By Nona Tepper
Two citizen techies have formed an initiative aimed at using data to solve Forest Park's problems. Called OpenFP, all community members are invited to join the group, which meets from 7 to 9 p.m. on the third Tuesday of every month.
"OpenFP is an initiative to find out matters of pressing concern to residents in Forest Park, across the spectrum of residents here, and identify which of those concerns can be addressed with data, and to try to illuminate those concerns with data, and hopefully find the solution," said Steve Rummel, who created the group with resident Matt Sweeney.
Rummel, a data scientist, ran an unsuccessful bid for the Forest Park District 91 school board. During the campaign, he stressed using data to better communicate the quality of local schools to taxpayers. Sweeney followed Rummel's campaign and, inspired by his efforts, reached out after the election. The two talked about what they could do to drive civic engagement, and OpenFP was born in April.
"The one thing I'm really curious about is, can we get more people to participate than typically participate around public-related decision-making?" Rummel said. "I'm hoping that just the process of doing this will make people think engagement is important. Second, the one thing I hope we will learn is the stuff people really care about."
The two decided to model the group after Chi Hack Night, a tech civic group in Chicago. Sweeney has participated in Chi Hack Night's weekly meetups since 2014, and was part of the group that helped build a better E. coli monitoring system for Chicago Park District beaches, as well as a team that analyzed and mapped media reports about crime in Chicago. In his professional life, he serves as a senior researcher at the University of Illinois Chicago's College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, where he leads research projects that help capture community voice and public priorities.
"When Matt reached out, I was really excited. OpenFP is right up my alley [and] it's local," Rummel said. "You see the message boards, and with a lot of concerns, one person will say, 'This is a huge problem here' and others say, 'Oh it's really not that big of a deal.' Let's shine a light, find out. How big a problem is this? Let's find out what it is and if we can do something useful in terms of recommending a solution."
For OpenFP's first project, Rummel and Sweeney launched a survey on July 9 — titled, "Which question about Forest Park is more important?" and located at https://allourideas.org/FPquestions — where they will solicit community opinions on such topics as local education opportunities, property taxes, and businesses.
In the survey, two randomly matched questions — like, "How civil is Forest Park," or "How many homes are vacant in Forest Park" — are presented, and participants are asked to pick which is their greater priority to answer. Right now, the survey consists of about 25 questions although anyone can add a question of their own. Sweeney and Rummel will moderate survey questions submitted, eliminating questions about village revenue derived from video gaming since "it's a decided matter," Rummel said, as well as other redundant or inappropriate issues submitted. OpenFP is a nonpartisan group that will only use public data to solve citizen concerns. All citizen responses will remain private and anonymous.
"I wouldn't want anyone to see us as antagonists; we want to support people in Forest Park," Sweeney said. He added that technical controls are in place to ensure both participant anonymity and integrity of the process, specifically around spam and bot submissions. "Obviously if on one day, there's a huge spike — all of a sudden it voted 1,000 times — it will show us. If there's a lot of activity in a given time, we'll throttle that."
Rummel noted that using data to solve community problems can help because it's impersonal, which takes personal reputation out of the questions and responses.
"We are neutralizing the influencer effect," he said.
Sweeney said the process allows for a comparison of a large quantity of ideas and being behind a computer might help solicit more honest answers.
"Being digital, removing some bias — some people are more shy to share ideas in person," he said.
The two will solicit community responses until Aug. 13, although the survey will remain open after. They will then draft a data project based on citizen responses. For citizen questions that pop up that don't lend themselves to a data-derived solution "or are way beyond the scope of what we could do right now, like commission a traffic study of Forest Park and surrounding towns," Rummel said, they will still relay the concern to public officials. Once they have completed their first data project, they will also deliver those results to elected officials. They have not discussed OpenFP with anyone in elected office yet.
Sweeney believes residents will be particularly interested in analyzing education opportunities and crime rates, and he's excited to see what the data reveals.
"This is our way of capturing priorities from people who live in, or work in, Forest Park and have an interest in Forest Park," he said.
All community members are invited to join OpenFP. The next meeting is at 7 p.m. on July 16 at the Forest Park Public Library, 7555 Jackson Blvd. Reservations required. Register at firstname.lastname@example.org.