TagHack Night

The inside track on how Aldertrack works

Mike Fourcher and Claudia Morell talk about Aldertrack at ChiHackNight

Crappy iPhone shot of Mike Fourcher (left) and Claudia Morell (right) talking about the information that Aldertrack collects on Chicago City Council, boards, commissions, and electeds.

Mike Fourcher, founder of Aldertrack, and perpetual “news startup antagonist” (okay, I don’t remember the actual adjective he used), joined his colleague Claudia Morell, a reporter, and us at ChiHackNight on Tuesday night to explain how Aldertrack works.

ChiHackNight heard from Aldertrack’s former staffer Jimm Dispensa earlier in the year about the tools and processes they use to publish, but it’s hard to call tonight’s meeting a followup from the meeting with Dispensa, because they were focused on entirely different parts of the operation.

Tonight was more about the politics that Aldertrack “interferes” with.

As with most of my posts derived from my notes on the ChiHackNight collaborative agenda document these are paraphrased sentences, not quotations.

Presentation title: “Not really open data”

There are ~70 different boards and commissions in the City of Chicago, but information about each is sparse. Most don’t have their own website, but the bigger ones do.

In our quarterly report product – the first was published in August – we display a picture, a name, background on their day job, an email, and a phone number. It was hard to find this kind of information. If their appointment requires City Council approval then it can be a little easier to find the resolution that appointed them.

Issues in hunting down information

  • Sometimes information didn’t match.
  • Sometimes the source documents is missing data, like the appointment or expiration date.
  • The mayor’s fashion council, we weren’t sure if they met, what their purpose was.
  • Eventually we found pension board compensation amounts in state law.

Fourcher: City agency staff have basically been trained that they should never answer any questions from the press. The rule is to refer press to the mayor’s press office, so that they can make it hard for the press to get information. There’s a lot of information that’s obscure, whether purposely or not.

We published the Quarterly Report as a PDF but eventually we want to put it online so that you can click on someone’s name and see what other boards they serve on.

The content we find, and put in our Quarterly Report and Clout.wiki, is something we refer to in our reporting.

[I didn’t take any notes about the Clout.wiki, but there’s a lot of information in the questions and answers below.]

Q&A

Alex Soble: Does the city council do more than we think they do?

Claudia: There’s this perception that aldermen are a rubber stamp, or just there to approve the mayor’s agenda. I think that’s part of the problem.

Because people think that the news media is less likely to cover the things that are covered in the “big” committees (like finance). The education committee doesn’t seem to matter to a wider audience.

We put the TIF expenditures data in our newsletter, and I don’t think that’s something you found in the Tribune.

I also come from the NYC city council, where it operates differently. There’s less conflict in Chicago, especially when it comes to the budget [Claudia described how the city council ripped Bloomberg’s proposed budget to shreds and inserted their own pieces.]. There’s no speaker here that decides what bills get voted on, while Chicago’s mayor presides over the meeting.

Mike: Chicago isn’t a true representative democracy, but it’s less of a terrible thing than people think it is.

Eric Sherman: Why isn’t the wiki open?

Mike: It’s our site, and we don’t want to take the risk that people write dumb things. We close it off to everyone. We would love to hear from someone who has information, and we would check it, and then post it. We want to run it through the journalistic process we adhere to.
Claudia: We don’t have enough staff to moderate the wiki.
Mike: I don’t think even one full-time person could do it.

Forest Gregg: Many of the application processes are hard to figure out in Chicago. I love the documenting you’ve been doing of all the different commissions. What have you heard from users if they would like to hear things more on how things work? Lucas Museum…a number of steps that have to happen, a number of bodies that have to sign off on it. For developers, there’s a cottage industry around permit expeditors, but there’s the same problem of knowing how to step through other development processes.

