August 2014

Microsoft Chicago To Speak on “Top 10 Trends for a Successful Illinois” at IL CPA Society Midwest Accounting and Finance Showcase

Midwest Accounting and Finance ShowcaseThis week, the Illinois CPA Society convenes to discuss how to ensure the future economic success of Illinois. The IIllinois CPA Society’s Midwest Accounting and Finance Showcase takes place August 28 at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center. Beginning with a keynote by Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce’s President and CEO Theresa E. Mintle, the conference focuses on the economic outlook for Illinois in 2015.

Microsoft is a sponsor of the conference, and in addition to our technological showcase in the Exhibitors Pavilion, I am pleased and honored to be presenting on Chicagoland’s panel discussion titled “Top 10 Trends for a Successful Illinois: Looking Forward to 2015” alongside Lou Longo, Partner at Plante Moran Global Services; ÄKTA CEO John Roa; and Jim Kane, CEO of Kane & Co.

On our panel, we will discuss ways to ensure a bright economic future for Illinois, and I’ll be focusing on how STEM education enables that future. Our STEM education initiatives at Microsoft channel students’ passion and ambition in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and Microsoft Chicago’s Technology and Civic Engagement department directs these students to jobs in their field. We offer STEM programs for students such as Microsoft’s Imagine Cup, our Students to Business (S2B) program, YouthSpark’s TEALS (Technology Education And Literacy in Schools), and DigiGirlz.

According to Burning Glass, 76% of STEM job postings require a bachelor’s degree, but only 29% of bachelor’s degree graduates earn a STEM degree. Our initiatives aim to improve STEM education to increase the number of students with STEM degrees to fill those numerous job openings.

The increase of STEM students and workers in the Chicago metro area and beyond to Illinois guarantees success in the booming tech industry and in the economic future of Illinois. I look forward to see what my fellow panelists contribute and how they feel about Illinois’ future successes.

See you there!

Combining Technology and Participatory Budgeting For Direct Democracy

Photo via is often posited as government for the people, by the people. The purest form of classic democracy is one in which citizens of a community directly decide on laws and policies that they follow, and how their resources are to be applied. In ancient Athens, citizens all were able to come together to debate and vote on the laws of the city-state. They literally dropped what they were doing, assembled, discussed, and voted. They were, in effect, a legislature made up of all of the citizens of Athens.

While this may have worked for a time in Athens, it would have been tough to apply that same model to the newly formed United States in the 18th century. People were greatly dispersed in terms of their geography. And they were busy tending to their fields, harvesting resources, or producing products of the day. Making their day-to-day living, combined with the time that it took to communicate over a great distance, gave most little (if any) time to educate themselves on the issues that influenced the policy making of the day. So, they entrusted their political power and decision making to representatives. This represented the formation of the representative democracy practiced in Western nations today, vs the direct democracy of Ancient Athens.

Fast forward a couple of centuries. Today, most citizens do not spend 100% of our time tending to our basic needs. And the internet has rendered geography and communication time as anachronistic notions.   In western-style democracies, people are engaged with their governments and communities at unprecedented levels. Could the direct democracy/representative democracy pendulum be swinging? There is evidence to that affect.

Take, for example, the concept of participatory budgeting. Participatory Budgeting is “a democratic process in which community members directly decide how to spend part of a public budget. It enables taxpayers to work with government to make the budget decisions that affect their lives.”[1] While it has been practiced outside of the U.S. for 25 years, it is just now getting serious attention in cities across the U.S.

Joe Moore is an Alderman in Chicago’s 49th ward. In 2009, with the assistance of the Participatory Budgeting Project, Alderman Moore launched the first PB process in the U.S. In Chicago, each alderman gets about $1M in taxpayer money to spend in the ward. Rather than making that determination from the Alderman’s office, Moore invited his ward residents to propose spending ideas, develop project proposals, and vote on which proposals to fund. When residents cast their ballot, they were directly deciding how they wanted to allocate the ward’s $1 million capital improvement budget for the year.  A step closer to direct democracy.

