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Derivative Works from Daniel X. O'Neil

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The Sadness of Deferred Maintenance at the State of Illinois Building

I have always loved goofball architecture. I can't pass a Brutalist structure without stopping to marvel at it.

And there was nothing goofier than the State of Illinois Building (160 North LaSalle St.) when it opened in 1985. I went by there the other day and was bummed to see how muffed up the place was. Here's a complete set of pics, and here's some examples:

Paint scraped off glass panels:

The Cost of Deferred Maintenance at the State of Illinois Building

Evidence of at least one vehicle impact:

The Cost of Deferred Maintenance at the State of Illinois Building

Some serious lime issues:

The Cost of Deferred Maintenance at the State of Illinois Building

Phantom cutouts:

The Cost of Deferred Maintenance at the State of Illinois Building

The Dubuffet isn't doing all that well either:

The Cost of Deferred Maintenance at the State of Illinois Building

I know there are some issues with budget here in our state, and we have many human needs, but we can do better than this, no?

The News The Day Before: Anwar Sadat's Assassination

I love the New York Times archive.

Since I get the paper delivered to my doorstep every morning, I get access to every word they've published since 1851. If I were a smarter person (or at least an actual coder), I would use their API tools to do all sorts of things, including the automation of my NYT Anonymity Project.

But earier this week it was the elevation of Ayman al-Zawahri to be the new leader of Al Qaeda that made me think of another thing I like to do: look up what happened the day before.

Zawahri had a major role in the assasination of Anwar Sadat. The news coverage surrounding that event always struck me, because it was so brazen and surprising— he was killed monitoring a military parade in hos own country.

So I wondered what the NYT had to say about the killing of Sadat and— maybe more enlightening— what the had to say the day before. Here are the stories they filed in the days before Sadat was killed:

President Anwar el-Sadat tonight strongly urged the United States...his National Democratic Party, Mr. Sadat criticized opposition to the Awacs sale...Arabia, one of its friends?'' Mr. Sadat asked. The Saudis, Mr. Sadat said...

October 1, 1981 - By WILLIAM E. FARRELL, Special to the New York Times - World - 403 words

President Anwar el-Sadat today sent his Vice President on a hurried...tomorrow, officials here said. Mr. Sadat told reporters that Mr. Mubarak was...to the security of the region, Mr. Sadat replied, ''No comment.'' Egyptian...

October 2, 1981 - By WILLIAM E. FARRELL, Special to the New York Times - World - 559 words

...American officials in Khartoum. Sadat Supports the Sudan Officials in Washington said that President Anwar el-Sadat of Egypthad frequently taken it...its neighbor to the south. Mr. Sadat sent Mr. Mubarak to Washington to...

October 3, 1981 - By BERNARD GWERTZMAN, Special to the New York Times - World - 571 words

And here's the story on the day Sadat was assasinated:

By WILLIAM E. FARRELL, Special to the New York Times
Published: October 6, 1981

CAIRO, Oct. 5— President Gaafar al-Nimeiry of the Sudan dissolved his country's two parliaments today in a move that Sudanese officials described as a further step in Mr. Nimeiry's plan to decentralize power in the vast and troubled nation.

It was not immediately clear whether Mr. Nimeiry's step was related to the crisis between the Sudan and Libya. For several weeks now, there have been skirmishes on the Sudan's western border with Chad, where Libyan troops have been stationed since December and have aided one side in the Chadian civil war. There have also been charges from Sudanese officials that Libyan planes have been raiding Sudanese border towns.

On Thursday, President Anwar el-Sadat of Egypt, which has a mutual defense pact with the Sudan, sent Vice President Hosni Mubarak on a hurried missi on to Washington to press the Reagan Administration for a quick infus ion of American arms to the Sudan. The Egyptians assert that the Sovi et Union backs aggression by the Libyan Government of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi against the Nimeiry regime. U.S. Aid Not Yet Approved

The Reagan Administration, which has pledged to help any country threatened by Libya, requested $100 million for the Sudan earlier this year, but the money has not yet been authorized. The previous United States military loan was $30 million.

Today Mr. Sadat affirmed his intention to intervene if the Sudan is attacked by ''the maniac Qaddafi,'' and repeated his contention that Mr. Qaddafi was acting with the sanction of the Soviet Union. Mr. Sadat's remarks were made in Mayo, the news magazine of the ruling National Democratic Party.

