that, if it’s the same kind of hackathon, has a real diminishing return.” He lists the challenges, such as lining up sponsors, speakers, and participants. He emphasizes, “It gets people excited, & the question they always have afterward is: What now?”

Eder recommends using narrow interest groups such as education hackathons, transportation hackathons, to get things started. “You really can’t make anything amazing or useful in 24-48 hours,” and points out, “the biggest benefit from a hackathon is the social capital.” Bringing people together who want to collaborate on open data, “the relationships, the connections that are made at that event,” is the big win of hackathons.”

Create social solutions

“What’s the one thing audience members could do to engage with their local civic tech community?” Metcalf asks. “Opening up data is great,” responds Eder. “Try to be present in the community as it already exists.” He recommends that data producers physically attend any kind of technology meetup groups. “This is a social problem; you need to solve social problems with social solutions.”

The first audience question gets right down to business: funding, and whether to go nonprofit or for-profit. Eder uses the example of Smart Chicago, explaining how they kickstarted with various resources, including local foundations, funding from the City of Chicago, and federal stimulus money. On whether to go for-profit, Eder explains, “It’s much easier for me as someone who builds technology to be paid directly for the work I’ve done,” adding that the for-profit structure provides a more straightforward exercise in getting clients.

The next questioner wonders if making civic applications open source matters. Using his app Chicago Lobbyists as an example, Eder explains, “it made sense to release the code as open source, because we were working with open data,” and the goal wasn’t to make money off creating access to lobbyist information. He points out that open source applications spread more easily, “which is actually good for individuals in small companies – if you’re dying to get in the spotlight and have people notice you.”

Next, an open data enthusiast asks, “What’s the best deployment model to make these apps sustainable?” Eder advises the audience to think of them as relevant, standalone applications, that don’t need to be part of an identified civic tech ecosystem to get noticed. “We have plenty of applications that when we went into it we thought they were going to be awesome,” but they didn’t get the traffic, so they don’t spend resources maintaining those websites.” He shows the variety of types of datasets that get high traffic, citing these three top civic apps: Second City Zoning, Chicago Councilmatic, and CPS Tiers.

The last questioner wants to know, “What are the characteristics of a dataset that really engages the civic tech community?” Eder responds enthusiastically, “Having very granular data” he explains, so that developers can create truly relevant technology from a flexible, rich dataset. Eder adds that documentation is also key, because datasets can’t stand on their own. “You need to tell me exactly how the data was generated, who generated it, give me the name of the person who I can call to ask questions.” Eder reiterates social capital as the key. “It takes people,” to make open data thrive.