Incomplete history of civic hacking in Rockford — first meeting of Open Techology Challenge Jan. 17
Editor’s note: The following was submitted by Daniel X. O’Neil, one of the organizers of the Illinois Open Technology Challenge. The first Rockford meeting of the Illinois Open Technology Challenge will be from 6 to 8:30 p.m., Thursday, Jan. 17, at Northern Illinois University-Rockford, Classroom 101, 8500 E. State St., Rockford. O’Neil is encouraging community members to attend.
The Illinois Open Technology Challenge is a multi-month initiative aimed to make Illinois’ open data platform, Data.Illinois.Gov, available statewide, and host government trainings, community meetings and hackathons that will bring together developers in technology with civic-minded individuals and organizations. The goal is to help develop a real community where we will see sustainable civic results and developers will prosper. RSVP to http://www.meetup.com/Illinois-Open-Technology/events/95912192/.
By Daniel X. O’Neil
I am here in Rockford preparing for the first meetup of the Illinois Open Technology Challenge. One of the great things about getting out of Chicago and out into the rest of this great Prairie State is meeting people inside and outside of government who care about using civic data to improve the lives of people in their communities. I met someone tonight who has been working in this supposedly new space since 1979, and I wanted to share a part of his story.
Stephen Ernst is the executive director of the Rockford Metropolitan Agency for Planning (OURMAP). We sat down at a coffeeshop to talk about the ILOpenTech challenge. OURMAP works with data as a central part of their work, including WINGIS, a county-wide geographic information system in Winnebago County that allows anyone to do pretty sophisticated analysis of information on a map.
But he started telling me about the various software he’s made for the City of Rockford since he walked in the door there as traffic engineer. And I started writing down everything he said. I love researching the recent history of technology, and this one is a remarkable story. Here goes:
Rockford’s first auto crash analysis tool, 1979
When Stephen first got to City Hall, he asked, “Where’s the computer room?” He had taken a course in FORTRAN as part of his degree requirement at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, so he knew the power of computers. He was told that the city didn’t own a computer. So, he wrote a grant, and he acquired one: an IBM PC-1 with two floppy drives. And so it began.
As part of his job, he worked with a Rockford police sergeant in charge of crash investigations. The sergeant told him about how they created the form that the police officers on the scene use to document a crash. The State of Illinois had a standard form that they wanted all municipalities to use. This form did a good job of covering the people and the vehicles involved in an incident, since the state was mainly interested in taking any necessary action against individuals and making sure they knew what cars (tracked by Vehicle Identification Number) were involved in accidents.
But this form as-is didn’t have any real incident data that would help them analyze crashes — info like time of day, road conditions, if the temperature was rising or falling. So, Rockford added this info to the form, along with the info collected for the state.
The form included narrative from the officer, but this data was not entered into the database. Instead, he designed MadLib-style text that would be formulated into a standard report. If the form was not completely filled out, he used the word “UNKNOWN” in the narrative. This led to some awkward holes (vehicle was parked at the corner of State and UNKNOWN”). When presented with their holes in such a stark crisp report, data collection improved.
The form itself was one of those “press hard and make five copies at once” type of documents. One copy was given to the driver, one to the state Department of Transportation, one to the Secretary of State, one to the Rockford police, and one for the traffic engineering department. Each state agency hand-entered their own versions of this data into their own separate systems.
This software, written by a single traffic engineer in his spare time in the BASIC programming language that he taught to himself — was used to determine proper signage, lighting patterns, street markings and other elements of traffic modernization in Rockford for decades. It wasn’t replaced until the entire state finally migrated to a single system, with terminals in every police vehicle for the collection and dissemination of traffic incident data, circa 2000.
“I like to pick up manuals and figure stuff out,” he said. “The other software I wrote was to help with other people who had problems they needed to solve. But this one was for me.”
Rockford’s first service request management software, 1985
In the early 1980s, Rockford had a “pothole hotline,” an 800 number that allowed citizens to call in to report potholes. One day, the director of public works came in to a staff meeting and asked if they could tell him how many potholes they filled yesterday. They said they probably could. He asked if they could tell him where they filled the holes. They thought about it for a while, and concluded yes, they could probably put that together if they asked enough people and worked on it for a while. Then, he asked if they could tell him who requested that the potholes be filled. The answer was, “um, no.”
The director explained that he’d been on the job for a year and that every alderman in the city was interested in the answer to one question — “how much of your time is spent serving the people of my ward?” The director never had a good answer. Stephen said he’d write him something.
Around this time period, one of his daughters worked in a donut store. She had to make the donuts, to coin a phrase, in a shift starting at 3 a.m. So, Stephen would drive her to work on Saturday mornings, pop into the office at Rockford City Hall, work until noonish, and go pick her up from work. “I had to go halfway to work anyway, so I figured I’d go in and work on it,” he said.
This is how he ended up writing the first service request management system for the City of Rockford. It handled all requests, not just potholes. The software was installed on the networked microcomputer system that the city had been installing. There were users all over the city — entering requests, routing them to the proper departments, printing them out as task orders.
This system was in place for 20 years. He made some modifications to the system, including rewriting it in Visual Basic, once that came out. “I learned a lot from the video tutorials they had on disk that came with the program,” he said. “I still have the box they came in.” Other changes included a migration of the system to a new platform called “Windows 95,” circa 1995. One of the features he was able to add at this time was data entry validation. He was able to do things like checking for proper spelling of street names by doing a lookup against a table of streets. It’s the simple things, people.
In 2005, the city moved over to the Hansen system.
Rockford’s first real estate parcel viewer, 1987
Every year in the late 1980s, the City of Rockford would get a “tape dump” of data about each parcel of land in the city. This was a large-format reel that contained taxes assessed, owner information, building data, and other useful information in a fixed record length undelimited format. One year when the engineering department got their delivery of their tape, Stephen decided to take the tape dump and write a search tool on top of it.
Before he wrote this system, there was no way to determine how many properties any one entity owned in the City of Rockford. It was even hard for the city itself to know what it owned. It was even difficult to determine the current owner of a property. That made it more difficult to do big things (like purchase properties for civil works projects) and small things (like find out who to call when a utility worker can’t gain access to the building for an inspection).
Stephen says that this may be the system he wrote that had the most impact on the city’s operations. At its peak, this software had 200 users per day. The WINGIS system has lots of functionality, including the viewing of real estate information in a modern way.
Three extraordinary pieces of early enterprise municipal software, developed in spare time by a part-time programmer and full-time civil engineer and regional planner. If that’s not civic hacking, I don’t know what is.
Posted Jan. 17, 2013
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