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City takes aim at rats with high-tech solution

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Sun-Times Library

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Updated: January 22, 2014 6:11AM

The Chicago Police Department has used predictive analytics to determine where to position officers to prevent retaliatory shootings.

Why not do the same to prevent four-legged criminals — rats — from “establishing a colony”?

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration is doing just that, armed with a $1 million prize from a philanthropic organization formed by retiring New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to help cities devise new ways — through savvy use of loads of data — to deliver old services.

The city’s Department of Innovation and Technology has identified 31 city service requests not directly related to rat sightings that trigger rodent control complaints.

They range from stray animal calls to vacant and abandoned buildings, missing or overflowing garbage carts and restaurant violations made within seven days in the same general area.

By scouring 311 service requests for those patterns on a daily basis, the city no longer has to wait until residents “smell a rat” or see one.

Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Charles Williams can dispatch one of his roughly dozen rodent control crews to start baiting before the population explosion. The pilot program is now midway through a 10 week test.

“The Department of Streets and Sanitation currently relies on historical knowledge to dispatch preventive crews, which can limit services to neighborhoods where rats and mice have already established themselves and may results in multiple trips to eliminate the problem,” Williams was quoted as saying in a news release.

“By partnering with [the Department of Innovation and Technology], we can use data to prevent rodents from establishing a new colony and stop a nuisance and public health threat before it begins.”

The predictive analytics “model” for rodent control—and possibly for other city services—was developed in partnership with the so-called Event Pattern Detection Laboratory at Carnegie Mellon University.

Innovation and Technology Commissioner Brenna Berman said turning routine service requests into a so-called “SmartData Platform” has the potential to “modernize how the city does business” and enhance “core services.”

In 2011, the city made dramatic cuts in forestry and rodent-control services as it struggled to keep the streets clean and pick up garbage amid a two-year hiring freeze and chronic absenteeism.

Last year, Emanuel forged an agreement with organized labor that, he claimed, would save Chicago taxpayers $30 million over six years while averting the need to provide one service at the expense of another.

It allowed newly-hired Streets and Sanitation employees to be paid at an hourly rate of $20 — $13 lower than the current rate of pay — and be cross-trained in other jobs, so they can be moved freely among those jobs based on the city’s needs.

At the time, Emanuel said his Streets and Sanitation commissioner would no longer “have to act like Solomon [and ask], ‘Do we do tree-trimming? Do we do sign hanging? Do we do garbage collections?’ Those are the wrong choices. We’re gonna do ‘em all. We’re going to give taxpayers the services they deserve.”

Animal Planet has rated Chicago No. 4 — behind New York, Boston and Baltimore — among what the website calls the world’s “10 worst rat cities in the world.”

In response to a barrage of aldermanic complaints, Emanuel’s 2014 budget added one rodent control crew, at a cost of $160,000.

Even before trying predictive analytics, the city claims to have completed 44,000 rodent baiting assignments, increased “preventive rodent baiting” by 18 percent and reduced 311 requests tied to rat problems by 17 percent.


Twitter: @fspielman

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