September 2015

Join the Innovation Challenge around data and tools for food resilience

We are just past the half-way point for the Innovation Challenge jointly launched by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Microsoft Research around building applications to help create a sustainable, competitive, and healthy US food system. 

With nearly 300 registered participants there will likely be strong competition for the $60,000 in prizes.  Although such monies can be a good incentive for entrants to be creative, the broader goals of the Challenge are to help figure out how the US can keep food on our tables in a time of climate change and to make use of the increasing opportunities afforded by government release of data and the new possibilities created when that data is made easily accessible along with cloud computing resources and tools.

To help with the Challenge, Microsoft is hosting USDA data in the Farm Data Dashboard.  The Dashboard provides a simple way for users to explore the content and size of the available datasets.  In addition, the dashboard helps users understand how to access the data from applications or other computing services through a range of different protocols.  Although these data were available from other USDA sites, it is our hope that the simplicity of the dashboard and the ease with which developers can create interfaces to the cloud-based data and apply high level services such as machine learning and Power BI will allow the creation of novel applications. 

The USDA and Microsoft are excited that developers will be able to blend these USDA data with other government or private information sources such as historical or predicted local commodity market pricing to create applications that help many in our community. Examples could include farmers who need to determine optimal opportunity for growing a crop in high demand; meteorologists who need to accurately predict the weather to help insurers understand the likely risks associated with different crop types under potentially changing climate forecasts; and perhaps even evaluation of traffic data to help farmers and distributors orchestrate timely harvesting and delivery of foods.  These applications are all part of helping ensure accurate and up-to-date information, coupled with the latest in modelling tools, can be used to aid resiliency in our food supply.

We are pleased to support this initiative and wanted to share some insights from Joyce Hunter, who is the Deputy Chief Information Officer for Policy and Planning for the US Department of Agriculture.

Why is USDA creating the Innovation Challenge?  

The contest is designed to explore how climate change will impact the United States’ food system and achieve better food resiliency. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is partnering with Microsoft to launch an Innovation Challenge to address the future of food.

What kinds of data does USDA collect? 

For more than 100 years, USDA has compiled data from economic reports and farm production surveys, and more recently from satellite imagery and remote sensors that can provide information on the health of crops around the country.

What sorts of outcomes do you hope to see?

Through this partnership with Microsoft, we are now putting that data into the hands of people who can help us derive new insights to address factors that threaten our ability to feed a growing global population. This offers very exciting possibilities, and we look forward to seeing the new tools that contest participants develop that make use of the USDA data and provide applicable insights to farmers, agriculture businesses, scientists or consumers.

How can people get involved in the Challenge?  

The challenge offers $60,000 in prizes for applications. The top prize is $25,000. The deadline for entries is October 27th, 2015. Winners will be announced in December 2015. Sign up for the challenge at

Dr. Daron Green is Deputy Managing Director at Microsoft Research.   

Chicago City Data Users Group: Water Water Everywhere…And water data too!

Like data, water is everywhere, even in places you may not expect it, nor want it.  But, as the old saying goes, you can’t live without it.  New weather patterns and the dynamics of climate change are creating a strange time in the nation with respect to water.  While many parts of the country suffer from drought, Chicago’s main source of fresh water is at its highest level in years.  In fact, one of the impacts of climate change is that storms are becoming more intense, short in duration, and localized in impact.  This challenges our old models and notions of water movement, handling, treatment, and flooding.

On the positive side, new ways of capturing, analyzing, and visualization that data are also influencing how an urban environment handles a changing water dynamic.  New sensing technology, more sophisticated data models, and engaging visualizations are changing the way we think about, talk about, and make decisions on our most critical of natural resources.   On Wednesday, October 7th, the Chicago City Data Users Group will host some experts who are doing fascinating work in the water data space.  We will be joined by:

  • Seth Snyder, the leader of a new water initiative at Argonne National Laboratory. Seth built a regional team to address the spectrum of water issues in fresh water systems including, water allocation, data, modeling, and analysis, sensors and detectors, treatment, reuse, efficiency, and tech-to-market.
  • Scott Beslow, software engineer at NORC ( and developer of several civic tech sites dedicated to water, including and, two Open Source, Open Data projects monitoring the health of Chicago’s river and beaches.
  • David Leopold, Director of Project Management at UI LABS, currently leading the Smart Green Infrastructure Management project, one of the first coming out of City Digital.  The project uses an integration of sensors and green building techniques to build operational tools for the optimization of city drainage infrastructure
  • Barrett Murphy is the First Deputy Commissioner for the Department of Water Management at City of Chicago, and who has developed new models to inform the city’s understanding of water.

Each of these speakers looks at water through different lenses.  It will be fascinating to hear from each of them how data has informed their work and point of view.  Please join us and RSVP here.

