Tom Schenk Jr.’s point of view: will data change the face of our cities?

City by night

© Karol D

Sensors, smartphones, connected objects… In the digital revolution, cities and their inhabitants produce a growing mass of data. A huge potential to deeply transform our cities, and the way we live in them. SUEZ invited two renowned experts to voice their opinions on this subject: Carlos Moreno, an expert in smart cities, and Tom Schenk Jr., City of Chicago Chief Data Officer. Their predictions and feedback on changing cities.


© Tom Schenk Jr.

Similar to start-ups and large companies, cities are poised to be able to leverage data to improve efficiency of their services.

First, by using the administrative data they retrieve in research projects to assign their personnel and inspectors. For instance, in order to reduce rodent complaints, Chicago used 3-1-1 data (complaints reported over the phone, apps, web, and text messages), such as complaints about garbage and weed removal requests, to create a predictive model of the locations to investigate and bait. These predictions were used to deploy dedicated crews and led to a 20% increase in efficiency.

Many cities have launched open data initiatives to let the public leverage administrative data for their own needs. Chicago has published almost 600 freely available datasets (data.cityofchicago.org), including the aforementioned 3-1-1 data, energy consumption, crimes, licenses, permits, and more. This initiative has resulted in the development of a growing community of “citizen technologists”, researchers, journalists and also the general public, who use this data to meet their needs.

Improving city responsiveness

Second, cities can also leverage publicly available data, such as social media and weather data, to improve city responsiveness. For example, consider that an estimated one in six Americans will contract food poisoning throughout the year. Residents who are victims of food poisoning tend to openly complain online through platforms like Twitter or Facebook, instead of reporting issues directly to the city. So to counter this, the city partnered with others to use data available from Twitter to finally identify potential cases of food poisoning. The Foodborne Chicago (foodbornechicago.org) team tuned algorithms to “listen” for those that complain about food poisoning. Once a likely case of food poisoning is discovered, the city reaches out and encourages these people to report their complaint to the city through an online form so sanitarians can then follow-up with inspections.

As sensors are become cheaper, they can be deployed to collect new information to provide a third source of data. The city has partnered with the University of Chicago on a project dubbed the “Array of Things” (arrayofthings.github.io) to deploy sensors on the city’s street corners to provide granular information on air quality, density of crowds, standing water, and other data on a block-by-block basis. The data will allow the city to answer more questions about neighborhoods and will also be available online for the public through the open data portal.

Open innovation model

Since data and software driving these solutions can be quickly shared, the future of cities will be more collaborative between the government, private sector, and residents. Chicago has begun to engage in significant open source projects, which makes any code and data available freely to the public and licensed so others can contribute to the code or adopt it for any purpose. Earlier this year, Chicago launched OpenGrid (opengrid.io), an open source, situational awareness platform developed to navigate a stream of data and events across the city. The software breaks the silos between data to manage events in real-time for public safety. Code enforcement, meanwhile, is also available to the public to navigate open data in an easy-to-use interface. Chicago has also begun to release open source research projects. In 2014, the city published code which predicts where to send food inspectors to the restaurants with the highest risk for critical violations that lead to food poisoning. The algorithm is used to allocate inspectors and led to efficiency gains of 25%.

Releasing the code allows for two important things: to allow developers and researchers to improve the code and to allow for deep collaboration. Second, it lets Chicago share the code with other governments. Montgomery County, Maryland, near Washington D.C., adopted the code to assist with their food inspection program within two weeks.

Likewise, the Array of Things is an open hardware and open source project. Both the software to control each sensor and the physical housings are open source files available online. This project can be replicated in other cities and deployed at a reduced cost. The “open innovation” model will let cities collaborate with individuals and institutions around the world.

Each one of the aforementioned projects were built in partnerships with others like the Smart Chicago Collaborative, Civic Consulting Alliance, University of Chicago, Carnegie Mellon University, Bloomberg Philanthropies, Allstate Insurance and the public. Going forward, this model is needed to deploy the new innovations that will allow cities to keep-up in a digital, data-driven era. »

Tom Schenk Jr.
City of Chicago Chief Data Officer


Find the full article in the second issue of open_resource magazine: “Shaping resourceful cities

Discover the point of view of Carlos Moreno, Smart Cities expert.

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