Claudia: Land use boards…Zoning Board of Appeals that’s a 4-member panel that decides whether or not you can get a special use permit (to build a set back garage, or something).
Mike: We initially had this idea that we would have a regular city council product, and a separate zoning product. What we learned is that people who have an interest in land use, have a passing interest. Once the thing you’re interested in is “over”, like a proposed project that gets approved, then you’re not interested anymore.
The people that fall into the category of perpetual interest in land use, they all know each other. We decided to roll that into the main subscription. We have thought of doing trainings on how zoning works, here’s how you build a building in Chicago.
Forest: I think you’re in a good position to…make some flow charts. That information is shockingly hard to find right now, unless you have a professional interest in that area.

Jerry Mandujano: You started with campaigns [I missed the rest of the question] Is there something else that people should know?

Claudia: Property taxes, most other press focuses on how the changes would affect you on a personal level. What we do, we tend to be focused on the nitty gritty, the language of the ordinance, what conversations are going on around City Hall.
Mike: The demands of most of the news organizations is very different, and we have a blank slate. Every time someone zigs, let’s zag, and see what happens. If you read just one day of our product, you’re going to react, “Omg, what is this stuff? There’s so much detail.” If you read us over time then you’re going to get a good picture.
Fran Spielman, that woman is a freaking machine at the Sun-Times, she writes so much, and I mean this in the most positive way. She went on vacation for two weeks, and on the day she came back she published three articles. She has her head above water and she’s easily doing backstrokes.

[Someone commented that there used to be the City News Bureau which did a lot of what Aldertrack is doing.]

Steven Vance: Alderman show their true selves on social media. Many alderman have few followers and I think you’re spreading their thoughts further than they have been themselves. (I was referring to a new section on the free Aldertrack newsletter where they were posting links to weird or interesting tweets.)

Mike: And we’ve been getting some ire for that! There’s a lot of information out there, and we scoop it up, sift through it, and that’s shoe leather reporting. There’s a lot of sitting on the phone and calling people.

Use Turf to perform GIS functions in a web browser

Turf's merge function joins invisible buffers around each Divvy station into a single, super buffer.

Turf’s merge function joins invisible buffers around each Divvy station into a single, super buffer –all client-side, in your web browser.

I’m leading the development of a website for Slow Roll Chicago that shows the distribution of bike lane infrastructure in Chicago relative to key and specific demographics to demonstrate if the investment has been equitable.

We’re using GitHub to store code, publish meeting notes, and host discussions with the issues tracker. Communication is done almost entirely in GitHub issues. I chose GitHub over Slack and Google Groups because:

  1. All of our research and code should be public and open source so it’s clear how we made our assumptions and came to our conclusions (“show your work”).
  2. Using git, GitHub, and version control is a desirable skill and more people should learn it; this project will help people apply that skill.
  3. There are no emails involved. I deplore using email for group communication.*

The website focuses on using empirical research, maps, geographic analysis to tell the story of bike lane distribution and requires processing this data using GIS functions. Normally the data would be transformed in a desktop GIS software like QGIS and then converted to a format that can be used in Leaflet, an open source web mapping library.

Relying on desktop software, though, slows down development of new ways to slice and dice geographic data, which, in our map, includes bike lanes, wards, Census tracts, Divvy stations, and grocery stores (so far). One would have to generate a new dataset if our goals or needs changed .

I’ve built maps for images and the web that way enough in the past and I wanted to move away from that method for this project and we’re using Turf.js to replicate many GIS functions – but in the browser.

Yep, Turf makes it possible to merge, buffer, contain, calculate distance, transform, dissolve, and perform dozens of other functions all within the browser, “on the fly”, without any software.

