Normal: New public data portal puts more information at your fingertips
The Town of Normal was set to launch a public data portal Wednesday morning, and leaders say it will transform the way people access the municipal government’s information.
“This is a great way for communities to start improving transparency and accountability,” said Vasudha Gadhiraju, the town’s innovation and technology director.
Internet users can find interactive data on the town’s annual budget, public safety, and parks and recreation department, for example, said Spencer Lerch, a Normal IT data specialist.
During a Smart Cities initiative update at Tuesday night's Normal Town Council meeting, Gadhiraju said the portal brings together information already open to the public. The interactive portal, which includes dashboards, applications and maps, is just one piece of the town’s Smart City journey, she said.
“It’s incredible what’s going to be available to people,” Normal Mayor Chris Koos said after the presentation, urging the council and town staff to spread the word about the tool.
Also at the meeting held Tuesday because of Monday's Martin Luther King holiday, the council, as expected, voted in favor of Heartland Community College’s $23 million expansion. The council also heard preliminary ideas for creating a town public art policy.
Normal’s Public Open Data Portal
About a month ago, Normal’s IT department unveiled an online dashboard tied to its Community Improvement Plan. The Normal Public Open Data Portal launching Wednesday is similar, but wider in scope.
City Manager Pam Reece said the portal will increase transparency in how the town government works, and it will reduce inefficiencies such as the number of “business permits issued” reports. Instead, people can find that information on the portal, she said.
Although new to Normal, such portals have become increasingly common in U.S. municipalities over the past decade, said Gadhiraju. Answering a question from council member Stan Nord on privacy concerns, she noted everything available on the portal already is public information. IT staff also has a cross-departmental team working on ongoing privacy policies.
The project’s been months in the making, said Reece. The IT department built a connective internal system among town departments, and then organized a 19-person iTeam, with representatives from all those departments.
Lerch and Gadhiraju said Wednesday’s portal launch marks the first step in getting community feedback about the tool. Lerch said the portal includes an optional survey, and people can email him directly as well.
Gadhiraju said the portal is just one way Normal is continuing on its Smart City process, and meeting changing technology needs of the community.
Helping town staff improve tech skills, finding ways to eliminate inefficiencies in town processes, and finding ways to optimize existing technology also are part of the journey, she said.
The town’s Smart City strategies are categorized into seven areas: Smart Operation, Smart Urban Systems, Data and Analytics, Digitally Normal, Smart Policies, New Technologies, and Inclusion and Diversity. On Tuesday, Gadhiraju shared how Normal is tackling those categories.
For example, under Smart Operations, she described how the water, finance and technology departments joined forces to streamline the process for a water customer to develop a payment plan. Under Inclusion and Diversity, during the pandemic the town partnered with a group to provide refurbished computers to families in need.
Ag studies behind HCC’s $23 million project
The council voted unanimously Tuesday for Heartland to move forward with its nearly $23 million agricultural studies complex, to be built just west of the existing Raab Road campus buildings.
The council approved the project and its related site plan. Approval is conditional upon HCC engineers ensuring the new access to West Raab Road won’t require a traffic signal. Heartland proposes building an interior road stretching from its existing 1500 W. Raab campus to the new one at 1600 W. Raab. Council member Chemberly Cummings, an HCC employee, abstained from voting.
In February, the town will vote on the final plat proposed for the site. The planned 30,000-square-foot ag complex will be built on property that stretches north and west to the interstates.
Both indoor and outdoor classrooms are planned, as well as four greenhouses and an equipment drive.
Project planners have said Heartland’s master plan calls for more ag studies and training opportunities.
Public arts plan explored
Also at Tuesday’s meeting, Normal’s Cultural Arts Director Beth Whisman shared ideas for a public arts initiative, with a focus on visual arts.
Reece said next, the cultural arts department will form an arts steering committee, get community feedback, and begin to explore funding options.
Whisman shared examples of nearby community public arts programs, such as ones in Springfield, Peoria and Decatur. She said while many grants and private donations are incorporated to most public arts programs, they usually got a start with a public investment.
One possibility for Normal to jump start such a program would be to invest between $100,000 and $250,000 — down the road in a year or two, possibly — for a sculpture garden or another type of public artwork, she said.
The Illinois Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts are just a few organizations that could contribute to a local public arts plan, she said, adding individual donors also are interested in providing artwork to the town.
While this new endeavor focuses on visual arts, such backing is not new for Normal, she said. The town has supported cultural arts tourism such as the annual Sugar Creek Arts Festival, and local arts grants programs such as Harmon arts grants for many years, said Whisman.
She said the town’s comprehensive plan also backs investing in public arts, as does research showing the mental health benefits of public art, and historical moments such as Depression-era government-funded murals.
“It's a part of who we are as a nation and as a community,” she said.
During public comment, McLean County Arts Center Director Doug Johnson praised the Normal administration’s ideas as well-thought out. He urged the council to support a public arts plan.
In other business, the council:
- Learned the vote on a proposed addition to Maggie Miley’s in Uptown would be postponed until a later meeting.
- Renewed a $28,000 one-year intergovernmental agreement with the McLean County Sheriff’s Department to handle jail bookings, for Normal Police Department arrests.
- Rezoned 901 Kern St. to allow the construction of duplexes, on what had been a single-family home lot. Conversely, it conditionally amended an early plan for a Greystone Fields Subdivision section to allow some duplex-zone lots to be used for single-family homes.