Chief data officer as business developer (part 2)

Chicago Chief Data Officer Tom Schenk has a great follow-up blog post riffing off my Friday commentary on the CDO’s role as business developer.

Tom talks about his first-hand experience on this front and the challenges engaging businesses, particularly around licensing.

From his post:

Nevertheless, some interesting challenges started to rise. While working with one large mapping company, we were making an effort to provide some of our maps that could be used in an application. We noted many maps were released using the very permissive MIT license. This license seemed to be the best poised to include in a commercial application. However, the following clause created an issue: “The above copyright notice and this permission notice shall be included in all copies or substantial portions of the Software.”

The application development team was unsure if such a clause could be included in the license. This was a bit of an impasse, but these challenges will pop-up that requires everyone to adjust. So, while including terms of open source licensing has become common for many enterprises, it still may be a challenge for others. Nevertheless, other proactive relationships with businesses do seem an important role for the CDO is the public sector. After all, we usually just supply the data, it’s you who makes it interesting.

Read the full post.

Breaking the wall in Chicago

Photo: Josh*m

Photo: Josh*m

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the wall.

Over the past few years, the civic innovation movement has grown tremendously. It’s exploded really. Ten years ago, who would have imagined that Chicago would be a national leader in open government data? Five years ago, who would have thought that the idea of citizens using open source software to help solve civic problems would catch fire on a global scale? Two years ago, could we really have guessed that not only would we be hacking at open government data on a weekly basis – but those meetings would be national model?

There has been a lot of work done these past few years. However, we’ve now hit the wall.

What’s the wall? The wall is the set of challenges that prevent the civic technology movement from progressing further. These challenges include: expanding the community, civic and digital literacy, procurement reform, and creating startup opportunities through civic app development (sustainability).

cruising the sea wall

Chicago Sea Wall, by Jesus Arellanes

Challenge One: Expanding the community

Civic hacking has moved beyond a niche thing and has hit the mainstream. When the White House starts hosting civic hackathons, that’s a sure sign that we’ve hit the big time. However, even with civic hacking’s new found popularity (national holiday included) we still are missing people at the table. Our tent, while open to all, has not reached the size and diversity that it necessary to move forward. With events like Girls Do Hack and Englewood Codes, Chicago is taking the right steps, but we’re not there yet.

Civic innovation at its best occurs when technologists collaborate with front line problem solvers at government agencies, non-profit organizations, or volunteer activists. While Chicago’s community has made great strides in this area – I don’t believe this particular point has hit the mainstream. We’re still in the ‘Look! Wizardry!” stage – which brings us to challenge two.

Challenge Two: mixing digital and civic literacy

It was recently asked of the Chicago tech community, “Why can’t we make an app that can reduce violent crime?” Of all the issues that affect our city, violent crime that robs the city of its youth is certainly one of the more important topics that we can be working on.

However, technology in-it-of-itself isn’t a panacea. No computer program, no matter how sophisticated, can replace the expertise of somebody who has been working in the trenches for years wrestling with our most thorny civic issues. No app will ever replace the volunteer at a women’s shelter or the patience of a neighborhood school teacher. There is a subject matter expertise in civic organizations that can’t be picked up overnight any more than somebody can learn to code in a few weeks.

While we talk a lot about digital literacy,  we have to acknowledge that there’s a civic literacy side to civic innovation, too. The best civic apps are built because the developers acknowledge this and build the app around the needs and challenges of the front line activists. The more this movement does to engage and co-opt front line leaders from civic organizations, the more impact our projects will have.

On the flip side, there appears to be a lack of digital literacy on the side of some policy makers. The continued use of PDF files as ‘open data’, the misunderstandings of how the internet works, and the debate about the Stop Online Piracy Act show that at times the people responsible for technology policy are not necessarily technology experts. Contrast this with the City of Chicago’s technology plan which was written by a team that had a deep understanding of both technology and civic issues. Whenever possible, the movement has to ensure that both digital and civic literacy issues are addressed.

Challenge Three: Procurement

We’ve become very adept at hosting hackathons and building civic apps. (And there’s still  useful – particularly in newer communities) However, hackathons – no matter how great the ideas that are borne out of these events – will not push us forward if our governments are unable to actually purchase and use them.

There is a huge gap between technology in the private and public sectors. The recent botched rollout of demonstrates just what bad procurement policy gets us. A procurement policy designed to ensure the government does not get sued or robbed instead of purchasing the best software possible has done exactly what it was designed to do: Make it difficult to sue the government.

