User-Friendliness Defines Chicago’s New Data Portal

By Sean Thornton • April 20, 2017

Chicago’s data portal, first launched in 2010 and codified by a mayoral Executive Order in 2012, is one of the oldest and most robust data portals in the United States. Yet while its content has grown by hundreds of datasets during that time, its overall design, features, and accessibility have not seen significant variation in more than five years. That is, until now: last week, the City of Chicago launched a massive revamp of its open data portal, giving its visitors a wholly new and modernized experience.

By streamlining Chicago’s broader open data and digital offerings into a central, user-friendly format, the redesign represents a major upgrade for the city’s residents. It also reflects a new user-focused generation of open data portals in cities across the country.

The Portal Itself: Before and After

For years, Chicago’s data portal delivered upon open data’s most basic purpose: to provide accessible public data online. The central focus of Chicago’s old portal was a list of its most-accessed datasets for the previous week. This generally meant that upon visiting the site, visitors would see top attention-getters such as crime data from 2001-present, employee names and salaries, and problem landlord data, among others. To help bring attention to topical or new datasets, the portal’s homepage also highlighted items of interest, such as newly released city budget data or beach weather station data in the summer.

At a new user’s first glance, this was the entirety of the portal experience, which meant that for many, large swaths of the portal’s data went undiscovered. Today, though, access to and understanding of data is broader and more varied than it was five years ago—and open data’s reach has expanded beyond the scope of data-savvy professionals. Consider that as of late 2016, Chicago’s data portal received over 61,000 visitors a month. Of these visitors, approximately 65% were everyday residents, not data professionals or students. Furthermore, almost one-third of users were accessing the portal via mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets. Not all users of Chicago’s open data offerings used the data portal exclusively, either; the city’s portfolio of resident-facing apps and programs has long expanded past the portal itself.

Last year, for example, Chicago built OpenGrid —an app that provides map-based situational awareness for residents using city data, created in part to provide an experience beyond the spreadsheet-focused nature of the data portal. Other apps focused on specific resident needs, such as the city’s 311 Service Tracker and street sweeping alert site, were either built by the city or in cooperation with the city’s civic hacker community. These apps, however, all existed at separate, unconnected web domains and were difficult for residents to discover.

To better serve Chicago’s increasingly broad and more mobile user base, as well as leverage a proliferation of useful yet disparate civic apps, Chicago’s Department of Innovation and Technology (DoIT), who manages the portal, knew that the portal’s original design needed updates.

All Open Data, All One Place

To develop a more modern portal, in 2016 DoIT began what would become a yearlong process to inclusively upgrade the portal’s design. “We really had everyone in mind when designing the new portal,” said Tom Schenk, Chicago’s Chief Data Officer and the driving force behind the effort. “Developers and data professionals, yes—but especially everyday residents who can learn and benefit from bringing data into their communities, businesses, and lives.”

Indeed, since the start of the portal’s redesign process, Schenk has focused on making the process inclusive. In September of 2016, Schenk launched a beta version of the portal. He and his team then provided demos and solicited feedback from attendees at both Chicago Hack Night, a popular civic technology meetup, and the Civic User Testing (CUT) Group, a community-based focus group for designing civic apps managed by local civic organization Smart Chicago Collaborative. Both groups’ input helped guide changes to the beta version that were then incorporated into last week’s new release.

“We are making open city government data more accessible so everyone can learn more about where they live and work,” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said of the new, mobile-compatible portal in a press release. “Our continued efforts make data available, but also relevant to Chicagoans in unique ways.”

Part of that relevancy is in the way data itself is presented on the new portal. Previously, Chicago’s portal format limited new users’ understanding of the breadth of data available to them: while more than 1,100 dataset variations existed, only the top 25 were available on the homepage—not ideal for discovery. Now, datasets can be explored by categories relevant to users, such as events, health and human services, or transportation.

Before and after of Chicago's redesigned open data portal.

Furthermore, the new portal’s main objective is to unify in one place not just all datasets, but all data-powered apps, news, and other information, providing visitors with the best possible user experience. The new portal combines apps such as OpenGrid and 311 Service Tracker with existing open datasets, creating a central information hub that is easy to access.

Part of that all-encompassing feel also includes new features, such as general and developer-related news and updates, and a series of tutorial videos for those new to open data.

For developers, Schenk’s team also launched a new Developers Portal linked to the main data portal, which provides an array of tools that developers and programmers can use to build apps and other projects with city data. This includes APIs for building programs with public safety, public transit, and bike-share program information, among others, and access to Chicago’s portfolio of open-source projects through file-sharing site GitHub.

Portals for People

Chicago’s redesign of its data portal marks the continuation of a trend in major cities to redefine their data portals for broader audiences. For example, just a week prior, the City of Boston launched its own revamped “Analyze Boston” portal, with similar motivations as Chicago’s relaunch.

“The overarching theme of nearly every change [we make] is to make Boston’s data easier for users to access and understand,” said Andrew Therriault, Boston’s first and current Chief Data Officer, in a March 2017 interview. “Part of that is making sure the available data is what city residents are most likely to search for. To that end, [our] team is surveying city departments to find out what sets residents request most often.”

New York, home of the largest municipal data portal in the country, launched a newly-redesigned portal this year as well. The launch came on March 7th, five years to the day after New York’s Open Data Law went into effect. In a press release for the new site, which showcases more than 1,600 municipal sets, New York specifically targets “data novices” with information on how to get started with city data. “Our task now,” said Anne Roest, Commissioner of New York’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, “is to make sure everyone knows that ‘data’ isn’t just something for tech experts. Democracy thrives when data is accessible and available to all.”

These new portals in major cities follow a new wave of data portal design that strongly focuses on ease of use and relevance to residents’ daily lives. It’s an important emphasis that was lacking in most first-generation portals since the open data movement’s advent roughly five years ago.

While “getting the data out” is arguably the single most important obligation a data portal must fulfill, it isn’t enough anymore. Public data needs to be more than available – it needs to be easily accessible and usable for everyone, and able to offer information that people need, want, and find most relevant.

For Chicago, this need will be tested in the coming weeks and months, as users begin engaging with the new data portal and providing the city with feedback. “This launch marks only the beginning of new changes we plan to bring to the portal,” Schenk noted, looking towards the future. “We plan to add more graphing and visual capabilities, as well as more video tutorials. But most importantly – we’ll continue providing data that’s meaningful for residents and communities.”

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.