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Tag Archive: Chicago

OpenGov Voices: Data provides constant revelations for central Illinois communities


Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the guest blogger and those providing comments are theirs alone and do not reflect the opinions of the Sunlight FoundationBrant Houston - professor of journalism or any employee thereof. Sunlight Foundation is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information within the guest blog.

Brant Houston is the Knight Chair in Investigative Reporting at the College of Media at the University of Illinois and Editor in Chief of CU-CitizenAccess -- a community online news and information project devoted to investigative and enterprise coverage of social, justice and economic issues in east central Illinois. He can be reached at, an award-winning online newsroom, was launched with public data and it continues to thrive and grow with data about the central Illinois region.

Conceived as a digital platform for university students, faculty and journalism professionals, the project began with a review of basic Census data for the communities of Champaign and Urbana, Illinois in 2008. (Thus, the “C” for Champaign and the “U” for Urbana.) The data revealed what seemed like a surprisingly high percentage of people living in poverty – about 20 percent – in a county that is home to the University of Illinois, a top public educational institution.

But as we scanned the data, we knew there were questions about whether college students, with low earned income, were distorting the numbers. So we looked at the percentage of subsidized school lunches and saw that more than half the school children were receiving lunches. We also read news stories and talked with the staff at the local newspaper and realized there was more than a story to pursue – that there was an ongoing project.

While collecting more data and information, we worked with colleagues to raise funds from a local community foundation, matching money from the Knight Foundation’s Community Information program, and from the University. By the spring 2009, work was underway by Illinois journalism alum Pam Dempsey and Shelley Smithson. In December 2009, the website was up and running and alum Acton Gorton, was helping administer the website while reporting too.

CU Citizen Access
An illustrative representation of an interactive story about the efforts to clean toxic waste from a neighborhood community in Urbana, IL. Image by Acton H. Gorton for

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Obama library bid gets lobbyist donors


President Barack Obama has yet to pick a site for his presidential library, but Hawaii's bid for it got a $5,000 donation from the global law and lobbying firm Skadden Arps.

The disclosure was made last week, when lobbyists reported their 2013 contributions to candidates and for presidential libraries and other causes. The donation came in January when Skadden Arps co-sponsored the Hawaii Presidential Center Inaugural Gala in Washington during the weekend of Obama's second inauguration. 

While the money did not go to the president or any committees associated with him, it's an early indication of ...

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Open Budget, Open Process: A Short History of Participatory Budgeting in the US


A simple twist on the traditional budgeting process has us paying attention to payoffs for transparency. Participatory budgeting (PB) is a political process that lets members of a community vote on how certain budget funds should be allocated. By including the public in decision-making, PB has the potential to be an agent of accountability, helping to demystify city budgets, to turn voters into active contributors and informed monitors of government progress, and to help support efforts for proactive budget disclosure. As it stands today, PB helps communities explore many of these opportunities, and it serves as an important gateway to engagement with local government for a wide variety of residents, especially traditionally-underrepresented groups. It’s a transformative process -- one that may cost governments almost nothing, since it just reallocates existing funds -- and it's a process we’re eager to see explored in more detail as more and more communities hold a magnifying glass to budgetary data.

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OpenGov Voices: Keeping Tabs on Your Local City Council with Councilmatic


Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the guest blogger and those providing comments are theirs alone and do not reflect the opinions of the Sunlight Foundation or any Derek Ederemployee thereof. Sunlight Foundation is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information within the guest blog.

Derek Eder is a co-founder of Open City, a group of volunteers in Chicago that create apps with open data to improve citizen understanding of our government through transparency, and owner of DataMade, a civic technology and open data consultancy.

City councils shape nearly every aspect of city life, from what kind of canopy you can have on a storefront, to how much we pay in taxes, to the number of cops on the street.

Unfortunately, it is hard for citizens to keep tabs on what their city council is doing. A few years ago, if you wanted to be informed about a city council’s actions, you had to go to the clerk’s office and page through the hundreds or thousands of bills that were added or updated every month.

In recent years, many city clerks have taken a big step forward by publishing this legislation online. However, the current generation of municipal legislative information systems are mainly built to help councilmembers and clerks’ offices manage legislation. They were not built to help the public to understand what their city council is doing.

Well, like so many of our problems, now there’s an app for that: Councilmatic.

Chicago Councilmatic 1

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The Impact of Opening Up Zoning Data


The content, format, and quality of the zoning information municipalities share varies widely. Posting this information online empowers policymakers to better understand the impact of their decisions and allows people to provide accountability on the process. Access to this information can also help people understand what they are or are not allowed to do -- but zoning data, even in an open format, is not always easy to understand. Thankfully, having this data publicly available has also enabled applications and news stories that contextualize the information and show people just how zoning regulations and processes can impact them.

Take a look, for example, at Second City Zoning created by the folks at Open City Apps in Chicago, Illinois. This app breaks down complex zoning regulations into categories that would make sense to someone who's not at all familiar with Chicago's specific codes. Users can look at the city's zoning by type (residential, commercial, or industrial) and by special purpose districts, such as planned development, transportation, parks, and open space. Hovering a computer mouse over any of these categories also reveals a short pop-up explanation of what that category means. Clicking on the interactive map allows users to see what exists on a certain section of land, ranging from parks and playgrounds to shopping centers and tall buildings. Visualizing zoning data in this way enables people to easily see what zoning regulations mean in practice, and it allows them to research how different zoning might lead to a changed landscape. Second City Zoning's About section also has explanations related to the zoning processes and regulations, further empowering users to understand just what this complex dataset can mean in practice.

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