“Operationalizing” Data in City Government

Vocab from Chicago’s Data Science Team

This past month, I had the chance to work with Chicago Chief Data Officer Tom Schenk and his data science team, housed in Chicago’s Department of Innovation and Technology. The experience gave me a window into tech in city government and, more broadly, the Chicago civic tech community.

Having grown up in the city, this past month left me proud of the success Chicago tech leaders have to date and excited by the potential of the next five years. Indeed, with projects like OpenGrid and the Array of Things, it’s impossible not to be inspired by what the future has in store.

To capture what I’ve learned this month about technology in city government, I thought I’d share a new word I learned and how it relates to my project with the data science team.


I dislike jargon. But when I heard “operationalize” mentioned several times in Chicago’s Department of Innovation and Technology, I began to understand its value. The data science team didn’t use the word because they love to speak their own language. They used it because their jobs depended on it.

Unlike entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, department heads across the City of Chicago government do not all preach Big Data. City officials, given their decades of experience running municipal government, carry a healthy skepticism to data analytics. In addition, like most governments, the city faces tough budget constraints. Chicago, in particular, faces “mind-blowing” debt and pension obligations.

As a result, the Chicago team faces constant pressure to operationalize its work if it wants to grow — or even stay alive. When they approach a problem, the data scientists have to constantly ask themselves: “How will this turn into something useful to hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans?”

While “to operationalize” means nothing more than “to make useful” or “to make actionable,” I started to appreciate the jargon because it reminded me that, no matter how much code the team wrote, their work would have to dramatically improve operations in one of the other city departments. If a department head didn’t think the team’s work could help her thousand-plus staff do their jobs, she was right.

My Project: Operationalizing FOIA Requests

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) allows citizens to request information from their local, state, and federal governments. Unless the request falls under a set of exemptions, the City of Chicago is required, by law, to respond to these requests.

For my project, I created a dashboard to track FOIA requests made to City of Chicago departments. It gave me a chance to improve my skills in R and learn Shiny. After my previous personal project tracking who made Independent Police Review Authority requests, I was eager to dig into the content of what people wanted to know about their government.

Looks like Chicagoans want to know what Rahm is saying and where he’s going.

Sometimes, the plots helped tell an interesting story. In July 2014, the Chicago Tribune published an article that exposed irregularities in red light camera (RLC) tickets. That same month, FOIA requests made to the Department of Transportation increased and remained higher than previous levels.

FOIA requests to the Department of Transportation rose in July 2014 after the Tribune published an investigative report into irregularities in Chicago’s ticketing technology.
This past year, RLC video footage was still the most mentioned term in Department of Transportation’s FOIA requests.

On the City of Chicago’s end, responding to FOIA requests requires much time and money. We hope that with this dashboard, city officials can keep an eye on trends in what citizens want to know. If the dashboard tells them that certain datasets are frequently requested, they can make these available to the public before people ask for them. This could save the city the resources needed to individually respond to each request.

In addition to helping city officials save time and money, I hope the dashboard can help spot emerging trends in what Chicagoans want to know. The “rising words” tab displays the keywords that increase in popularity, according to the month they rise. While a deeper dive into topic modeling may be required to make this useful to decision makers, I hope this serves as a proof of concept.

I’m curious who mharris@cityofchicago.org belongs to, and why people want to know about them.

Finally, at Chi Hack Night, I found a non-government application for the dashboard. Before teams get together to work on projects, Chi Hack Night hosts a speaker. I was lucky enough to hear Brandon Smith, the activist who won the lawsuit to release the Laquan McDonald video.

In his talk, Brandon mentioned his new website, FOIA Machine, and his ambition to “deputize” as many Chicagoans as possible as serial FOIA requestors. In his words, “you can get the answers. That’s the bottom line.” FOIA Machine automates the FOIA request process, complementing what Smith referred to as the “golden age of accountability journalism.” The request volume section of my dashboard could help Brandon and his fellow activists track their efforts to “deputize” Chicagoans.

The difference between nothing and “this is cool,” I realized is easy . The jump from “this is cool” to “this is useful,” however, is difficult. Moving forward, I’ll be curious to see if this dashboard successfully makes this jump.