July 2015

Civic Chat: Networking Our Neighborhoods — Sandee Kastrul, Founder and President of I.C. Stars

Watch Shelley’s chat with Sandee Kastrul live on MeetAdvisors.


Fellow Profile: Maira Khwaja

Maira KhwajaWhere are you from? Pittsburgh, PA

School/grade/major: University of Chicago

Last thing you searched on Bing: Tennis racquets for free and on sale

Why did you choose Microsoft’s fellowship program? I was first exposed to the civic tech community through Chi Hack Nights (formerly Open Gov Hack Nights), where people spoke highly of the support Microsoft gives to the civic tech community. Former fellows also loved their experience and went onto very creative, meaningful work after graduation, giving me a lot of confidence in the diverse opportunities that Microsoft could offer. The Technology & Civic Engagement (TCE) team is just my style – small and dedicated – and really values diverse ideas from community organizations as the driving force behind their collaborative work, which aligns with my philosophy of how to create sustainable progress in Chicago’s neighborhoods.

What projects are you working on for your position as tech fellow for MSFT Chicago? I’m currently designing a multi-tiered curricula for senior citizens around cyber security and basic internet literacy in partnership with Chicago Public Library’s cybernavigators program, Chicago Housing Authority, and Department of Family & Support Services. I’ll be working with Adam and Tom Schenk, Chief Data Officer at the City of Chicago, on organizing city-wide learnathons this summer.

I’ll also be continuing our partnerships with YOUMedia and the MakerSpace labs at CPL and the Digital Youth Network in the Chicago City of Learning Initiative, so that kids can find our learning resources online and get recognition for their certification through digital badges. I also look forward to leading Day of Code activities at the Museum of Science and Industry!

What excites you about civic tech?

I love how civic tech makes “tech” accessible and useful to anyone. It removes the fear and often scary skills entry barrier from the tech world, making the civic tech community very welcoming. You can walk into Chi Hack Night without ever having written a line of code, and within one evening, someone can show you how to make a simple, useful map. A welcoming community allows for a diverse community. For example, some Chicagoans involved in coordinating after-school programming know that there are students who stop attending learning opportunities because using public transportation alone gets difficult or dangerous. At Chi Hack Night, a team works on a project called RideWit/Me, which helps youth safely coordinate transportation plans together to after school events. The nature of this project needs a diverse team – experienced programmers, students acutely familiar with specific concerns of transportation routes, educators who know after school programming. So many Chicagoans meaningfully work together, which makes for a stronger city.

What makes Chicago unique in its use of civic tech? Chicago’s neighborhood-driven approach to civic tech really excites me. When we value community voices from day one when designing a new innovation center, for example, we know that civic tech initiative will be sustainable. When you walk into one of the Blue1647 locations in Pilsen, you know immediately that it was built for and by community members, from the people coordinating the organization to the examples used in discussions. Chicago has a diverse and broad enough civic tech population to create local meetups and projects very specific to our own neighborhoods.

What’s one problem you hope civic tech will solve for cities?

I think the current push for open data from the government from the civic tech community is really important. This isn’t only to stay transparent and accountable, but also to give people data to create useful tools for their cities. Civic tech also proves that tools can’t be made solely by developers: the knowledge base of those familiar with all communities in a city are necessary for the most effective projects. I hope civic tech’s unique practice of bringing diverse voices, and more and more low-income voices, to the project design table, will influence local government to regularly do that in other areas as well.

Windows 10 is here!


On July 29, Microsoft made Windows 10 available, across 190 countries, as a free upgrade. The launch of Windows 10 is being celebrated around the world with global fan celebrations and a new yearlong initiative to celebrate people and organizations making a difference around the world.

To learn more about Windows 10 and how you can upgrade, click here.