In Khartoum, a statement from the official Sudanese press agency, Suna, said that the nation's two parliaments were being dissolved. One of them is in the north and the other is in the south, which has been autonomous since 1972.

The statement said that new elections for a smaller National People's Assembly in the north would take place in 60 days. The other parliament, called the Southern Region People's Assembly, would have six months to call new elections, according to Suna. Decentralization at Issue

As part of Mr. Nimeiry's decentralization plan, the new National Assembly, which now has 366 members, would have a total of 155 members and would delegate responsibilities to the provinces in matters such as health, education and welfare.

Mr. Nimeiry, who has survived about half a dozen coup attempts in a dozen years in office, has used decentralization in an effort to end civil strife.

The Sudan is Africa's largest and probably most culturally disparate nation, with 18 million people scattered over nearly a million square miles. It has more than 1,000 languages and tribal dialects.

In today's move, Mr. Nimeiry said that the elections in the south, which is Christian and animist, would determine if the residents there wanted to follow the decentralization example of the Moslem north.

An unanswered question here tonight was whether Mr. Nimeiry's dissolution of the legislative bodies was related to his troubles with Mr. Qaddafi, which have been accentuated since the Sudan resumed relations with Egypt a few months ago after a break because of Mr. Sadat's signing of the peace treaty with Israel. '76 Libyan Plot Failed

In 1976, a Libyan-backed army of mercenaries attempted to oust Mr. Nimeiry but failed. Another sign that Mr. Nimeiry may be girding for a confrontation with Libya was the appointment two days ago of the chief of the Sudan state security organization, Gen. Omar Mohammad Tayeb, as the nation's third vice president.

In recent days there have been reports out of the Sudan of arms smuggling into the nation and of attempts by Libya to once again recruit an army of disaffected Sudanese to try to topple Mr. Nimeiry. There were reports out of Khartoum today th at Sudanese workers in Libya were being pressured into joining a gro up called the Salvation Army to strike at Mr. Nimeiry. The Sudanese p ress agency said that hundreds of Sudanese workers were leaving Lib ya and quoted some of them as saying that the Libyans threatened to torture them unless they joined.

This was the news the day before.

Lincoln Marsh in Early Summer

There is a wonderful lushness to this marsh right now. The rain you served us well.

Lincoln Marsh, June 16, 2011: Heightened Wonder Vista

The reeds are thin and green, but with one ripe orange one here:

Lincoln Marsh, June 16, 2011: Rare Ripe Reed

And here's what I'm pretty sure is a Black-headed Grosbeak:

Lincoln Marsh, June 16, 2011: Black-headed Grosbeak?

Here's the complete set. Marshes and prairies are our oceans here in Illinois. Breathe them in.

Prentice Hospital is Worth Saving

NorthwesternUniversityFormerPrenticeWomensHospital-00904-002a There's a lot going on around Prentice Women's Hospital (250 East Superior Street) right now. It was made in 1974, but I think it deserves protection as a historic place. I love the sublime honeycomb structure-- it makes me remember that it's possible to build something fresh. That not everything has to fit the box. Also: both of my tiny little babies were born there.

Here's a copy/ paste from an email from Landmarks Illinois:

Old Prentice Hospital
The effort to save this modernist gem (1974) by architect Bertrand Goldberg now has the attention of the nation.

On June 16th, "old" Prentice Hospital was named one of the "11 Most Endangered Historic Places" by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The announcement was made by Vince Michael (above), a member of Landmarks Illinois Board of Directors and a Trustee of the National Trust. Other speakers included LI's President Jim Peters, Preservation Chicago's Jonathan Fine, and AIA-Chicago's Zurich Esposito.

The four groups, along with docomomo-Midwest, are members of the Save Prentice Coalition, which was organized to help preserve this hospital building at 333 E. Superior St., Chicago. The building's owner, Northwestern University, has said it plans to demolish the building after it is vacated later this year.  

Below are a few photos from the "Save Prentice" rally, which was held in conjunction with the "11 Most" announcement.


What You Can Do 

 Thanks for your support.

Save Prentice Rally
Prentice Rally
Rally participants included people born at the hospital.
Click Here to Donate
God bless Prentice Women's Hospital.

