June 2015

Showing That Chicago Cares, One Volunteer at a Time

Saturday, June 27 dawned clear and bright, after what seemed like an eternal Spring of rain in Chicago. As I walked to Daley Plaza to greet the rest of Team Microsoft volunteers, I reflected on what is the motivation that brings people together, to give up a beautiful Saturday during the busy month of June, to get dirty fingernails and dirty clothes, participating in activities that you probably wouldn’t do at home. This day is different than the typical way most people in the Tech industry spend their volunteering time. Usually, we act as coaches or mentors with students; or we donate software and devices and help nonprofits figure out how to use the technology. Or, we sit on a nonprofit board or advisory council and provide counsel on the future of the industry and help map out a strategy.

But this day, with Chicago Cares, we are blissfully, happily and energetically very low-tech. And there is something that makes this kind of volunteering feel even better—we come together as a team, we pitch in with skills that are not how we spend our business day, and when the day is over, we have produced an incredible, colorful, clean, and improved schoolyard and building for Chicago Public Schools students to enjoy. Tweets are flying, cell phones are snapping group photos, and the bus is headed back to Daley Plaza for a grand celebration. We create community in giving back. Now that is what caring is all about.

— Shelley Stern Grach

Chicago Cares

Chicago Cares! And we’re proud to help demonstrate that Microsoft does too. This weekend, we joined the organization’s 22nd annual Serve-a-thon — marking Microsoft’s 14th year with Chicago Cares! Employees from various business groups and stores joined together (alongside some family and friends) to create a powerhouse of 5,000 volunteers at Chicago’s largest day of service. Along with other businesses and individual volunteers, we helped tackle 30 projects across Chicago Public Schools and community parks. The Microsoft team focused on Scott Joplin Elementary School, where we took part in painting, landscaping, cleaning, doing murals, and building benches.

Microsoft Geeks Give! @MSFTChicago @ChicagoCares #ImImpact

A photo posted by Alisa Heniff Swann (@allyann19) on

We were thrilled to join this venture in making Chicago a better community and can’t wait to volunteer with Chicago Cares again. It’s a privilege to partner with this iconic organization.


Want to help us bring Chicago forward? Find future volunteer opportunities with Chicago Cares here.

Want to learn more about Chicago Cares’ Serve-a-thon? Check out the event’s media coverage via CBS Chicago and WGN or head to Chicago Cares’ website.

Civic Chat: Networking our Neighborhoods — Meegan Bassett, Dugan Bassett Consulting

Civic Chat: Networking our Neighborhoods — Meegan Bassett, Dugan Bassett Consulting

In Shelley Stern Grach’s most recent episode of Civic Chat: Networking Our Neighborhoods, she talks one-on-one with Meegan Bassett of Dugan Bassett Consulting, a company that works with nonprofits, foundations, colleges, and socially conscious businesses to help them discover new strategies to focus on their work and construct social impact. In their freelance work, Dugan Bassett’s tasks range in helping build new programs, troubleshooting existing programs, developing and lobbying for legislative agendas, planning corporate responsibility strategies, and developing high-impact reports and infographics.

Watch Shelley’s chat with Meegan Bassett live on MeetAdvisors.

Civic Chat: Networking our Neighborhoods — Eric Weinheimer, President and CEO of the Donors Forum

Civic Chat: Networking our Neighborhoods — Eric Weinheimer, President and CEO of the Donors ForumShelley Stern Grach’s latest episode of Civic Chat: Networking Our Neighborhoods highlights the good work Donors Forum does for Chicago. Over the past 40 years, Donors Forum has brought together grant makers, philanthropy, non-profits and advisors through its events and initiatives geared toward making the Chicago region a better place. In this video, Eric Weinheimer, Donors Forum’s President and CEO, shows Shelley how Donors Forum works and the impact it’s making in the greater Illinois community.

Watch Shelley’s chat with Eric live on MeetAdvisors.

Join Donors Forum for their 41st Annual Luncheon this Thursday, June 18.

Big Shoulders — Doug Laney, VP & Distinguished Analyst at Gartner

In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a casualty that could not be sought after in the rubble was valuable business data. How valuable? That was a question that accountants, actuaries, economists, and others struggled with. How does one value data as an asset? That is the question that the study of Infonomics seeks to understand. Meet Doug Laney. He has written extensively about infonomics, and in fact was the person who coined the term.