Civic Chat: Networking our Neighborhoods — Kate Drane, Senior Director of Midwest Outreach at Indiegogo

Civic Chat: Networking our Neighborhoods — Kate Drane, Senior Director of Midwest Outreach at Indiegogo

These days, the internet is all about connectivity. In the same way that you can reconnect with a long-distance relative over Skype, you can join a social movement, meet new friends from all over the world, and crowdsource funds for a new project. Indiegogo,the largest global fundraising platform, uses this interconnectivity to help individuals, business, and non-profits raise money online. In Shelley Stern Grach‘s latest Civic Chat, she spotlights Kate Drane, Senior Director of Midwest Outreach at Indiegogo to explore fundraising, crowdsourcing, and the power of the internet.

Watch Shelley’s Chat with Kate Drane live on Meetadvisors.


Introducing Microsoft Digital Badges in Chicago

In partnership with the Digital Youth Network (DYN), Microsoft Chicago is pleased to announce the creation of 5 Microsoft digital badges in the Chicago City of Learning (CCoL) initiative. These new badge playlists were rolled out by the Digital Youth Network throughout June and are being featured in the CPS Connects June Playlist.

The Chicago City of Learning initiative, supported by the MacArthur Foundation, is an opportunity for Chicago students to participate in major educational programs that support connected learning for youth. Microsoft is excited to participate in this forward-thinking initiative as part of our STEM and STEAM initiatives. This is a great way to boost youth learning and provide an interactive means of connecting more people to our rich training resources. By working to integrate select training resources into the CCOL system, Microsoft is one of the first major corporations to sponsor CCOL badges with existing online programs that are broadly available.

One of the exciting parts of the Digital Badging program is that students can get badges for a variety of programs, beyond the digital scope. Are you on a football team? Volunteering at a nursing home? Taking a ballet class? There’s a badge for that. By getting involved in a multitude of activities, students are broadening their horizons, and that’s great for demonstrating skills for future college and careers. Digital Badges offer students something tangible in return — a type of “digital resume,” so to speak. This program identifies all types of youth learning opportunities in the city, aggregating them into a kid-friendly website used by all public school children. Learners’ achievements are then rewarded by awarding digital badges for successful completion of programs. Digital Badges can then be shared with family, friends, teachers, or future employers.

We’re excited to launch our first Digital Badges as part of our investments in STEM education and community building. YouthSpark’s global initiative has been supporting students in STEM through various partnerships in our communities, from local programs like CCOL to national ones like Girls Who Code. As “V-1” of our digital badging program begins, we look forward to the opportunities presented to Chicago’s students now and in the future.

Students who participate in these Microsoft-sponsored programs can now carry a Digital Badge with them as proof that they have done great work in computer science. Participating programs include:

As an added bonus, Microsoft is working with the Digital Youth Network, inviting students who complete all the computer science badges to tour our Microsoft Technology Center and speak to leaders in the industry directly.

Looking forward, Microsoft is hoping to further this in all Cities of Learning initiatives nationwide, beyond Chicago to Dallas, Pittsburgh, and Washington D.C. We are continually looking for additional programs to add to the CCoL badges and will update you via social media as we bring new programs onboard with CCoL.

To sign up, students and parents can create an account with Chicago City of Learning.

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

If you have questions, contact our Microsoft Civic Tech Fellow Maira Khwaja at v-makhw@microsoft.com.

Girls Who Code & The Families Who Support Their Summer Immersion In Stem

Girls Who Code & The Families Who Support Their Summer Immersion In Stem — Abigail

In 2012, we announced Microsoft YouthSpark, a company-wide, global initiative to create opportunities for 300 million youth by 2015. Through 30+ programs and partnerships with more than 350 youth-serving nonprofits, Microsoft YouthSpark has created new opportunities for young people in over 100 countries around the world. To help bring YouthSpark to Chicago’s teens, Microsoft is partnering with Girls Who Code on their Summer Immersion Program.

