Civic Tech Can Help Build a Stronger City

 |   Susana L. Vasquez

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:

  • largelots.org – 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 largelots.org 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.
  • crimearound.us – 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.

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