March 2015

Civic Tech Can Help Build a Stronger City

You know when there is a perfect intersection between passion and profession—when the things you spend your time on 60 hours a week align with those things you feel are important to make the world, and Chicago, a better place. Such is my experience with LISC Chicago, a nonprofit whose mission is to “connect neighborhoods to the resources they need to become stronger and healthier”.

It is my honor and privilege to be a new member of the LISC Chicago Board of Advisors. In this role, I hope to bring the vast array of resources that Microsoft has in our YouthSpark, DreamSpark, BizSpark and Digital Literacy programs to those who need it most in Chicago. In the following blog by LISC Chicago Executive Director Susana Vasquez, you’ll learn about how LISC Chicago is cutting edge and leading the way in Civic Tech-the intersection of “big data”, innovation and applications to make our city stronger and our citizens more engaged and connected. I have known and worked with Susana since 2009, when we collaborated on large software grants for nonprofits supported by LISC. Since that time, I have watched LISC Chicago and Susana and her team grow to become national leaders. It’s a pleasure to introduce Susana’s guest blog today.

– Shelley Stern Grach

Civic Tech Can Help Build a Stronger CityI do not code. I do not hack. My smart phone is merely above average.  I use it primarily for email and, yes, phone calls. For two decades I’ve worked in an industry – nonprofit community development – that came late to technological innovation and is still scratching its head about the significance of big data, let alone the term “civic tech”. We’ve prided ourselves, instead, on our people skills: listening and engaging and planning to make neighborhoods stronger. What does tech have to do with that?

Quite a lot, it seems. More and more, I am realizing that “civic tech” can make us stronger, that the future of our city depends on how well we learn to use technology.

I hadn’t even heard the term civic tech until 2013, when a Knight Foundation report identified technology as a tool for making communities stronger through peer-to-peer sharing, social networking, data crunching and even community organizing. That brought into sharp focus what we’d been learning at LISC Chicago and with our community partners.

Civic Tech Can Help Build a Stronger City


I began to engage with technology for community development in 2009 when LISC worked wCivic Tech Can Help Build a Stronger Cityith the City of Chicago and community partners to increase digital skills and internet use in five low-income communities. The demonstration, called Smart Communities, was designed using basic community development principles – anchored in a specific geography, driven by community engagement, informed by data, and advanced through planning, visible action and coordinated community-led program delivery. Through this process, we learned if a neighbor in Humboldt Park or Auburn Gresham asks if you want to learn about computers, and there’s a comfortable local place to practice those skills, people will respond by the thousands.

It worked. In just two years we documented a 15 percent increase in internet usage compared to similar neighborhoods and, a civic tech mindset began to emerge among several of our community partners. It was during that demonstration Microsoft provided a $1 million donation of software to dozens of our community partners. The irony was that even as we promoted tech adoption, most of us were running outdated software on clunky networks. LISC and many of its partners had turtle-slow internet speeds. Some South Side communities were “broadband deserts,” and we knew few geeks to help us into the game.

Civic Tech Can Help Build a Stronger City

But we persevered, and over the years have put civic tech to work:

  • – When Chicago rolled out its plan to convey vacant lots to neighbors for just $1 each, there was no easy way to gather all the information needed to apply. With a grant from LISC, leadership from Teamwork Englewood and some late nights at the civic tech firm DataMade, the website was created, launched and heavily used by residents. Since then, 276 lots have been sold in Englewood and many more are in process in East Garfield Park and Austin.
  • – This website pulls open data so users can track crime stats on any street or area in Chicago. It has helped partners identify crime hotspots and other patterns in North Lawndale, South Chicago and elsewhere.
  • Digital trainings – We’ve incorporated digital trainings across our network of 13 Centers for Working Families, integrating employment and financial services with digital skills building.  Trainings cover everything from computer basics and web searches to Microsoft Office and resume writing.

Civic Tech is not just jargon.  It is part of the next wave of community development.  And the more that techies and community developers engage and act together, and build strategies that put people and neighborhood issues first, the stronger our two fields will become.

Susana Vasquez is executive director of LISC Chicago.

