Chicago Lobbyists Places 13th in A4MC Grand Challenge Contest


by Derek Eder

Dec 16, 2011 – The winners of the Apps for Metro Chicago Grand Challenge were announced today at Excelerate Labs in Chicago. Chicago Lobbyists placed 13th out of 20.

Chicago Lobbyists 13th Place Certificate

The overall winner was SpotHero, a website that connects parking demand to parking supply by allowing parking spot owners to earn income by renting their spot when it’s unoccupied. Congrats to them and all the other winners!


Our Response to Chicago's RFP for a Lobbyist Registration System


by Derek Eder

Dec 15, 2011 – The City of Chicago put out a Request for Proposals (RFP) to create an online lobbyist registration system. This RFP stems directly from an ethics ordinance passed on July 28th 2011.


City of Chicago Lobbyist Disclosure System RFP

The RFP’s objectives are for an outside contractor to build a system that will

  1. enable lobbyists registered with the City to file, on line, all required registration documents and activity reports.
  2. enable the Department to review and approve these filings as quickly as possible and communicate with lobbyists who must and have not completed their filing requirements.
  3. make data compiled from all lobbyists’ filings publicly available on line in various searchable, queriable reporting formats.

Because of the work we have already done, and our goal to help bring openness and transparency to the City of Chicago, the people who created Chicago Lobbyists have decided to respond to this RFP.

The challenge

Responding to an RFP for the City of Chicago is a herculean task. In the 152 pages, in addition to the usual cover letter, cost proposal, timeframe, etc, the responder must provide

Needless to say, this approach to an RFP results in proposals from one type of contractor: firms that are very large and able to jump through all the hoops that the City has to ensure the minimum amount of risk and liability for the City itself. The idea is, if they remove all apparent risk in the selection process, no one will be to blame if the project fails since they vetted the options so thoroughly. What the contractor actually builds and how they plan on going about it is completely secondary. This type of process rarely provides high quality products at a reasonable price, especially in software development.

As a group of volunteers working in our free time on this project, we are not what this RFP is targeting. We are, however, very competent developers and designers and have become experts on this lobbying data and how to display it. If the third objective of the RFP (above) sounds familiar to you, that’s because you’ve been to We have already met objective 3.

Our proposal

Despite not being able to fulfill most of the requirements of the RFP, we went ahead and responded anyway. We expect the city to pick one of their usual contractors, but hope that they will consider us as additional consultants for the design and front end development.

Download our proposal (PDF)

Chicago Lobbyists RFP response

In the proposal, besides showcasing the work we have already done, we offer to do the following:

We also advocate releasing as much code and design as possible as open source:

We suggest that, whenever possible, the code, data schemas, and designs should be released as open source. Chicago has a unique opportunity to set an open standard for lobbying data structure, collection, and display—so other municipalities can use it. This will also set a good example for government-related projects that it makes sense to share.

Moving from proprietary systems to open source makes collaboration and sharing easier and gives access to a wider pool of highly skilled talent. Examples of successful projects include Open 311, which the city plans to implement in 2012, and Open Street Maps, a viable alternative to Google and Bing Maps.

We will have more updates the next few days. For more background information on government procurement, check out this informative article on The Information Diet: Procurement is America’s Big Problem and CivicCommons’ wiki on Legal and Procurement Issues.


We are a finalist in Apps for Metro Chicago


by Derek Eder

Dec 14, 2011 – Last night, Apps For Metro Chicago announced the 20 finalists for their Grand Challenge and Chicago Lobbyists was one of them!

The winners will be announced on Dec 16 at 10:30am. The Grand Challenge winner will be awarded $10,000. More on the awards here. Good luck to everyone!

Judges’ Picks (5)

Public voting picks (5)

Winners carried over from previous rounds (10)

Community Round

Transportation Round


Chicago Lobbyists Version 2 Is Here


by Derek Eder

Dec 2, 2011 – We just rolled out a new version of Chicago Lobbyists last night. Thanks to our meetings with Chicago CDO Brett Goldstein and the efforts from his staff, we now have the ability to show:

The new data also seems to have been cleaned up and normalized quite a bit (we still had to do some normalizing ourselves – especially with addresses), resulting in a more accurate picture of lobbying activity in Chicago for 2010.

