From the Ashes: The Story of Chicago Tech, 1871, and How an Open Data Company Is Creating Smart City Solutions in Chicago and Beyond
By the Sente.Link Team, @Sente_Link
More and more of the international startups that go through Sente.Link’s accelerator programs are in the “smart cities” domain - essentially, domains where technologies and solutions connect citizens, their local government, urban infrastructure and industry.
In a series of posts throughout the next few months, we will explore Smart City and IoT innovations around the world, with specific emphasis on Sente’s main hubs in Chicago, Helsinki and Istanbul.
As uncovered in the last two posts on the Sente.Link blog, in order for a city to become “smart” it needs to enable two things - its platforms and its stakeholders. To wrap up our series on Smart City and IoT innovations around the world, we turn to the Chicago-based civic tech company, DataMade - a breathing example of “smart city solutions.“
To understand the vision behind DataMade, we need to rewind back a few thousand years, when storytelling predated data. Pretty much since humans started talking, they’ve been telling stories.The art of storytelling is embedded in the way we learn and is what lies at the center of DataMade’s mission.
Since 2012, DataMade has been taking data and transforming it into compelling digital-prose so stakeholders like journalists, researchers, government and advocate organizations can develop solutions for their communities.
The company’s advent came during a pivotal (and some would say, perfect) time in Chicago’s tech history. Let’s set the stage:
It’s February, 2011 in Chicago. Barack Obama’s former White House Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, has taken the 44th seat as Mayor of Chicago after a 5 ½ term legacy of having Richard M. Daley in office. Emanuel announces his vision to make Chicago the “digital mecca” of the midwest and sets out with different stakeholders and organizations to attract more tech companies to the city.
In 2012, there’s a tech boom in the city and the Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center (CEC) opens its largest project yet, 1871 - a digital phoenix for the city, named after the great Chicago fire of 1871 that left the city in ashes.
Entrepreneurs catch wind of the space and a city of builders is re-born. During this time, the civic tech organization, Smart Chicago, invites Derek Eder (DataMade’s soon-to-be Founder) to work on a government project after his side-project Open City caught their attention. Derek sets up shop at 1871 as one of the first members, alongside the great minds behind companies like Package Zen, Purple Binder and Food Genius that now have name in the Chicago startup game.
The explosion of interest in tech and open data in Chicago led to the creation of Derek’s digital love child, Chi Hack Night - a weekly evening event where citizens of Chicago come and build, share and learn about civic tech. After dedicating most of his time to his data-driven side-project, Derek made the leap every entrepreneur has to make. He quit his job and started DataMade as an LLC.
DataMade got to work in 2012 as one of the first platforms in Chicago to take raw data and build solutions. In fact, open data was such a hot topic at the time that when Tom Tolva, former CTO for the city of Chicago, showcased DataMade in his presentations as the example of open data solutions.
“Strength came from independence to explore.” says Derek. “We would have been derailed if the climate wasn't the way it was at the time and I got to learn what worked and what didn't work.”
It went without saying that the tech side was solid for DataMade. Their learning curve was on the political side. But in 2014, Derek and his team developed a partnership with various Chicago stakeholders that would give rise to a project that married technology with policy - The Large Lots Project.
If you haven’t heard of it, here’s how it works: for one dollar, residents can use The Large Lots website created by DataMade to buy vacant land in their neighborhood and gain back greater control over their neighborhoods. Best part? The project relied on the input of the stakeholders who had actual “stake” in the community - the residents. During the 2014 Code for America Summit, Derek called this take-away, the “with, not for” model, a phrase popularized by civic tech expert, Laurenellen McCann.
“We listened to what people were really wanting to have us solve and we built this application with them, not for them.”
Teamwork Englewood Founder, Demond Drummer, continued the conversation from the same stage, “Innovation comes from the bottom up. --- The story of Large Lots is the story of a policy solution and a technology solution that is by the people and for the people.”
But you know what they say - it takes a village to build an open data solution. And thanks to Teamwork Englewood, Green Healthy Neighborhoods, DataMade and the support of LISC Chicago, Boeing Corporation and the Knight Foundation, a stronger Chicago was born.
The Large Lots Project proves that when technology is enabled, policy can thrive. But the only way for technology to thrive is when the stakeholders that run the policy (i.e. the city government) are on board. So, what will it take to implement open data projects like DataMade into cities around the world?
Derek says an openness to transparency. “I wouldn’t be here if open platforms didn’t exist.”
Derek’s right. Technology and an open-mindset to share it is what allowed Chicago’s policy to scale. And without Chicago’s surge of interest in tech back in 2011, there’s a strong chance projects like Large Lots would have never existed and we’d still be telling stories, just without data. But as history shows, the city of Chicago improved once all its stakeholders leaned in and listened closer to what data was telling them.
At this very moment, DataMade is developing products such as Chicago Councilmatic and Dedupe.io that will allow these solutions to be implemented around the world. However, regardless of how good the technology can be, the fact still remains - if your city wants to evolve, it needs to enable those who have stake in its future and be open to open data.
A special thanks to Derek Eders and the DataMade Team for letting us tell your story. Follow DataMade here @DataMadeCo and the exclusive 1871 international accelerator, Sente.Link here @sente_link