The Chicago School of Data

By Sean Thornton • September 5, 2014

Civic data innovation efforts—that is, efforts that expand the use of data to improve people’s lives—are becoming increasingly common in cities across the country. Yet these efforts are often happening piecemeal, and too often operate as isolated parts rather than an interconnected whole.


Chicago’s civic innovation landscape perfectly illustrates this point.  Multiple players and initiatives exist—in government, in academia, and in a volunteer capacity, among others.  And while these players are usually aware of each other, and often collaborate, the network has now grown large enough that a better understanding of it and how it works is needed.

Enter a key new project being developed by Smart Chicago Collaborative and multiple partners—The Chicago School of Data.  Through research, documentation, and communication, Chicago is in the process of developing a collaborative, more easily-defined framework for Chicago’s civic innovation scene, one that will help improve its connections across the city and region.   

The Chicago School

When one hears the moniker “Chicago school,” a wide range of meanings come to mind.

There’s the Chicago school of architecture, made famous by Daniel Burnham and Louis Sullivan.  The Chicago school of economics, led by Milton Friedman and other economists, has been a highly influential body of thought for decades.  The Chicago school of sociology, meanwhile, led by George Herbert Meade and Jane Addams, ushered in modern urban sociological study. 

Of course, these disciplines, styles and approaches have little in common other than being developed in Chicago.  They were also all largely developed in the 20th century, and are all alive and well today. 

The Chicago School of Data is less of an academic discipline and more of a method for cooperative, data-driven progress united by one key principle—that data, as public good, is one that is at the service of all people, not a select few or special interests.  Moreover, that cooperative method doesn’t require its players to be major organizations or government bodies; any resident who uses data or works to improve lives is a part of the Chicago School of Data.     

Dan O’Neil, Executive Director of Smart Chicago, envisions Chicago’s complex civic innovation landscape as a data ecosystem, one that is nearing the next level—a mature, sustainable market for data-driven products that serve community needs. 

Building a Smarter Chicago,” O’Neil’s chapter in the 2013 book Beyond Transparency, serves as an unofficial springboard for the Chicago School of Data. As he describes, in reference to Chicago’s data ecosystem: “By looking at the Chicago example, we can see that there’s often more built than it first seems…. The trick is to find, cobble, and congeal these pieces together.”    

Uniting a Framework

So, how does an initiative like the Chicago School of Data get done?

The project was launched in early 2014, and is being by O’Neil and the Smart Chicago team.  As a project with a grand scope, Smart Chicago certainly isn’t alone:  the Chicago School of Data is made possible by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, one of its three founding organizations.  In addition, the City of Chicago, Cook County, and LISC (Local Initiatives Support Corporation) Chicago provide a core steering committee. These organizations are major players in Chicago’s data ecosystem as well. 

Getting the Chicago School of Data off the ground has consisted of three main steps:

1.  Scanning the landscape.

This first step is all about knowing the players in Chicago’s data ecosystem, and what they are doing.  With this step being the foundation of the initiative, Smart Chicago has already completed dozens of interviews with organizations and individuals that comprise the city’s data ecosystem.  They are discovering patterns of data usage in the Chicago School and are documenting those patterns to uncover a series of overlapping relationships.

For example, Smart Chicago interviewed the Jane Addams Resource Corporation (JARC), a Center for Working Families organization that focuses on workforce development and job training.  JARC collects and analyzes data on the performance of various programs using multiple software tools.  As a node in the Chicago School network, JARC would be better able to share best practices to those that may benefit, and likewise learn from similar organizations with similar missions.         

2.  Documenting and mapping the landscape.

The second part of the process is about understanding what organizations are doing with data, and what challenges or barriers in regards to data use exist throughout the network.  Smart Chicago has issued a survey to organizations throughout the Chicago area to better grasp this, with questions ranging from what types of data are most frequently used to what data tools (from Excel spreadsheets to open-source databases like MySQL or MongoDB) are most useful.

Having a thorough collection of surveys provides Smart Chicago with a census for what’s going on in Chicago’s data ecosystem.  With this macro-level understanding, the Chicago School of Data will have a stronger narrative that gives the discipline an assessment of its strengths, weaknesses, needs, and overall direction.     

3.  Convening the network.      

This third part of the process takes that macro-level understanding of the landscape and brings it to the masses—that is, the multiple sectors, organizations, and individuals in Chicago who will more easily work together in pursuit of successful civic innovation.  Smart Chicago will be hosting a gathering this fall, “Chicago School of Data Days,” in which organizations will be able to discuss, share and exchange their data methods, tools, strategies, challenges and goals.

Moreover, the convening only marks the beginning—it’s the interaction between these varied parties that will define the new discipline over the coming years.  Perhaps, as 21st-century civic innovation efforts in cities across the country become the norm, the term “Chicago school” will bring a new meaning to mind. 


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.