Wrapping Up the AldermanicWebsites Project

I had a fun time with my obsessive side project, AldermanicWebsites. I learned a ton about current modes of online campaign management, I spoke to lots of the candidates, and felt like I really had a handle on the issues that were of interest at the Ward level. It was also cool doing a Hack the Election session at ORDCamp with my man Dan Sinker.

I heard from a number of other developers who used my stuff as a starting point (just like I had used the excellent work of EarlyandOften as a basis for mine). The Chicago Tribune used my site as a source for building their top-notch election Web site. That is a great source of pride for me, beacuse I think they do great work.

If you are looking to do something like this in the future, these resources might help: the spreadsheet I used to pull it together, screenshots of every candidate Web site I could get my hands on, preserved in hi-res on Flickr, and the site itself-- AldermanicWebsites: More than you ever wanted to know about political Web sites in Chicago.

I used Update Scanner to monitor all of the Ward Web sites, and since I was cleaning it out over the weekend, I figured I would pull together a topper-offer post to put this project to bed. Here's a review of what I saw:

I've never run for office, and one main reason is that I hate losing. But the losing candidates had differing approaches to their Web updates. 2nd Ward candidate Genita Robinson went the Thankful Route, with a plaintive look back at the campaign and failing to mention the victor, incumbent Alderman Fioretti:

Screen shot 2011-06-15 at 5.48.22 PM

George Rumsey over in the 4th was optimistic about the ward and looked forward to working with new Alderman Will Burns:

Screen shot 2011-06-15 at 5.56.43 PM

Many candidates took the Take The Signs Down approach, erasing their sites right away:

Screen shot 2011-06-15 at 5.50.55 PM

Screen shot 2011-06-15 at 5.52.08 PM

Some acted like the election never happened:

Screen shot 2011-06-15 at 5.53.09 PM

Some had the lights on the campaign turned off, one way or another:

Screen shot 2011-06-15 at 5.55.03 PM

Some are unwittingly contributing to the GoDaddy Ad Coffers (I sympathize-- this has happened to me before):

Screen shot 2011-06-15 at 5.58.45 PM

At least one former Alderman hasn't gotten around to decommissioning her site yet:

Screen shot 2011-06-15 at 6.01.11 PM


Speaking of the Sixth Ward, here's the Best Use of Old School Pic:

Screen shot 2011-06-15 at 6.02.39 PM

Here's a "Thank You Note"-style update that references the winner's margin of victory, which is sort of like telling a guy who owes you money what a beautiful tree he has in his front yard.

Screen shot 2011-06-15 at 6.07.47 PM

Former candidate Erick Von Kondrat seems to have turned his campagin Web site into a platform for civic change. He says, "My mission is to foster economic development, promote the development and redevelopment of real estate within the 28th and 24th wards, create viable urban communities, and preserve the character, culture and history of the West Side".

Screen shot 2011-06-15 at 6.14.34 PM

Coach Mayden used his existing Web site before, during, and after the campaign, and he is still going strong:

Screen shot 2011-06-15 at 6.18.13 PM

Former Alderman Rice in the 36th Ward is apparently constructing his site at this time.

Screen shot 2011-06-15 at 6.20.19 PM

In the same ward, Motzny seems pretty stoked that Alderman Sposato won:

Screen shot 2011-06-15 at 6.23.35 PM

Former 47th Ward Alderman Gene Schulter might consider giving his URL, http://www.ward47.com/ to new Alderman Ameya Pawar. Right now the property provides stultifying links to info about Pittsburgh Steeler wide receiver Hines Ward.

Screen shot 2011-06-15 at 6.27.00 PM


See you all back here in about 3 years!

Notes from the Champions of Change — Open Innovators Event at the White House

Last week I took part in a great event at the White House. About 3 minutes into the program, I set aside my own personal joy and realized that there were a whole slew of awesome thoughts, projects, and policies coming from dozens of people, so I started taking notes. On paper. With a pen. Here they are, transcribed in annotated fashion. This is by no means comprehensive-- I just tried to get down one interesting thing I heard from each person.

Macon Phillips, White House Director of New Media, kicked off the morning by talking about some of the people who are driving change-- Cass Sunnstein, Todd Park, and Alex Koss.

Aneesh Chopra got the event fired up with a rousing vision of the future with the federal government acting as an "impatient convener", supporting "the right policy that leads to market conditions for growth." I love this language for the open data movement-- moving past policy and into markets.