Technology has obviously been a key driver here. The internet enables citizens to learn more about the issues that can influence capital improvements in their neighborhood. It also enables them to learn points of view that would normally require a public meeting. Sites like Everyblock and NextDoor are starting to connect communities from door to door. And the results of the voting have been articulated to the constituency via easy to understand infographics like the ones below.

There is, however, the potential for technology to impact the process to an even greater extent. For example, In order to vote, you need to come to one of the voting sites are located throughout the ward. On-line voting is still in its infancy. Imagine being able to allocate your fixed amount of dollars and see the tradeoffs at the time of voting. Further, we are just at the cusp of community dialog and debate. The internet has a great potential to bring the discussion to the citizens vs. bringing the citizens to a discussion. There is a potential for citizens to use online tools to facilitate discussions on issues, tradeoffs, and priorities.

The work of the 49th ward has obviously started to take hold. Other wards in city have started to replicate the model. Several thousand citizens have participated in deciding how to spend taxpayer money. It’s another step closer to a government “by the people, for the people”.

My Refrigerator Said What to my Scale?

I think we’ve all had that sinking feeling on the drive to work: did I turn off my coffee pot? Did I close the garage door? Did I leave the water running? And each time, we’re wishing there was an easy way to check without turning around – perhaps where our coffee pot talks with the front door, automatically turning itself off when we lock the deadbolt in the morning.

Today, these nagging thoughts are being answered by a myriad of technologies and devices called the Internet of Things. Much the same as when people just began hearing about the cloud four to five years ago, the Internet of Things can leave many people scratching their head. At its core, the Internet of Things is technology assets, devices and data working together to improve business intelligence, simplify processes, and make your life and work easier – such as protecting you from burning the house down if you leave a coffee pot on, or your refrigerator and scale communicating to help you best plan meals based on your health goals.

Although the term Internet of Things is just beginning to gain widespread use, its existence is nothing new. The security alarm at your house is a perfect example: a sensor at your door communicates with a nearby panel, which, based on the message from the sensor, may or may not send an alert to your alarm company’s monitoring station. While early Internet of Things devices are effective at helping to keep your home or office safe, new technologies and devices are changing the way in which you operate your business.

Supported by the power of mobile devices, ubiquitous internet access and improved network protocols, what is possible with the Internet of Things is only limited by your imagination. Manufacturers here in Chicago have the potential to automate plant operations all under a central data-management system. Plant managers can control tasks, including creating and running diagnostic programs (such as wear and tear), through one interface – providing new insights into factory operations allowing for smarter decisions and actions. And the City of Chicago itself is exploring how to leverage sensors to turn the city into one big test bed to measure climate, transport, foot traffic, air quality, etc.

We’ll continue to dive deeper into what this growing technology holds for businesses and how you can deploy it in future posts, but in the meantime, be sure to check out Microsoft’s Internet of Things website to learn more, including solutions your business can use today.

Why Data Science Matters to Microsoft

“We’re training data scientists to tackle problems that really matter.” It is an understatement in almost every way. And it is the tag line on the website for Data Science for Social Good (DSSG). A three month summer program in Chicago, DSSG brings blossoming data scientists from across the country to work on data mining, machine learning, big data, and data science projects. The Fellows (there are 48 of them) work in small teams on problems whose solutions rely heavily on data. The problem spaces run from education to health to energy to urban infrastructure issues. And by partnering with local governments, non-profits, and federal agencies, they are directly assisting key decision and policy makers.

Housed in a large open space in Chicago’s Loop, the team is led by the Urban Center for Computation and Data’s Rayid Ghani and Matt Gee. Matt is one of those guys who seems to be in multiple places at one time. He’s been at the forefront of the open data movement in Chicago for as long as such a movement has existed. This year, he has curated a cohort of projects that are focusing on a variety of domains from predictions on student enrollment, to government spending policy, to the optimization of health treatment for expecting mothers, to smart meter data analysis. All projects are bound by the goal of using data science to impart positive social impact.

