Look at Cook sets a high bar for open government data visualizations

Open source tools and a focus on user experience elevate Cook County's "Look at Cook" data website.

Every month, more open government data is available online. Open government data is being used in mobile apps, baked into search engines or incorporated into powerful data visualizations. An important part of that trend is that local governments are becoming data suppliers.

For local, state and federal governments, however, releasing data is not enough. Someone has to put it to work, pulling the data together to create cohesive stories so citizens and other stakeholders can gain more knowledge. Sometimes this work is performed by public servants, though data visualization and user experience design has historically not been the strong suit of government employees. In the hands of skilled developers and designers, however, open data can be used to tell powerful stories.

One of the best recent efforts at visualizing local open government data can be found at Look at Cook, which tracks government budgets and expenditures from 1993-2011 in Cook County, Illinois.


The site was designed and developed by Derek Eder and Nick Rougeux, in collaboration with Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey. Below, Eder explains how they built the site, the civic stack tools they applied, and the problems Look at Cook aims to solve.

Why did you build Look at Cook?

Derek Eder: After being installed as a Cook County Commissioner, John Fritchey, along with the rest of the Board of Commissioners, had to tackle a very difficult budget season. He realized that even though the budget books were presented in the best accounting format possible and were also posted online in PDF format, this information was still not friendly to the public. After some internal discussion, one of his staff members, Seth Lavin approached me and Nick Rougeux and asked that we develop a visualization that would let the public easily explore and understand the budget in greater detail. Seth and I had previously connected through some of Chicago’s open government social functions, and we were looking for an opportunity for the county and the open government community to collaborate.

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What problems does Look at Cook solve for government?

Derek Eder: Look at Cook shines a light on what’s working in the system and what’s not. Cook County, along with many other municipalities, has its fair share of problems, but before you can even try to fix any of them, you need to understand what they are. This visualization does exactly that. You can look at the Jail Diversion department in the Public Safety Fund and compare it to the Corrections and Juvenile Detention departments. They have an inverse relationship, and you can actually see one affecting the other between 2005 and 2007. There are probably dozens of other stories like these hidden within the budget data. All that was needed was an easy way to find and correlate them — which anyone can now do with our tool.

Look at Cook visualization example
Is there a relationship between the lower funding for Cook County’s Jail Diversion and Crime Prevention division and the higher funding levels for the Department of Corrections and the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center divisions? (Click to enlarge.)

What problems does Look at Cook solve for citizens?

Derek Eder: Working on and now using Look at Cook opened my eyes to what Cook County government does. In Chicago especially, there is a big disconnect between where the county begins and where the city ends. Now I can see that the county runs specific hospitals and jails, maintains highways, and manages dozens of other civic institutions. Additionally, I know how much money it is spending on each, and I can begin to understand just how $3.5 billion dollars are spent every year. If I’m interested, I can take it a step further and start asking questions about why the county spends money on what it does and how it has been distributed over the last 18 years. Examples include:

  • Why did the Clerk of the Circuit Court get a 480% increase in its budget between 2007 and 2008? See the 2008 public safety fund.
  • How is the Cook County Board President going to deal with a 74% decrease in appropriations for 2011? See the 2011 president data.
  • What happened in 2008 when the Secretary of the Board of Commissioners got its funding reallocated to the individual District Commissioners? See the 2008 corporate fund.

As a citizen, I now have a powerful tool for asking these questions and being more involved in my local government.

What data did you use?

Derek Eder: We were given budget data in a fairly raw format as a basic spreadsheet broken down into appropriations and expenditures by department and year. That data went back to 1993. Collectively, we and Commissioner Fritchey’s office agreed that clear descriptions of everything were crucial to the success of the site, so his office diligently spent the time to write and collect them. They also made connections between all the data points so we could see what control officer was in charge of what department, and they hunted down the official websites for each department.

What tools did you use to build Look at Cook?

Derek Eder: Our research began with basic charts in Excel to get an initial idea of what the data looked like. Considering the nature of the data, we knew we wanted to show trends over time and let people compare departments, funds, and control officers. This made line and bar charts a natural choice. From there, we created a couple iterations of wireframes and storyboards to get an idea of the visual layout and style. Given our prior technical experience building websites at Webitects, we decided to use free tools like jQuery for front-end functionality and Google Fusion Tables to house the data. We’re also big fans of Google Analytics, so we’re using it to track how people are using the site.

Specifically, we used:

What design principles did you apply?

Derek Eder: Our guiding principles were clarity and transparency. We were already familiar with other popular visualizations, like the New York Times’ federal budget and the Death and Taxes poster from WallStats. While they were intriguing, they seemed to lack some of these traits. We wanted to illustrate the budget in a way that anyone could explore without being an expert in county government. From a visual standpoint, the goal was to present the information professionally and essentially let the visuals get out of the way so the data could be the focus.

We feel that designing with data means that the data should do most of the talking. Effective design encourages people to explore information without making them feel overwhelmed. A good example of this is how we progressively expose more information as people drill down into departments and control officers. Effective design should also create some level of emotional connection with people so they understand what they’re seeing. For example, someone may know one of the control officers or have had an experience with one of the departments. This small connection draws their attention to those areas and gets them to ask questions about why things are the way they are.

This interview was edited and condensed.


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