December 2015

Microsoft Chicago’s Top Blogs of 2015

Chicago - 2015

2015 was a year of growth and change for all of us. As we saw Chicago grow into a startup hub, we were reminded every day why civic technology is so important. Thanks to our great partnerships, dedicated staff, and driven city, 2015 was one of our most successful years yet. We’d like to thank everyone who was there every step of the way!

Here are some of our favorite blogs of the year, highlighting special moments, special people, and the hard work that goes into civic tech every day:

AllSeen-Alliance January 14, 2015
Let Us All Joyn Things
How To Host A Ruby on Rails-based Website On Azure January 20, 2015
How To Host A Ruby on Rails-based Website On Azure
Beyond The Hour of Code: The Impact of Computer Science Education January 22, 2015
Beyond The Hour of Code: The Impact of Computer Science Education
University of Chicago’s Civic Leadership Academy: Why Didn’t We Think of This Before? February 5, 2015
University of Chicago’s Civic Leadership Academy: Why Didn’t We Think of This Before?
Screen Shot 2015-03-22 at 9.14.23 PM March 23, 2015
Introducing CityWorks: Making a stronger, safer and more resilient Chicago
Civic Tech Can Help Build a Stronger City March 26, 2015
Civic Tech Can Help Build a Stronger City
Teaching Selena Gomez to Code at We Day August 20, 2015
Teaching Selena Gomez to Code at We Day
 istc1 October 29, 2015
STEM Degrees on the Upswing in Illinois: Innovation Index Talent Report
WP_20151120_11_16_11_Pro November 24, 2015
Inspiring Students at the Illinois Tech Fall 2015 IPRO Day
chicago-health-solutions December 14, 2015
UChicago Students Identify Chicago Health Solutions

Get Creative with The Center for Out of Office Excellence

Sometimes it’s hard to believe that work isn’t your whole life, but it’s true. Life happens, and whether you’re away for an appointment, vacation, or a holiday, you can’t always be at your inbox. The Out of Office (OOO, or OOF) message has become a staple in the workplace, letting coworkers and clientele know that you’re unavailable without being dismissive. And this year, Microsoft is having fun with it.

We’re taking a creative approach to the OOO message by helping you tell the world that work can wait in a meme-like fashion. The Center for Out of Office Excellence is a do-it-yourself service that allows you to upload your own photo and add a creative filter onto it for a visual away message. Break away from the humdrum and add some fun to your outbox!

What’s the best OOF message you’ve seen? We’ve asked Shelley Stern Grach and Adam Hecktman (below), but we’d love to hear from you, too.

WP_20151121_08_00_27_RichShelley: My Ideal OOF is designed to make everyone jealous that I’m away and playing! I try to share that I am with my best friend/roommate/lover (aka husband), or that I am in someplace warm getting away from the snow (right). I try to be really personal when I am OOF for more than a day or two….to let everyone know I have a real life and am a real person.

Adam: I played with the Center for Out of Office Excellence and created some PNGs that I am excited to use…when I actually get some time off.  My absolute favorite OOFs are those that show a little creativity, a little mystery.  For example, I have a friend whose last name is Page.  His OOF is this:

HTTP 404

Which, of course, is the response you get when you hit a dead link.  It is usually accompanied by “Page Not Found”.  Get it….


Visit the Center for Out of Office Excellence to create your own Out Of Office Meme.

Head in the clouds?

Even though US cities and states continue to face increasing economic hardship, they need to be thoughtful and practical before enacting measures that serve to tax growing and emerging technologies like cloud computing. In this recent article in Chicago Lawyer magazine, Microsoft Assistant General Counsel Dennis Garcia provides an overview of the City of Chicago’s recent “Cloud Tax” and its potential impact:

Head in the clouds?

Civic Chat — Networking Our Neighborhoods: Michelle B. Larson, PhD President and CEO of the Adler Planetarium

Civic Chat — Networking Our Neighborhoods: Michelle B. Larson, PhD President and CEO of the Adler Planetarium

How do you inspire today’s youth to partake in science? Show them the stars. At Adler Planetarium, Chicago’s youth take priority. Adler is reaching out to local youth, bringing telescopes and other equipment to neighborhoods to engage them in astronomy. Shelley Stern Grach’s newest Civic Chat — Networking Our Neighborhoods features Adler Planetarium President and CEO Michelle B. Larson, PhD and her work with Chicago’s youth. We’re proud to have such an engaging network to support education in Chicago!

Watch Shelley’s chat with Michelle B. Larson live on

Computer Science Education Week 2015 By the Numbers


Statistics in Illinois show:

  • There are 25,003 open computing jobs (December, 2015)
  • We have 1,427 computer science graduates
  • Research predicts there will be approximately 450,000 STEM related jobs in Cook County by 2018.