DSSG asked me to have Dan’l Lewin, Microsoft’s Corporate Vice President for Technology & Civic Engagement (TCE), speak to this group of motivated and passionate Fellows. The request made complete sense: Dan’l has a clear vision for technology’s impact on civil society; these fellows have a clear vision of how technology can have an impact on specific civic domain spaces. This was clearly going to be a rich conversation.

And it was. DSSG wanted to know three things: Dan’l’s career path that brought him to TCE, his vision around civic tech in general, and his view on how civic engagement could (and does) work in a large enterprise tech company.

Dan’l had always been interested in the spaces where computing is used to solve interesting problems for society. He relayed his career background beginning at Apple in its earliest days. He was brought in by Steve Jobs in 1981 to lead education sales and marketing at Apple. When Steve Jobs left to start NeXT in 1985, he brought Dan’l with him as a co-founder. Dan’l was then brought into Microsoft by Steve Ballmer (another Steve) to be our “ambassador” to the Valley. Dan’l is an integral part of the vast VC community in Silicon Valley.

When he joined Microsoft in 2001, our industry was clearly in transition. Being at an inflection point, Dan’l came in with the philosophy that Microsoft needs to do business on the market’s terms, not on Microsoft’s terms. That meant:

  • Building our infrastructure relative to market needs, not relative to Microsoft legacy
  • Thinking more deeply about future regimes under which we will be doing business, not just creating great products.
  • And doing both without abandoning the legacy that got us here, because you need to serve your existing customers and shareholders

This type of thinking is as relevant now as it was then. The industry is in yet another inflection. We still need to think about doing business on the market’s terms with new leadership in place at Microsoft.

He then turned the discussion to his new Technology & Civic Engagement group. This is the team for which I serve as the lead for Chicago. At Microsoft, Dan’l is known for his insights into what matters, as much as he is for his brevity. It is not uncommon to get an email response from him regarding person X or issue X with two words: “X matters.” Right off the bat, Dan’l shared his insight on civic tech with the DSSG fellows with three predictable words: “Civic Engagement matters.”

Dan’l told the fellows that in the context of Technology and Civic Engagement, this small, but focused team is going to make long term bets in 3 areas:

1) Academic: at the broadest level, we are placing series of strategic investments into the academic community. We will engage people in fields that matter to both the company’s future and to civic society in general. And… we will not tell them what to do. We focus on a few key areas, providing financing and other resources. And then we remain hands-off. The idea is to ensure that there is plenty of data-informed public conversation that helps regulators and policy makers think through problems of society. It is the model we are implementing with danah boyd and her Data and Society Research Institute in New York, for example.

2) Key metropolitan areas: Large cities can be thought of as idea incubators where people live, where data exists, and where experimentation is ripe. Microsoft is betting on Chicago in this important way. It is a great test bed for urban experimentation. But we also want to measure the economic impact of our bets and projects. To that end, Dan’l brought in Simon Wilkie, a well-known economist, to help study that broad impact of our projects and our engagement on society and on the company.

3) Research: We are investing in both the broader and the targeted use of our technology as it relates to research and policy. For example, we are looking at the application of machine learning to political engagement. We are looking at how political leaders can use leading-edge technology to engage civil society and respond to a constituent base. And we ourselves want to engage researchers, entrepreneurs, and civic and political leaders to both learn and to help them understand how to use data to make good decisions.

That, in my mind, is exactly what Civic Technology and Civic Engagement look like when applied from within a large tech enterprise. Both Dan’l’s thoughts around that and DSSG’s choices of problem sets point to a common thread: Our representative democracy framework, colliding with big data analytics, makes a complex and interesting model for study.