This is not to imply that the entire procurement process should go out the window. People have gone to jail for stealing and cheating the city. It will be immensely challenging to balance the need to protect the interests of the city and be good stewards of taxpayer money while getting the best software that serves the needs of residents.

The biggest advantage of tackling procurement will be that it will open door to making civic innovation truly sustainable.

Challenge Four: Spurring (and growing) civic startups

Chicago has the data, the talent, and the infrastructure to be at the center of the civic technology market. However, as of now there are only a handful of companies active in this space.

For the civic innovation movement to be sustainable, people have to be able to work full-time and earn a living creating civic apps. The only way this will be through spurring and growing civic technology companies. Civic startups, like those in Code for America’s accelerator program, are starting to grow and find customers around the country. With as much talent and data that exists in the city, there is an enormous opportunity for Chicago civic startups.

The other challenge that comes with creating a civic startup is building products that are designed well, function easily, robust, and meet the needs of customers. That requires more than simply forking an existing open source project, but rather a full-time campaign to work through those issues. It’s hard work that will require the full support of the entrepreneurial community.

While Chicago enjoys a great civic innovation ecosystem, it will take leadership from the entrepreneurship community, the civic hacking community as well as the City of Chicago to create an ecosystem that spurs civic startups. (In addition to real procurement reform at the federal, state and local levels.)

Breaking the wall

The good news is that we have the momentum and none of the challenges presented here are insurmountable. The civic innovation movement is on track to reshape the relationship between government and is citizens. However, we can’t rest on our laurels. It’s time to roll up our sleeves are start breaking the wall.

Chicago launches first comprehensive, public data dictionary

Photo:  <a href="">Josh*m</a>

Photo: Josh*m

Today the City of Chicago launched the City of Chicago Data Dictionary, a single, comprehensive database catalog for the City of Chicago and City of Chicago sister agencies. The data dictionary contains detailed information on every data set held by City agencies and departments, how and if it may be accessed, and in which formats it may be accessed.

The City of Chicago Data Dictionary marks an important advance in open government data because it provides vast insight into how local government works. In concert with the City’s data portal, which is one of the largest raw data stores for a municipality anywhere, residents can now download available data, as well as examine the structure of all the data the City uses to make things work around here.

Tom Schenk Jr, Director of Analytics and Performance for the City of Chicago, announced the launch at the Code for America Summit in San Francisco. The City also published the underlying code for their data dictionary (titled “metalicious”). This code allows governments, businesses, and nonprofits– any organization that maintains multiple databases–  a great resource for publishing their own data dictionaries.


Toward more effective government

The project is the result a year-long effort of  the Chicago Department of Innovation and Technology and Chapin Hall with funding provided through a $300,000 grant from the John D. and Catherine T.  MacArthur Foundation. The project is aligned with the City’s technology plan, specifically in the initiative to improve the quality and quantity of data.

City of Chicago Technology PlanChicago’s Digital Municipal Device

How it works

The data dictionary is set up as a simple web search interface.


You can enter any term that you’re interested in (schools, TIF, budget, police) and it will return every item that contains that term.


Once you pull up a particular dataset, you will see details of all the metadata for that dataset that includes every variable. This gives insight into how the data is used, who uses it, and how they use it.


The database details feature gives valuable info like the department that runs the database, the point of contact for the database, which platform it runs on, how it loads the data, and the limitations of that data.


An important conceptual leap in open government data that is useful to everyone

This data dictionary is essentially a blueprint to the data that municipal decision-makers are using to guide our city. It goes beyond raw public data, letting us know what else is back there driving the work. Many people benefit from learning how to view the information on the Data Dictionary:

  • Residents can see what the city is looking at when it makes decisions that affect them.
  • City employees can keep better track of all the different datasets that are being produced by the City. The City’s finance system alone has over 20,000 data sets, managed by a myriad of people through time.
  • Journalists and civic inquisitors can use it to determine what information is available when composing Freedom of Information Act requests. Based on my own experience, knowing what to even ask for has been a challenge. All that is over.
  • Civic developers can use it to gain a better understanding of what makes public datasets tick. It also serves as a map for seeing behind the data, which can help make apps more useful.

Contact Tom Schenk via @chicagocdo with kudos, questions, and comments.