Where would you focus your attention to be included in this hot job market?

According to, computer science drives job growth and innovation throughout our economy and society. Computing occupations worldwide make up two-thirds of all projected new jobs in STEM fields, making Computer Science one of the most in-demand college degrees. And computing is used all around us and in virtually every field. It’s foundational knowledge that all students need. So, how is Chicagoland gearing up to meet these challenges and take advantage of exponential job growth?

Last week, there was citywide engagement and programs to support Computer Science Education Week and the Hour of Code that ranged from the Chicago Public Library to the Digital Youth Network to Chicago Public Schools to Microsoft as well as many other companies and business accelerators.

Here are some of the highlights and impressive stats. Go, Chicago!

First, let’s start with some friendly competition between Code Chicago and Code Brooklyn. While all the final numbers are still coming in, we are pretty confident that Code Chicago will be the winner! The scope and impact for both cities is impressive. To give you an idea of the breadth of the reach, the total schools in each group are:

  • Brooklyn: 578
  • Chicago: 678

Our current results on show:

Let’s drill down on the CPS results:


  • 319/525 non-charter/option schools participating (61%)
  • 340/678 total schools participating (just over 50%)
  • Over 538 unique CPS events in Illinois


Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Hefferan Elementary

Mayor Rahm Emanuel at Hefferan Elementary School for the Hour of Code. Photo: Brooke Collins/City of Chicago

But wait, there’s more…

In addition to CPS driven events, we had a wonderful NEW program at Chicago Public Library!


More than 130 teens participated in Hour of Code programs at Chicago Public Library branches across the city, resulting in 195 hours of coding activities. Teens were excited about exploring the real-world applications of code through robots, circuits and more. At the Chinatown Branch YOUmedia and West Englewood Branch, teens learned basic coding concepts with littleBits and Bee Bots. Teens and their families enjoyed playing coding games with help from Microsoft representatives at Portage-Cragin Branch, where staff received multiple requests for future coding programs. At Albany Park Branch YOUmedia, teens created keyboards with Makey Makeys in a multi-part project that attracted a crowd of future musicians, artists and engineers. Students at Back of the Yards Branch raced Finch robots using Snap, while teens at Sulzer Regional Library YOUmedia learned how to take their coding skills to the next level by using Scratch to program their Finches; during the workshop, one teen remarked, “I didn’t know Scratch could be so advanced!” At Thurgood Marshall Branch YOUmedia, teens also used Scratch to animate their own hip hop dancing in a series of workshops.

But wait, there’s more…

The Chicago City of Learning (CCoL) and Digital Youth Network, in partnership with DePaul brought in over 650 students, and 411 students earned the specific Hour of Code badge! This is an impressive 400% jump over 2014. Congratulations to the many volunteers and staff at both DYN and DePaul. A wonderful thank you note from Kasia Garga, STEM Educator at Mariano Azuela Elementary School says it all: Thank you so much for including us! Today students were talking about how amazing the field trip was! 

But wait, there’s more…

Nicholson Elementary School

Students at Nicholson Elementary School taking part in the Hour of Code

Across Illinois, Microsoft volunteers banded together to bring coding to students, including:

  • Gurrie Middle School in LaGrange: seven classes of 7th and 8th graders — totaling 360 students
  • Ranch View Elementary School in Naperville: 60 2nd and 3rd graders
  • Wolcott High School: 43 students
  • Lake View High School in Chicago: 10 students taught 30 younger students from Coonley Elementary School
  • Nicholson Elementary School in Chicago: 25 students
  • St. Joseph Elementary School in Downers Grove: one 4th grade class and two 5th grade classes — totaling 90 students

Lake View HS HoC

But wait, there’s more…

Everyone pitched in….nonprofits, museums and companies and volunteers banded together for an Hour of Code. The list is too long to include but we were informed by the Museum of Science and Industry, Adler Planetarium, YWCA TechGyrls, Blue 1647, Girls Who Code, and Englewood Blue that many students and families attended coding workshops. A big thank you to the countless volunteers who organized Chicago’s Hour of Code sessions and to the parents, teachers and students who became role models teaching others how to code. It’s because of efforts like this that Chicago’s youth will be prepared to meet the future in STEM careers. See you in 2016!

A Glimpse of Urban Revitalization in Detroit

Shelley-Stern-Grach_DACWhat’s the first sign of urban revitalization? Cranes, Constructions, and human activity. This was my thrilled reaction when I visited Detroit last month to meet with key members of the Civic Tech and Digital Literacy communities. As noted in my “Va-room, Va-room” blog a couple months ago, there is a palpable, exciting tone to what is happening in Detroit.  My first visual observation-lots of cranes and construction: new urban transportation system going in; a completely renovated Detroit Athletic Club with amazing views of Tiger Stadium and the city. People I met with reinforced that rental occupancy in Detroit is at 98+%, there is a  resurgence of youth/tech to downtown and Midtown and the urban planners are looking at Corktown area (site of the old Stadium) as the possible next “development wave”. Things are happening here.