After dilly-dallying in Turf for several weeks, our group started making progress this month. We have now pushed to our in-progress website a map with three features made possible by Turf:

  1. Buffer and dissolving buffers to show the Divvy station walk shed, the distance a reasonable person would walk from their home or office to check out a Divvy station. A buffer of 0.25 miles (two Chicago blocks) is created around each of the 300 Divvy stations, hidden from display, and then merged (dissolved in traditional GIS parlance) into a single buffer. The single buffer –called a “super buffer” in our source code – is used for another feature. Currently the projection is messed up and you see ellipsoid shapes instead of circles.
  2. Counting grocery stores in the Divvy station walk shed. We use the “feature collection” function to convert the super buffer into an object that the “within” function can use to compare to a GeoJSON object of grocery stores. This process is similar to the “select by location” function in GIS software. Right now this number is printed only to the console as we look for the best way to display stats like this to the user. A future version of the map could allow the user to change the 0.25 miles distance to an arbitrary distance they prefer.
  3. Find the nearest Divvy station from any place on the map. Using Turf’s “nearest” function and the Context Menu plugin for Leaflet, the user can right-click anywhere on the map and choose “Find nearby Divvy stations”. The “nearest” function compares the place where the user clicked against the GeoJSON object of Divvy stations to select the nearest one. The problem of locating 2+ nearby Divvy stations remains. The original issue asked to find the number of Divvy stations near the point; we’ll likely accomplish this by drawing an invisible, temporary buffer around the point and then using “within” to count the number of stations inside that buffer and then destroy the buffer.
Right-click the map and select "Find nearby Divvy stations" and Turf will locate the nearest Divvy station.

Right-click the map and select “Find nearby Divvy stations” and Turf will locate the nearest Divvy station.

* I send one email to new people who join us at Open Gov Hack Night on Tuesdays at the Mart to send them a link to our GitHub repository, and to invite them to a Dropbox folder to share large files for those who don’t learn to use git for file management.

One day left to enter the Divvy Data Challenge

Divvy dock post-polar vortex

Divvy bikes have been covered in snow frequently this winter. Photo by Jennifer Davis.

As self-proclaimed Divvy Data Brigade Captain* in Chicago’s #opendata and #opengov community I must tell you that all Divvy Data Challenge submissions are due tomorrow, Tuesday, March 11. Divvy posted:

Help us illustrate the answers to questions such as: Where are riders going? When are they going there? How far do they ride? What are top stations? What interesting usage patterns emerge? What can the data reveal about how Chicago gets around on Divvy?

We’re interested in infographics, maps, images, animations, or websites that can help answer questions and reveal patterns in Divvy usage. We’re looking for entries to tell us something new about these trips and show us what they look like.

I’ve seen a handful of the entries so far, including some to which I’ve contributed, and I’m impressed. When the deadline passes I’ll feature my favorites.

Want to play with the data? You should start with these resources, in order:

  1. Divvy Data Challenge – rules and data download
  2. divvy-munging – download an enhanced version of Divvy’s data, with input from several #ChiHackNight hackers
  3. Bike Sharing Data Hackpad – this is where I’m consolidating all of the links to projects, visualizations, analysis, data, and blog posts.
  4. Divvy Data Google Group – a discussion group with over 25 members
  5. #DivvyData – chat on Twitter

It’s not too late to get started now on a project about the bikes themselves. Nick Bennet has crunched the numbers on the bikes’ activity and posted them to the Divvy Data Google Group. Want to use his data and initial analysis? He said “run with it”.

Share your work ahead of time and leave a comment with a link to your project.

* This title is a play on Christopher Whitaker’s position as Code For America Brigade Captain and all around awesome-doer of keeping track of everything that’s going on in these communities and publishing event write-ups on Smart Chicago Collaborative.

Where do Divvy riders go?

Divvys

Divvy bikes fit people of almost all sizes. Photo by Mike Travis (mikeybrick).

Divvy released the 2013 trip data on Tuesday for their data challenge, and presented alongside me the data, basic system operations info, and existing visualizations and apps, at a Divvy data-focused Open Gov Hack Night I put together at the weekly meeting. Thank you Chris Whitaker at Smart Chicago Collaborative for writing the meeting recap.

I “ran the numbers” on some selected slices of the data to post on Twitter and they range from the useless to useful! I’m using the hashtag #DivvyData.

