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New Site Maps Chicago's Nature Hideouts in Bustling City

By Benjamin Woodard | November 20, 2013 6:32am
 Daniel Ebel created a Web application that maps nature sites by category throughout Chicago.
Daniel Ebel created a Web application that maps nature sites by category throughout Chicago.
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DNAinfo/Benjamin Woodard

WEST ROGERS PARK — Resident Daniel Ebel joined the ranks of Chicago's growing group of independent and civic-minded Web developers when he sat down and typed out the code for an interactive map of the city's nature areas.

Ebel, who lives next door to Indian Boundary Park, created the website "Act Natural" in his free time because he said he saw the need for a better tool to find nature's hideouts within a bustling city.

"People in Chicago know where [their] parks are," said Ebel, but residents also want to know where to find the best place to spot a migrating Great Blue Huron or spend an afternoon hiking around a woodland.

So he got to work.

The 51-year-old computer programmer said he spent about 60 hours scraping data from the Chicago Park District's website and compiling it into a database that is now accessible on his online map, which is searchable by type of nature area, including wetlands, dunes, lagoons, prairies and wetlands.

He also launched earlier this month a humble Kickstarter fundraiser with a goal of collecting $75 to pay for a dedicated Web server and domain name for the tool.

Volunteer developers like Ebel are a growing breed.

"Any kind of data visualization or map is so much more approachable than looking at a database or an Excel spreadsheet," said Tom Kompare, 43, who takes city data and turns it into online apps. "I do it as — more or less — a hobby. It's really simple to do. Really simple, easy to do — yet extremely helpful."

In the last couple of years, he has created sites like ChicagoFluShots.org, which maps by day and location citywide where both free and paid flu shots are available.

He also made "Chicago Potholes," which maps 311 complaints for potholes around the city — color-coded by how many days have passed since they were reported.

The visualized data corralled by Chicago's civic hackers also can spark political discussions, said Kompare, who by day maintains computer network services for the University of Chicago.

"You start asking questions like, 'Hmm, why are these all located on the North Side and not on the South Side?'" he said.

Dan O’Neil, executive director of Smart Chicago, an organization that promotes open civic technology, said apps like those made by Kompare and Ebel lead to a better quality of life for Chicagoans.

"We focus on access to Internet, skills for people once they're on the Internet, and then the data," he said.

Every Tuesday night, developers get together for "Open Gov Hack Night" at 1871 in the Merchandise Mart to build civic apps, O'Neil said.

He said he made ChicagoWorksForYou.com, which tracks trends of all 311 complaints by category and ward from day to day and week to week.

Just this month, civic technology advocates and city officials announced ChicagoDecoded.org, a website that cleanly presents the Chicago Municipal Code.

Ebel, who grew up in rural Kentucky, said he has plans to build more apps for city parks, like one that charts public art installations and another that maps reported incidents of unlawful gun possession.

The possibilities are countless, said Ebel, because, well, "There's a lot of data points."