Close Close Comment Creative Commons Donate Email Add Email Facebook Instagram Facebook Messenger Mobile Nav Menu Podcast Print RSS Search Secure Twitter WhatsApp YouTube

How People Are Using Our Chicago Parking Ticket Data in Their Research

Close to 1,300 people have downloaded data from our app, The Ticket Trap. We talked with some of them.

Rob Weychert/ProPublica

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for The Weekly Dispatch, a newsletter that spotlights wrongdoing around the country.

When we published Driven Into Debt — our series looking at how Chicago’s traffic enforcement system unfairly burdened black and poor motorists — we knew people would want to see the raw data behind our investigation.

So we published all 66 million rows of it on our site, for free, making the city’s internal ticket-tracking system easily accessible to the public for the first time. Then, in December 2018, we used this data as the backbone for our interactive database, The Ticket Trap. While we’ve found a number of stories in the data, our analysis only used a piece of what we had; we hoped people with the time and means would be able to find more for themselves.

Since then, some 1,300 people have downloaded the file. As ProPublica Illinois’ data reporter, I wanted to know who they were and what they found, so over the past month I’ve spoken with several of them.

I encountered people from a variety of professional backgrounds, including a lawyer-turned-computer-scientist and a database-administrator-turned-reporter. A handful of responses came from students.

A few of them pointed me to aspects of the data that we had not addressed in our coverage. Kevin Lobo, a management consultant, explained how he analyzed the behavior of the Chicago police officers who wrote the most tickets. Wesley Skogan, a professor emeritus at Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research, mused about the placement of parking meters throughout the city. Lots of people showed me their charts. The work I saw was rigorous, creative and heartening for the practice of sharing journalistic resources with the public at no cost.

An analysis of ticketing rates among metered and nonmetered violations, prepared in Stata by Wesley Skogan, a professor emeritus at Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research. (Wesley G. Skogan)

Often, people who had the support of an institution got more use out of the data than those who didn’t. Sergio Servantez, Manish Suthar and Parker Joncus, all students at the Illinois Institute of Technology, worked with the data for a class organized in partnership with ProPublica Illinois. They analyzed cases where one car got ticketed multiple times on the same day, a problem we covered in our series. The group found that duplicate tickets were most often handed out for expired registrations.

A slide from a presentation by Sergio Servantez, Manish Suthar and Parker Joncus, then undergraduate students at the Illinois Institute of Technology, examining duplicate ticketing. (Sergio Servantez and Manish Suthar)

Others had a prior interest in the material. Matt Chapman, who used to work in information technology before switching careers to journalism, has been chasing Chicago ticket data since he returned from a vacation four years ago and found that his car had been towed.

Long before ProPublica Illinois obtained the data that drove our story, Chapman successfully got it from the city through an open records request. He wrote code that converted addresses in the data into geographical coordinates, then wrote a short article about the city’s most-ticketed blocks on his personal website. When ProPublica Illinois’ dataset went live, he said, he used it to push his own analysis further.

“This parking ticket project has been my way to learn data science, make some change and try to figure out the landscape of Chicago,” he said.

Lauren Nolan used the data when she was director of research at the Woodstock Institute, a nonprofit policy group in Chicago. The organization had just gotten a grant from the Ford Foundation to study how fines and fees affect low-income residents when the first article by ProPublica Illinois reporter Melissa Sanchez and former data reporter Sandhya Kambhampati appeared.

Nolan worked with Sanchez to file a separate public records request to obtain her own copy of the data, which she analyzed with geographic information system (GIS) software. The Ford Foundation grant was helpful in making use of the data, Nolan said, as was the organization’s nonprofit status, which gave her access to otherwise expensive software. Her work led to a 33-page report on the city’s “regressive revenue generation strategy.”

“I was able to earmark time for this project. It wasn’t just a hobby or something I had to squeeze in after work,” she said.

Not everyone has made progress. I heard from people who downloaded the file but got sidetracked by life and work. Others told me of the difficulty they had in wrangling such a large file into a workable format, a process they found educational but that left them little time to do much else.

“I thought I’d come back to it, and here we are a year later,” said Christopher Clapp, an economics researcher at the University of Chicago who studies transit and had planned to use the data to examine market trends for parking.

ProPublica’s Data Store has a number of free databases that include information about Illinois. You can see a list of them all here. I’m optimistic that people are using them to understand how government works and where it is failing them, and that they’re sharing their findings with others.

But I’d like to collect that information myself. Are you working with one of our Illinois databases? Write me at [email protected] or call me at 708-967-5724.

Filed under:

Protect Independent Journalism

This story you’ve just finished was funded by our readers. We hope it inspires you to make a gift to ProPublica so that we can publish more investigations like this one that hold people in power to account and produce real change.

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that produces nonpartisan, evidence-based journalism to expose injustice, corruption and wrongdoing. We were founded over 10 years ago to fill a growing hole in journalism: Newsrooms were (and still are) shrinking, and legacy funding models are failing. Deep-dive reporting like ours is slow and expensive, and investigative journalism is a luxury in many newsrooms today — but it remains as critical as ever to democracy and our civic life. More than a decade (and six Pulitzer Prizes) later, ProPublica has built one of the largest investigative newsrooms in the country. Our work has spurred reform through legislation, at the voting booth and inside our nation’s most important institutions.

Your donation today will help us ensure that we can continue this critical work. From the climate crisis, to racial justice, to wealth inequality and much more, we are busier than ever covering stories you won’t see anywhere else. Make your gift of any amount today and join the tens of thousands of ProPublicans across the country, standing up for the power of independent journalism to produce real, lasting change. Thank you.

Donate Now

Portrait of Haru Coryne

Haru Coryne

Haru Coryne is a data reporter at ProPublica, based in Chicago. He covers housing, business and economic development.

More from ProPublica

Current site Current page