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App opens up Chicago

New social media site fosters Chicago-centric apps

March 06, 2012|By Taylor Ervin, RedEye

Since Mayor Rahm Emmanuel took office last year, the city has increased the amount of data that it has released to the public. Enterprising software developers have taken that data and turned it into useful mobile phone applications like Plow Tracker and Buster, the CTA bus and train tracking app, but a recently launched website called openchicago.org hopes to takes the idea one step further.

The social media site, which launched about two weeks ago, aims to connect local software developers with aldermen and other developers in their area to create hyperlocal neighborhood specific applications.

"The city has been great about releasing data, and it's in the interest of the local community to turn it into things that are digestible," said founder Scott Robbin of Edgewater.

During a two day technology conference in January, a handful of technology-minded folks including Robbin and Daniel O'neil, co-founder of EveryBlock and Executive Director of the Smart Chicago Collaborative, came together and decided that developers in the city needed a better forum for communication. A month later, OpenChicago was born.

So far the site has about 50 members including aldermen from each of Chicago's 50 wards. Alderman Ameya Pawar of Ward 47, which so far has the most members of any ward, is excited about the possibilities that the site offers.

"We've got a lot of developers in the ward that are working on some really interesting things and this a way for them to come together and we can start using data that's readily available in the public domain to either solve a problem or shed light on an issue," Pawar said.

However, there is a reason that these kinds of projects and collaborations didn't exist a year ago. Brett Goldstein, Chief Data Officer for the City of Chicago, said the whole mindset around data in the city has changed under the new administration.

"There is a time in the past when there was a sort of gotcha relationship. When the city released data, people were looking for errors and things like that," Goldstein said. "Now there is a relationship where when I open up a data set, we have a conversation about it."

Since May, the mayor's office has released millions of lines of data contained in more than 300 data sets including crime, employee contracts, food inspections and street sweeping. The data is also being released in a manner that allows for much easier access. Rather than being sent out as giant cumbersome PDF documents, the city has begun releasing information through its data portal which allows users to download data as a spreadsheet and then write software against it.

To further push its agenda of total transparency, the city isn't even reviewing data before it is sent out. The crime data, for example, is linked directly from the Chicago Police Department system and dumped into the data portal. This kind of unfiltered data has helped Robbins to create websites like wasmycartowed.com and sweeparous.us which give citizens up to the minute information about municipal services.

"The goal is just to facilitate developers and alderman in the city getting to know each other," Robbin said. "That's what really fuels the open data movement and gets more people to buy in and to be able to move forward and explore."

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