— Adam J. Hecktman

Big Shoulders — Doug Laney, VP & Distinguished Analyst at Gartner

In Adam Hecktman‘s latest episode of Big Shoulders, he speaks with Doug Laney, the VP & Distinguished Analyst at Gartner. Doug specializes in advising his clients on information strategy and how to monetize data, having coined the phrase “Infonomics!,” which centers around the tangible value of data. In this talk, Adam and Doug explore how to monetize data and treat it as an asset.

Watch Adam’s chat live with Doug on MeetAdvisors.

Civic Chat: Networking our Neighborhoods — MarySue Barrett, President at Metropolitan Planning Council

Civic Chat: Networking our Neighborhoods — MarySue Barrett, President at Metropolitan Planning Council
In Shelley Stern Grach’s latest episode of Civic Chat: Networking Our Neighborhoods, she speaks with MarySue Barrett, the President of the Metropolitan Planning Council. The Council’s team of business and civic leaders work to promote development and planning policies in the Chicago area by assisting in job creation and cost-effective community development.

Watch Shelley’s chat with MarySue live on MeetAdvisors.

City Year: Students First, Collaboration Always

In this edition of our ongoing series with City Year, I’d like to spotlight two important issues. First, this blog is also the story of collaboration between City Year and Math+ to better serve the students at the Dvorak School of Excellence, in Chicago’s North Lawndale community, and demonstrates the “better together” approach to tutoring. Secondly, what we are really learning about is how various teaching styles and approaches can positively impact outcomes for the students. It’s not a ‘one size fits all’ world—each student has a different learning style and guess what? Each mentor/tutor has a different teaching style—it’s all a matter of putting the pieces together. Congratulations to the City Year and Math+ leaders at Dvorak for their teamwork and dedication. ~Shelley Stern Grach

City Year: Students First, Collaboration Always

Since 2001, The Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL) has been operating in certain Chicago Public Schools, and they offer supplemental programs to assist students in their studies. This year marks the first year that they’ve operated the Dvorak School of Excellence, in Chicago’s North Lawndale community.

One of the AUSL programs offered at Dvorak, Math+, provides math tutoring to students in grades 3-5 in concepts, skills, and reasoning. The structure of this program is fairly similar to City Year’s; both operate in a 10-month cycle (although certain City Year sites have grown to 11 months), both target students that need the most help, and both serve as tutors, supporting the teachers they work with.

The Dvorak School of Excellence offers both Math+ and City Year as resources to their students, and because both of these resources serve as tutors, they have naturally formed relationships with one another, as well as the teachers that they support. But it just so happens that three Math+ tutors served with City Year Chicago just last year!

Ramsey Derrick and Vanessa (1)

Derrick, Vanessa, and Daisy each served in Chicago last year – Vanessa and Derrick served as corps members, while Daisy served as a Team Leader. With this being their first year with Math+, and the first year that Dvorak has offered the program, they are each adjusting to significant changes, and they credit their time in City Year with preparing them for working with students, teachers, and administration. They have each found ways to further hone the skills they developed last year, while also taking the time to help the current City Year members they work alongside.

As Veronica, Daisy, and Derrick are each Math tutors, they mostly interact with their City Year Math counterparts, Nick and Ramsey, as they work with the same teachers, and occasionally the same students.

Nick pointed out that, with the help of his relationship with the Math+ tutors, he found it easier to define the role that he’s been trained for in assisting his partner-teacher, as well as communicating the goals that he has for working with students. The Math+ tutors have helped in translating the City Year work style and the near-peer relationships members develop with students in terms that encompass the expectations of AUSL programming.

Ramsey has also benefitted from his relationship with the Math+ tutors, and he explained that it’s their way of understanding how City Year prepares its members to receive constructive feedback that has allowed him to succeed. Derrick, Daisy, and Vanessa are each able to draw from their own experiences as corps members to assist Ramsey during his. Through their shared experience, Ramsey is able to gain insight on best practices to help him work with the same types of students the Math+ tutors were working with last year. Ramsey, with the help of these three, has been able to stand on the shoulder of giants this year.