1st.victor-garcia.flypode He also presented a few case studies in this regard. One was the Experimental Crowd-Derived Combat-Support Vehicle Competition from Local Motors. The winning entry-- FLYPMODE-- was created by a Mexican immigrant Victoria Garcia, who is just some dude who lives in Texas and now has developed a fighting vehicle that is on the DARPA production line.

He talked about the Blue Button Initiative from Peter Levin, chief technology officer at the Department of Veterans Affairs. The Blue Button is an easy and secure way for veterans to download and view some of their medical information online. Chopra talked about how Walgreens and Aetna have plans to adopt the Blue Button specification for secure download of personal medical records. This is an example of a technology standard coming from the government without legislation or tight regulation-- just good, concrete ideas flowing out of government and into the private sector.

Ea-ssx-nasa-snowboarding-data On the fun side of the scale, he talked about how recently released geodata from NASA is used in the SSX snowboarding video game, making the in-game experience more accurate and compelling. Real data making a real difference in real products.

Next up was Michael Strautmanis-- Deputy Assistant to the President and Senior Advisor for Strategic Engagement. He is a Chicago guy who has known the Obamas for 20 years. His basic message was "tell people about this"-- don't wait for others to put it in the paper or send out a press release. So he's why I'm writing this blog post, basically.

Cathilea Robinett, Executive Vice President of the Center for Digital Government then led a session where some of the day's Champions of Change talked about their projects.

Jill Seman talked about Mom Maps, an application for finding kid-friendly parks, restaurants, museums, and indoor play areas in 28 metro areas. She talked about the power of an open platform, where user contributions lead to high quality info and great community surrounding it. She also talked about round-trip experiences, where comments on Mom Maps indicate the decline of a particular park, then SF311 stepping in to improve it.

Leigh Budlong of Zonability talked about how her work as a commercial real estate appraiser— and frustration in getting teensy bits of critical information out of dense PDFs— lead her to become the "accidental software designer". She is working on ways to extract data and structure it so it could be used to make decisions in all areas of real estate, planning, and development.

Conor White-Sullivan of Localocracy talked about his moment of inspiration. Going door to door in Cambridge, Massachusetts in support of environmental legislation, he encountered leading climate scientists who knew more about the subject than him the people he was working for. It seemed odd to ask these people for $20 in order to hire a lobbyist. He looked for ways to more deeply engage the people whose doors he knocked on, so they could bring their expertise and energy to a subject.

Philip Weiser, Senior Advisor to the National Economic Council, led a panel called "Lessons from the Private Sector". He kicked off the thoughts of collaboration by paraphrasing a maxim attributed to Sun Microsystems engineer Bill Joy: that the smartest person on any given problem probably doesn't work for you.

James Manyika of McKinsey & Company spoke of the enormous economic opportunity in open innovation. Just in the healthcare industry the opportunity can be up to $300 billion. Brightscope is an example of a company using data to make markets more efficient, in their case, the 401(k) market. He spoke of productivity gains that add new capacity and products rather than just improving efficiencies— working on the "numerator rather than the denominator".

Proctor and Gamble CTO Bruce Brown told how the company moved from an extremely closed model of innovation (proctoids need only apply) to one where more than half of their new initiatives have some sort of external component. He gave lots of examples-- from Swiffer to Reliability Engineering software.

The-lean-startup Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup, talked about the power of networks vs. hierarchies. "The common denominator in innovation is capitalizing on the unexpected". That is very hard to do in a world of milestones and rigid plans. I especially liked his idea of the "business scientist"— looking for new ways to get things done.

Next, Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra reviewed “Data.gov 2.0”, which is built to be easier for citizens (so they can browse, visualize, and talk about data rather than just download it), easier for developers (with better APIs and a greater focus on platforms like mobile and SMS), and easier for agencies (so they can upload data more easily and stream their own subsets in situ on their own Department Web sites).

He also talked about the “enthusiasm on the front lines”, where there are now 396 “open data leads”— agency employees directly responsible for delivering and maintaining open data to the public. He spoke of the goal where “apps contests will be common as procurements and grants. He references the work of Professor Jim Handler of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

He then gave out a series of awards for government employees who are democratizing data.

