Open City testimony to the City of Chicago Ethics Reform Task Force


On March 12, 2012, Derek Eder, on behalf of Open City, gave testimony at a public hearing to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Ethics Reform Task Force. The goal was to promote open data and open government, as well as to offer two specific recommendations that the City of Chicago:

  1. pass an open government ordinance to ensure the continued release of open data.
  2. improve the reporting requirements for registered lobbyists by collecting more detailed, timely, and complete data.

Below is the full transcript of the testimony:

My name is Derek Eder and I am a co-founder of Open City (, a group of volunteer entrepreneurs who create “civic web apps” that aim to improve transparency, efficiency, and decision-making in Chicago, Cook County, and the State of Illinois. I’d like to thank Illinois Campaign for Political Reform for informing us of this task force and encouraging us to testify.

For the last few years, many of us have been advocating for government bodies to open up their data. In Chicago and Cook County, this is happening at a good pace now, with new administrations that have put in place open data policies and appointed technical leadership that understand and support them. (City of Chicago data can be viewed and downloaded at County data is at

Before this body, Open City would like to focus on the following:

  1. Principals and benefits of open data policies
  2. Suggestions for improving Chicago’s lobbyist data and reporting requirements

The principals and benefits of open data

Open City subscribes to the Eight principles of Open Government ( which include that data:

  1. be as complete as possible
  2. is not changed in significant ways after collection
  3. be made available in a timely manner
  4. is available to the widest range of users for the widest range of purposes
  5. be provided in machine readable, normalized formats
  6. be offered to anyone without discrimination
  7. be non-proprietary (as in no entity has exclusive control)
  8. be license free (at no cost and with no restrictions for use)

We support reasonable privacy-related changes such as the removal of social security and bank account numbers from court data or removing data from medical records that could allow insurance companies or employers, for instance, to identify individuals.

The following are a few obvious, and not so obvious, ways in which open government data policies are useful.

I. Improving transparency
The reason usually cited for opening up government data is to reduce graft and corruption. Lobbying data is a good example, for which we created This web app displays, in easy to understand ways, all data related to lobbying that the City of Chicago has made available in accordance with the most recent lobbying ordinance. (A more detailed discussion of this ordinance and lobbying data is included at the end of this testimony.)

II. Harnessing the talent of civically-minded entrepreneurs
Independent groups such as Open City wish to contribute ideas and apps in order to inform citizens and improve the city and county in many ways. Having access to open government data makes this possible.

Here are a few additional examples of what we have done with open data, along with a few ideas on how they could be improved if more data were to be released:

Many other groups, individuals, and companies are working with public data in a wide variety of ways. Many of these can be viewed at

III. Improving efficiency
In the public sphere, using data to improve efficiency of government services is rapidly gaining traction. Some examples of current or projected uses include:

For the City of Chicago to continue leading in open data, it must continue to release this highly valuable data in accordance with the above stated Eight principles of Open Government, and must do everything it can to ensure that future administrations do so as well.

Although the City is required to comply with the Freedom of Information Act for responding to requests for data, there is currently no ordinance in the books that requires the City to release data on the data portal ( This administration, or future ones could, at any point, cease releasing this data should it be politically expedient to do so.

It is our opinion that the City of Chicago should take steps in passing an open government ordinance, similar to the one passed today in New York City ( and by Cook County in September 2011 (

Suggestions to improve Chicago’s lobbyist data and reporting requirements

Open City has gained some expertise in this area, as we learned much about lobbying data while building and from discussions with the San Francisco Ethics Commission. We believe that San Francisco’s lobbying ordinance sets a great example for Chicago to follow and improve upon.

Although the recent ordinance passed in Chicago in July 2011 is a significant step in the right direction, we feel that lobbyist transparency can still be improved in several ways:

Open City believes that cities should work together to adopt a common approach to specifying lobbyist filing and reporting requirements, so that very similar software can be used across all municipalities. This would save local governments time and money and promote a general attitude of openness.

To sum up, it is our recommendation that the City of Chicago

  1. pass an open government ordinance to ensure the continued release of open data.
  2. improve the reporting requirements for registered lobbyists by collecting more detailed, timely, and complete data.

Thank you for hearing our testimony.


Open City apps on WTTW's Chicago Tonight


Jan 31, 2012 – Derek Eder and Chad Pry, the two lead developers on this site, got a chance to appear on WTTW Chicago Tonight along side Chicago CTO John Tolva Tuesday night.

In their panel discussion they talked about Chicago Lobbyists, Look at Cook, ClearStreets, the City’s Plow Tracker and the open data movement in Chicago.

Watch the segment below:

Source: Chicago Data Apps on Chicago Tonight (WTTW)


Chicago ain’t ready for procurement reform - Despite changes, the city continues to shut out tech innovators


Proposal Declined

Jan 12, 2012 – We recently received a rejection letter from the City of Chicago regarding our bid to build them an online lobbyist registration app. Crowe Horwath LLP, an accounting and consulting firm based in Oak Brook, lllinois, won the bid instead.