Math+ and City Year

And whether or not they know it, the City Year team has also helped the Math+ tutors learn more about themselves as they continue to develop their skills and passions for working with youth. They explained that, by being able to observe this team grow into a cohesive force, they’ve been able to dig a little deeper into their own experience, into why they chose to join Math+ and City Year before it – for the students.

What I Learned While Creating a Sustainable Chicago

The Center for Neighborhood Technology is an organization here in Chicago that never ceases to captivate me. They deliver research, tools, and solutions to create sustainable and equitable communities. Each year, they challenge developers and community organizers to enter into each other’s worlds. In doing so, they hold a competition around using technology to make Chicago’s neighborhoods smarter, greener, and more affordable. Microsoft was proud to be the presenting sponsor of this competition. I would like to share what I learned.

Over the last 6 months, Microsoft worked with the Center for Neighborhood Technology in Chicago to organize their 4th annual Urban Sustainability Apps Competition. It was a happy What I Learned While Creating a Sustainable Chicagocoincidence that the competition’s culminating events took place on the National Day of Civic Hacking. Over the course of the six months, community activists and app developers had been learning an appreciation of each other’s work through a series of workshops. Community activists learned how developers think, and tried their hand at some actual coding using TouchDevelop, facilitated by Microsoft Civic Tech Fellow, now member of Personal Democracy Media, Erin Simpson. Developers learned about how activists organize and work. In the end, they came together to create workable prototypes of apps that make their neighborhoods more sustainable, both environmentally and economically.

What I Learned While Creating a Sustainable ChicagoOver the weekend, the hacking took place. Activists and developers came together to put the concepts to code, so to speak. I saw fantastic ideas come to life: from reducing food waste to personalized energy saving to hyper-local consumerism. During the kickoff, Dr. Steven Perkins discussed the importance of convening. Bringing otherwise disparate groups (organizers and tech folks) together can bring the best of the mindset of all to bear on challenges that face us all as a community. This is exactly the ethos of the civic technology movement.

Eve Tulbert of Freedom Games addressed the group from a rather unique perspective. She was a participant of the 2013 Urban Sustainability Apps competition. She moved her project forward and created Planet Lab, an engaging and collaborative way to teach science and sustainability to What I Learned While Creating a Sustainable Chicagoyoung people. She, too, spoke of the importance of collaboration and convening. She talked of her surprise of the willingness of high-profiled organizations to help her take her project to the public. Nova, WWF, and the City of Chicago all were more than enthused to contribute their content and expertise to the effort. The key takeaway from the audience: go bold in terms of seeking partners. Their willingness and commonality of mission might surprise you.

It was a huge thrill to have a contingent from CitySDK. I have written about these folks before.   The City SDK enables civic hackers, activists, entrepreneurs, etc. to very easily integrate open data sets from federal and state sources, along with city data sources. They launched this here in Chicago, and used their time here to find collaborators. As much as I encouraged them to take in the sights and sounds of Chicago, they were totally focused on working with teams to leverage this amazing resource.

The U.S. Census is the nation’s largest source of socioeconomic and demographic statistical data. What I Learned While Creating a Sustainable ChicagoCivic technologist need to focus on solving problems, innovating, and creating new businesses, so anything that makes it easier to work with data is a boon. If you are even remotely interested in how to discover, access, consume visualize and gain insights, take a look at CitySDK. Just getting to know this team was valuable. They brought:

  • Jeff Meisel: a White House Presidential Innovation Fellow, working at 18F, the US Census Bureau and Department of Commerce on their collective data strategies.
  • Avi Bender: the US Census Bureau’s Chief Technology Officer, contributor to this blog, and Census thought-leader behind the CitySDK.
  • Arman Frasier: the CitySDK Technical Lead, who stayed up late helping one of the teams integrate the CitySDK resources into their solution.
  • Angela Zutavern: Vice President at Booz Allen Hamilton who leads their Next Gen Data Science work.

The entire weekend, hosted by TechNexus, was emceed by the entertaining Steve Philpott. Among Steve’s key responsibilities: giving away Surface 3s, Windows tablets, and Windows Phones!

Over the course of the culminating weekend event, community activists and app developers worked day and night together to create workable prototypes of apps that make our neighborhoods more sustainable, both environmentally and economically. Next up, Shelley Stern Grach will update you on the projects themselves.

