ProPublica published all 66 million rows of raw data behind their investigation into Chicago’s traffic enforcement system. Analytics8 Managing Consultant, Kevin Lobo, built his own app using this public data to uncover even more insight.
ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power, published an investigative report called “Driven Into Debt” which looks at how Chicago’s traffic enforcement system unfairly burdened minority and poor motorists. Knowing readers would want to see the raw data behind the investigation, ProPublica published 66 million rows of it and made it available for public download. As a Chicago resident and analytics professional, I took an immediate interest and built my own application to dig deeper and perform additional analysis.
The initial idea behind my application centered around a very basic geospatial mapping component to track distribution of tickets around my own Chicago neighborhood. Noting that the original report did not analyze police officer activity, my interest grew into identifying trends among officers who issued tickets by neighborhood.
The use case for this application was for a user to select a parking violation type (i.e. “No City Sticker” or “expired plates”), and then easily view location, frequency, how much revenue was generated for the city, and ticketing officer information. The user could also see which individual officers were ticketing the most. Ease of use and speed to find insights was of upmost importance when designing the application.
Through the course of building the application, I discovered some unique use cases and data points that weren’t noted in ProPublica’s initial investigation. ProPublica reached out to learn more about what I uncovered—here’s what I shared:
Of the $393,426,154 outstanding parking ticket debt from 2015 and onward, roughly 40% of the debt came from “No City Sticker Vehicle” (a citation that penalizes motorists who don’t have a valid city sticker on their vehicle). When looking at the geographic distribution of outstanding debt from these citations, the top ten locations were in the city’s South and West sides, hitting low income and minority neighborhoods the hardest.
It’s worth nothing that in 2012, the city increased this citation penalty almost 40% to $200 with the expectation to generate $16 million in additional annual revenue. Instead of the cash windfall the city expected, there was only a modest increase in revenue, and city sticker sales remained stagnant. Instead of buying a city sticker, many motorists went into bankruptcy, with a disproportionate amount of bankruptcies occurring in low-income, minority neighborhoods in the city’s South and West sides (Englewood, Chicago Lawn and Garfield Park).
The data set contained Police Officer IDs, but no names. I supplemented ProPublica’s dataset with another open source roster of Chicago Police officers to derive officer names, their number of tickets issued, and the geographies in which they issued those tickets.
Unit Numbers 008 (Chicago Lawn), 007 (Englewood), 014 (Shakespeare), 011 (Garfield Park) constituted the highest numbers of tickets issued overall by Chicago Police districts. These districts are all representative of neighborhoods in Chicago’s South and West side.
A retail strip mall in West Garfield Park (again, in the city’s West side) had the highest concentration of outstanding parking ticket debt with over $475k. From 2015 through 2018, over 3,000 tickets were issued at this location. This location also had the highest concentration of tickets that went into bankruptcy proceedings.
O’Hare and Midway airports, along with adjacent parking structures, constituted the most frequently ticketed locations. When O’Hare and Midway airport and parking locations are removed from the data set, the most frequently ticketed location was 3900 W Madison, the retail strip mall in West Garfield Park mentioned above.
Chevys, Fords, Toyotas, and Hondas were the most frequent car makes to be ticketed. Out of the 7.6 million tickets issued from 2015 through 2018, almost a million were issued to Chevy drivers.
In terms of findings, the analysis I conducted mostly backed up the article’s assertion that “No City Sticker” tickets were largely affecting lower income and minority neighborhoods when viewed in the lens of overall debt and bankruptcies. This is a very important distinction to make when viewing the data overall. When viewing the data at a high level, you find that the majority of parking violations were issued at O’Hare and Midway airports and their adjacent parking structures. Tickets issued at these locations were largely for “Parking/Standing Prohibited”, “Expired Meter”, or “Expired Plates” violations, and they mostly affected motorists who attempted to pick someone up from the airport in a non-sanctioned zone or left their car in a parking structure past their allotted time. Due to the high volume of tickets issued at these sites, the “No City Sticker” violations could easily be buried and gone unnoticed.
By removing airports and parking structures and focusing purely on residential neighborhoods, it is only then can you get a clear picture into the “No City Sticker” ticketing practices. For example, 20,000 tickets were issued at Midway Airport versus the 3,000 issued at the aforementioned retail strip mall in West Garfield Park. However, when looking purely at the “No City Sticker” outstanding debt between both sites, the strip mall had four times the amount of outstanding parking ticket debt than Midway Airport. In addition, 11 total tickets issued at Midway Airport went into Bankruptcy while 164 entered Bankruptcy at the retail strip mall site.
As a result of ProPublica’s investigation, its underlying data, and the opportunity for public data experts to participate in the analysis, the city is equipped to make meaningful, data-driven decisions around their traffic enforcement system. Already, the city has proposed reforms to city vehicle sticker program, and they recently approved ticket and debt reform policies to provide relief for low income and minority motorists that were hit the hardest. I appreciate ProPublica’s commitment to using data to back up their journalism.
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