Englewood Blue: A Movement




  1. a group of people working together to advance their shared political, social, or artistic ideas:

“the labor movement”

synonyms: political group · party · faction · wing · lobby · camp

  • a campaign undertaken by a group of people working together:

“a movement to declare war on poverty”

synonyms: campaign · crusade · drive · push

About 6 months ago, my colleague Adam Hecktman said, you really need to meet these guys at Englewood Blue….they’ve really got some good things going on. Springboarding from the great success of Blue 1647, the team behind Greater Englewood Community Development Corp (CDC) and Blue 1647 established a collaborative business accelerator called Englewood Blue, which is focused on economic development, small business growth, and  bringing tech skills to the community, all in a great place/space in the US Bank Building, across from the new Whole Foods at 63rd and Halstead.


On Friday, Microsoft had the honor to host a “launch event” for our new Digital Alliance with Englewood Blue. We have spotlighted this great partnership with Alderman Willie Cochran and the team at Greater Englewood CDC and Englewood Blue in our recent blog and Adam captured the highlights of the day in this great electronic scrapbook using Sway. Clearly, Adam was right. They’ve really got great things going on there…today I wanted to reflect on why it’s working in Englewood.

 a group of people working together to advance their shared political, social, or artistic ideas

Englewood Blue has a committed team of professionals, who have deep experience and success in the business world. Glen brings the prior experience of the corporate tech world and is the visionary and negotiator—relentless in his passion for Englewood and pushing all the buttons and using all the resources to continue to move the program forward.Bruce MontgomeryBruce is a known (renowned) professional in both the tech field and a media expert. When I say that he says, “let’s take that hill” and never stops until the hill is conquered, I’m understating his passion. Bruce has a deep network of tech and media resources, and brings authority and gravitas to the discussions about Englewood Blue.

Jim is the community lead—present at local events, always a smile on his face, and just like Glen and Bruce, has his messaging on point, unyielding in his passion, and consistent and timely in his follow up.

They have a great, involved Board which supports their mission. EVERY time I have been to an event at Englewood Blue, their Board Chair George Wright is there to support the program, lend his background story and his optimistic vision for the future of Englewood.

The list goes on…Maurice….Jennipher….Kelsye….the entire team is in harmony, with focus and an obsession for getting it right and getting it done.

 a campaign undertaken by a group of people working together


Englewood Blue has a plan. And they execute on their plan. Their focus is local economic development, with a heavy emphasis on digital access, and technology skills to change the way Englewood residents think about their career choices. One of the most strategic elements of the Digital Alliance partnership is an ongoing “movement” to create more tech-literate citizens in Englewood. In partnership with Jennifer Didier and her great team at Directions Training, Microsoft and Englewood Blue, we are running a 3 part Train the Trainer program to provide digital skills that focus on the Cloud to members of the Englewood Blue staff and other residents. The goal is for this first cohort to become the nucleus of the movement…literally, the trainers who will train others on 21st century skills, enable Englewood residents to start new tech-based companies, and continue the momentum forward. And forward….and forward….



It’s people with a vision

It’s people with the passion

It’s people who have a plan

It’s people who care.

Microsoft Supports Greater Englewood CDC and Alderman Cochran to help build pathways to success

Digital skills have become not just an advantage but a necessity in every facet of life, from schoolwork to business development to personal life. Microsoft is partnering with Chicago’s Greater Englewood Community Development Corp. (CDC) to help the Englewood community get the necessary skills, tools and support to achieve digital literacy and create new personal and business opportunities.

Alderman Willie B. Cochran of the 20th Ward recently signed an agreement with Microsoft and Greater Englewood CDC to bring technological resources to Englewood Blue, a state-of-the-art technology hub and small-business accelerator managed by Greater Englewood CDC. Through this alliance, Microsoft will deliver four programs for the community:

  • Digital literacy training that will offer essential computer skills for citizens to help them start computing with confidence, be more productive at work and at home, and open up new career opportunities. Self-directed and self-paced, courses at the basic, standard and advanced skill level will be available in more than 30 languages. Microsoft’s support includes a “train the trainer” program to help Englewood Blue continue training into the future.
  • IT Academy curriculum and certifications that will be delivered in partnership with Chicago Public Schools. This curriculum is more advanced and paves the way to certifications and lesson plans to enable individualized tech education.
  • BizSpark training sessions for local entrepreneurs and tech startups, providing free access to software and support to help businesses grow and succeed.
  • Microsoft Community Connections, bringing businesses together with local Microsoft partners to provide technology solutions and support so businesses can operate more efficiently and effectively.

Microsoft’s goal is to support workforce development, individual career advancement and personal growth in the Englewood community. Through training and tools in schools, the workplace and daily life, Englewood residents will be able to take their businesses to the next level and pursue their goals and dreams.