What I Learned While Creating a Sustainable Chicago

You want ME to judge an apps competition???

Center for Neighborhood Technology Urban Sustainability Apps CompetitionNothing brings a cold sweat to a person who works for a tech company (but is really a human being in disguise) than being asked to participate in an external program that focuses on Developers and Tech Innovation. That was my visceral reaction when two of the greatest guys in Chicago—Steve Perkins and Steve Philpott of Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) — asked me to be a judge for the 2015 CNT Urban Sustainability Apps Competition. Oh no, I thought, this will blow my cover! So I meekly said “yes” and started to sweat.

Boy, was I wrong!

For those of you who have never participated in a hackathon, or Apps Competition, the first rule of thumb is that real people participate in these events. It’s all about #hackingforchange and making a difference in our neighborhoods. As my colleague Adam has described in earlier blogs, CNT had a great, well thought out process to identify critical issues that could positively impact our neighborhoods and people’s lives. The actual Apps competition is truly the frosting on the cake of the experience.

And… did I mention the food? …pizza, subs, snack bars, muffins and lots and lots and lots of caffeine.

I had the pleasure to listen to presentations from eight truly terrific teams, who had worked (literally) day and night to put their ideas and prototypes/demos together. Each team was limited to only ten minutes for their presentations—although some of the more creative teams found ways to stretch their timeslots. Criteria for judging was developed in advance by CNT (so no cheating allowed!), and the judges were given a formal Score Card to fill out. My administrative control freak Type-A nature absolutely LOVED this approach. I instantly felt more at ease.

And did I mention the food…?

The Judges were asked to consider 3 key areas as we awarded points to each team:

  1. How the team summarized the concept, including name, problem or need statement, key features and how the Concept aligned with Urban Sustainability.
  2. The Demo of the prototype, including the interface, is the app easy to see, is the app “considerate of the User experience/easy to use (YEAH!), does it address the problem and does it work.
  3. Business Sustainability-will people use this app, will people benefit from this app, can this potentially be a real business and will it grow.

And did I mention the food…?

I realized I was in 7th Heaven, and that the approach to judging for an Apps competition was based on common sense, with a bit of business acumen thrown in. I’m all in! I can do this! Let’s rock!

Shelley Stern Grach and Stephen Philpott

Congratulations to all the teams who worked so hard and participated at the CNT Apps competition. In alphabetical order the teams are:

  • Black Genesis Project
  • Drek Beach (you really had to be there for this one!)
  • EmployABLE
  • Fresh Eats
  • Neighbors Create Neighborhoods
  • Purshable
  • Ridewitme

Urban Sustainability Apps Competition Winners

The presentations were terrific—full of passion and making our neighborhoods stronger, and many had direct impact on sustainability and making Chicago’s neighborhoods safer and stronger and easier to navigate. Many focused on erasing food deserts, and improvements for people with disabilities. The teams were a mixture of students and businesspeople, with lots of Higher Ed degrees (Law, Education, Spanish, etc.). And yes, there were also coders, and data scientists. But what was so impressive is that it was all so seamless. It was a highly motivated group of people devoting a weekend of their free time to build a better Chicago.

Urban Sustainability Apps Competition Winners

Special shout out to the Purshable team, which focused on reducing food waste. Their presentation used the City SDK, they had great analysis for targeting their market, developed a fee based business model, and are solving a huge societal challenge.

As the Competition finished, and everyone celebrated their accomplishments and new friendships, I realized…

No sweat!

And did I mention the food…?

What I Learned While Hacking for Change

Chris Whitaker, What I Learned on the National Day of Civic HackingI had the honor and pleasure of speaking at Smart Chicago’s Organize! event. Held at Blue 1647, CfA’s Christopher Whitaker organized a day of civic tech leader training to help leverage the power of technology to organize in neighborhoods, and to widen the number of people participating in this movement. Organize! was a convening of both technology and community-focused attendees. Being on the technical side myself, I learned much about community organizing and came away with helpful insights from the speakers that Smart Chicago brought together, not to mention the great dialogue with fellow attendees.

For example, David McDowell (Southwest Organizing Project) defined “community organizing” in relation to power (itself defined as “the ability to act”).   He framed organizing as building capacity to collectively identify issues, strategize solutions and create positive change for stakeholders in that community.