Girls Who Code was founded in 2012 and focuses on closing the gender gap in computing fields. Mobilizing leading executives, educators, and engineers, Girls Who Code developed a new model of computer science education designed to inspire, educate, and equip girls with the skills to succeed in the field. In just three years, Girls Who Code has delivered 3,000+ hours of instruction to 1,000+ girls nationwide through their flagship Summer Immersion Program and after-school Clubs. The 7-week Summer Immersion Program, hosted at the Chicago Microsoft Technology and Innovation Center, provides 20 high school junior and senior girls with hands-on experience in computing concepts, programming fundamentals, mobile app development, robotics, and web development and design through classroom instruction, talks, demos and workshops.

I had the honor to meet with the Chicago based Girls Who Code leadership team, and to address over 60 young ladies and their parents and families at the Girls Who Code Open House, as they began their Summer Immersion Program. Microsoft is thrilled to be supporting this great program locally by providing space, resources–like our female technology professionals, who serve as Microsoft mentors, guest speakers, workshop leaders and role models, while dispelling misconceptions about computer scientists and the technology field.

You can always tell by the energy and eye communications when parents/guardians and teens are in sync (I know this from personal experience!). Last night, there were smiles, excitement, lots of questions and conversation. When several of the Girls Who Code participants and their families arrived, we were told: “I know the way to the rooms” as the girls have already finished their first week at Microsoft. That brought smiles all around to the Microsoft staff as we now know the girls consider Microsoft “home”.

In addressing the parents, we discussed the urgent need for more STEM and STEAM talent, and our hope that this kind of program will help build a pipeline of women in the technology field, to help with the current gender imbalance. We discussed that this is just the start of the journey, but it’s our hope that more intimate, interactive programs like this will help dispel myths and help build up the girls’ confidence to pursue more technical and science-related fields. As a parent of a daughter who is starting medical school next month, I could really relate to the anticipation of the parents attending last night. They all have great hopes and dreams for their daughters, and we want to shout a big “THANK YOU!!!” to the parents and guardians who are supporting these impressive young ladies, as they attend this 7 week Summer Immersion Program.

Here’s hoping that one day soon, one of the Girls Who Code will be standing in front of the 15th Girls Who Code Summer Immersion class at Microsoft—as a Microsoft employee, telling everyone where her journey really started.

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

Skype, Beam, ITKAN, and the Power of Connectivity

Meet Pat Maher. Pat is the Director of Civic Engagement for the technology firm SPR in Chicago. He uses a wheelchair as the result of a spinal cord injury in college. He is a strong advocate for people with disabilities, a mentor, and the co-founder of the IT Knowledge and Abilities Network (ITKAN). ITKAN is a professional development group for people managing a disability.

Meet Henry Evans. Henry is in his 40’s and lives in California. Henry, a man with a wife and four kids,had been left with near complete paralysis years before as the result of a massive stroke. Before his stroke in 2002, Henry had been a CFO in Silicon Valley. He founded Robots for Humanity as a driver for advancing technology to support improved quality of life for people with severe disabilities and others who are unable to travel or engage the world for any reason. Henry now has only modest control over moving his head and a finger of one hand.

Meet Bob Bauer. Bob is the Senior VP of Commercialization for a company called Suitable Technologies. They develop robotic technologies that allow people to travel instantly, going beyond traditional video conferencing. Their technology, the beam®, removes the constraints of a screen by coupling high-end video and audio with the freedom of robotic mobility.

And finally, meet Steve Luker. Steve has cerebral palsy, is non-verbal, and uses a power wheelchair for his mobility. A talented Windows developer, Steve enjoys monthly meetings with his friends at ITKAN. But this month, he was enjoying a well-deserved vacation on the beaches of South Carolina.

And last week, thanks to the power of modern collaboration software, we were all together to learn how Henry leverages Bob’s technology, to the amazement of Steve, Pat, myself, and a full room of ITKAN members. What was amazing about the evening is that we were participating from across the country. Allow us to explain.

