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Opening Cook County

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Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey today announced a major initiative to bring meaningful transparency reforms to Cook County.  The Open Cook County Plan is aimed at making county government data and information publicly available so residents can more effectively understand, interact with and improve government.

Preckwinkle said the public has a right to easy access to information that sheds light on the inner-workings of County government. She noted that open government goes beyond transparency, however, and enables never-before-seen citizen participation in government.

“When I was sworn into office in December, I said that this is the time to open Cook County government to its citizens, to make County government work for its residents. This plan puts those words into action,” said Preckwinkle. “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.”

Preckwinkle said open government would effectively break down the information silos that limit the sharing of information and best practices throughout the disparate County operations.  “Data in a vacuum serves no functional purpose,” stated Preckwinkle.  “It’s time for an honest and open dialogue with the people of Cook County. And in order to do that, we need to lay all the facts out on the table – and then allow everyone a seat at the table. This initiative represents a major step toward meeting that goal.”

Commissioner Fritchey said he envisions several steps to meet the County’s Open Government goals. First among the steps will be the passage of the Open Government ordinance, which sets forth the framework for making numerous data sets available to the public for analysis and use in the creation of applications that can help people better understand and interact with county government. The County’s ordinance, to be introduced by Fritchey at this Wednesday’s County Board meeting, builds on the model of President Barack Obama’s Federal Open Government Directive, as well as the Local Open Government Directive created by representatives from Code for America, Civic Commons, the Sunlight Foundation and other open government leaders.

“Simply putting information online or allowing the County’s customers to fill out simple forms online just isn’t enough,” said Fritchey. “This initiative will allow for unprecedented interaction, allowing residents access and use of county data to better understand how county government is operating and to make recommendations on how to improve and use government and services.”

Another major component of the Open Cook County Initiative will be the development of an open data portal, www.OpenCC.info, which will centralize new and existing public data sets in a single place in machine-readable, developer-friendly formats. Web and program developers, community groups and residents will be encouraged to use this portal to create practical new tools to analyze, visualize and use this data on various platforms from home computers to smartphones.

Cook County Chief Information Officer Greg Wass said the County will then work to engage the developer community to make use of the data in ways to give the public a more robust view of government operations and services.  Wass said that the County will be looking to partner with institutions to provide incentives for developers to create programs and applications meeting these goals.

“In other municipalities, they have hosted development contests and code-a-thons that bring together some of the best and brightest minds to transform public data into functional applications to improve people’s access and interaction with government,” said Wass.  “As the home of such technology leaders such as Groupon and Everyblock, Cook County is poised to be an international center for innovation and if we can put information in the hands of people who can help government operate more transparently and efficiently, create commerce and make our communities a better place to live, then we are obligated to do it.”

As other governmental units, including San Francisco, Washington, DC, King County, WA, and even the federal government, have ventured into the open data arena, Fritchey stated that Cook County is poised to learn from their successes – and failures.

“We’ve looked at what has worked and what hasn’t and we believe that we are poised to be at the forefront of transforming the relationship between Cook County government and the people it serves,” said Fritchey.

“For 20 years, the Metro Chicago Information Center has served the data needs of Chicago’s civic sector; and the demand for more and better data about our communities has never been greater,” stated Virginia Carlson, PhD, MCIC President. “In an increasingly data-based world, community and business leaders need access to information that can guide their planning and inform their advocacy.  Cook County’s proposed transparency initiative will be a vital tool for anyone working to improve their community.”

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