Cook County Is Opening Its File Cabinets; Are You Looking Inside?

The much-anticipated Cook County redesigned open data website was launched last week -- let the floodgate of citizen activism begin. Of course, when I say much-anticipated, I am referring to a small select pool of people who get excited around datasets or those who blog and tweet about open government. These people are more likely to circle census release dates on the calendar, can't wait to see voter breakdowns and believe strongly that metrics should shape policy. They are not the average voter, rather more likely a watchdog group, public policy group or a young entrepreneur looking to monetize the data.

The site itself makes a valiant effort to cater to the average voter with multiple export features, fairly easy to navigate design and even a series of YouTube videos with step by step guides on how the average computer user can make web apps, charts or graphs. Ultimately though, the success of the program is going to be judged on how many datasets are released and how creative the tech community is with it. However, in the short term it can only help the public perception of Cook County government.

At the press conference and later posted online Wednesday, September 21st, Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle stated, "This site puts those words into action. I know that the historic lack of transparency and accountability has eroded the legitimacy of Cook County government in many residents' eyes. Quite simply, a government that is transparent and accountable to its residents is a more effective government."

To say the lack of transparency in Cook County has eroded the legitimacy is an understatement, and all the transparency in the world still doesn't change the very real reality that the county has ethical and service motive issues. It seems like a month doesn't go by without another previous administration fraud allegation and those that are still on the board, aren't helping themselves either. Take the recent incident where five commissioners decided that shared sacrifice didn't include them by challenging a furlough plan that was mandated on county employees, and you can see the massive hurdle that is before County President Toni Preckwinkle.

According to the press release the website is composed of over 75 data sets (110 as of 9/29/2011) from more than 40 departments and agencies throughout the County, which in itself, an achievement to be celebrated. If there is one thing in old politics that is true, it is that information is a real currency. Lack of access to it protects politicians from scrutiny, creates job security, and ultimately centralizes power in select public officials. (It also creates bloated bureaucracies and inefficient policy, but why split hairs?) The fact that the new County administration has managed to get that many decision makers on board to opening up information, at best creates some hope - at worst creates media coverage that isn't about another failed program that wasted county dollars.

I tested the data, choosing their sample dataset which reflected the FY 2011 outpatient registrations, by zipcode. The download process was relatively easy, requiring only a simple click on the export button and a selection of my chosen file format. The visualization on the data website showed numerous pins for outpatient registrations outside the Cook County boarders so I was naturally curious as to the breakdown by county. I took the exported data and using an excel formula matched zipcodes to counties and then uploaded the new data to IBM's Many Eyes (a free online visualization tool) which allowed me to make the interactive map below:

If you scroll over the counties you can see their individual outpatient registrations totals showing Lake and DuPage County with over three thousand registrations at the mid-point. Interesting stuff, but like a lot of data creates more questions than it answers. My next request will be to find out how many of those registrations outside of Cook County had adequate or for that matter, any insurance. What was the total cost to Cook County and what should have been the burden of each neighboring county? It is just another couple of columns, but understanding that would help constituents visualize the potential extra burden Cook residents are bearing due to our open hospital policies.

The data also reflected 425 registrations that had a 606XX zip-code that fails to match a zip-code recognized by the postal service. Data entry errors? Are these zip-codes that county employees are instructed to enter when no known address is available? At minimum should the county be looking to build into their outpatient registration tool a check to validate zip-codes? During a brief online walkthrough (the county held for anyone interested) I was told how to request additional information and relay discrepancies. Here is hoping that the county has allocated people to respond to the growing questions that are bound to start coming in as more citizens gain access to the tools.

Another exciting aspect to this project is that I suspect there will come a tipping point when the conversation shifts from what datasets they are releasing to what datasets are not being released and why -- a point where the real government efficiencies and entitlement will be addressed. Until then, public citizens will still have access to unprecedented information that are bound to create some useful tools and visualizations.

Doing something interesting with the Cook County datasets? Leave a link to your work in the comments.