  • Average trip distance of members in 2013 is estimated to be slightly shorter than casuals: 1.81 miles versus 1.56 miles – tweet
  • Bike 321 has traveled the furthest: 989 miles. Beat the next bike by 0.2 miles – tweet
  • Women members on average took longer trips (but fewer trips overall) on @DivvyBikes than men in 2013. – tweet
  • The average trip distance of 759,788 trips (by members and casuals) in 2013 is an estimated 1.68 miles. – tweet
  • In 2013, 79.05% of member trips were by men and 20.95% by women. – tweet
  • On average in 2013, 24-hour pass holders (whom I call casuals) made trips 2.5x longer (time wise) than members. – tweet
  • Damen/Pierce Divvy station (outside the Damen Blue Line station) is most popular in Wicker Park-Bucktown – data

And other stats, presented as embedded tweets:

 

 

On Active Transportation Alliance’s transportation summit

Active Transportation Alliance invited Eric Hanns and I to speak about “using data for advocacy” at their first annual transportation summit held after a member meeting two Saturdays ago. My and Eric’s talks were complementary and centered around the data tool I built and which Eric and the other volunteers in the 46th Ward participatory budgeting program used to prioritize and market infrastructure projects in Uptown.

The tool in question is the Chicago Crash Browser I made last year and improved this year to load data faster, with great help from the Smart Chicago Collaborative and several members of the OpenGov Hack Night group I cherish.

Click or tap a spot in Chicago to retrieve the number of bicyclist-car and pedestrian-car crashes within 150 feet. With this information, the PB volunteers could show the alderman how important it was for him to support bike and pedestrian infrastructure projects in the ward, and to persuade ward voters to fund these projects.

Find more information about the four other summit “breakout groups” on Active Trans’s website. Eric and I prepared a “Using Data for Advocacy: Making the Case with Compelling Facts” handout which you can download as a PDF or see on our Google Doc. I’ve conveniently listed the links from the handout below but if you want more pointed advice on where to look for specific data, or get an answer to questions you have but don’t grok the context of each of these tools, leave me a comment.

Talking about Divvy data with WBEZ’s Afternoon Shift

Audio from 3-4 PM segment. Skip to ~30 minutes in to hear the data portion of the show. 

WBEZ Afternoon Shift host Charlie Meyerson had me on the show Monday to talk with him, Gabe Klein, and some fellows at Data Science for Social Good (DSSG, a University of Chicago-based program) about the trends that Divvy bike sharing data is showing. Here are trends I mentioned or was prepared to mention:

* 31 stations installed since Friday, July 19 (10 days since Monday, July 29), 28 stations installed since I wrote my post on Streetsblog Chicago about 67 memberships per day, so I predict that the daily rate of new annual members has increased.

* Membership enrollment is still concerning to me: From July 22 (when I wrote my post about enrollment rate) to yesterday (Sunday, July 28), membership enrollment rate dropped to 61 memberships per day, even as all these new neighborhood stations emerged. This brings the post-launch average to 66 from 67.

* If you look at Top 10 starting and ending stations, there’s about 90% crossover, meaning the Top 10 starting stations for trips are basically the same as the Top 10 ending stations. There’re slight changes on the weekend, with Lincoln Park (the park) and the Lincoln Park Zoo getting into the Top 10. (See table below.)

* During the week, Union and Ogilvie Metra stations get into the Top 10, and disappear from the Top 10 on the weekend. This may suggest that commuters, not tourists, are making these trips. But people make tourism trips from the suburbs on weekdays as well.

* Trips by member type: 71% are taken by 24 hour pass holders. This is down from 75 to 73, so this means that the share of trips taken by annual member holders is increasing. This is because of two things happening: some people who bought a 24-hour pass to test the system have converted to being an annual member, and others who waited for a station to come to their neighborhood have bought a membership. I’m just hoping that membership enrollment picks up to reach the high rate of installations.

I’m personally interested in the route data. I’m interested in who’s biking where and when. This is information we’ve not collected well in the past. My Streetsblog Chicago partner John Greenfield wrote about other data trends Scott Kubly discussed at last week’s Complete Streets Symposium.

