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By Sean Thornton • May 1, 2014

In the past few years, cities have been challenging government norms by adopting new and data-driven ideas, projects and initiatives.  In the spring of 2013, Data-Smart City Solutions was launched to highlight this progress across the country, and to inform and connect municipal leaders through an online exchange of innovative ideas and best practices.     

Perhaps no city has been more central to this emerging field than Chicago, a national leader in predictive analytics, open data, civic engagement, and the overall use of technology to address urban issues.  To mark Data-Smart’s anniversary, here’s a look back the key changes, initiatives and events that have made this past year a landmark one for Chicago.

Vision and Leadership

Since his inauguration in May 2011, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has called for technology to help drive efforts that increase government efficiency and transparency.  He outlined in his Transition Plan that the city will work to open city data, and centralize and consolidate many of its internal service operations and databases.  This past year, Chicago’s Department of Innovation and Technology (DoIT) has continued to make progress on these calls and lay the tracks to become a more data-driven city.  

In July of 2013, the Mayor appointed Brenna Berman as its new CIO and Commissioner of DoIT.  Berman had joined the City as a deputy in the Office of Budget and Management in 2012, and then became Deputy Commissioner of DoIT before becoming CIO.  For more than a decade prior, Berman worked closely with local, state, and federal governments worldwide as an IBM consultant on ways to leverage technology and analytics to improve service delivery.  Berman’s appointment also marks Chicago’s continued movement of its tech leadership positions into DoIT.  She succeeds former CIO Brett Goldstein, who announced the end of his tenure in June.

Since becoming CIO, Berman has been leading DoIT through massive projects to consolidate citywide Information technology systems and modernize city service applications.  This includes an overhaul of Chicago’s massive 311 system, which is currently 12 years old.     


Another one of Berman’s first major milestones was the release of the Chicago Tech Plan, which debuted in September.  Building off of Emanuel’s commitment to technology, the Tech Plan provides a long-term vision for fully enabling communities with technology in order to enhance social and economic opportunity.  The plan organizes the city’s wide range of tech initiatives into one cohesive roadmap, with five key strategies.  These strategies are to modernize Chicago’s tech infrastructure, ensure communities have tech skills and access, improve government operations and transparency, promote civic innovation, and encourage tech sector growth.    

The Tech Plan concludes with a call from Berman for businesses, nonprofits, and residents to join in and voice their ideas for how technology should shape Chicago’s future.  

Former Chief Technology Officer John Tolva, who left the City in September, signaled the call with Berman as well.  Tolva’s position, formerly located in the Mayor’s office, is now a part of DoIT.   

The Continued Growth of Analytics  

Chicago has started building a platform for predictive analytics, titled the SmartData Platform, that can process millions of lines of city data in real-time, and discover predictive relationships that lead to smarter, more informed decision-making.  Through SmartData’s prediction capabilities, for example, City officials will be able to better target responses that address a wide range of urban issues — from reducing traffic accidents to managing weather emergencies.  Moreover, the product is being designed open-source, which means that other cities will be welcome and encouraged to use Chicago’s designs to help build analytics platforms of their own. 

In March 2013, Chicago was one of five cities awarded a Mayors Challenge grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies to help support the project.  Since then, DoIT has been working with partners to develop the platform and launch pilot programs in predictive analytics.  The first pilot, which aims to enhance rodent control initiatives with prediction, began in mid-2013.  Since then, Berman has been meeting with Commissioners across the city to discuss ways in which the project can positively impact operations.


WindyGrid, Chicago’s geo-spatial awareness program that was created in 2012, was also launched for departmental use citywide in the spring of 2013.  WindyGrid currently gives City employees a unified view of City operations across a map of Chicago—with both historical and real-time data.  It has become an important tool for managing both planned and unexpected events.

Chicago’s analytics work has increasingly incorporated social media as well.  This past year, the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) released Foodborne, an application that uses a language detection program to find tweets that suggest an individual is suffering from food poisoning.  Once identified, volunteers contact potentially afflicted residents via Twitter and encourage them to file a complaint with CDPH.   Since its launch one year ago, the program has helped CDPH collect an additional 233 food poisoning reports and conduct 150 restaurant inspections.

Open Data & Civic Engagement

This past year, DoIT accelerated the growth of the Chicago Data Portal with multiple significant new datasets, charts, maps, forms, and APIs.  In the spring of 2013, the City collaborated with local utility companies Commonwealth Edison and Peoples Gas to aggregate their data and provide an API that details the city’s energy and gas usage by census block.  With 66,974 census blocks in the city, the result marks the most granular release of municipal energy data ever recorded.

Other key datasets released this year include in-depth information about food deserts, or areas in the city where it is difficult to buy healthy and affordable food.  The sets include lists and interactive maps of the city’s grocery stores, and raw data that outline existing food deserts in Chicago.  Furthermore, 2014 municipal budget appropriation data and most recent crime data were also added to the portal.  

In December, Chicago marked one year since Mayor Emanuel issued an Executive Order mandating every department to release data to the public on a regular basis.  The Order also called for DoIT to provide an annual open data report to the public.  DoIT’s first annual report, released in February 2014, highlights the growth of the portal and the city’s expansion into other means of open data.


The most notable of these expansions is the Chicago Data Dictionary, which was launched in October, and provides both city employees and the public with information about the varieties of data stored in the City’s numerous databases.  The Data Dictionary’s benefit as a reference tool has big implications for the work of city staff, academic researchers, and reporters, as well as the general public. And as Chicago’s first fully-launched open-source product, an API for the Data Dictionary is available on Chicago’s GitHub page, with replication from other cities or organizations actively encouraged.  

These tools have been essential for Chicago’s community of civic hackers, who marked a busy year as well.  The Smart Chicago Collaborative, a nonprofit civic organization that operates at the center of Chicago’s open government world, continued its management of more than 12 engagement initiatives, and helped launch innovative new programs like Chicago Works for You. In 2013, OpenGov Chicago and OpenGov Hack Night, the city’s largest meet-up groups for civic innovation, also hosted 50 hack nights and 36 speakers, many of which involved interaction with DoIT staff and other City of Chicago employees. 

2013 also brought the launch of Data Science for the Social Good (DSSG), a first-of-its-kind summer fellowship through the University of Chicago that aims to help create a culture of social conscientiousness among data scientists.  The program, sponsored by Google chairman and wife Eric and Wendy Schmidt, has partnered with DoIT and other agencies to innovatively take on real-world problems that the public and nonprofit sectors face.  Currently, DSSG is gearing up for its 2014 program.     

Looking towards the future

As technology grows only more ubiquitous, and municipal data becomes more readily available and ripe for analysis, Chicago’s commitment in this area is not aimed towards the present, but the long run.  Indeed, Mayor Emanuel said it at the beginning of his term—today’s decisions will determine the outcome of Chicago’s next several decades. 

This past year, Data-Smart City Solutions’ Chicago research has focused on many of those key data-driven initiatives that can serve as models for cities across the country.  With a new year ahead, Chicago will only continue its efforts to lay the groundwork and grow the ideas and strategies needed for a brighter future.