Todd Park of Health and Human Services for his work in creating community around health data. There seems to be a lot of energy around this stuff and Park is an important node.

Steve Young of the Environmental Protection Agency for Making A Difference in the First Responder Aware for RADNet and other data sets.

John Ohab of the Defense Department / DMA for Most Applications Published.

Timothy Antisdal of the Environmental Protection Agency got the Big Data Award for the most datasets published.

Adrian Linz of the Office of Personnel Management for the Highest Rated Dataset or Application— the 2008 CFC Detailed Results by Local Campaign.

What we see here is a desire on the part of the Federal government to create and reward impact— not just dropping datasets, but having a tangible impact based on real measures.

Next, Chopra introduced Cass Sunstein, “our intellectual godfather”. He spoke of both the intellectual space that we’re occupying, as well as ther physical one— very close to the Oval Office and not far from the site of the Constitutional Convention.

He told a story of the founders coming out of their meeting— a closed meeting. Someone came up to Ben Franklin and asked him, “what did you give us?” Franklin responded, “a Republic, if you can keep it”.

He spoke of choosemyplate.gov as a transparent initiative— transparent in the sense that the goals are easy to see, and the tactics that people can use to achieve them are clear and not obfuscated. There’s no regulation associated with it, but he believes it is going to make a difference in the marketplace.

He reminds us that the battle to found the Republic was harder than the battle for Open Data, and ends with the request: “let’s not just keep the Republic. Let’s shape it".

So Apparently I Am A White House Champion of Change for Open Innovation

Whitehouse_logo This morning I am in Washington DC to take part in a White House Champions of Change event focused on open innovation. Instead of trying to characterize this event myself, I'll just copy/paste some text:

You have been selected by United States Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra to be highlighted as a ‘Champion of Change’, which is part of President Obama’s Winning the Future initiative.  As the White House executes President Obama’s plan to “out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world”, entrepreneurs like you are being recognized for the innovative work you have undertaken in your community. 

Each week, we feature a group of Americans who embody the President’s commitment to ‘Innovate, Educate, and Build’.  

CTO Aneesh Chopra and CIO Vivek Kundra as well as other Administration officials will host an Open Innovation / Champions of Change event at the White House on Friday, June 10th , 9am- 11am.

The project being highlighted-- and which I'll discuss in a roundtable with about a dozen really smart people with very interesting projects-- is Citypayments.org. Here's the blog post I wrote when we launched Citypayments in July 2009. I also wrote extensively earlier this week about Citypayments in the context of the great public data being released by the City of Chicago.

I am honored to be a part of this event. Like others here, I just found out about this late last week, so we're kind of stunned a bit to be a part of this. More to come on all their great projects as they emerge.

North Avenue Beach in Calm

Yesterday Whet Moser of Chicago Magazine used an image of mine in a deeply researched post about the history of violence on Chicago's beaches.

It reminded about these other photos I've taken there. I love the off-times. You zig, I zag. All images are in hi-res and free for use under Creative Commons.

North Avenue Beach in Tilt-Autumn

Mostly Sky, North Avenue Beach

Racks at the Ready

Deep Dive: City of Chicago Payments Data

For open data geeks, there is much to be happy about in Chicago municipal government. John Tolva, a longtime open data advocate and city hacker, is now the Chief Technology Officer. Brett Goldstein, the early OpenTable technologist who most recently founded the predictive analytics practice at the Chicago Police Department, is the Chief Data Officer. For people like me, this is a dream come true. Seriously.

Seal of the City of ChicagoA few weeks have passed since their appointment by Mayor Emanuel, and I want to start reviewing the concrete steps they've taken, especially in the raw data they've been publishing to the City's data repository at data.cityofchicago.org. Many of us in the open data movement have been arguing loudly for more raw data. The time for arguing is over. The time for making is now.

Let's start with a high-value data set with which I am intimately familiar-- payments to City contractors.


The payment data available in the payments section of Chicago's data repositorty goes back to 1996, and the data on the City Web site lookup tool goes back to 1993. Keep in mind that none of this data covers the Chicago Park District, the Chicago Housing Authority, or the Chicago Transit Authority. As our friends at the Better Government Association have recently shown, there might be some issues over there.

