Driving Data Innovation in the City of Chicago

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The City of Chicago spent several years and a considerable amount of money building a situational awareness platform called “WindyGrid” that could process batch and real-time data and display it graphically on a map-based user interface. Though initially designed as a tool to be deployed for use during the NATO Summit in 2012, WindyGrid quickly became a key platform used by the City of Chicago to conduct data-driven operations and analysis.

Some of the funding that made WindyGrid possible required Chicago to make its software available for other cities to adopt for use in their own communities. In 2015, Chicago readied the application for adoption by other cities and made the code available via open source.

“OpenGrid” was born.

The nature of open source is that any interested person can branch a code repository and make enhancements that can be incorporated by the main code base. This works great when you have a bunch of folks that care about the outcome enough to donate some time and energy.

But when Chicago decided to extend OpenGrid to work with other cities, it faced a challenge — how would other cities initially adopt the OpenGrid platform when few other cities have comparable technical capabilities in-house? Other cities may have a community willing to contribute down the road, but they will not be interested until an initial implementation is complete.

Beyond the inherent challenges with open source, WindyGrid was highly-customized to Chicago’s particular needs, so it was going to need some effort to make it ready for other cities. The original WindyGrid relied on a sophisticated MongoDB environment suited to the real-time and batch feeds used by the 15 city departments on the platform.

It also included layers of security and some Chicago-specific features that would not be needed in a multi-city OpenGrid version. As an added challenge, Chicago simply didn’t have the technical or project management resources available to commit to extending the platform — all of the technical talent was fully consumed by Chicago’s needs with the internal WindyGrid.

Chicago also realized that both citizens and other cities could benefit from a version of WindyGrid that connected to open data portals, making difficult-to-use open data much more accessible. Open data sets are publicly-owned repositories of information that have been compiled by cities or other organizations interested in providing transparency to citizens.

These often take the form of delimited files placed on an open data portal, which is a web-based location that houses and distributes the data to those who want it. Socrata and CKAN provide portal tools that help organize open data and present it in a variety of standard formats.

Even with these solutions, open data tends not to be for the faint of heart. Consuming relatively-raw data sources is difficult enough, but open data tends to be inconsistent or of questionable data quality. Driving significant consumer or business insights directly from a typical open data portal is uncommon.

To that end, Chicago’s OpenGrid concept is brilliant — it puts usable open data in a form that can be consumed and used by a far greater percentage of the population. The extensibility to other cities can transform open data portals into far more valuable investments for the communities they serve. To get the ball rolling, Chicago needed help to bridge the gap in available resources, so they turned to the Smart Chicago Collaborative, a civic organization committed to helping to improve lives with technology.

With additional grant funding, Smart Chicago selected a local consulting firm that could deliver both the open data capabilities and extended reach needed for OpenGrid to be successful in its mission. Uturn Data Solutions, with experience in both cloud and advanced data technologies, proved to be the right partner to make it all happen.

Through this public/private partnership Chicago was able to deliver an open data version (OpenGrid.io) and an “any city” version (OpenGrid for Smart Cities, being released on the AWS Marketplace in May, 2016). For more information on the OpenGrid story, see these articles:

Though OpenGrid is interesting, a compelling question for the TDAN.com audience is whether public/private partnerships are an extensible and valuable model to consider in other circumstances?

After all, this seems like a great deal for cities and their citizens, but why would a private business jump on the bandwagon? Wouldn’t it be a lot of work with limited upside potential for a profit-seeking enterprise?

On the surface it might seem that way, but remember where OpenGrid originated: it started as a secured situational-awareness platform with applications in both operations and data analytics. Now with open data capabilities and configurations to support any city, OpenGrid for Smart Cities can become a widely-adopted, low-cost option for cities that want to connect their population to open data.

Might those cities want to expand their own use to something like the WindyGrid platform that Chicago started with? Could there be applications in private industry where an individual company would want to commingle open data with their own private data sources? Is there an opportunity to help deliver a wide range of technology and data services to those that could not build these things on their own?

As innovators trying to identify new business opportunities, businesses exist to ask these kinds of questions. And for cities and their people, the benefits are clear — a public/private partnership extends the reach of technologies that would otherwise be kept in house. For enterprises, there may be some risks, but certainly there is enough worthwhile to make an investment.

This makes one wonder, is there a catch? It is certainly possible, though perhaps no more likely than the current common situation of public entities purchasing services directly from private businesses. When purchasing direct from the private sector, public entities must be very careful to follow procurement and ethics rules, typically relying on cumbersome RFP processes to make even small expenditures.

In the public/private partnership model, the public and private entities may not even need to contract directly with one another — because incentives are naturally aligned, win/win outcomes are arguably more probable. Cities and citizens benefit from the investment and skills of the private partners, and the reach can be tremendous. In the case of OpenGrid, new cities adopting the platform will typically spend in the low 5-figures versus the 7-figures that it cost to initially build the platform.

This is a new area in the civic technology industry. Before now, cities like Chicago and organizations like the Smart Chicago Collaborative relied on independent technologists to donate their time and talent to drive public-sector innovations that were unlikely to be developed by the public-sector entities themselves.

The problem with this model is that technologist-volunteers rarely progress innovations past the prototype stage. After all, it’s far more fun to prove out a concept than to apply the rigor necessary to make it production-ready. Once the promise of OpenGrid could be realized and delivered to other cities, Chicago would be able rely on an ever-growing base of contributors to help its open source project achieve new capabilities.

Investigating these 3 areas of open source, open data, and public/private partnerships, this OpenGrid pattern may be a harbinger of the future. With cloud computing and a rapidly evolving technology landscape, along with the already-scarce resources allocated to our public-sector technology groups, public/private partnerships align incentives in a positive way to the benefit of everyone in the community.


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About Anthony Algmin

Anthony J. Algmin was the first Chief Data Officer for the Chicago Transit Agency and is now Chief Data Officer for Uturn Data Solutions, a Chicago-based consultancy that helps companies use data and cloud technologies to get better at what they do best. For more information on OpenGrid or Uturn Data Solutions, contact Anthony at aalgmin@uturndata.com.