Mapping Chicago’s Snow Removal Complaints

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I have for many years been waiting for Chicago to make public their data on the complaints received by the 311 department about unshoveled sidewalks. They have finally granted my wish. Unfortunately the data has become available at a time when Google is shutting down their Fusion Tables service, so I had to learn how to use a new service to create the necessary map. Because of course there was going to be a map.

In this article I take a look at the data that has accrued since the start of this past October, meaning we have only two really big snowstorms worth of data to consider. Those two snowstorms yielded about 1200 complaints to 311. I think that is more than enough for now.

The Map

Let’s start with the map, which I created using Leaflet using filtered data from Chicago’s Data Portal. I pulled the data at about 4pm on Thursday 14 November, so it’s about as fresh as it can get while leaving me time to create the map and write the article.

I will try to revisit this at the end of the winter so we can see how the data evolved over the course of several snowstorms. I might even compare it against the data from last winter, which does exist in the same data source.

My Thoughts

So this is clearly a great help for renters in choosing a new address, even in the summer. It becomes a permanent record not only of what a particular landlord is doing, but what all the neighbors are doing as well. After all, most people don’t spend all of their travel time standing on the sidewalk in front of one building. They cover an entire block, or a route from home to the bus stop.

The clusters are fascinating. In many places there are single complaints, but in a few areas such as the route extending eastward from the Logan Square circle and the section of the South Loop just south of Roosevelt there are little clusters of complaints. Likewise the comparative density of complaints between the North side and South side is equally fascinating. One can’t really determine from the data if the difference is due to the South side having lower population density, lower awareness of 311, lower interest in ratting out the neighbors for slacking off, or better shoveling.

Because, you see, this is not a map of actual violations, but rather a map of complaints. Which means it not only is a quick visual guide to potentially hazardous sidewalks and slacker property owners, but it’s also a guide to areas where those slacker property owners are surrounded by vocal residents who are willing to make complaints to 311 when the sidewalks are icy. Now that is an interesting cross-section that I bet a lot of different groups would be interested to know about.

Let’s think about it in terms of the 1-9-90 rule of social media interactions. In any given social media network only 1% of the member population will actively create content, 9% will respond to that content, and the other 90% will just lurk and do nothing. I would consider modern 311 technology with its app interfaces and grassroots marketing to be a social media network of a sort. It’s certainly more grounded in reality than something like Facebook, but it’s still a social media network.

Calling, texting or using an app to contact 311 appeals to the overlapping section of the Venn diagram showing altruistic people, people who like to complain to the local government, and people who are aware that 311 even collects complaints about unshoveled walks. That has a ring of familiarity to it. It sounds to me a lot like the description of an informed voter.

Of course landlords can also use the map to their benefit. If you own property in an area where you see a lot of complaints, make sure to shovel. If your properties are not surrounded by people who like to complain to the city, maybe you can slack off a bit more. (Not that we recommend this. A quiet person today can easily become a vocal complainant tomorrow if they fall on their keister on your sidewalk and they may use their phone to call a lawyer instead of 311.)

Your Thoughts

With all my Google maps going away next month I am anxious to transfer them over to Leaflet and will be doing so slowly in the coming weeks. Maps featured in high traffic articles will be the first to get converted over. But I can also play around with the shoveling data if that is of interest to you. Let me know if there’s another layer you’d like me to add that would make the map more informative. (CTA stations maybe? I don’t know.)

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Kay Cleaves

Founder and owner of RentConfident. She's the primary developer of the website and research engine code. She's spent over 10 years working in the Chicago rental industry and has assisted with over 1200 leases.