Here is a rundown of the new features:

  1. Most active clients is now determined by amount spent instead of number of lobbyists hired (Salvation Army, you are now #1 with $380,000 spent on lobbyists in 2010)

    New client listing

  2. All detail pages have a summary section at the top, displaying total amounts, number of lobbyists, number of clients, number of firms, and number of actions (depending on what you’re viewing). Here’s an example of each:

    Lobbyist detail - Ronald Johnson

  3. Global site search (using Google custom search engine)

  4. Every lobbyist action has a client associated with it

  5. Every lobbyist payment shows the client who paid them

  6. Categorized lobbyist expenditures (office expenses, food, travel, education, etc) are now listed

  7. We cross referenced the City of Chicago Payments database, and listed all payments by Chicago to each client (example: Christy Webber Landscapes)

    Christy Webber Landscapes - City Payments

  8. All detail pages now have tabs for each section so you can see all the rich data, without cluttering the page

  9. All data on the detail pages is sortable and searchable (thanks to jQuery Datatables)

  10. All detail pages have comments (powered by Disqus)

We’re all really excited about these new updates. We now have the most accurate and detailed visualization of lobbyist activities around. That’s something to be proud of.


An Open Data Story


by Paul Baker

Dec 1, 2011 – In almost all open data projects, providing raw data is not enough. And it’s not enough to be a good programmer or designer. To be useful, we need to be able to figure out what questions the data might reveal and which of these might be useful for the public to know.

The data

Lobbyist Data - 2010 Lobbyist Registry

In early July 2011, the City of Chicago released 14 sets of lobbying-related data, including lobbyists, lobbying agencies, gifts to city employees, expenditures, clients of lobbyists, etc. However, an ordinary human being could not make heads or tails of this without some sort of integration.
That’s why we built

Chicago Lobbyists v1.0

First, we went through each data set, attempting to draw relationships among them by looking for common fields such as clients, lobbying firms, and individual lobbyists. Our goal was to reveal answers to questions such as, “WalMart paid which lobbyist, with which lobbying firm, how much money, to argue on their behalf in front of which department or committee, and for what purpose?”

We soon found out that we couldn’t answer that question. In the above example, we could show which lobbyists Walmart paid, which firm the lobbyist worked for, and which city agencies the lobbyist appeared before, but not which tasks lobbyists were hired to do for WalMart.

Meeting with the City

After the July Google hackathon, at which we built and launched the site, we met with the city’s Chief Data Officer, Brett Goldstein, and some IT staff, and asked:

  1. Is there a way to determine compensation that comes to a firm versus lobbyist? (We can’t be sure adding up compensation of all lobbyists within a firm is accurate.)

  2. Is there a way to determine how much a client paid to a lobbying firm or lobbyist?

  3. Related to the question above, can we retrieve the purpose for a client payment?

  4. Can we receive data before 2010? If so, what years are available?

  5. Is there a way to determine which client requested an action in front of an agency? We only know which lobbyist requested an action—see example: Theodore Brunsvold

  6. Are street addresses available for lobbying firms (some give political donations from many different addresses)?

  7. Do you have a good state contact from which we could request political donation data?

  8. Is there a list of all city datasets available (besides those on Socrata)?

  9. Is there a schedule of when particular datasets are updated (frequency, time period)?

The City responds with updated data

By late August, Brett’s team had collected and posted the data that we had requested. Now, we are able to incorporate the new data and change the site’s design to show more detailed and new views (these changes are coming in the next day or so – stay tuned). Now we can answer most of the important questions.

Next steps …

Our next steps are to incorporate political donations to city officials by lobbyists and organizations. It would also be good to show how elected officials voted on issues of interest to lobbyists who have donated to them and their clients.

The entire 2012 city budget is about $3 billion—all of it paid by residents. Fees paid to lobbyists to influence government decisions will probably be in the neighborhood of $13 million, or about .4% of $3 billion.

We’re the 99.6%. Lobbyists paid by organizations are .4%. Are lobbyists the tail that wags the dog?


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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