How Chicago Is Growing Its Open Data Economy

Customer: City of Chicago | Site: Data Portal

The City of Chicago’s open data team has made a lot of smart choices regarding its open data program. In particular, it has supported the development of one of the largest, most committed civic hacker communities in the world. How has it created this community and what is the result? For Chicago, investing in developers has led to new collaborations and the development of businesses that create useful products and contribute to the economy using open data.

Success Starts at the Top

Chicago’s long-time mayor, Rahm Emanuel, made open data a central focus of his administration from day one. After the City’s portal ( launched in 2010, he signed an Executive Order in late 2012 mandating that every city agency contribute data to it. Each agency must have an open data coordinator who serves on the City’s Open Data Advisory Group. Few cities require this level of staff participation and resources for open data.

Emanuel sought broader participation in open data, not just to improve transparency but to offer local developers more machine-readable, public data for building new products and services. “An open and transparent administration makes it easier for residents to hold their government accountable, but it also serves as a platform for innovative tools that improve the lives of all residents,” said Mayor Emanuel when he announced his 2012 Executive Order.

A Focus on High-Value Data

According to its “2013 Open Data Annual Report,” the City of Chicago offers nearly 600 datasets on its portal, more than double what it had in 2011 and far more than what many cities offer. Which datasets take priority? The most “valuable” ones come first.

“When we talk about ‘valuable’ datasets those are often large datasets that frequently update. But, valuable datasets may not be big, just useful for a large audience,” says City of Chicago Director of Analytics and Performance Management Tom Schenk

Overall, Chicago has increased the size of the datasets on its portal. For example, it offers a traffic dataset that is updated every 10 minutes using the GPS on its city buses. Its crime dataset spans 10 years. And, it plans to expand its 311 dataset by including more types of requests beyond the 12 most common, such as aircraft noise or improper apartment building heating or cooling.

Chicago’s open datasets have received more than 15.6 million pageviews since 2010. And, perhaps the most impressive statistic for Chicago is data usage. Between November 2012 and November 2013, data downloads from the Chicago open data portal grew from 2 terabytes to 6.4 terabytes, an increase of more than 200 percent. Usage means participation and innovation -- exactly what Chicago wants.

“By giving developers longer histories of data and more frequent updates, the ability to see patterns and offer useful services is increased,” says Schenk. “We want to give them plenty of material to work with.”

Developers Make It Happen

How does Chicago generate interest in its open data? It focuses time and attention on its civic hackers, the developers, analysts, and business people who mine public data for solutions to persistent problems and new services they can offer. A group called Open Chicago offers weekly hacknights downtown at Chicago startup hub 1871, plus hackathons throughout the year where developers and other participants are challenged to find solutions to civic problems using data. The hack nights include presentations by local innovators and have become so popular that they are often standing-room only.

The City of Chicago team knows these hackers, attends the hackathons, and talks to them often about the portal, the data, and how it could serve them better. The Office of the Mayor honors their work by featuring dozens of local apps and blogs about their development on its Digital Hub website.

“Through open data, Chicago has been able to serve residents in the 21st century,” says Brenna Berman, Commissioner and Chief Information Officer at Department of Innovation & Technology for the City of Chicago.” The growth of the open data portal has been exciting for those in government and the entire city.”

Art from Cartografika based on building footprints data from the City of Chicago open data portal.

New Businesses for a Stronger Chicago

Thanks to its investment in open data and the people who use it, Chicago is now seeing businesses develop that make use of public data hosted on the portal. These startups offer services that improve life in Chicago and other cities, and employ dozens of local analysts, designers, and developers. The following are just a few examples.

  • Purple Binder aggregates social services information so that social workers and healthcare professionals have an up-to-date, single source of data about services available to their clients.
  • DataMade creates apps for the City of Chicago and other clients, such as their apps Councilmatic and Founded by longtime civic hacker Derek Eder, DataMade was one of the first Chicago businesses focused exclusively on open data.
  • Smart Chicago Collaborative hired Datamade when it was just getting started and also employs Purple Binder, Rob Paral & Associates, and other new companies to create technology products that improve life in Chicago.
  • Cartografika uses the building footprints dataset available on Chicago and other cities' open data portals to create beautiful maps and drawings for wall hangings or other decorations.
  • Rob Paral & Associates has been in the business of social services policy consulting for more than 25 years, but in recent years Paral’s team has enjoyed greater efficiencies and expanded capacity thanks to easy data discovery and use through open data.

Mayor Emanuel and the team at the City of Chicago hope that this trend of business growth continues. It plans on making even more investments in open data. As Initiative 14 of its Chicago Tech Plan states: “The city will continue to increase and improve the quality of City data available internally and externally, and facilitate methods for analyzing that data to help create a smarter and more efficient city.”

“Chicago is becoming a technology destination, a place where both large international companies and startups and digital entrepreneurs can thrive,” said Mayor Emanuel at the third annual TechWeek Summit. Certainly, when it comes to encouraging entrepreneurship with open data, Chicago has created a model for success.