Renaissance Center

Microsoft is honored to be helping to support some of this resurgence in energy and we hope to be able to support a few of the local organizations which focus on accelerating economic development at the neighborhood level through increasing digital literacy and citizens interacting with city services through technology. Many thanks to the wonderful team at LISC Detroit for being our guide. Detroit LISC provides capital, technical expertise, training, and information to develop local leadership in creating affordable housing, spurring economic development, and supporting safe neighborhoods. Their goal is help neighbors build communities of choice where families and individuals can live, do business, have access to quality educational opportunities, and play. Since 1990, DetroitLISC has invested over $182.8M and leveraged over $800M in Detroit.

Mercado Detroit

We visited the SouthWest side of Detroit and again saw a hotbed of communities coming together through updated housing, computer labs and programs focusing on digital skills and entrepreneurship. We were excited by the enthusiasm of the nonprofit community leaders like Southwest Housing Solutions. We fell in love with The Mercado which is an amazing community center for the entire family range. There is a wonderful outdoor gathering space, a well set up computer lab and all sorts of activities inside. Our local Citizenship team lead, Donna Bank-Hoglen, sees The Mercado as a wonderful space for future Hour of Code programs, and digital skills programs through Microsoft’s YouthSpark initiative.

We met with City officials and will be working on programs that focus on open data and transparency, and helping to improve better information both internally and externally to redefine city government relationship with citizens. This is an exciting moment in the time of the Detroit Civic Tech community. The city is mapping out the various relationships that make up the Detroit Civic Tech movement and we are looking forward to being of assistance.

Detroit Civic Tech

We had a great session with Erica Raleigh at Data Driven Detroit (D3). D3’s motto is to provide accessible, high-quality information and analysis to drive informed decision-making. To that end, Erica and her team are working on a series of programs that include workshops at the local community level to understand local needs, and use data to accelerate local decisions and improved interaction with programs for citizens.

Data Driven Detroit

Many thanks to Regina Campbell for a great tour and update at the amazing improvements at TechTownDetroit, whose motto: “We Mean Business” is clearly evident. I had last visited TechTown a couple years ago and oh, what a difference! From the terrific design of the accelerator space, to the hubbub of activity, it’s clear that TechTown is making its mark as a place and space for innovation.

Microsoft Philanthropies: Empowerment Begins with Inclusion

Today we’re announcing an expanded commitment to our corporate philanthropy around the world with a broader ambition and a new organization within the company, Microsoft Philanthropies, to make this ambition a reality.

Our CEO, Satya Nadella, has defined a clear mission for Microsoft: Empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more. In his letter to shareholders this year, he said, “In the year ahead we will continue to ask ourselves what are the challenges mankind faces, how can technology help, and what is the contribution of Microsoft?”

This new organization within Microsoft will bring together a range of assets to address digital inclusion and help ensure the benefits of technology reach every person and every organization on the planet.

Read more about Microsoft Philanthropies on the Official Microsoft Blog from Brad Smith and check out the Fire Hose post on the leaders for Microsoft Philanthropies, Mary Snapp and Lori Harnick.

Recap — Looking Back at Computer Science Education Week 2015 and the Hour of Code


This year, we joined millions of educators and students worldwide in the annual Computer Science Education Week (CSEdWeek), a week-long celebration of awareness and education worldwide. Throughout the week, while students took part in the Hour of Code, educators, legislators, and constituents worked together to help make Computer Science for All a standard.

While CSEdWeek took place internationally, we’ve gathered some of the best local moments to celebrate computer science in Chicago:

UChicago Students Identify Chicago Health Solutions

No one can accuse University of Chicago students of taking ANYTHING lightly. Give them a challenge, and they will make it their quest to solve it, sacrificing sleep to do so. So when the Chicago Department of Public Health asked them for help in understanding the risk factors that are contributing to certain neighborhoods’ elevated risk for developing diabetes, a dozen teams quickly formed. I had the honor and difficult task of participating as a judge (difficult because they were all truly inspiring projects).

chicago-health-solutionsDemographic and social factors seem to be determinants of health, but is a difficult task to understand specifically how they contribute to the overall disease, and how knowing what they are can improve health equity across the city’s neighborhoods. Students were asked to:

  • Identify which factors are most important to measure in order to develop understandings of diabetes prevalence at the neighborhood level
  • Develop methods for collecting and analyzing data that would assist the Department of Public Health to create targeted approaches to helping these communities

