Case Study – Opening Cities’ Data and other initiatives

The city of Chicago Data Portal has been live since February 2010. It’s official goal is to promote access to government data and encourage the development of tools that use that data to build ‘creative’ tools.

So far, it has provided 717 items on its website, including:

  • 197 datasets
  • 4 external datasets (CTA)
  • 133 files and documents (GIS; shapefiles; kml)
  • 338 filtered views
  • 19 charts
  • 27 maps
Those are updated at different rates: yearly, quarterly, nightly, real-time (bus and train trackers). They can be exported into the following formats: CSV; JSON; PDF; RDF; RSS; XLS; XLSX; XML. Data can also be harnessed using the Socrata Open Data API (SODA).
The website also features ways of visualizing data, such as maps and charts, that are intended to be user friendly. However, there are some issues with the data and the way it’s organized that hinder the initiative’s goal of reaching wider audiences. First, with so much data and no hierarchy, it’s difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. Second, there is little analysis or interpretation such as the last two visualization examples; most of the information is just raw data.
Other cities such as New York and Seattle also have their own data portals. These were all created in the wake of the federal government’s portal, launched in May 2009 as part of the Obama administration’s Open Government Initiative. It’s principles are: transparency promotes accountability; participation allows people to contribute ideas; and collaboration encourages cooperation within government and with industry.
These data portals are all based on the Socrata Social Data Platform. This allows for governmental agencies to link data from their networks to in real-time; to integrate to social networks such as Twitter and Facebook (‘liking’, sharing or commenting); to map data both on Bing and Google Maps; to create visualization such as charts, graphs and maps; and allows for third-party apps, using Socrata’s API. (check the comments on this newsfor some of Socrata’s intentions and goals while working for the government)
While some apps have been developed using data from the City of Chicago portal, most of them consist mainly of more friendly ways of displaying that data, e.g., Clear Streets, and app that allows you to see when snow was cleared and streets salted, and Chicago Lobbyists, which allows you to see which lobbyists have received more money and from whom.
However, I am more interested in apps that allow for user input to contribute to planning and urban policy issues. One good example is Trail Blaze Chicago, an app for Android that allows bikers to record their daily trips, through their phone’s GPS. Using this information, planners could be better informed of where bike lanes are most needed, and build them accordingly.

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