A Serendipitous Sunday

On a Sunday morning this March, Pat Maher watched a CBS Sunday Morning news story featuring the Beam® Robot from Suitable Technologies of Palo Alto, CA. The beam was acting as a guide around the de Young Museum in San Francisco for Henry Evans. Intrigued by the technology, he reached out to the museum to sign up himself for a virtual tour. He also reached out to Adam Hecktman and a couple of ITKAN members to gauge interest on Skyping in Henry and someone from the inventor of the beam to one of our monthly meetings.

Through Rebecca Bradley, Manager of Access Programs for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (who uses the beam to conduct tours for remote patrons), Pat was able to reach both Henry Evans and Bob Bauer from Suitable Technologies.   Clearly, this was a great story for ITKAN.   The question became: how do you best showcase the beam, itself a collaborative technology, to an audience with a variety of capabilities and challenges, across the country? Like millions of others, we turned to Skype.

Skype brings the beam and Robots for Humanity discussion to ITKAN

We had a full house at our usual meeting place, the Microsoft Technology Center Chicago (MTC). In fact, several of us noted that members and new members were milling about the common areas of the MTC early! Clearly we’d struck a chord with our topic.

We fired up the consumer version of Skype, and leveraged just about every feature. We used the video capabilities to go through a round of introductions. We used video sharing to show several background videos including Henry’s TED Talk, the CBS Sunday Morning beam and de Young Museum piece, and a great presentation of Henry’s canvassing how he uses everything from the beam to drone technology to virtually travel the world. Steve Luker had already joined us from South Carolina where he was taking in the presentation in his typical cerebral manner, and communicating his questions and comments using Skype’s IM feature.


ITKAN members watch a TED Talk from the MTC featuring Henry Evans of Robots for Humanity “Beaming” into the conference from his home in Palo Alto, CA before meeting Henry via Skype at their July meeting.

The members were well-primed when Henry’s beaming – pardon the cheap pun – face appeared on the oversized monitor in the room. We first gave him a round of applause for his great work in bringing this discussion of leading-edge robotic technology to support a fuller quality of life among PWD to the forefront. He and his wife Jane were clearly touched and appreciative for the opportunity to engage with ITKAN members. We projected a group of questions on the monitor that we had emailed Henry in advance, reading them out loud and playing back Henry’s responses which he had provided in the form of a .wav audio file. With Skype, we were able to have a rich, enlightening, and inspiring discussion.

A Unique Q&A Session

As is typical of the ITKAN crowd, there were many insightful questions of Henry. One of our newest members who noted that she has a diagnosis on the autism spectrum asked him why voice out technology on PCs hadn’t yet caught up with the more natural voices exhibited in things like GPS and smartphones. She explained that she had challenges understanding the robotic sounding voices. Henry noted that he was always looking to identify a more natural manner by which to express himself, agreeing with her interest in a more human voice.

Another long-time member asked whether the robotic technology that Henry exhibited on one of the videos – going so far as to shave a colleague remotely – was available for others with severe disabilities or for long-term care facilities to provide some sense of independence that is so important for self-esteem. Henry noted that the technology was in the research phase, and he had accessed it in coordination with one of the research partners. Another question came from a member who is a neurologist. He wanted to know whether Henry was familiar with any work in brain-machine interface systems to control functions, movements and interfacing with the living environment. They then had a lively discussion on some of the academic centers where this complex research is being conducted, but concluded by agreeing that all of the research to date in this area requires invasive brain surgery…and Henry likes his head just as it is! That prompted general laughter from the group.

Around the Globe…without the Airfare!


ITKAN members in the MTC Executive Conference Room converse with Bob Bauer of Suitable Technologies and Henry Evans of Robots for Humanity in Palo Alto, CA at their July meeting. ITKAN member Steve Luker is also Skyped in for the meeting from the east coast.

