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By Sean Thornton

Monitoring a city’s functions is like monitoring a patient’s vital signs—its transportation of people like a pulse, emergency services like a respiratory rate, and so forth.  Thus, when a major incident or event occurs, the whole urban system can be affected.  If municipal leaders could wholly understand their city’s vital signs, they could not only better manage their cities, but take preventative measures to ensure the city’s health remains intact. 

The challenge, however, is finding the right tools to holistically monitor a city’s health.  When any given event happens—planned or unexpected, from a parade to a snowfall or terrorist attack— interoperability problems between city agencies can arise.  Better interoperability could have helped Chicago in February of 2011, when a record-breaking snowfall closed large stretches of Lake Shore Drive for more than 24 hours.  

As a geographic information system, the application presents a unified view of City operations—past and present—across a map of Chicago, giving key personnel access to all of the city’s spatial data, historically and in real-time.

City governments are better equipped to understand themselves thanks to vast reserves of municipal data that are now more accessible than ever.  With a holistic tool for measuring a wide array of city functions—think of an EKG, thermometer, and other measurement equipment rolled together—City personnel would be able to make quicker, smarter, and more informed decisions.  City governments would be able to allocate resources more efficiently and cost-effectively, revolutionizing how they understand, prepare, and respond to given situations. 

This is the idea behind WindyGrid, Chicago’s homegrown application developed and managed by its Department of Innovation and Technology (DoIT).  WindyGrid is a computer application, designed for City personnel, that makes Chicago’s big data easily and strategically accessible in one place.  It’s quite a bit more complex than a thermometer: as a geographic information system, the application presents a unified view of City operations—past and present—across a map of Chicago, giving key personnel access to all of the city’s spatial data, historically and in real-time.  This includes data categories such as 911 and 311 service calls, transit and mobile asset locations, building information, geospatially-enabled public tweets, and other critical information.  

WindyGrid was developed in early 2012 by Chief Data Officer Brett Goldstein.  In four months’ time, Goldstein designed a prototype using open source software tools, with MongoDB, a NoSQL-style database system.  The prototype, WindyGrid Beta, was successfully put to use by Chicago’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications (OEMC) during the May 2012 NATO summit. 

Since NATO, City Staff has used WindyGrid to monitor several other major events, including the 2012 Gay Pride Parade.   Throughout the parade, Chicago used the application to monitor 311 and 911 call events, bus locations and twitter streams in real-time.  WindyGrid also allowed the head of the Department of Streets and Sanitation to work with public safety agencies to get streets open more quickly.  The application has become an important tool for the management and maintenance tasks associated with Chicago’s many annual events, including the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, Taste of Chicago, and Air and Water Show.

Following storms and other weather incidents, WindyGrid has also assisted Chicago in the damage assessment process by monitoring downed trees and wires, storm and flood damage, and other crucial information.  

Now, in 2013, DoIT is overseeing WindyGrid’s full rollout to various departments citywide.

WindyGrid in Practice 

A screenshot of WindyGrid.

WindyGrid provides three main functions for City staff: situational awareness and incident monitoring, historical data retrieval, and real-time advanced analytics.  From a user’s perspective, the application begins with a home page that gives them the ability to specify searches by data type, time, and location (at either a given geographical point or customized general area).  This means that by performing a search, users can instantly understand the history of car crashes at a given intersection, or visualize in real-time the volume of 311 calls happening within the radius of a given incident. 

Furthermore, the application serves as an access point for DoIT’s predictive analytics programs. Its capability to do so is primarily powered by the SmartData predicative analytics platform, Chicago’s winning Bloomberg Mayors Challenge initiative currently in development.  Since SmartData consists of computer algorithms and processes, WindyGrid’s interface unofficially serves as the first example of SmartData’s “face” to the end user.  The application’s user-friendly design is foundational to SmartData’s development.

As always with new initiatives, however, there have been challenges throughout the process.  An application like WindyGrid is simply never “done”—it requires continuous maintenance and upkeep by DoIT.  This includes continually expanding the types of data available to WindyGrid.  While the application’s access to Chicago’s big data is already vast, in theory any recorded data with a geographical or temporal component has potential for inclusion.  For example, data on geographical elevation levels throughout Chicago is currently not available on WindyGrid, but could prove extremely useful for city agencies during heavy rainstorms. 

In order to stay ahead of WindyGrid’s continuous maintenance and upkeep, DoIT takes enhancement requests from the City’s WindyGrid users and processes them in regular two-week iterations.  The goal is to agilely improve the application as needed and ensure its usefulness to departments throughout the City.

Not just for Chicago

DoIT sees WindyGrid, a product of open-source tools, as an open-source application itself: a model to be crowdsourced, replicated, and improved upon by other cities and their developers.  While some places may choose not to share their innovations, Chicago is taking the lead in developing open-source initiatives that can benefit cities beyond itself.  DoIT’s open-source approach also includes SmartData, which won a Bloomberg Mayor’s Challenge grant in part because of the City’s commitment to sharing it. 

WindyGrid can thus help ensure that cities across the country can better measure their vital signs and work towards staying healthy.     

About the Author

Sean Thornton

Sean Thornton is a Research Fellow for Data-Smart City Solutions.  Based in Chicago, Sean serves as a researcher, archivist, and documentarian of the Chicago Department of Innovations and Technology’s efforts to build a smarter, more efficient city government.  He also provides Chicago’s Chief Information Officer with research and communications support. Sean holds two Masters’ degrees from the University of Chicago, in Public Policy and Social Service Administration, and a Bachelors’ Degree from DePaul University in Psychology and Political Science.  During his time at the University of Chicago, he gained experience in the city’s public, philanthropic, and nonprofit sectors.

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