Helping Chicago lawyers get more done

Doing more with less resources is a top of mind issue nowadays for every organization. In an article from earlier this month in Chicago Lawyer magazine, I provide some strategies for lawyers to get more done even when they are resource constrained. Leveraging leading technology – especially Microsoft’s Office 365 cloud solution – helps enable all organizations to be more productive, collaborative and agile. For more, please read the full article here:

Turning nothing into something: Learning how to keep everyone happy with fewer resources

Introducing CityWorks: Making a stronger, safer and more resilient Chicago

Disclaimer: CityWorks is now known as City Digital.

Today, Microsoft is delighted to reveal that it is a founding partner in an innovative new smart cities program based in Chicago – CityWorks.

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This initiative will bring together companies, government agencies, research institutions, and civic organizations to develop and validate new solutions in urban infrastructure. Currently, cities like Chicago face many issues from aging physical infrastructure. Examples include challenges like aging roads and sewers, and opportunities like the efficient integration and use of new infrastructures around connectivity and smart grids. Applying emerging technological capabilities to these issues will lead to real improvements in Chicago and cities across the world.

Chicago is a great place to explore innovative approaches to urban infrastructure:

  • We are a major North American transportation hub, with diverse interconnected, intermodal systems.
  • We are a center of research and education, with a new startup being formed every 48 hours and 625,000 students.
  • We’ve already planned for major investments in sustainability and infrastructure.
  • Our City government has a commitment to open up its assets and infrastructure for urban technology experimentation.
  • We are a city of neighborhoods, each with unique priorities and opportunities for experimentation

At Microsoft, through our CityNext program, we work with cities all over the world on technologies that help communities thrive. Our goal in participating in CityWorks is to combine our expertise in leveraging data and information with the experience and knowledge of the other partners to develop solutions relevant to urban infrastructure everywhere. Rich analytic and machine learning capabilities, coupled with the Internet of Things, creates impact in areas from smart buildings to snow plows. In addition, Microsoft has just announced the Azure IoT Suite to speed deployment of key scenarios, such as remote monitoring, asset management and predictive maintenance, while providing the ability to grow and scale solutions to millions of “things.”

We’re particularly excited about how the Chicago community has come together around this initiative. UI LABS, the home of CityWorks, was formed to cultivate and channel innovative talent and resources, foster collaboration across public and private sectors to bring new ideas to market, and drive economic growth and competitiveness. Microsoft is proud to be a member in both of UI LABS initial projects and looks forward to working with our partners to do more together than we could do alone.

Find out more about CityWorks and how the City of Chicago, companies, research institutions, and civic organizations are coming together for urban infrastructure innovation by reading the Crain’s Chicago Business article here.

Big Shoulders: Erin Simpson, Civic Tech Fellow at Microsoft

University of Chicago student Erin Simpson is the latest civic tech leader to join Adam Hecktman to discuss the next generation of civic technology in Chicago.

As a Civic Technology Fellow at Microsoft, Erin has participated in Microsoft’s initiatives to support the civic tech community. Her education in Public Policy has inspired her to work for social good and community development in the city.

Watch Erin Simpson discuss Chicago’s next generation of civic technology on Big Shoulders.

Using Elections Data With the Chicago City Data Users Group

“Democracy depends on people giving scrutiny to all of this at all levels; the machinery of elections and the politicians making decisions about all that they do.” – Ryan Chew, Deputy Director of Elections, Cook County

We are in an election season in the Chicago area. It was therefore timely for the Chicago City Data Users Group to hear from the folks at Cook County who put an enormous amount of effort into what is nothing less than the key process for a functioning liberal democracy. Ryan Chew is the Deputy Director of Elections for Cook County. Geetha Lingham is the Manager for the voter and ballot data. Both addressed voter-related data and the complexity involved in turning data sets into accurate ballots for voters.

Cook County manages elections for a large suburban area (the City of Chicago has its own elections board) that includes 129 villages and cities, representing an area of 40×20 miles, with 1.5 million voters, representing hundreds of jurisdictions. And that is not which is what makes it complicated. What makes it complicated is that each person is part of many districts that each have their own geographical boundaries…and elected officials.

