2 min read

How I won the Illinois Open Technology Challenge

Earlier this year, the State of Illinois released a bunch of data into the public domain. To incentivize using the data, the Smart Chicago Collaborative launched the Illinois Open Technology Challenge – a contest for developers to build apps for five communities, with a $15,000 cash prize for the best app in each category.

I was reluctant to apply. Eighteen months ago I entered the same contest for the City of Chicago and didn’t even place in the top ten. But a week before the application deadline, I started exploring the data, looking for inspiration.

Now, I like building apps, and I like doing good… but I also like winning. One of the contest’s five communities was Belleville, a city of 45,000 people near the St. Louis border. Belleville attracted me for two reasons:

One, I expected I would have the fewest developers to compete with. Two, there simply isn’t a lot of data for Belleville. It’s a small town, and small towns don’t lend themselves to large datasets. For instance, one of the more interesting datasets is IDPH’s Hospital Directory. The complete subset of Belleville hospitals consists of…one hospital. It’s hard to build an interesting app around data for a single hospital.

As I scoured Belleville’s website looking for problems to solve, I found the Belleville City Ordinances buried at the bottom of the City Clerk’s page, spread out across 1000 pages and 70 PDFs. There was no way to navigate and no way to search, which is problematic because these laws cover important issues like building codes and business licenses. Over the next six days, I wrote scripts to parse the data from the PDFs, then I stored the data in a database and built a web interface around it. I named the site Belleville Law, entered the contest, and won.

When I got into web development I had delusions of building The Next Big Thing that would reach millions of people. This isn’t that. The total potential user base of Belleville Law ranges in the thousands.

That’s what I admire about the Illinois Open Data Challenge.

It’s not about Big Data. It’s about using small data to make a small difference in small communities. It brings the awesome power of the web into areas that might be otherwise overlooked by developers. No one’s going to get rich building a site for the city ordinances of a town of 45,000 people. But because of the Illinois Open Data Challenge, in the last two months over a hundred people have searched terms like “city of belleville illinois municipal telecommunications tax” and quickly found what they’re looking for.

I like to think that that guy who Googled that gained an extra fifteen minutes to build his business instead of wading through bureaucracy. I like to think it was one less phone call fielded by the Belleville City Clerk’s office. I like to think that when the public has transparency into the laws that govern their community, they are empowered to improve it.