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Dr. Transparent and Mayor Rahm: On Open Government in Chicago

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I still remember reading Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for the first time.

Having absorbed a general awareness of the novella's contents through watching Bugs Bunny cartoons, I was surprised to read about how decent and respectable the London doctor was.

Hyde's vicious behavior was a vivid memory, though.

The image of the Scottish author's work came to me recently when thinking about Mayor Rahm Emanuel's actions in the area of transparency.

As has been well chronicled, Emanuel campaigned on a pledge to create "the most open, accountable, and transparent government that the City of Chicago has ever seen."

Even his most ardent critics would concede that he has delivered on some part of that promise.

Since establishing a data portal last year, the Emanuel administration has placed more than 700 different datasets on line.

These range from everything from lottery expenditures by zip code to information about lobbyists to city employee salary information.

This certainly is unprecedented, and, it's just the beginning, according to Chief Technology Officer John Tolva. In a recent blog post, he said the city plans to use data to create a bunch of applications to help citizens.

On Tuesday, the city launched chicagoshovels.org, a series of apps that will help residents know where snow plows are in real time as well as to ask for, and receive, help shoveling out from under during serious snow conditions.

Rebecca Rosen wrote approvingly in The Atlantic Mobile,

Chicago's online effort is a reminder of the kind of work and logistical coordination that is the bread and butter of city government. And while opening up spreadsheets of data may not be dramatic, the effects of Chicago's initiatives will improve the city's services in two real and important ways. First, it's easy to see how a site like chicagoshovels.org will be just plain useful when a snowstorm hits. Residents will use it to see which streets are plowed and plan their days. They'll coordinate with their neighbors and help out those who aren't up for shoveling. Second, and no less important, opening up data will have an effect on those in government too, who know that those snowplows better be fairly distributed around the city, because the data will show it if they aren't.

But this isn't all.

Tolva said the city will also use data to provide the basis for computer developers to create applications, predict what services are needed in which parts of the city and, eventually, to create a unified body of data that can be accessed about all parts of the city.

Sounds decent, respectable, and even progressive, right?

But if this is Emanuel's Jekyll side on transparency, he's also got a Hyde side.

Consider the following.

On November 8 David Kidwell of the Chicago Tribune wrote that "efforts to peer into the daily operations of the mayor himself -- a man with enormous say over hundreds of millions of dollars in city contracts, hiring and regulations -- are met by a stone wall."

On November 30, Kidwell wrote the following:

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has denied requests for public records that might shed light on his decisions to raise vehicle fees and water rates and to legalize speeding camera tickets that could hit drivers with $100 fines.

It's the latest in a pattern of records denials from the mayor, who proclaimed a new commitment to transparency at City Hall under his leadership.

In the first of a two-part series about transparency for the Chicago Reader, Mick Dumke said:

On the other hand, the mayor isn't interested in sharing plenty of other information, such as the records of whom he's sweet-talking and who's sweet-talking him. And he's very open about the fact that he doesn't give a shit what we think about it.

For her part, Megan Cottrell cited a Chicago News Cooperative story in pointing out that some of the employees responsible for responding to reporters may have their positions cut. She concluded plaintively:

"And now, they're cutting the people who routinely tell us no anyway. Maybe that would save taxpayers some cash and us reporters some frustration? But I, for one, liked pretending that my job wasn't entirely futile."

These Hyde-like denials and potential cuts fly directly in the face of Emanuel's pledge and other actions.

The question of course is which side will win.

We know how things turned out in Stevenson's novel.

We'll watch to see what happens here in Chicago under Mayor Rahm.