It is impossible to create great applications using civic data without first attempting to understand how that data came to be. It's popular among developers to make fun of difficult-to-navigate municipal Web sites, but I take a more grateful approach. Think of it this way-- for more than 15 years, muncipal technology workers have been feeding and caring for this database of fresh, reliably formatted information. I appreciate the time, energy, hiring, skill, storage, and sheer electricity it took to get that done.

Here is a 1998 white paper, "Reengineering the purchasing function: identifying best practices for the City of Chicago" on the creation of FMPS (pdf). The author of the paper is Kathryn M. Kustermann, who appears to have been a Deputy Chief Information Officer at the time FMPS was designed. Reading this document, it becomes clear that a main goal of the system was to "redesign the core purchasing processes at the city of Chicago", and it achieved that goal.

One objective was to "us[e] the system to quickly and easily send and receive information through fax server and e-mail technology, eliminating a majority of manual effort and lost documents".

So this is where their heads were at-- getting the City's purchasing system current to technology that was already a few years past its wide acceptance. That's how these things go, and I don't see anything wrong with it. I'd rather my city work more slowly and deliberately than the private sector does. There is a role for everyone.


In 2006 I worked as a contractor for the City of Chicago and I came into contact with the Financial Management and Purchasing Systems (FMPS). This "enterprise system" provides the basis for a whole slew of innards that helps the City get things done. The main public interface into the FMPS was the Vendor, Contract, and Payment Search on the City of Chicago Web site.  It struck me as an odd combination of deeply rich and immensely opaque. As the years went by, I stayed interested in this deep little database.

In October of 2008, I posted a message to the poliparse (politcal parsers) group to see if I could rustle up anyone smarter than me who could actually scrape this info and get it all out. After a while, a friend of mine got excited about liberating this data and making it more searchable.

After we launched CityPayments, we moved on to other things, but I kept tabs on what was going on. One thing the City did (in the previous administration) was to list the "10 Most Recent Awarded Contracts". This was a welcome change, and it is still pretty useful. Often the contracts are so new that they're not even available in PDF format yet, so you have to wait for the actual contract to get uploaded. You can see this here that the first contract number is not linked yet:

Picture 2

We have a number of improvements we've wanted to make, but haven't had time. Here's the list. If you're in the mood to code on CityPayments, let us know!


The FMPS data provided in this first release by the City is described as follows:

All vendor payments made by the City of Chicago from 1996 to present. Payments from 1996 through 2002 have been rolled-up and appear as "2002." Payment information is available as summarized totals for 2003 through 2009. These data are extracted from the City’s Vendor, Contract, and Payment Search. Time Period: 1996 to present. Frequency: Data is updated daily. Related Applications: City of Chicago Vendor, Contract, and Payments Search (http://webapps.cityofchicago.org/VCSearchWeb/org/cityofchicago/vcsearch/controller/payments/begin.do?agencyId=city).

Note that "Payment information is available as summarized totals for 2003 through 2009" bit was added after a bug was discovered and reported by Dan Sinker and acknowledged right away. We are the bug fixers we've been waiting for. Also, Sinker popped the data dump into a Fusion Table.

Here's the fields published in the data:

Voucher number: This is simply the number of the invoice that is being covered by the payment. This field is often empty, and I never saw it as very important in the whole scheme of things. Also, it is difficult to do further research based on this field, because there's no way to search for it on the source site.

Recently, the City added a new method of initiating a payment:

New in 2010: Direct Voucher payments from January 2010 to the present. Direct Vouchers are used to pay for miscellaneous products and services that are not associated with a signed contract between the City and the Payee. Examples include debt service, utilities, third party payroll expenditures, court and legal settlements, and small payments such as travel reimbursements.

I don't really understand DV or why it was added. Former Alderman Eugene Schulter received more than $50,000 in these types of payments in the last year and a half. 

Amount: the amount of money paid to the vendor for that particular voucher. Definitely useful when trying to match contracts to awards

Check date: Self-explanatory.

Department: There are 57 departments listed in the Contracts and Awards search on this Web search supported by the City.

Contract number: This is the key field if you are looking to do further research. With this number, you can search on the City Web site for pretty much everything you want to know about the contract. My advice: READ THE CONTRACTS. Better than fiction. Funny to see all the signatures.