Dock surfing during a Divvy social ride last Thursday. Photo by Jane Healy.

[table id=9 /]

Download this data

Divvy data from May 29 to July 28 (.xls): includes member enrollment, number of trips taken by annual and 24-hour pass holders, and top 10 starting and ending stations.

If you’re looking to contribute your expertise to the “Divvy data project” (okay, such a thing doesn’t really exist), then check out the Divvy Data Document I started after discussing Divvy data at a July OpenGov Hack Night.

BikeSpike has major potential impact for data collection

This is a pretty hilarious video showing the main reason one would get a BikeSpike: to catch a thief. 

Bill Fienup emailed me in December or January asking to meet up to talk about their bike theft tracking device (that does a whole lot of other stuff) but I couldn’t meet until February as the transition from Grid Chicago to Streetsblog Chicago was occupying my brain time. Bill’s part of Team BikeSpike.

The BikeSpike in hand. It’s very small and weighs 3.1 ounces.

It was convenient that they were at 1871 on a Tuesday night; I was there for Hack Night, they for one of the other myriad events that occurs on the 12th floor of the Merchandise Mart. They showed me a 3D-printed mockup of the BikeSpike, and told me what it was capable of doing. They seem to have a good programmer on their team in Josh Billions – yes, that’s his real last name.

I came to their lab near Union Park to talk in depth about BikeSpike with Bill, Josh, Harvey Moon, and Clay Neigher, garner more information, and provide them with some more insight into how the product can be useful to the transportation planning work I do as a Streetsblogger, advocate, and programmer. I brought my friend Brandon Gobel and he became interested to hear about how it could help him manage the future fleet of Bullitt cargo bikes he’s now selling and renting at Ciclo Urbano.

Beside the fact that BikeSpike can show law enforcement workers the EXACT LOCATION OF STOLEN PROPERTY, I like its data collection aspects. Like many apps for iOS (including Moves and Google Latitude), BikeSpike can report its location constantly, creating opportunities for individuals to track training rides and urban planners to see where people ride bikes.

Cities should know where people are riding so they can build infrastructure in those places! Many cities don’t know this until they either count them frequently and in diverse locations, or when they ask. But neither of these methods are as accurate as hundreds, or thousands of people reporting (anonymously) where they ride. I’ve got three examples below.

I imagine the BikeSpike will produce a map like this, which was created by Google Latitude constantly tracking me. 

Team BikeSpike: Clay, Bill, Ben Turner (I didn’t meet him), Josh, and Harvey.

1. Want to see if that new buffered bike lane on South Chicago Avenue actually encourages people to ride there and wasn’t just an extra-space-opportunity? Look at BikeSpike data.

2. The number of people biking on Kinzie Street shot up after a protected bike lane was installed. How many of these new Kinzie riders switched from parallel streets and how many were new to biking? Look at BikeSpike data.

3. Given relatively proximal origins and relatively proximal destinations, will people bike on a buffered bike lane (say Franklin Street or Wabash Avenue) over a protected bike lane (say Dearborn Street)? Look at BikeSpike data.

There are many other things BikeSpike can do with its GPS and accelerometer, including detect if your bike was wiggled or you’ve crashed. I want a BikeSpike but you’ll have to back the project on Kickstarter before I can get one! They need $135,000 more pledged by April 9.

Slicing the crash data into interesting visualizations

The Chicago Crash Browser as it looks now. This only exists on my laptop and no place else. I can’t put it online because it’s so inefficient it would kill the server. 

I presented my Chicago Crash Browser to attendees of an OpenGov Hack Night three weeks ago and gathered a lot of feedback and some interest from designers and programmers there.

We collaboratively came up with a new direction: instead of focusing on creating a huge web application that I proposed, we (anyone who wants to help) would start small with a website and a couple of crash data visualizations. The visualizations would serve two purposes:

  • attract attention to the project
  • start building a gallery of data-oriented graphics that describes the breadth and extent of the crash data

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