What I Learned on the National Day of Civic HackingMatthew Topic (attorney at Loevy & Loevy) laid out the basics for making a FOIA request, and then gave some valuable best practices.   Since citizens have a right to records, but not the right to have questions answered, knowing the right way to ask for those records was key.

A venerable Chicago civic tech staple, Josh Kalov gave a “Data Portal 101” discussion, showing data portals at the city, county, state, and agency levels. This was followed by my discussion of how to leverage Microsoft Excel to work with Civic Data.

It was particularly gratifying to see that two non-Chicagoans chose Chicago to spend their #HackForChange weekend. First was Hannah Young from CfA. Hannah was the link and DJ and Hannahresource provider to the more than 106 events going on last weekend. The second was White House Deputy CTO and Chief Data Scientist DJ Patil. DJ was very generous with his time, sharing insights from his role as Chief Data Scientist and dialoging with the attendees.

DJ’s view of how government should work was perfectly in line with the vision of civic technologists. He looks at the country (indeed, the globe) and sees thousands of cities, each an experiment in tech, each an experiment in policy. And he challenged us to bring together these cities and the knowledge amassed from these experience in something of a modern-day barn raising. The government’s role? To be the provider of the data. After all, as DJ said, “it is our data”. Together, we can do great things with it.

Taking the El back home Sunday afternoon gave me a chance to reflect on the whirlwind of a weekend of #HackForChange events. If the goal of these events was for the components of civic tech – technologists, community activists, and government – to learn from one another, then it was a clear win. At the very least, this technologist has a better understanding and appreciation of the thought processes of his counterparts in this space.

Robot Revolution: Creating the Digital Manufacturing Human Pipeline

In February 2014, President Obama selected Chicago as the home for a first-of-its-kind, public/private “center for manufacturing innovation,” committing $70 million in federal dollars to the project. In addition, many corporations and businesses —including Microsoft — also made financial and other investments to this program. In the year-and-a-half since, UI Labs, the research and commercialization collaborative leading the charge, has shaped this grand initiative into a 94,000 square foot facility that will house two game-changing programs: the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute and CityWorks. We are now seeing that Chicago and the Midwest region are developing into a global hub for digital manufacturing on many levels. From the resurgence of Detroit to the recent opening of UI Labs Digital Manufacturing Institute at Goose Island, we are seeing accelerated interest and investment in digital manufacturing all around us.

With the amazing investments in manufacturing as a backdrop, I recently attended the opening of the world-premiere Robot Revolution exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago (MSI). This exhibit was several years in the making, and will be on a global tour after completing the inaugural showcase at MSI through January 2016.

Robot Revolution: Creating the Digital Manufacturing Human PipelineThe exhibit is highly interactive and provides lots of space for attendees to weave through the exhibits, and for younger attendees to run, touch and play. Among my favorites was PARO®, a soft-to-the-touch robot baby harp seal used as a comforting companion for people, especially in hospital settings where having a real animal might cause problems.

I also waxed nostalgic when I viewed a clip of the “I Love Lucy” candy factory production line. Portions of this classic scene were presented on video next to the FANUC M-1iA Delta Robot, an assembly line robot that selects and sorts items with much greater ease than Lucy and Ethel.

Robot Revolution: Creating the Digital Manufacturing Human Pipeline

However, what came to mind as we were enjoying the exhibit, was how perfectly timed this was for Chicago and the Midwest, as we correspondingly launch the focus on Digital Manufacturing. As we dodged the children following the robotic eye candy, and observed them
reach, touch and interrelate with their metallic counterparts, you could see the human/nonhuman distance between them dissolve, and imagine the exciting new world of global manufacturing. It struck me that THIS is another great example of how we build the STEM and STEAM pipelines in Chicago and the Midwest…by offering the marvels and accessibility of the new world of work, through play, stimulating interaction and tactical sensations.

Congratulations and THANK YOU to the Museum of Science and Industry staff, sponsors and partners who brought this wonderful exhibit to Chicago (first!), and for paving the way for our children to be excited, optimistic and energized about the future.

Robot Revolution: Creating the Digital Manufacturing Human Pipeline

To learn more about the Museum of Science and Industry, including their Robot Revolution exhibit, head to their website here.

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