They’re not Vulcans, they’re humans!

| Shelley Stern Grach

Heading out to Oakland California for the 2015 Code for America Summit, I was anticipating attending hours and hours of discussions with highly intelligent, committed, passionate, data geeks. Well, I did run into a crowd of over 1,000 highly intelligent, committed, passionate, data geeks—but with all with souls and an incredible focus on how data can improve the human condition. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. The Code for America Summit is a true personification of the Civic Tech movement, growing from a small, tightly knit group into a globally recognized leader of processes and innovation for civic participation and leveraging data for good. This remarkable organization has a Code of Conduct and I’d like to share a couple of points that I think are simply terrific:

  • Presume the value of others. Everyone’s ideas, skills and contributions have value.
  • Prioritize access for and input from those who are traditionally excluded from the civic process.
  • Strive to build tools that are open and free technology for public use.

Over and over, I heard the theme of “let’s make people’s lives better”. Over and over, I heard stories from across the USA about public/private partnerships—in the true sense of the words—bringing changes to local neighborhoods through data, technology and human interaction. There were best practices and local stories from North Carolina, New Orleans, Chicago (of course!), Kansas City and Seattle. There were attendees from Jamaica (he was cold in California!), Poland and the UK.

CfA Suummit Sponsor 2015

Sure, there were programs like “Basics of Web Mapping” and “Writing and Designing Instructions for Visual Communications” because we do need these technical tools to work and be simple enough for the “average” citizen to use them. But the Summit also had these inspiring discussions on:

  • Help the Blind with Open Street Map
  • Community Building for Diversity and Inclusivity
  • The White House Police Data Initiative: Using Open Data and Technology to Build Trust, Increase Transparency and Engage the Community

Chicago had a major representation and super-positive vibe about all the great work going on here. My colleague Adam Hecktman led a discussion on Communicating with Citizens using Data Visualization. The emphasis was how making data visual and understandable to citizens helps improve government transparency, transportation, urban planning and the environment. Dr. Stacy Lindau from the University of Chicago discussed community health.  Derek Eder, Founder and Partner, DataMade shared the amazing growth and lessons from organizing Chi Hack Night. The Civic Engagement track had several presentations from our friends at Smart Chicago Collaborative. One of my favorite sessions was the CUTGroup (Civic User Testing Group) led by Sonja Marziano, Project Coordinator, Smart Chicago Collaborative. CUT Groups engage citizens who get paid to test civic websites and apps, and ultimately help create better software. We had a very engaging discussion about recruitment (libraries, community groups) and potential target markets for CUT Groups, such as Seniors and ESL citizens. Over and over, we heard stories of amazing growth, and the related formation of lasting friendships and positive community impact.


On the last morning Main Stage event, I loved, loved loved the Ted-style talks—5 minutes, engaging speakers, high energy! For me personally, I truly enjoyed hearing the section hosted by CfA’s Efrem Bycer on Deepening Impact in Economic Development. For me, this was the true theme of the Code for America Summit—helping others, bringing improvements to our neighborhoods, communities and cities, and improving every citizen’s opportunity for a healthy, happy, productive life.

Well done, CfA. Live long and prosper.

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Shelley Stern Grach

They say that great work stems from a combination of passion and commitment, something that Shelley certainly possesses when it comes to her life and career. She currently serves on the boards of the Women’s Business Development Center, the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, Thrive Chicago, Year Up and LISC Chicago. At Microsoft Chicago, she’s the Director of Civic Engagement, working at the intersection of computing and community, promoting STEM programs and using Microsoft technology to spur growth in the community. So no matter if it's work, play, or giving back, Shelley always makes sure her drive and professionalism help her complete her life's goals.