While Henry and Jane watched via Skype, we brought Bob Bauer into the discussion. As SVP for Commercialization at Suitable Technologies, the inventor of the beam robot, he is clearly passionate about the potential of robotics to augment quality of life for millions around the globe. Proving to be a good showman, Bob left the best for last. Sitting in Suitable’s offices in Palo Alto, he operated 4 beam robots remotely from their offices in Kansas City, Boston, Lyons (France) and China, peppering his piloting of the beams with explanations of the technology, their sensors, and the potential to impact many facets of life. Via Skype desktop sharing, we were able to tour the globe through the eyes of a robot.

By the time the clock struck 7pm in Chicago we were all immersed in the wonders of robotic technology, drones, collaborative video technology and the human spirit that glowed so brightly in Henry Evans, founder of Robots for Humanity. This incredibly bright former Silicon Valley CFO, who might well have sunk into despair following the loss of nearly all physical function after his stroke in 2002, has chosen rather to optimize his most powerful tool – his mind – for the benefit of millions. Thanks Henry, Jane and Bob!

Another new frontier for attorneys — The Internet of Things

The Internet of Things (IoT) is becoming a growing phenomenon in the IT industry. It is becoming increasingly important for all organizations, not just tech, to get ready for IoT and all things that come with it. This month, I had the opportunity to explore the potential legal issues associated with the IoT in Chicago Lawyer Magazine.

Check out my full article here:

Another new frontier for attorneys — The Internet of Things

Civic Chat: Networking our Neighborhoods — Randall Blakey, Executive Pastor at LaSalle Street Church and Executive Director at Near North Unity Program

Civic Chat: Networking our Neighborhoods — Randall Blakey

On this week’s episode of Civic Chat: Networking our Neighborhoods, Shelley Stern Grach speaks with Randall Blakey, the Executive Pastor of LaSalle Street Church and Executive Director of The Near North Unity Program. The Near North Unity Program works in four areas in order to provide help for the community: Youth and families, safety, employment, and development.

Watch Shelley’s chat with Randall Blakey live on MeetAdvisors.

What’s Next After Microsoft — Civic Tech Fellow Alumna Erin Simpson

Erin SimpsonCongratulations on graduating! Can you tell us your official degree and where you received it? Public Policy, with a concentration on Issues of Inequality, from the University of Chicago

What were your main duties as a Microsoft fellow?

– Led the digital badging efforts for Microsoft’s online programs for youth

– Helped organize the Center for Neighborhood Technology’s Urban Sustainability Apps Competition

– Taught a series of Open Data town halls in neighborhoods throughout Chicago

– Organized a Civic Apps Development 101 course for non-coding community members

– Judged and participated in Chicago-based hackathons

– Created a digital resources Power Map model to visualize the development of public computer centers in Chicago

– Completed various data and mapping projects for Aldermen, City offices, and non-profits

– Organized Hour of Code partnership with the Museum of Science and Industry

– Generally participated in the Chicago civic tech community

What has been your favorite project with the Technology and Civic Engagement Team? Working on the Open Data town halls a phenomenal experience. For many participants, this was the first time they had worked with data, and helping validate and give power to the ideas they had with public data was a great way to grow the civic tech community. I really enjoyed workshopping ideas with neighborhood leaders about how they planned to improve their communities and connecting them with data resources that might help make it happen.

Where is civic tech taking you next? In August I’ll be starting my new position as Project Director at Civic Hall, the home for all things civic tech. In my new role, I’ll be joining a community of social entrepreneurs, change-makers, government employees, hackers, academics, journalists, and artists to share knowledge, build tools, and solve problems, together.

What advice do you have for future fellows?  Pitch a big tent. Inclusion is key to good civic tech in cities. Both your work and the movement will be better if you try to learn from and include people working in all different types of spaces. Take Laurenellen McCann’s advice to heart and really do build with, not for. You’ve got a great opportunity to do that, and Microsoft will totally support you in doing so.