Chicago's SmartData Vision

By Sean Thornton • April 11, 2013

Last year, Bloomberg Philanthropies issued a challenge to America’s cities: to develop bold, visionary ideas for solving the toughest municipal problems. Chicago, long a hotbed for innovative ideas, immediately jumped at the chance to further a longstanding ambition to use predictive analytics in a big way to change how the city operates.

Chicago’s application took the form of a platform called SmartData. Designed by Chicago’s Chief Information Officer and Chief Data Officer Brett Goldstein, the project calls for an open-source predictive analytics platform that will help leaders make more efficient, informed decisions to help address and even prevent problems before they develop. On March 13th, 2013, Bloomberg Philanthropies announced that Chicago was one of five winners and would receive a $1 million grant to implement this vision.

As one of five winners out of 20 finalists and over 300 applicants, the SmartData platform is receiving considerable media attention. Following its win, SmartData will serve as a national model for how big data analytics can optimize government services.

To fully operate as an open-source predictive analytics platform, SmartData will mine specifically queried municipal data from among the billions of lines of data the city has accumulated. It will then compare this information with disparate sets of data using advanced algorithms in order to find key relationships that could help public leaders act more quickly and intelligently.

For example, the SmartData platform could query data on traffic patterns and pedestrian activity for a certain section of the city, and then compare it against a host of other city data, such as weather patterns, traffic signal times, and streetlight access.  By doing so, SmartData could then uncover meaningful correlations that, once revealed, would call for specific actions that help reduce pedestrian-traffic collisions.  The City would be able to optimize city services of all kinds, benefitting citizens and reducing costs.  Furthermore, by analyzing millions of lines of data, the City could then use these correlations as a predictive measure to determine where city resources would be needed most in the future.  

Although the full realization of the SmartData platform is far from completion, a precursor of the initiative, WindyGrid, was launched last year by Chicago’s Department of Innovation and Technology (DoIT).  WindyGrid, which Goldstein designed himself, is a platform which presents a unified view of multiple city operations on a mapping interface for public safety officials.  These operations are far-ranging and could even include such disparate pieces of information as CTA bus speeds and weather conditions. WindyGrid currently monitors more than a dozen different types of data, including geo-spatially tagged 311 and 911 calls and historical data, and is continually being updated to include more variables.

If cities across the country were to have access to a tool like SmartData or WindyGrid, its implications for local governance would be enormous.  That is exactly what Goldstein is aiming for.  “We want to get this technology and all the benefits it brings to cities across the country,” Goldstein says.  “We need to do things like share the algorithms and codes over [open source project sharing site] Github.  We also need to provide written documentation of what we’re doing to cities, so they’ll know what the benefits of a predictive analytics platform are in non-technical terms.”

Sharing this new technology with other cities is also one of Chicago’s reasons for entry into the Bloomberg Mayors Challenge.  “Currently, there are a lot of challenges to sharing this information that Github alone can’t address.  How do algorithms designed for Chicago’s unique data system generate value in a city that has a completely different set of data?” Goldstein says.  “With support from the Mayors Challenge, we will be able to develop algorithms and strategies that make our project more portable and accessible for other cities.”

What does the Mayors Challenge victory mean for Chicago? “The grant will certainly help us build this system.  What we’re making is an essential piece of reforming how cities operate in the future,” said Goldstein. “We are and will continue to be at the forefront of making our city smarter and a better place to live for our residents.”


About the Author

Sean Thornton

Sean Thornton is a Program Advisor for the Ash Center's Civic Analytics Network and writer for Data-Smart City Solutions.  Based in Chicago and working in partnership with the city's Department of Innovation and Technology, Sean holds joint Masters’ degrees from the University of Chicago, in Public Policy and Social Service Administration. His work has spanned the city's public, philanthropic, and nonprofit sectors.