For example, look at the electable candidates for a single village: that will include candidates for the school district, the high school district, the community college district, the park district, the library district, maybe the aldermanic district, along with mayoral district, and congressional district, all with different boundary lines. At any given election, any resident has between 4 and 16 different districts that they belong to.   And the proper ballots have to be created for each citizen (called ballot entitlement).

For each of the 1.5 million voters, the county has to aggregate all that information on a ballot ready for them on day they vote for elections. If one of those boundaries is off, incorrect, or unclear, their ballot is wrong. For this last election, there were nearly 800 different ballot styles for those 1.5M registered voters of the 129 municipalities. That number is probably not as high as it gets, as this was an election for taxable officials (as opposed to political officials).   So again, think of all that is at stake: The process, is key to the function of the democracy; the volume of voters is high; each one is a priority; and standardization is low.   That is the job that the County Elections officials that spoke to us about their usage of data is facing.

To really appreciate the process today, you have to take a look at a brief timeline of Cook County Elections:

1950’s: 60 years ago, voter registration meant a trip to city hall, or an election judge came to your door. A voter was removed from the list if the election judge determined that you didn’t live there anymore. So this was a process open to both fraud as well as honest mistake. Not very efficient.

1959: The voter list was so ungainly that the decision was made to throw out the voter list in its entirety and start all over. By the time that this was ready, it was 1961, and all would-be voters needed to re-register. That itself was an exercise on a massive scale, prone to error and vagaries. For example, someone would register with an address that said “the corner of First and Main”. Which corner? North East? South West? It makes a difference to the ballot you are going to receive. Did you registered with a Rural Route? Those change to street names over time.

1970’s: The County saw that method way of registration was not going to scale. Too few election judges, too many questions, too many people. So they decided that organizations could take training and register people to vote. Ryan used the example of League of Women Voters. That expanded through the 80’s. Having more people drive registration helps with scale, but that doesn’t help the accuracy of the registrars.

1990’s: the Motor Voter law was enacted. Federal law stated that when you get your drivers licenses or state ID, you can register on the spot (i.e. using Secretary of State data). This is something we take for granted today. They also expanded mail in registration. It was much better, but a mail in registration where handwritten cards need to be computerized is still prone to error.

2000’s: Today you can register online with a few uniquely identifiable data, such as social security number or driver’s license number.   Privacy-conscious citizens may bristle, but that data is needed because the Elections team needs to balance security concerns with the requirement of ensuring you are who you say you are.

This in itself is better, but not perfect. The County is getting all of these streams of data with varying levels of quality from a variety of sources. Since the goal is to take these various streams and use it to understand who is whom and where they live, a good amount of this data needs to be shaped and re-shaped. When they send data to Social Security Administration for validation, and it is back saying “there is no such person”, they need to figure out why – every time. When they send a driver’s license number to a Secretary of State to ensure that the voter is a real person, and that comes back negative, the County has to figure out why – every time.

And then there are the “DelVanO’s”. Ryan said that these are people with names beginning with “Del”, “Van”, or “O’”. And there are lots of these in Chicago. They may, at different times, have put a space after the first part, and other times not! A data cleansing nightmare. This is just one example, but Elections have all sorts of data issues that require them to go to many other systems to determine where there was a typo, where there are actually two different people, and that every voter registration has a real identity behind it.

This is not to say that this is necessarily a manual process (although a certain amount of it is). For new voter registration, there are good tools that can validate that you are who you say you are against another system (SSN validation, DL validation, etc). They are now starting to use these tools to purge the entire list, not just new registration, to correct mistakes. For example, if someone dies, when the list is next scrubbed, it can be matched against a data set that contains death certificates and remove the dead from the voter rolls (Ryan was careful to note that the dead do not vote in Cook County, they just may be on the voter rolls).

So that is the trajectory of where we have come from and where we are at today. Diving a little deeper into today’s process gives you some appreciation for what the Elections team goes through, and the data required to do it, in order to protect the democratic process. Geetha Lingham is the Manager of Data for Voter Data and Elections Data. It is her job to ensure that they take the voter registration data and accurately associate it with the complex system of jurisdictions.