Chicago’s effort to grow our own talent

Englewood Codes

Englewood Codes Demo Day

In recent months, we’ve highlighted several efforts to teach young people how to code and about technology. These efforts have included Englewood Codes, Civic Summer and Adler Planetarium’s Youth Hackathon. Smart Chicago is proud to have supported these efforts and looks forward to supporting more STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) programs like these in the future.

It’s vital that Chicago grows its own talent. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, STEM jobs are projected to grow 17%over the next decade.

In Chicago, STEM education is critical to continuing the growth of the city’s technology sector. Currently, there are over 21,000 STEM job openings in Chicago with more expected as our start-up sector continues to grow.

Chicago is competing with every city in the country for talent. It’s not simply enough to try and attract tech talent, Chicago has to grow its own talent – and that means supporting local STEM programs.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has said:

“STEM education is a critical path to success and opportunity for many students throughout Chicago, and I am supportive of any and all efforts to expand STEM opportunities in the city to more students, especially in after-school and summer programs.”

STEM programs integrated into Chicago Public Schools, like the ATG Group at Prosser Career Academy, provide valuable job skills to CPS and help serve their neighborhoods. Programs like Englewood Codes, run by the non-profit group Teamwork Englewood, give students an opportunity to learn coding skills that will give them an advantage when applying for colleges.

OpenGovChicago: City of Chicago Tech Diversity Council Discussion

Neal Sales Griffin speaking about the Diversity Tech Council at Open Gov Chicago

Additionally, programs like these help to increase the diversity of the technology space as a whole. One of the major points of Mayor Emanuel’s Technology Diversity Council‘s recommendation is helping to build a pipeline through which Chicago Public Schools and City Colleges of Chicago students can transition into the technology economy.


Free Geek Chicago, Photo by Shara Miller

And it isn’t just youth programs that are helping to grow talent. Private code schools like Starter League and Dev Bootcamp are training new web developers, designers, and user experience designers. At the volunteer level, the Free Geek Chicago teaches not only web development but computer repair.

There are also meetup groups that help mentor and teach code. The Chicago Women Developers are a meetup group comprised of women who love to code or want to learn how to code.

The future of tech in Chicago – in terms of both opportunity and diversity – will be a direct result of these STEM programs. This effort isn’t something that is happening in a vacuum. If you’re interested in helping Chicago grow it’s own talent, considering donating or volunteering to one of these organizations.

Data Challenge Spotlight: Visualizing Health Reform

Illinois Health Matters

“Data Challenge Spotlight” is a collaboration with the National Conference on Citizenship and GovFresh that highlights winners of the 2012 Civic Data Challenge. Follow the Civic Data Challenge on Twitter (@CivicData) and on Facebook.


Visualizing Health Reform from Illinois Health Matters

Give us the 140-character elevator pitch.

We are the go-to source for factual, easy-to-understand information on health care reform in Illinois.

What problem does Visualizing Health Reform solve for government and/or your community?

While a handful of reputable sites and media outlets examine health policy on a national/state level, very few do it on a community level. Our mapping tool takes complex public policy and translates it to real people.

What’s the story or inspiration behind creating Visualizing Health Reform?

The Affordable Care Act (ACA), passed in 2010, is complex. We wanted to make it easy to see the ways in which Illinois residents will be impacted by the new health reform law so that businesses, health care providers and community groups can prepare.

What are its key features?

An interactive heat map of Illinois provides information on who is uninsured, where they live, and the impact of health reform on their ability to attain health care coverage in 2014. Data can be examined on three levels—state, regions and community. The tool is versatile – it can also be viewed “on the go” on a smartphone or tablet and PDF versions of the maps can be downloaded.

How can those interested connect with you?

Connect with Illinois Health Matters on our website at, Twitter (@ILHealthMatters), Facebook ( or email for specific data and customized reports on health care reform.

Five open data visualizations from Cook County (IL)

Here are five visualizations from the new Cook County (IL) open data catalog. See also Gov 2.0 Radio’s interview with Cook County Deputy Director of New Media Sebastian James about the launch of

Find it Fast – Cook County Public Facilities and Services Map

Powered by Socrata

2011 Top 5 Sheriff’s Police Violations

Powered by Socrata

Map of FY 2011 Outpatient Registrations, by Zip to Current Period

Powered by Socrata

Cook County Mortgages

Powered by Socrata

Map of Elected Officials Serving Cook County

Powered by Socrata