What I Learned While Creating a Sustainable Chicago

 |   Adam J. Hecktman

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

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Adam J. Hecktman
Adam J. Hecktman

You may recognize Adam. He’s a regular on TV, you can hear him on the radio, he’s penned numerous articles and is the co-founder of the Chicago City Data Users Group. But some of Adam’s most important work is done behind the scenes in his role as Microsoft’s Director of Technology and Civic Engagement for Chicago. Tech giants, universities and government leaders turn to Adam for guidance on all matters technology, and he happily obliges, helping Chicago overcome challenges and capitalizing on new, exciting opportunities.