For even the smallest of villages, that means figuring out where you pay taxes, for whom, and whom you are entitled to vote for and elect. Again, think of all the districts that a single person belongs to. In some cases, your district may be clear (i.e. park district). In others, the boundary for the school district may literally go right through your house. So aggregating all that information to get a completely accurate ballot is a complex tax.

Geetha works with three primary types of data:

  • Parcel data: This is where they try to locate a parcel of property where a citizen resides, primarily by address. The parcel data contains a 5 digit tax code that tells you the taxing bodies relevant to you. They relate this data to the voter. The good news is that this is an accurate way to identify where you live. The down side is that, while census data changes every decade, taxing data can change every day.
  • Census data: This is used that identify the voter’s political districts
  • Precinct data: This is for the administrative units for the elections

These three come together in a GIS system, using ArcGIS. The GIS provides an index of the nearly 40,000 streets, and 630,000 unique addresses. Each of these datasets uses their own notion of streets (addresses have not yet been standardized – more on this topic in a future blog). The GIS helps to reconcile all of that spatial data. Recall that the goal here is to make sure that they get the right people in the right location so that they can create the right ballot.

GIS helps significantly, but there is a good deal of manual cleansing that takes place. This data is coming from many sources, with different ways of looking at things like street addresses (Main Street vs. N. Main Street; Randolph Drive vs. Randolph Street), and are all and updated on different frequencies. The volume is huge, the data is critically important, and the process which is fundamental to our functioning form of government. It takes dedicated people.

Ryan ended his portion of the evening by saying that “Democracy depends on people giving scrutiny to all of this at all levels; the machinery of elections and the politicians making decisions about all that they do”. It also requires passionate people with strong data skills, such as those at Cook County, to make it work for everyone.   Watch the full presentation here.

City Year Chicago: A Full Circle Experience

Today’s youth face an opportunity divide – a gap between those who have access to the skills and training they need to be successful, and those who do not. With more than 75 million unemployed youth around the world, we must work together to close this divide in order to secure the future of our youth, and of our global economy.

Microsoft YouthSpark, a global initiative to create opportunities for millions of youth, partners with City Year Chicago to help empower our neighbors and our children. We are honored to welcome City Year to the Microsoft Chicago blog for a monthly series which will focus on our partnership with the city of Chicago. ~Shelley Stern Grach

City Year Chicago: A Full Circle Experience

It was the early 2000’s and I was in my pre-teens when I was first introduced to khakis, red jackets, and paint! I served my first year as a City Year Young Hero in 2001 in Washington, DC. Following my first year, I returned and served every Saturday of my school year for two more years as a Young Hero. Young Hero was a City Year program that provided service learning projects for students at partnering City Year schools every Saturday. I immediately fell in love—not only with service, but with the people and the culture of City Year. From then on, I knew that whatever career path I chose there would always be an aspect of service involved. After graduating from college in 2011 with a BA in Psychology, I returned to DC to work as a case manager for an international non-profit organization. I loved it! It was fulfilling… it was life-changing; I was meeting new people and learning something new daily. But something was missing—it was young people. I decided it was time to make a drastic change! I began doing research on organizations with a focus on young people and service. Then, like the sun on a rainy day, there it was: City Year! A full circle experience, I was now going to serve young people like I once was, and in doing that I came to know, love and understand City Year in a way I never expected!

Let me tell you a little about the program… 

City Year Chicago: A Full Circle Experience

What is City Year?

This is usually the most-asked question of a City Year AmeriCorps member. Most of the time, it’s asked by family and friends, or people who see us commuting in our City Year red jackets. 

On paper, City Year is a non-profit organization whose goal is to reduce the number of high school dropouts coming from inner city schools by utilizing AmeriCorps members, aged 17-24, to tutor and mentor students across the country. Our goal is to empower, encourage and engage the students we serve.

But at its core, City Year is so much more. We are a team, a family.

