The Center for Data Innovation spoke with Christopher Whitaker, a consultant and civic works project manager for the Smart Chicago Collaborative, a nonprofit that has become a critical part of Chicago’s booming data scene, bringing together the government and developer communities and providing support for new civic applications.
This interview has been lightly edited.
Travis Korte: Can you introduce Smart Chicago Collaborative and some of your recent projects?
Christopher Whitaker: Smart Chicago is a civic organization devoted to improving lives in Chicago through technology. We work on increasing access to the Internet, improving skills for using Internet, and developing meaningful products from data that measurably contribute to the quality of life of residents in our region and beyond.
Korte: Last time we spoke you talked about the Chicago’s civic tech ecosystem and how there are a number of distinct players that contribute to different aspects of the scene. Can you rehash that a little bit?
Whitaker: The civic innovation ecosystem has three big parts. The first is the City of Chicago, which provides a huge amount of data (fuel) for the ecosystem. They’re more than just dumping data: they actively engage with the community about their data needs. The second is the Smart Chicago Collaborative, which provides foundational support to civic innovation projects, building our own products and running programs. And the third is the civic innovation community, which provides a base of talent to work on projects. The main interaction with this group comes from the monthly OpenGov Hack Nights.
Korte: Has anything changed in this dynamic since you first told me about it in the summer of 2013?
Whitaker: One thing that’s happening now is that there are now more and more people being able to do this professionally. There are a growing number of volunteers who now have their own consulting firms and web development shops.
Korte: The City of Chicago is one of the most proactive city governments in the world concerning data initiatives. What do you think other cities can learn from the way Chicago’s government engages with the data and tech community?
Whitaker: They can do more than just learn, the City of Chicago is opening up their code on GitHub. You can fork their projects, including the OpenETL toolkit that the city uses to hook up their business systems to the open data portal.
Korte: Speaking of which, other than the sympathetic city government, how do you think Chicago managed to become the “City of Big Data?”
Whitaker: It didn’t happen by accident. There was careful planning involved from all players as far back as 2007. The Smart Chicago Collaborative was first conceptualized in a document put together by the Chicago Community Trust, the MacArthur Foundation, and the City of Chicago called The City that Networks. When Congress passed the stimulus package in 2009, the City of Chicago was ready for it. The city also received a federal Broadband Technology Opportunity Program grant.
Photo: Flickr user Daniel X O’Neil