OpenGrid for Smart Cities

By Sean Thornton • May 26, 2016

  • May 26, 2016
  • GIS

In January of this year, officials at Chicago’s Department of Innovation and Technology (DoIT) launched OpenGrid, a map-based application that provides residents with a way to visually understand complex municipal data. OpenGrid’s mission is to improve Chicagoans’ ability to meaningfully use open data beyond the capacity of current data portals. The program is easily accessible via any web browser on desktops, tablets, and phones.

The application is called OpenGrid for a reason: it is open-source. Since DoIT’s beginnings several years ago, open source programming has been a core principle of DoIT’s data and analytics work. That non-proprietary philosophy is also central to the Smart Chicago Collaborative, a civic organization that focuses on improving residents’ lives through technology, which helped sponsor OpenGrid’s development. Both DoIT and SmartChicago encourage other cities and organizations to replicate the application for their own use. The source code used to develop OpenGrid is available via code-sharing site GitHub. There, programmers in other cities can freely take Chicago’s building blocks and design their own geospatial system that fits their needs.

Earlier this month, Chicago partner UTurn Data Solutions launched OpenGrid for Smart Cities (OpenGridSC), a new version of OpenGrid on the Amazon Web Services Marketplace that makes the adoption and maintenance of the application far simpler for other cities.


Chicago envisions OpenGrid serving not only as a resource to residents but also as a low-cost business intelligence tool for governments, nonprofits, and corporations that wish to take advantage of its capabilities.

OpenGrid utilizes much of the same data that Chicago’s WindyGrid application does. WindyGrid, designed to help manage the 2012 NATO summit, is the city’s original geospatial situational awareness application, and continues to be regularly used internally. Three years later, OpenGrid was designed as WindyGrid’s public-facing and replication-minded counterpart.

The data that populates OpenGrid is primarily supplied by a resource called Plenario. Plenario, developed by the University of Chicago’s Urban Center for Computation and Data (Urban CCD), is a cloud-based open-source data hub that allows its users to access, combine, download, and visualize disparate sets of data all in the same place. To make DoIT’s OpenGrid and UrbanCCD’s Plenario interact, additional software—also called a service layer—needed to be built. To do so, Smart Chicago commissioned Uturn Data Solutions, a local Amazon Web Services consulting partner that focuses on big data and cloud computing projects, to build the layer prior to OpenGrid’s launch in January.


The consortium of partners that helped make OpenGrid possible developed a strong tool for the residents of Chicago. However, even though the code is open source, cities interested in replicating OpenGrid still face challenges launching and maintaining the technology infrastructure required to serve the OpenGrid web application to public internet traffic.

To make OpenGrid more easily replicable, DoIT entered OpenGrid into Amazon Web Services’ City on a Cloud innovation challenge in late 2015. The competition calls for governments to submit initiatives that use cloud computing to transform the way their programs interact with residents. Shortly afterwards, OpenGrid won the “Dream Big” award for a large city, helping secure the cloud computing resources needed for OpenGrid’s next stage. Since Amazon Web Services (AWS) is the largest and most widely-used cloud computing platform of its kind worldwide, Chicago knew that having OpenGrid available on the AWS Marketplace would make the application easily attainable and adoptable for cities anywhere.

Image of AWS marketplace

With “Dream Big” AWS resources in hand, OpenGrid partner Uturn Data Solutions optimized and packaged the original OpenGrid as an Amazon Machine Image (AMI), an Amazon web server that has been pre-configured for a specific purpose. Uturn named this custom AMI OpenGridSC and has made it available for one-click deploy via the AWS marketplace. Essentially, Uturn took OpenGrid and made it compatible with Amazon’s cloud computing platform, so that users would be able to easily run their own version of the application. This means any city with publicly available datasets in CSV or Socrata formats can upload their data to OpenGridSC, and use the application in a way that best fits local needs.

If cities and organizations wish to access OpenGrid for Smart Cities via the AWS Marketplace, it is currently $750 a month. This cost includes setup assistance for uploading public datasets into OpenGrid, access to updates and new version releases, and email support.


Since the civic tech era’s beginnings, the heart of activity and innovation has always been at the local level. Yet these local-level hubs have been concentrated in large, established cities, creating “haves” and “have-nots” among residents who are able to enjoy civic tech’s benefits.

The AWS launch of OpenGrid is significant in that any city now has quick access to a massive, comprehensive new tool for visualizing and understanding their own data, without having to go through the years of development that Chicago did to get there. It’s the start of a realization that Chicago—and the civic tech field in general—have long been waiting to see: a true model for scaling the meaningful work being done in this space.

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.