Last year I moved from Washington, D.C. for City Year, and what I found when I got to Chicago was much more than I expected – I came in alone and completed my first year with a host of new family and friends. 

Now I am proud to serve a second year as a Team Leader on the Microsoft Team at John Hope, providing direct support to those whose shoes I was recently in, while furthering my own leadership and management skills.

How Do We Operate? 

Everything in City Year is done as a team. We are firm believers in service to a cause greater than oneself, and we rely on each other to reach the goals we have for our students and ourselves. Our school-based teams service classrooms by providing support in mentoring, programming and overall academic improvement.

Corps members have the opportunity to partner with teachers in their classroom, and strengthen that partnership throughout the year by providing additional support to students who need it. We work with students 1-on-1 or in small groups through targeted interventions in course performance, attendance, and behavior.

City Year Chicago: A Full Circle Experience

What Support Do We Get? 

We are lucky to have partners outside of City Year that enable us to do the work we do. This is our third year having Microsoft as the team sponsor of John Hope. Aside from a major financial contribution they are always thinking creatively about how to plug into our mission and have a lasting impact on our work. Whether it’s an invitation to the team to visit their office, linking us up with their other partners like Hour of Code, or providing each member of the team a brand new Microsoft Surface, the story is always the same — Microsoft is invested in positive change just like City Year.

Dr. Martin Luther King said “Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve,” pointing out that all you need to serve others is “a soul generated by love.” 

People that serve others know this well. While the work is difficult, it goes deeper than being ‘just a job.’ Programs like City Year, and partners like Microsoft, celebrate that fact and apply it to everyday.

City Year Chicago: A Full Circle Experience


Today I challenge you to find some way to serve your community, to give back to others. You can visit your local homeless or animal shelter, volunteer at a library or hospital; write letters to soldiers fight for our country. You could even join City Year, here in Chicago or anywhere in the country for a day of service. The possibilities are endless.

To learn more about Microsoft’s commitment to youth and education, visit our YouthSpark Hub or follow us on twitter at @msftcitizenship.

Calling young people with ideas for change — win support to make them a reality

Calling all students and young adults!  Are you active in your local community or concerned about national issues? Microsoft’s third annual YouthSpark Challenge for Change is inviting youth aged 13-25 around the world to share their ideas for sparking change in their communities, schools, college campuses, or the world. Microsoft YouthSpark is part of Microsoft’s commitment to create education, employment and entrepreneurship opportunities for young people around the world.

The Challenge asks socially conscious young people to consider how Microsoft technology can help them do more and achieve more, and then submit their ideas between now and March 25, 2015. Microsoft will choose 15 finalists from each age group (13-17 and 18-25) to win a Surface Pro 3 with Office 365. Five grand prize winners from each age group will go on to win:

So if you know a high-school or college student or young graduate who’s got some great ideas about helping local elementary students improve their reading skills, or bringing more tech jobs to the Midwest, or solving global humanitarian crises, or more, point them to the Challenge. Entering is simple: they can just submit their ideas to Microsoft YouthSpark and answer a few questions for a chance to get recognition, funding, and a platform to turn their vision into action.

To learn more about Microsoft’s commitment to youth and education, visit our YouthSpark Hub or follow us on twitter at @msftcitizenship.

Chicago City Data User Group: Elections Data

Election season is filled with campaigns, debates, and — most importantly — data. With prediction polls, censuses, and (of course) official voting, there’s plenty of stats and more to tackle throughout the whole season. But what do we do with that data?

Recently, the Knight Foundation has submitted a call to action for innovative ideas to use election data. The Knight News Challenge on Elections is offering more than $3 million for solutions that inform voters and increase civic participation before, during and after elections.

Join us this Wednesday for the Chicago City Data Users Group at the Microsoft Technology Center Chicago, on the 2nd floor of the Aon building. This week’s CCDUG will feature a conversation with Noah Praetz, the Director of Elections for Cook County. The night will discuss the elections data in Cook County, how it’s used, and how Cook County aims to use big data in the future.

Registration for this week’s meetup (and every week!) is open to the public here.