Vendor name: name of the vendor being paid. There are often errors in this field-- names are conflated or misspelled, for instance. I wouldn't rely on this field if you want to find *all* contracts of a type

If you've read all the way down to here, it's time you're rewarded with a cool picture. Here it is:

Peoples Gas Education Pavilion at the Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo

Peoples Gas Education Pavilion at the Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo. (Note: there is a vendor called "LINCOLN PARK ZOOLOGICAL SCTY" and another called "THE LINCOLN PK ZOOLOGICAL SOC.". Again, don't count on Vendor Name to have unique IDs.)


These are things you can do with this current data:

  • Use it as a jumping-off point for discovering about city contracts and vendors. Now that there is a feed of new payments being pumped to this Web page, you can see the City's checkbook as money goes out. That can spark deeper looks into the actual text of the underlying contracts. Good stuff in there. Some of it is goofy. Note: you do not have to be a coder (I Am Not A Coder) to do this-- you just have to copy/paste contract numbers, download PDFs, and read them
  • Make broad year-by-year calculations of spending by Department and whack them against the numbers in the published budgets for each year going back to 2000. Back of the napkin stuff, just for fun. Again, this is knowable stuff based on that which is already published
  • Do some fun things with the Vendor Name field. Rank them in order of dollars paid by Department. Do automated Google searches for the company names, boards of directors, Web site URLs and provide an index of the companies for others to annotate and build a directory
  • See how many of the General Contractors from this list are also city vendors
  • Clean up the Vendor Name field in general, combining obvious duplicates


This Payments stuff is clearly just a first step when it comes to structure data published out of the city's financial information system. I'd like to see more connections among payment data, vendor data, finished work, and so on. Data is almost never interesting by itself. It's the connections that make it interesting.

Chicagoans really need to get a better view of what we're getting for our money. And I don't mean this in an investigative reporter-style way. I mean that we should be able to look at a voucher and be able to see what we got out of it. And it's not all on the City to provide the info.

I want to see if other contractors could do it more cheaply. If a contractor got beat out of a job, they should use this data to prove how they could have done it for less. It's one thing for nutty developers to grab all of this data and make broad connections. It's another thing altogether for nutty business owners to take teensy slices of this data and make teensy conclusions judgements about it.

In the same vein, I want contractors who were awarded the work to make claims about quality, or better staff, or a better return on investment than the cheaper option.

I want to see the weekly report that the contractor provided related to the deliverables. Let's move past feet-to-the-fire-ism and move toward free market public relations. ("Yes, we got paid today, and here's what we did to earn it.")

I want to see a picture of what we got for the money, whether it's a bridge or a bucket. Tie the payment system into the Home Depot Point of Sale application. Provide VISA card-style itemized purchases. Why not? It certainly exists somewhere, why not everywhere?

Everything is so disconnected for now-- there is the record of the work on the LaSalle Intermodal at Congress Parkway and Financial Place progress here, a detailed PDF of the work over here, the 2nd Ward Alderman talks about it over here & etc. We all need to know we're all talking about the same thing. The contract UID is the key, and we all need to find ways to embed them into our loves more easily.

But that's for tomorrow. All hail the city of Chicago, as well as the City of Chicago.

(Bonus link: original research on ICAM, the primogenitor of all Web-based crime mapping applications that started off as a PC-based MapInfo 2.0 application in 1995).



Daniel X. O'Neil: Chicago-based writer and internet developer. I am a co-founder of and the People Person for EveryBlock, a site that pulls together local news and public information. I run dozens of personal projects and websites for clients, and also own half of a poetry book company.


EveryBlock: A news feed for your block.
CTA Tweet: Unofficial Twitter tracker for the Chicago Transit Authority.
CityPayments: Database of all vendors, contracts, and payments that have been posted by the municipal government of the City of Chicago
Wesley Willis Art: Site dedicated to the fact that Wesley Willis was an artist.
Wide Right Turn: An incomplete look at the role of variation in a capitalist society.


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    • Wesley Willis Art
      Site dedicated to the fact that Wesley Willis was an artist.
    • CTA Alerts
      Wireless notifications about service on the Chicago Transit Authority.
    • Wide Right Turn

      An incomplete look at the role of variation in a capitalist society.
    • Derivative Works Art Manifesto
      Humans own their experience of copyrighted content.
    • Y!Q Link Generator
      Simple form for creating Y!Q links to add relevance, annotate text, and provide more sophisticated layers of meaning to web content.