Shelley Stern Grach will be joining Alderman Cochran and representatives of the Greater Englewood CDC, Englewood Blue and the local community at a lunch and learn event on September 25th, where the Microsoft team will share more details about the digital and civic alliance and the ways it will benefit members of the greater Englewood Community.

Join Us For the 2015 Code for America Summit!


How can we transform government?

That’s the main question behind Code for America’s mission. Across the country, government workers are banding together to use technology to better their civic practices and keep our communities strong.

That’s why we’re excited to join Code for America (CfA) for their annual summit in Oakland. The 2015 CfA Summit brings together some of the nation’s top leaders in government, civic technology, community organizing, design and more in a chance to share ideas, inspire others, and work together to make great things. And we’re lucky to have one of our own names, Adam Hecktman, leading a panel on data visualization.

We want you to join us in the spirit of CfA summit — as Annmarie Levins mentioned in her call for action to make the most of Open Government Data, we want to collaborate on new ideas with as many people as possible. Let’s use our skills and passion to empower communities.

Local speakers include:

  • Rose Afriyie, Co-founder and Project Manager, mRelief
  • Genevieve Nielsen, Co-founder and CTO, mRelief
  • Derek Eder, Founder and Partner, DataMade
  • Cathy Deng, Developer, DataMade
  • Demond Drummer, Founder, CoderSpace
  • Adam Hecktman, Director of Tech & Civic Innovation for Chicago, Microsoft
  • Maggie King, Program Director, Computational Analysis and Public Policy, University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy
  • Denise Linn, Program Analyst, Smart Chicago Collaborative
  • Sonja Marziano, Project Coordinator, SmartChicago Collaborative
  • Claire Micklin, Interaction Designer, University of Chicago
  • Steven Vance, Transportation Reporter, Streetsblog Chicago

There is still time to register for the summit! Buy your ticket now at this link.

Can’t join us in Oakland? Participate in the conversation online by following @codeforamerica, @MSFTChicago, and #CfASummit on Twitter.

Together, we can transform government for the 21st Century.

Va-room! Va-room! Detroit roars into the Civic Tech movement

Full disclosure. I absolutely love and am committed to Chicago, but I am who I am because I was raised in Detroit. I know, Detroit. It gets a bad rap, but I am here to tell you Detroit is definitely on the rise and some amazing things are happening there. Especially around Civic Tech, digital skills and economic development.

Come back with me to those idyllic years of growing up in the 50’s and the 60’s. Post World War II, Detroit was the manufacturing hub of the world. Woodward Avenue outclassed Michigan Avenue, with the flagship JL Hudson Store, the Fisher Building, the magnificent Detroit Institute of Arts. The Motor City! Motown!

So … things changed and like many large urban areas, Detroit has faced several challenges over the years. But it’s coming back, baby. And the Microsoft team wants to help accelerate that transformation.

As Matt Stempeck discussed on the Microsoft New York blog, Techonomy Detroit 2015 conference began with a very strong panel, including our own Dan’l Lewin, focused on what companies, citizens and cities can do to reinvent themselves in the digital era. This panel was followed by a fabulous TED style talk by Tiana Epps-Johnson with the Center for Technology and Civic Life. Lucky Chicago! Tiana is now based in Chicago and the Midwest can benefit greatly from her insight and energy.

This was followed by a candid 1:1 with Mayor Mike Duggan. He spoke with specificity and passion about how data and digital skills are essential to the reinvention of Detroit. He discussed examples of urban blight that can be improved and remedied by regular citizens if they have the training and tools to communicate with City Hall. And he made a point of always offering all types of technology access to the City, because not everyone is online or skilled. This was my first time hearing the Mayor speak directly and I felt encouraged, even inspired, by his straightforward approach, his businesslike attitude to getting things done and the sense of urgency he generates.

I’m also encouraged by the team the Mayor has selected to support his focus on the new Detroit. As mentioned by Matt, CIO Beth Niblock is bringing a strong resume and a commitment to Civic Tech in her role. Her colleague Garlin Gilchrist II is focusing on creating an inclusive information ecosystem, also paying attention to the humans and their skills. Garlin also spoke passionately about people, tech, data leading to economic development. Another plus for Garlin-he has the coolest Twitter handle ever—@DetroitCivTech!

There was discussion with several very impressive nonprofit leaders, such as Lauren Hood of Deep Dive Detroit and David Egner of Hudson-Webber Foundation & New Economy Initiative. It was clear that these organizations are deeply engrained in the fabric of rebuilding Detroit, are both provocative and challenging in their approach and expectations, yet genuinely engaged and committed to the community. One of the afternoon panels included Microsoft’s Annmarie Levins, as well as counterparts from IBM and Google to discuss how corporations can support economic development and civic tech. While somewhat similar in their technical approach to the Cloud and open Government,  it was enlightening to see the variation in methodology, based on corporate resources and culture.

