From spreadsheets to solutions: New platform enables next generation of open city data

The rapidly growing torrent of data openly released by governments offers incredible new potential for policy, research and public engagement with cities. But as governments increasingly turn to advanced analytics to guide operations, officials and researchers need more powerful tools to find data-driven solutions to the complex problems that face urban areas.

Plenario, a new platform for accessing, combining, downloading and visualizing datasets released by city, county, state and federal governments, offers a user-friendly and powerful interface to push data-driven urban research beyond spreadsheets and towards deeper insights and solutions. An alpha version of the platform is now available for public use at

“Plenario brings the open data diaspora into a single meaningful system,” said Brett Goldstein, a fellow at the Computation Institute’s Urban Center for Computation and Data and urban science fellow at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy. “Municipalities, researchers, journalists and residents can get the full story about any place and time with a platform that solves the technical issues behind the scenes, so that people can focus on real problems, not data work.”

Created and led by UrbanCCD, the Plenario project brings together researchers from the Computation Institute and Chicago Harris and software developers from DataMade. Plenario is an open access platform that lets users combine datasets for information such as crime, weather and permits, view maps and other visualizations, and download datasets for further analysis in just a few clicks.

“In cities, nothing happens in a vacuum, because everything connects to everything else,” said Charlie Catlett, project leader and UrbanCCD director. “Plenario makes it easier to compare datasets and lowers the barrier to entry for people who want to look at multiple variables simultaneously.”

The Plenario project builds on concepts from a system called WindyGrid, developed by Goldstein in his former role as chief information officer and chief data officer of the city of Chicago. Deployed for internal use in advance of the 2012 NATO summit, WindyGrid organized data by their space and time coordinates, allowing city officials to gather multi-dimensional, real-time information about different areas of the city to deploy and coordinate emergency resources. The platform and other city of Chicago efforts have since expanded to create new, data-driven tools for analyzing and improving city services.

“An application like Plenario delivers on Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s vision of open data as a platform for researchers, residents or organizations to come together and address intractable urban challenges,” said Brenna Berman, commissioner of the Department of Innovation and Technology and chief information officer for the city of Chicago. “It is an important step in allowing the Chicago data ecosystem to create data-driven tools to inspire their analysis of our city.”

Plenario extends this vision through the use of scalable back-end infrastructure, using Amazon Web Services to enable other cities to readily replicate the system as well as add their data into a common system supported by UrbanCCD. The vision also emphasizes new user interaction capabilities specifically optimized for social scientists, policymakers and residents.

By aligning separate datasets through location and time entries, Plenario lets users gather all the data available for their area and timeline of interest. For example, a researcher interested in the relationship between weather and crime in a neighborhood can quickly select the relevant data, time period and location boundaries, then map the results in the browser or download it for use in other applications.

“We house all of this data in one place, so people don’t have to search around the internet to find it,” said Jonathan Giuffrida, master’s student at Chicago Harris and product manager for Plenario. “Plenario is really about data discovery—identifying what is available for that window of time and space, then pulling data out and using your favorite tool to analyze it.”

An open-application programming interface also allows developers to build third-party applications and tools upon the Plenario infrastructure. For example, UrbanCCD is working with the city of San Francisco and their Sustainable Systems Framework, using Plenario to create interactive dashboards for neighborhoods to set goals and track their progress in areas such as energy, water usage and health.

Launching with data from the data portals of Chicago, New York City, San Francisco, Boston, Illinois and a handful of other governments, as well as historical and real-time weather data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Plenario will expand its scope as more governments and organizations submit data. Any open dataset hosted on Socrata or CKAN portals or in CSV format that contains temporal and spatial information can be automatically integrated into the Plenario infrastructure, then combined with other sources. Ultimately, the creators hope that Plenario will form the backend for urban analytics platforms used by municipalities of all sizes around the world.

“The majority of cities do not have the resources to support their own data analytics team, and they are eager to use their data to make better decisions,” said Catlett, who is also senior computer scientist at Argonne National Laboratory and senior fellow at the Computation Institute. “This is a reusable platform that builds a proper foundation for all of the spatially-enabled data that cities possess, but have yet to start using to their fullest.”

Plenario was announced during Goldstein’s plenary speech at the Code for America Summit in San Francisco on Sept. 23rd. The Plenario project is funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the National Science Foundation—an NSF Early-concept Grant for Exploratory Research funded software development, while the interaction capabilities were driven by the Urban Sciences Research Coordination Network, created with an NSF Building Community and Capacity for Data-Intensive Research in the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences and in Education and Human Resources award.