Derek Eder and the Citizen Benefits of Open Data

February 19, 2014 10:32 am PST | Data as a Service

By Alida Moore

Last week, we talked about the citizen benefits of open data. In the wake of the recent Polar Vortex, Chicago citizens who live on the 4600 block of North Kelso Avenue recently discovered exactly how open data benefits their lives. Derek Eder, civic developer and open data enthusiast, tells the story. 

Snow, Snow Everywhere and Not a Plow in Sight

“We have this website we created called ClearStreets, which gathers GPS data from the City about snow plows. We plot the path of where plows have been,” Eder explains. “You can find out if your street has been plowed yet and if so, when. There has been a lot of snow in Chicago this season, obviously, so people are concerned about getting their streets plowed.”

Sounds great, right? Residents can keep track of the status of their streets and are better equipped to make data-driven decisions about their transportation options. But, like every system, sometimes something gets overlooked. Eder continues, “Over the course of this winter, there is one street on the northwest side of the city that residents claim has been skipped by the plows this entire season. These residents reached out to the local NBC station, who investigated. NBC contacted us and used our data to back up the claims, lending credibility to the argument of the residents of North Kelso Avenue.” The block was plowed shortly after the story aired. 

The big takeaway from this story, according to Eder? “Open data helped these citizens improve the quality of their services by the city.”

Does this mean the City has failed? Not at all, says Eder. “The City is doing its job, for the most part,” he says. “There’s an equitable distribution of plows throughout the city. In this very specific case, this block got overlooked, which probably happens in a lot of cities with a variety of services. It’s hard to get 100 percent coverage of an entire city.”

An Image Problem

In a situation like this, people are often tempted to claim corruption, but it “doesn’t follow logically,” according to Eder. “This is an example of how something can fall through the cracks and how open data contributes to improving services.”

Eder continues, explaining how an event like this one can impact the City’s image. “In this case, the City has a bit of egg on its face, but in reality, opening up the data and making city services transparent allows those on the outside validate and improve the system,” Eder explains. “There are other examples of the city releasing data and people making interesting findings with it. This has happened with building footprints. The city released data of the city footprints and the open street map community took that data and found that a few buildings are incorrect.  Those citizens made changes and notified the city, who then updated and improved their own data. If you put open data in front of enough people, the city will benefit.” Ultimately, that openness will only improve a City’s image. 

OpenGov Chicago

We first spoke to Eder back in 2013. In that interview, he explains his work with Open Gov Chicago and weekly hack nights. In just the last year, attendance of these hack nights has increased from 30-35 people to more than 50 people each week. And the biggest change? It’s not just developers or programmers showing up anymore. 

“There’s a stigma that makes people assume you have to be a computer guru to attend a hack night,” says Eder. This actually isn’t so. “We need people who aren’t computer geniuses. We want people who understand different policies or different aspects of the City. There’s so much more to making technology useful; you need information and knowledge to make an app, not just technical skills,” he continues.

Open Gov Chicago hack nights focus on supporting attendees, helping them understand what’s happening in the open government community, and providing training on basic skills. “We give intro to programming classes, go over data portals and how best to work with data,” says Eder. He goes on, “Because open data is out there and is a really cool raw material, people are excited to learn how to do something with it. It’s a motivator to get people to follow through on a project and go through the hard work. We didn’t think it would be for beginners but more and more we are acting as a place for people to learn.”

Stop. Collaborate. Change the World.

Eder especially enjoys the collaboration of these hack nights. “We have people who already have the skills and they are interested in teaching those skills to beginners. A great success of the hack nights is that they’ve become a place where people from outside and inside government have a place to collaborate and discuss topics openly and freely, which is a victory for our hack night,” Eder explains. He remembers the early days, before open government. “There was a wall between government and those on the outside and these nights have been successful in breaking down that wall. It’s through these conversations that more interesting, useful applications and problems are surfaced. It embodies the spirit of open government: open data AND open communication.

Most of all, Eder is excited to see what happens next in Chi-town. 

To learn more about open government and open data, download the Open Data Field Guid

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