August 12, 2013, 9:38 p.m. ET
Hackers Called Into Civic Duty
Chicago, Other Cities Work With Programmers to Leverage Data Troves for Public Purpose
By BEN KESLING CONNECT
CHICAGO—Cash-strapped cities are turning to an unusual source to improve their online services on the cheap: helpful hackers, who use city data to create tools tracking everything from real-time subway delays to where to get a free flu shot near your home and information about a contentious school-closing plan.
Hackers have been popularly portrayed as giving fits to national-security officials and credit-card companies, but the term also refers to people who like to write their own computer programs and help solve a variety of problems. Recently, hackers have begun working with cities to find ways of building applications, or apps, that make use of data—which gets stripped of personally identifiable information—that municipalities are collecting anyway in the regular course of governance.
Ben Kesling/The Wall Street Journal
A group of civic hackers in Chicago brainstorm on how to use public data to build apps that help solve city problems and foster open government.
"People still think hacking is getting people's credit-card numbers from J.C. Penney," said Daniel X. O'Neil, executive director of the Smart Chicago Collaborative, a nonprofit using technology to improve city life. "Now we work pretty closely with the city and the state."
Last year, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel signed an executive order mandating the city make available all data not protected by privacy laws. Today, the city has nearly 950 data sets publicly available, the most of any U.S. city, according to Code for America, a nonprofit that promotes openness in government.
Opening up data for hackers to turn into useful programs stretches scarce tax dollars. "As a city IT department, we're never going to be able to build all the apps the people of Chicago could want," said Brenna Berman, of the city's Department of Innovation and Technology.
At a recent hacker meeting on the 12th floor of a building overlooking the Chicago River, volunteers showed statisticians, programmers and policy experts how to take data from the city's new bike-share program and create maps that show stations with unused bikes. The group started chattering about all the tools they might be able to build based on the bike data, such as which routes are most popular or which stations see the most broken bikes, and use that to improve service.
Christopher Whitaker, who heads Chicago's Code for America team, also showed off 311 Service Tracker Chicago, a program from his group and the city that helps residents track the status of service requests for things such as removing abandoned vehicles or filling potholes.
"Now, when you file a request in Chicago, you get a tracking number like you would from UPS," Mr. Whitaker said. People can go to the website, enter the tracking number and see which city department is working on the problem and
the status of the request.
Although officials work to scrub data of anything that could cause privacy violations, there are still some concerns about privacy as more in-depth data sets are opened to the public.
"Anonymization is not a perfect science…there's always going to be risk," said Chris Soghoian, a policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union's Speech, Privacy and Technology Project.
Still, the civic hacking movement is gaining traction across the country.
Last year in New York, a free program called Embark that tracks train locations in real time and maps out routes for subway riders won a contest sponsored by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. San Francisco has a free iPhone app that helps people use public parks and areas by providing parking information and class schedules and showing photos of the green spaces. Even a smaller city, such as South Bend, Ind., can rely on hackers to help sort city data.
"The bottom line is all this data already belongs to the public," said South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg. "It's not costly and it's not a radical policy shift."
Hackers are helping the city sift through volumes of unorganized data and turn it into useful information, an important task for a town with limited budget and staff. "In some ways, the smaller the government, the more you rely on people to find these things," Mr. Buttigieg said.
Code for America, a national nonprofit, has fellows in 10 cities from South Bend to Louisville, Ky., this summer. The goal is to place programming volunteers in cities of all sizes that want to make better use of civic data.
"It's a yearlong commitment, almost like Peace Corps for geeks," Mr. Whitaker said.
Chicago is one of the cities furthest along in translating its data into useful tools. Besides using the bike-share mapping app, city residents can type in their addresses during flu season and find the nearest place to get a free flu shot. There also is a program that tracks the progress of bills that have been presented at city council meetings.
And the local Red Cross is benefiting from an app that maps house fires and helps determine if anyone lives in the house and might need help recovering and resettling.
Officials see the hackers as a new kind of Red Cross volunteer, helping the organization augment its own app-design team. "We're just dipping our toes in this idea of not reinventing the wheel," said Jim McGowan, who manages operations analysis for the Red Cross in Chicago and wants to make full use of existing applications.
Last year, when Chicago Public Schools announced the agency was considering 129 schools for possible closure or consolidation, Josh Kalov teamed up with a half dozen people to design an application, SchoolCuts.org, to compare all publicly available data on the ones facing closure.
"The SchoolCuts group came together at hack night," said Mr. Kalov, a 29-year-old data analyst interested in open government. The program was used by parents and city officials alike to better compare data on the schools and foster a more reasoned debate.
John Tolva, Chicago's chief technology officer, said he and other officials support this kind of use of public data, even when it fuels criticism of some city initiatives. "People have to feel a real conviction about an issue to create an application," he said. "We had our own data, but let's face it, it was a useful tool."
Write to Ben Kesling at firstname.lastname@example.org
A version of this article appeared August 12, 2013, on page A4 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Better Living Through Hacking.
Copyright 2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved