United States cities collect data on everything from reported potholes to bus ridership to municipal workers’ salaries. With all this info at their fingertips, they are perfectly positioned to take advantage of big data to improve their efficiency and service delivery.
But some cities have even bigger plans for the data they collect.
The City of Chicago’s , an initiative to promote access to government information, makes over a thousand raw data sets publically available online. This allows researchers, technologists, and average citizens to conduct any analysis they want. Online since 2010, the portal has grown to include regularly updated data from every city agency.
Kellogg faculty recently visited the city’s Department of Information and Technology to talk big data on a trip organized by the Program on Data Analytics. Afterwards, Tom Schenk, Chicago’s chief data officer, sat down with Achal Bassamboo, a professor of managerial economics and decision sciences, to discuss the evolution of the portal and how data is driving operational change in the city and beyond.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Bassamboo: Who are the audiences for the data portal?
Schenk: We see a lot of different audiences. Some folks are interested in transparency—city salaries are the most viewed data set. We see academic partners who use that data for research. There are what I call “civic technologists,” who are using that data to provide information or build civic applications. Nonprofits and community groups use that data to help inform what’s happening at the local level. Technologists use it to try to learn how to program and store data. Students and teachers use that data for classroom purposes. Members of the public use it to find out what’s happening around them. A lot of people reference the data portal to look at crimes or other activities like business openings.
Bassamboo: One of the biggest challenges in dealing with big data sets is curating them, making sure that they are properly handled and that there are no mistakes. The amount of effort that is needed to clean even one data set is one thing that people sometimes appreciate only once they have done it. Can you talk about that process for the open data portal?
Schenk: What we publish is the same data that city employees use. We don’t clean the data. We simply extract it and post it to the data portal. Cleaning data can be quite a time sink. Trying to clean data before we publish it would not be as productive as adding data sets to the data portal. Adding a data set increases what the public can do with it.
Bassamboo: You wanted to allow for more opportunities, rather than driving people to use the data in certain ways. How have you seen people using data differently than you might have expected?
Schenk: One novel way is a website called .
On the national level, new home constructions and new business permits are leading economic indicators of where the U.S. GDP might be heading. It’s tougher on the local level.
We publish all the local business permits on our data portal, and How’s Business Chicago uses that data and some statistical analysis to try to give us an indication of where the local economy is going. When you combine that with other indicators, it’s somewhat similar to what we have at the national account levels.
Bassamboo: This open data portal is being used internally by the various departments at the City of Chicago and also by the public. How are the data sets being used internally right now?
Schenk: There was a lot of attention in the press about the difficulty that the City of Chicago was having meeting its obligations to do food inspections. There was a clear opportunity for analytics to help inform those decisions.