Rahm Emanuel, Adrian Holovaty
The other day I was talking to a friend of mine who works in urban planning studies, who mentioned doing some research into something—I forget the particulars, but it involved buildings and lots—about Chicago and another major American city. She was able to get the data for Chicago online, in a snap; to get the data from the other city would have required thousands of dollars and months of waiting. That’s how it always used to be; take Homer Hoyt, the influential Chicago economist, and his epic Ph.D. dissertation, One Hundred Years of Land Values in Chicago:
One aspect of his life’s work that I find particularly amazing is simply how much legwork he had to put into his getting his data and how he translated his data into practical and important theoretical insights. I certainly take for granted the ease of accessing quantitative, current and historical socio-economic data, the readily available GIS tools planners use to understand our environment. At the time when Dr. Hoyt began his career good quantitative data wasn’t just a click away, and he actually pioneered the idea of representing data geographically, with maps! While working on his Ph.D. dissertation he spent hours in the Cook County Assessor’s Office pulling data together from records the likes of which we can only imagine. (There was an additional reward for these efforts however, as according to his son Michael, Dr. Hoyt met his wife at the Cook County’s Assessor’s Office).
I thought about Hoyt when EveryBlock, the ambitious hyperlocal data site born out of ChicagoCrime.org, was killed off by NBC three years after it was acquired. Daniel X. O’Neil, one of the site’s founders, describes what the open data movement was like not that long ago in his obit for EveryBlock:
From jumpstreet, my job at EveryBlock was about data. Get moar data. Cold calls to Mayor offices, advanced Google searches, complicated queries of databases hidden in plain sight, FOIA requests, follow-up calls, flights on airplanes, knocking on doors in municipal buildings. Whatever. Get moar data.
And I got to be a crazy person from the future, calling up a public information officer of the building department of a city of 8 million people and asking him to send me his building permits. He asked me, “which one?”. I said, “all of them”. He said “what date?” I said, “all of them”. There was a very long silence on the line, then he told me I was crazy, and basically hung up.
The municipal government of New York doesn’t think I’m crazy anymore. Anyone can download what I asked for in a single click now.
NBC couldn’t figure out what to do with it—how to integrate it, how to make money off it—and after only a few short years, it’s gone. But it cut a vital swath through the Internet; the risk that the Knight Foundation took putting a million dollars into it for its first Knight News Challenge paid off in newsrooms and cities throughout the country even if the site didn’t survive. I like Dan Sinker’s take:
it was absolutely the Xerox PARC of civic data, of geolocation, of information aggregators and civic screen scraping, of developers sitting in the big-J Journalism chair. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of tech companies that have filled the space that Everyblock defined, there are thousands of coders that hack on open government data because Everyblock showed it was possible, and there are millions of people that reap the benefits of the ideas that Everyblock defined.
Some of it was opening up that space for those of us who like to play with that sort of data, showing us that not only was it possible, there was a need and a want for it: if you built maps on the Web, people would look at them and learn from them. (There’s a certain historical appropriateness that EveryBlock was based in Chicago—the city has not only been a historical center of American mapping, the Chicago school of sociology, pioneered by people like Hoyt, Frederic Thrasher, and Charles S. Johnson, was crucial to the adoption of maps as a means of understanding cities. A lot of what people are doing now is trying to get those tools and that data into the hands of more people and organizations, so that such work can be done in hours or days instead of months or years.) Erin Kissane has much more on how EveryBlock influenced the field of journalism in its brief existence.
But there’s also a part that wasn’t Internet magic, outside of the geolocation and aggregation and hacking and scraping: putting that 20th-century device, the phone, to use in pushing governments to open up the data that—here, at least—we’ve come quickly to take for granted. EveryBlock did this indirectly, through its existence, and directly, through the people who worked for it, and the people it inspired to do similar work.
Related: I’m currently excited about Open City Apps, a Chicago collaborative that’s been doing some wonderfully creative, attractive work with open data.
Photograph: Chicago Tribune