Annmarie Levins at Techonomy Detroit

My overall impression is that Detroit, its Mayor and his team, and the community leaders are all on board, energized and have a plan to tackle the digital and economic inequities of Detroit. One key approach is opening the City’s data to its people, while concurrently helping the citizens of Detroit get the skills they need to learn how to access and massage the data, and communicate recommendations back to the City. I’m encouraged and excited to see this transformative stage unfolding in my home town. Microsoft Technology and Civic Engagement will be including Detroit in our plans for civic engagement. We think there are great opportunities here to leverage some of our resources to help accelerate these programs in Detroit.

As the Supremes said in their 1964 hit record: “Come see about me”. We will, Detroit, we will. Just like the Four Tops responded: “Just look over your shoulder, I’ll be there, to give you all the love you need, Reach out (reach out for me.) I’ll be there.”

Civic Chat — Networking Our Neighborhoods: Elizabeth Coston, Director of Operations and Investor Relations at Impact Engine

Civic Chat — Networking Our Neighborhoods: Elizabeth Coston, Director of Operations and Investor Relations at Impact Engine

Impact Engine is a Chicago powerhouse that invests in local innovation, while also offering a 16-week bootcamp for new companies. The program teaches businesses how to make connections, receive funding, and more. In Shelley Stern Grach’s latest Civic Chat: Networking Our NeighborhoodsElizabeth Coston, Director of Operations and Investor Relations at Impact Engine, discusses the social innovation movement and how Impact Engine determines where to invest.

Watch Shelley’s chat with Elizabeth live on Advisor.TV.

The Power of Social Media — Don’t Overlook Twitter

The “Twitterverse” is a social media phenomenon that individuals and organizations are increasingly embracing to build their brands, gain customers, stay informed and develop relationships. In this article from this month’s Chicago Lawyer magazine, Microsoft Assistant General Counsel Dennis Garcia explores the power of Twitter for lawyers. While the article focuses on Twitter usage by lawyers, most of the article is still applicable to individuals and organizations in any industry.

Download the full article in PDF form now: Don’t Overlook Twitter — Chicago Lawyer Magazine

Microsoft announces global expansion of YouthSpark–focusing on computer science

Microsoft TEALS

Today at DreamForce, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella announced a 3-year, $75 million investment in our YouthSpark initiative to increase access to computer science education for all youth, and especially for those from under-represented backgrounds. Over the next three years, Microsoft will deliver on this commitment through cash grants and nonprofit partnerships, as well as unique program and content offerings, to increase access to computer science and computational thinking for diverse populations of youth.

One of the flagship programs is Technology Education and Literacy in Schools (TEALS), which pairs tech professionals from across the industry with classroom educators to team-teach computer science in U.S. high schools.  TEALS aims to grow five-fold in the next three years, with the goal of working with 2,000 tech industry volunteers to reach 30,000 students in nearly 700 schools across 33 states. Recently, we featured Chicago TEALS Volunteer Tony Smith on our blog—learn more about their experience here.

To learn more about Microsoft’s new commitment, visit the Microsoft News Center.

To hear Satya’s comments, click here.

TEALS Volunteer Spotlight – Tony Smith

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella announced a $75 million investment in the company’s YouthSpark initiative today, focused on computer science education. As part of this announcement, Microsoft will also expand its Technology Education and Literacy in Schools (TEALS) program starting Fall 2015, which enables professionals in the tech industry to volunteer and partner with teachers to start computer science programs in high schools. In celebration, we are featuring local teachers in the TEALS program to learn more about how to bring computer science programs to more schools. In Illinois, TEALS is running programs in DePaul College Prep and we are always looking to expand!

Tony Smith

Programming is a passion of mine and I have spent a lot of time honing this craft.  Having the computer effectively work for you is increasingly necessary in today’s world.  I enjoy the challenge of teaching an individual a new topic and trying to understand where he or she is struggling with a concept.  Volunteering for the TEALS program allows me to share a hobby with a new generation and meets a personal desire to give back to others.

Computer science is important because it requires critical thinking and practical problem solving.  In a computer science class, students are exposed to many exercises of varying complexity.  Students must take a problem, determine the requirements, break the requirements down to smaller problems, logically solve the problems, translate the solutions for the computer, and validate their work.  Even if someone does not go into the field of computer science, being able to effectively approach a problem is a valuable skill to have.

Computer science will allow the city of Chicago to stay competitive and enable innovation to grow there.  Innovation is born from solving problems including ones we don’t know exist.  By exposing individuals to computer science, we increase the number of people with tools to effectively solve problems.

Tony Smith is a Software Engineer at NetherRealm Studios who teaches Computer Science at DePaul College Prep as part of the Microsoft TEALS program. “I have lived my dream for the past six years getting paid to make video games as a career,” Tony told us.