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U. of C. Data Slam Puts Developers to Work on City 'Problems That Matter'

By Sam Cholke | August 21, 2013 8:35am
 The Univeristy of Chicago's Data Slam showcased how 36 developers used analytics to address ailments of urban life from bus crowding to foreclosed homes.
The Univeristy of Chicago's Data Slam showcased how 36 developers used analytics to address ailments of urban life from bus crowding to foreclosed homes.
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DNAinfo/Sam Cholke

STREETERVILLE — A group of 36 developers and statisticians pitched data-driven solutions for bus crowding, abandoned buildings and other problems at the University of Chicago’s first Data Slam.

Using data of when riders get on and off buses, a team working with the CTA thinks it has developed a solution for riders who watch three packed buses pass during the morning rush before one arrives with a few inches of space to board.

“It’s called the crowding problem, and CTA has known about it for some time,” Walter Dempsey said at the university’s Gleacher Center, 450 N. Cityfront Plaza Drive.

Dempsey and his team have developed a tool that allows the CTA to predict overcrowding and dispatch extra buses to meet demand. Currently, the CTA reviews ridership numbers quarterly to determine if enough buses are running to meet demand and then go through a lengthy process of reviewing and revising routes.

Dempsey said the application his team developed would allow the CTA to simulate how adding a bus on one route in the morning would affect inter-related routes.

The team is talking with CTA about how to polish the application before handing it off.

Another team developed a sort of real estate listing service for foreclosed homes for the Cook County Land Bank, which has more than $6 million to acquire properties, but tens of thousands of properties to pick from.

“This is a huge problem for the county,” said Sophia Alice, whose team is working with Cook County Commissioner Bridget Gainer to develop the application.

The program analyzes foreclosed properties and helps the Lank Bank identify where it can do the most good when buying foreclosed property.

“Having a lot vacant is often more valuable than having a vacant building,” Alice said, adding that the analytics tool helps the Land Bank find those properties.

The organizers said it was a better use of the skills of talented developers who might have otherwise gone to Yahoo or Google for the summer.

“They wanted to do something that was more than optimizing clicks and selling more ads, and that’s very admirable,” said Riyad Ghani, chief data scientist of the university’s Urban Center for Computation and Data. “It’s a responsibility of society to focus the best people to work on the problems that matter.”

Ghani was able to start the program, which pairs young developers with mentors from the tech sector, after a conversation with Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman and Google and a campaign adviser to President Barack Obama.

Ghani said he mentioned the idea in March to Schmidt, who agreed to fund to 12-week program at the university, leaving Ghani just weeks to develop the program, find mentors and recruit the 36 fellows.

“It’s not often you hear that in two weeks 36 students need to show up, and you have to find, mentor and hire them,” said Charlie Catlett, director of the Urban Center.

Many of the projects addressed Chicago’s problems, and Ghani said he hopes to expand to broader urban problems next year. But with the short lead-up, he said he was incredibly impressed with what was developed in three short months.