No small task. When you look at the aggregated data on Chicago Health Atlas for the locations of diagnosed and reported diabetes, it is apparent where it is happening. Now the exciting part is coming up with what factors contribute and what can be done to better diagnose and treat the condition. Students were given some resources to get them started.   Among those resources were rich datasets that could be analyzed, aggregated, visualized, and mapped to derive insights. An example of those datasets include those from:

Give a UChicago student some data and let them run with it – always a formula for creativity. And they did not disappoint. The projects had a good amount of variety and range. The included projects to:

  • Combine data sets to create probability models. This helps determine where to put education and health improvement focus today. Over time it also provides a model for getting ahead of trends and providing guidance on where to focus preventative measures in the future.
  • Visualizations and aggregations to determine risk factors. While we know a great deal about the risk factors of diabetes, there is still much to be discovered.
  • Recommendations for partner organizations. In many neighborhoods, gaining the cooperation of faith based organizations is a great way to scale. In others, community health care organizations and food retailers are key to scale.
  • One group tapped into the concept of social cohesion, leveraging the bonds of a community to help inform and intervene with respect to controllable and preventable diabetes.
  • Another used the “Food Truck” model. The idea is to take diabetes testing and food choice education to the targeted population, rather than relying solely on that population acting on recommendations to get tested and proactively learn about food choices.

The students, from across disciplines and both graduate and undergrads, were as inspiring as their projects. So too were my fellow judges. Each is working on very interesting programs with a pivot on diabetes in neighborhoods:

  • Erin Callahan is the Community, Government and Media Relations with the American Diabetes Association in Chicago. I am working with her on the Venture to Stop Diabetes: a program driving the advancement of innovative new technologies in the fight against diabetes.
  • Ellen Cohen is the Executive Director, Center for Health and the Social Sciences at the University of Chicago. They do and training at the intersection of health and the social sciences. Her background in both policy and social science was valuable for the students, in that she could guide them on what makes for a solid research project that leads to good policy.
  • Emily Laflamme, MPH. Emily is an epidemiologist at Chicago Department of Public Health. The CDPH has a broad and rich agenda called Healthy Chicago, with a focus on good food options, creating places and spaces for improving fitness, and preparing to respond to public health threats. Emily was able to leverage her experiences in partnering with educational and philanthropic institutions, faith communities, business community, and neighborhoods to address large health concerns like diabetes and its contributing risk factors.

I learned a great deal from the judging panel, as I am sure the students did. The program was run by Gabby Wimer, Co-founder and Group Director of Chicago Health Solutions at the University of Chicago. They organize public health case competitions to address pressing health issues in Chicago’s South Side. She was a stickler for structure and time keeping, which I appreciated.

As the City of Chicago looks to tap into the skills, talents and passions of its citizens in addressing urban challenges, it has a major leg up. Our world class universities give us a resource pool of students in all disciplines, ready to lend their minds and energies to focus on discovery and solutions. Combined with committed professionals like Erin, Ellen, and Emily, we have a formula for tackling the seemingly intractable urban challenges of our day.

#CSEdWeek — Teaching Computer Science in Chicago: Advanced App Development by Madeline Gerena Franco

CSEdWeek - Madeline Franco (1)

This week, as part of Computer Science Education Week, we are highlighting the personal side of Computer Science and STEM/STEAM. To do that, we’ve gathered some of Chicago’s best teachers in Computer Science to highlight the work that CS and STEM education does for our city.

The course I teach is IT Problem Solving — by the title, most people think is a mathematics course, but in reality, it’s an intense computer science course which we offer to 10th graders and upperclassmen at Lake View High School. I teach a variety of computer science topics throughout this course, but my favorite one of all is App Development. The words itself “App Development in High School” sound unrealistic or intimidating, but it is my second to last unit in IT Problem Solving.

I was first exposed to App Development and Web Designing when I went to university to obtain my bachelors degree in computer science. Now as I teach the same college concepts that I learned to my high school students, I am astonished on the level of comprehension they demonstrate at the end of the school year.

Before I teach App Development, my students are exposed to and have produced an Operating System, Database, Networking, and Javascript. Each one of these topics are a prerequisites to learn App Development. So why do I teach App Development? Teenagers are constantly on their phones, downloading music, playing games, or trying out any new and appealing app they can get for free. Who better than a teenager to determine if an App is valuable or not? For this particular reason, I feel that it’s important to teach them how to create an App, and understand the concepts in inventing one.

After my students take IT Problem Solving course, many join my school club Tech Crew or Girls Technovation. This is where I give them information about upcoming competitions, especially App Development ones. For the past two years, one of my club members have won 1st place in the IEEE Hackathon App Challenge. I am amazed and proud of my students work. Just to know that it started with curiosity, then an idea, followed by the skills learned in the course — the students at Lake View High School make App Development look easy.

Looking for more coding opportunities? Find more coding tools and resources for students, parents, and educators at