How the Chicago Community Trust and OpenGov Chicago are creating a new type of accountability journalism

by: Sally Duros |

To understand Open Government in Chicago, start by visiting and pick a school. Any school.

More than 38,000 children will be affected by Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s proposed school closings in Chicago. Angry parents are marching in the streets and debate is heated about whether the process for deciding which schools to close was fair and open.

Although, the Chicago school system makes public nearly all of its data, the data lacks context that would make it useful for making arguments pro or con any specific school closing. Making sense of it is too big a job for the parents that are so passionate about the school closings themselves, and no newsroom had the technical capacity to tackle the data on its own.

Enter a group of volunteers, including a grassroots parents group, web developers, data scientists and coders passionate about open government and education. They created the site to provide information to the public in a visual form that would be useful for understanding the problems —  or not —  with each school closing and how it might affect the children and the neighborhoods.

“The very day that CPS announced the school closing list, that evening a group of software coders put up the site,” says Terry Mazany, President and CEO of the Chicago Community Trust, who had also served as interim CEO of the Chicago Public Schools in 2010.

“They had aggregated all the datasets about school performance. And geomapped the schools that are on the list for closing …. That’s the sort of service you would hope that government might provide but these groups did it out of a sense of community service,” he says.

“They had this site up and running — and it is masterful.”

Coming full circle

Development of SchoolCuts to solve a problem for the public, means conversations and research begun 4 years earlier by the Chicago Community Trust have come full circle.

In 2009, executives at  the Chicago Community Trust were confronting two frightening possibilities.

The first was the fact of significantly weakened news operations with both the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times in bankruptcy. For the first time, it appeared likely that Chicago could become a one newspaper city. With decimated coverage and reporting, the Trust was worried about the loss of watchdog and accountability journalism.

The second was heightened awareness of the increasing digital divide, where in some neighborhoods on the South and West side only 30% to 50% of households had Internet access. With the Internet fast becoming the primary source for news and information, these Chicagoans would be left out of any emerging digital information streams.

Given shrinking news holes, the digital divide, and conditions created by the deep recession, civic leaders had gathered a working group to understand the problems and develop solutions.

“Here in Chicago we had not really had to be attentive to the news ecosystem, because the 4th estate was doing just fine and taking care of business.  So we could take it for granted,” Mazany says. “I repeatedly say how grateful I am for Alberto Ibargüen and the Knight Foundation for bringing it to our attention in a way that engaged community foundations as authentic partners.”

The Trust as a platform

Those talks in 2009 were the beginning of the evolution of the Chicago Community Trust’s news and information programs into something new.  With funding from Knight, the Trust began to view itself as a platform, a place that could host unexpected partnerships and encourage new ideas, experimentation and innovative solutions. Since then the Chicago Community Trust has led projects mapping the local new ecosystem, and made grants to online news start-ups.

But the most influential spin-off from the Chicago Community Trust platform to date is the Smart Chicago Collaborative, whch is also a leader in the Open Government movement.

“That was our game changer,” says Mazany.

Funded by the City of Chicago, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and The Chicago Community Trust, Smart Chicago says it is a funding collaborative:

 We help bring together municipal, philanthropic, and corporate investments in civic innovation.

By most measures, Smart Chicago’s line items at the Chicago Community Trust add up to a powerhouse with $3.8 million in funding from MacArthur, and $10.8 million from the City of Chicago. Totaled together with Trust matches and other funding, Smart Chicago has a total budget of $14.7 million.

With Dan X. O’Neil, former people person and co-founder of EveryBlock as Executive Director, Smart Chicago became the intermediary working with a number of existing and new initiatives related to digital media and learning funded by the MacArthur Foundation, as well as the agency overseeing implementation of the City of Chicago’s broad band initiative bridging the digital divide.

Smart Chicago’s role

Smart Chicago is where the circle becomes full. Through its 15 projects, Smart Chicago strategically combats news deserts in neighborhoods, extends broad band access through out the city and hosts the open government community. By creating new ways to quantify problems and identify fixes, current open government projects are the beginning of a new kind of accountability journalism.

“It’s about community, its about digital,” says Mazany. “Then we have the Knight Foundation– it’s about digital media. Then it’s about government and all of these come together.

“What Smart Chicago gives us is the brain power, the brain trust around the coding community, understanding better big data….” Mazany says.“We continue to serve as that connective platform here at the community foundation.

“The confluence of all of these elements is just mind blowing! It is redefining the future …on a digital plane,” Mazany says.

Over the past five years, the Chicago Community Trust has been awarded $704,000 in Community News Matters and Civic Innovation Challenge grants from the Knight Foundation. They’ve also won a $350,000 commitment from the John D. and Catherine T.  MacArthur Foundation and provided matching funds bringing their total for the Knight Information Challenge to more than $2.0 million.

For most of the past four years, Chicago’s OpenGov meetings were small gatherings of a dozen or so data scientists, software architects and coders who would meet at various offices and talk about data sets they were interested in “liberating” and mapping out.  One of those early projects was

Today, OpenGovChi convenes in the main meeting room at the Chicago Community Trust. Now, the circle has expanded to include members of the public and several partners. Joe Germuska, a co-founder of OpenGovChi, who now runs software development at Northwestern University’s Knight News Lab runs the meeting with O’Neil. The room is often filled to capacity with 100 or more and there is a waiting list.

Public radio takes a seat

One partner who attends regularly is Matthew Green, who runs the data news team at local public radio station WBEZ.

“We are supported by Chicago Community Trust and the Smart Chicago Collaborative,” says Green. “We are the first partner that they have that is a loudspeaker to the movement. This movement itself has lots of stories. The movement is unearthing stories in a new way.” The team from WBEZ develops ideas that stretch the capacity of the public radio’s newsroom to use data to report on problems that the public wants solved.

At a recent meeting Thoughtful Critiques of the Open Government Movement, Mike Stringer, a managing partner at Chicago’s Datascope Analytics, talked through a simple history of the Open Government movement.

It used to be “We have this Data, what can we do with it?” Today it is “Start with a problem.  Use data as a resource, “ Stringer says.


Thoughts for getting started with Open Gov

  • Learn about the importance of government data in shaping policy and accountability journalism. Develop insight, because that’s where it begins, with the CEO having an understanding that data and Open Government matters.
  • Understand the news ecosystem in your locality and the role of the community foundation as a hub of that ecosystem.
  • Do a needs assessment and identify the contours of your own news ecosystem.
  • Devise strategies, convenings and funding unique to your locality.
  • Connect with technologists perhaps by hosting Open Government events. You don’t have to employ a software coder, a digital expert , an app or web developer, but you do need to connect with the coders and technologists.
  • Be prepared. As in the example, have a loosely structured network where the people know each other interact.
  • Allow self organization.
  • Become a platform. Media consultant Steve Yelvington wrote this in 2008.

“When you choose to (become) a platform, you make a trade. You give up some control. But in exchange, you allow someone else to make your platform more valuable, more important, more essential.”

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Sally Duros believes good writing is a superpower. You can connect with Sally on , and on Twitter.

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