How’s Business provides a view of Chicago’s local economy. It uses open data to show how several economic indicators have been trending since 2005.

How’s the economy?

This question doesn’t have a simple, single answer. That’s because the economy is not a simple, single thing. The economy is having a job, starting a business, getting a loan, deciding to save or invest, buying a new home, or missing a mortgage payment.

So if you want to know how the economy as a whole is doing, you have to find numbers that capture the economy’s many pieces.

The numbers we look at

  • capture a key part of the economy
  • are local
  • are updated often
  • have been around long enough to reveal trends
  • are publicly accessible

Let’s take them one by one.

What we’re measuring

Consumer Spending

Consumer spending is the major driver of the overall economy. By measuring the taxable sales of general merchandise, we can get a picture of how much money is coming in to the Chicago economy.

We don't have a direct measure of spending for Chicago, so we use sales tax revenue as a proxy.

The Data

The State of Illinois reports the Chicago's Home Rule Sales tax receipts quarterly. If we know the tax rate, we can back out the original volumes of sales (0.0125% during this period).

To get this data from the State of Illinois, we wrote a scraper to extract all the numbers from their website. The data which this scraper produces can be downloaded in CSV format.

These raw numbers need to be adjusted for inflation to current dollars, which we do with the Chicago-Gary-Kenosha Consumer Price Index.

General merchandise, [#6] which we are measuring, includes sales of most tangible personal property including sales of

  • soft drinks and candy
  • prepared food such as food purchased at a restaurant
  • photo processing (getting pictures developed)
  • prewritten and “canned” computer software
  • prepaid telephone calling cards and other prepaid telephone calling arrangements
  • repair parts and other items transferred or sold in conjunction with providing a service under certain circumstances based on the actual selling price
  • grooming and hygiene products

It does not include the sale of

  • food
  • prescription and non-prescription drugs
  • vehicles

New Business Licenses

New businesses create most new jobs. They invent new products. And they pioneer new ways of doing business.

Total businesses depend upon the balance between new businesses starting and old businesses failing. In general, higher rates of business creation increase total economic activity.

The Data

The City of Chicago requires most companies to get business licenses [#1] , and reports the number and type of each business license on the City’s data portal. To measure new businesses, we look at all the licenses issued for a particular business location (Acccount Number and Site Number). We look for the oldest license. If the oldest license is a new license and not a renewal, then we figure that the date of the oldest license is when the business location was first licensed.

New Construction

Construction makes up 4% of Chicago’s economy [#3] . Economists often treat new construction as a leading indicator. That means if new construction rises - or falls - you can expect the rest of the economy to follow.

The Data

To measure new construction, we use building permits.

Real-estate developers rehabbing a building, or building a new one, must get a building permit from the City of Chicago [#4] .

Each month, we add up all the building permits the City has issued, and that is our measure [#5] .

Housing Price Index

For most people, housing is the largest single part of their monthly budget and the for many families the largest asset.

The Data

Our data on housing prices comes from the Depaul University Institute of Housing Studies . They have created an quarterly housing price index just for Cook County, which allows you compares a total market across time. The base quarter is the beginning of 2000, with an index value of 100. An index value of 110 means that average market price is 10% higher than it was in the first quarter of 2000 (adjusted for inflation). For more details, you can check out their full methodology.


For most of us, work is the economy.

If we have work, or can get it, the economy seems okay. When we start worrying about our job, or can’t find one, that what a bad economy means to us.

Unemployment is a measure of how many people are out of a job and looking for work. When unemployment is high, people suffer - and so does the economy.

The Data

Technically, the unemployment rate is the number of people who are unemployed, divided by the number of both unemployed and employed people.

It’s pretty simple to decide who counts as employed. But just because you don’t have a job doesn’t mean you count as unemployed.

That’s because the Bureau of Labor Statistics - the federal agency that measures unemployment - only counts you as officially unemployed if you don’t have a job, have looked for work in the last four weeks, and are ready to start work if you get an offer. People who are not actively looking for work aren’t counted as unemployed.

Our monthly unemployment rate data comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Local Area Unemployment Statistics. The way they calculate this rate is complicated. We get the data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’s FTP site (the series ID for Chicago unemployment is LAUPS17010003).

Some parts of the economy rise and fall with the seasons. Construction slows down in the winter, because... its winter in Chicago.

These seasonal fluctuations make it difficult to see how businesses, unemployment, and the rest are actually doing.

So we try to tease out the real trends from the seasonal ups and downs. We do this with R, a statistical programming language, and the stl package.

If we chose a simpler way of finding the trend, like a moving average, the overall pattern would be the same. But our approach improves the accuracy of our trend line, especially for the most recent months.

More Resources

We focus on how Chicago’s economy is changing, but there are other reports out there that compare our economy with those of other cities. These are useful, so let’s link to them.

CWICstats Dashboard Report
This quarterly dashboard report provides a snapshot of key workforce and economic indicators. It was built for the Chicago Workforce Investment Council (CWIC). The front page highlights many of these indicators and their most recent changes. The inside of the report contains graphs of additional indicators.
World Business Chicago
Repository of business climate, economy, key industries, quality of life and many other economic indexes for the Chicago area.
Federal Reserve Economic Data
A database of more than 55,000 economic time series maintained by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.


This is an Open City project done as a volunteer effort. The team is:

  • Daniel Morton - statistical analysis
  • Derek Eder - front end development
  • Matt Gee - statistical analysis and about page
  • Forest Gregg - statistical analysis and about page

Code and Data

This site was built entirely open source and free to download on Github.

Technologies used:

All the data used for this site come from open sources. The raw counts and trend lines are available as JSON.

Contact Us

Think we should be tracking other measures of Chicago’s economic climate? Interested in cruching the numbers? Contact us at info@opencityapps.org or file an issue on our tracker.


  1. Businesses licensed by the state are not required to get a city license
  2. BEA: GDP by Metro Area (millions of current $): Percent of U.S. metro portion: Construction
  3. Projects which do not require a permit.
  4. We also handle one day that is very different from the rest. In the City’s data, there are 1,994 licenses that are reported as issued on July 7, 2007. Typically, the Department of Buildings issues one to two hundred licenses on any day. We throw out the count for this day, and replace it with the average daily permits from the two week period around it.
  5. Illinois Department of Revenue, Sales and Use Taxes