We were almost certainly rejected because we did not fulfill the application requirements set out by the Department of Procurement Services. We never intended to. Despite being very competent technologists and experts on lobbying data, we simply couldn’t meet them: The city’s requirements are not crafted with tech startups in mind.

Despite Mayor Emanuel’s pledge to promote entrepreneurship, his moves to modernize the city’s technology, and his promise that last year’s city contracting reforms would “ensure competitive, accountable and open bidding,” high barriers to entry that protect entrenched incumbents and shut out innovative startups are still very much in place.

“In private industry, many organizations have adapted their procurement process to suit modern website development,” says Paul Baker, the co-founder and president of Webitects, a web design firm. “The city still treats it like you’re pouring 60,000 tons of concrete, like you’re building a bridge.”

Smart organizations judge you based on your track record and the quality of your (proposed) solutions to their problems. The city, on the other hand, focuses on requirements: of the 152-page request for proposal (RFP) the city issued for the lobbyists app, only 10 pages touch on actual applications specs (p. 87 – 97.) The rest is largely forms and legalese.

Why? Because the city is more concerned with minimizing the risk of project failure than with seeking out ideas and ability. Though the intent is no doubt to protect taxpayers, the results are perverse: innovators are shut out, city IT is stuck in the stone age, city workers and citizens lose.

Consider the firm the city chose to build the lobbyist system: Crowe Horath is the same company that built the City of Chicago’s current website. The city paid them $1.8 million in 2010 to carry out the city’s first website redesign in 9 years. This company also built the Explore Chicago tourism website, and applied the same design to the City of Chicago site.

At an OpenGov Chicago meet up in November, the group discussed the City’s website. Some people raised usability issues, and several suggestions for improvement were made. The city seems to recognize that there are issues with the site, since they are looking to redesign it again after being in use for less than two years. (Note: I am a co-organizer of OpenGov Chicago, but this blog post is my own opinion and not a statement on behalf of the group)

The question now is, with Mayor Emanuel touting innovation and change, why is it still business as usual when it comes doling out taxpayer dollars for the projects that really matter?

We believe technology can help transform government at the core. But Government 2.0 will never become a reality without real procurement reform to level the playing field for innovative newcomers. In other words, procurement is the problem.

And we want to be part of the solution. We’re announcing the creation of a nonprofit civic startup: an open gov, open-source development shop that will not just build apps on open data, but also compete to build re-usable software that transforms how government does business.

More on this to come soon.


Chicago Lobbyists team interview on Outside the Loop Radio


by Derek Eder

Outside the Loop Radio

Jan 5, 2012 – Earlier is week the Chicago Lobbyists team did an interview with Mike Stephen from Outside the Loop Radio on 88.7 WLUW.

Download the full interview or take a listen here (starts at around 3min in):

Doing the interview were Paul Baker, Derek Eder and Chad Pry. We discussed the origins of the project, the value it adds to Chicago citizens, surprises we found while going through the data, and our plans for the future.

Make sure to check out Outside the Loop Radio with Mike Stephen every Thursday at 10am on 88.7 WLUW. Thanks again to Mike for the opportunity to share our work!

88.7 WLUW


In GovFresh competition, Chicago Lobbyists wins a first prize and Chicago places second as City of the Year


by Paul Baker

2011 govfresh awards

Dec 28, 2011 – On December 20, GovFresh announced the winners of the 2011 GovFresh Awards. The website aims to encourage government-citizen collaboration in order to “build a more engaged democracy.”

Chicago Lobbyists placed first as “Best use of open source” and the city of Chicago placed second to New York City as City of the Year. New York was cited for its Engage NYC initiative, aimed at getting designers and developers civically active, and NYC Open Data, a repository of more than 850 city datasets, including public school data.

We were happy to see tweets from Mayor Emmanuel’s office, city Chicago CDO Brett Goldstein, Mike Flannery at Fox News and OpenGov activist Steve Vance.

Tweet from the Mayors Office

We were also happy to see Chicago Lobbyists being used by journalists for online research, as in this New York Times article on lobbying. See the link to lobbying firm DLA Piper.

GovFresh also highlights five Cook County open data visualizations based on the county’s new Socrata open data catalog, including Public facilities and services, top sheriff’s violations, outpatient registrations, mortgages, and elected officials.


An open process

In the spirit of openness, the goal of this blog is to share our milestones, setbacks and thoughts as we continue to develop and expand this project.

Who are we?

We are Open City, a group of developers and designers based in Chicago that build civic-minded apps using open data.

Paul Baker
President and co-founder of Webitects
Derek Eder
Developer at Webitects and organizer for OpenGov Chicago
Chad W Pry
Engineer at Groupon, Code Academy mentor, and all around charming fellow
Nick Rougeux
Designer and CSS wiz at Webitects

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