Connect Chicago: Transforming Society And Economy Through Digital Excellence

 |   Shelley Stern Grach

The City that NetWorksDigital Advisory Board

May, 2007: The Advisory Council on Closing the Digital Divide releases its report initiated by Mayor Daley that “makes recommendations to help ensure universal access and to improve community, educational, economic and other outcomes” through digital expansion and skills. Chaired by Julia Stasch, now CEO of MacArthur Foundation, I had the honor to represent Microsoft on a cross-collaboration team of public, civic, education and private leaders on the Advisory Council. The recommendation was clear—if we can provide access, hardware, software, education and a “digital mind-set” to all the citizens of Chicago, we will build a City of Digital Excellence and see Digital Transformation. Execution plans included a Campaign for Digital Excellence, a Partnership for a Digital Chicago, and the establish seedbeds of pilot Digital Excellence Communities.

Saturday, April 16, 2016: Mayor Emanuel Launches Connect Chicago Initiative to Help Close the Digital Divide in Chicago. Nearly nine years later, the work continues under Mayor Emanuel to accelerate the vision to make Chicago the most skilled and connected digital city in America. In between the two announcements, you can see the fruits of the labor of the Digital Divide Advisory Council:

  • Creation of the Smart Chicago Collaborative
  • Creation of the Chicago Public Library Cybernavigator program and free Wi-Fi and free computer access in the libraries
  • Increased focus by leading nonprofits such as LISC Chicago through programs like the Financial Opportunity Centers in multiple locations throughout the City.
  • Establishment of numerous programs at Chicago Public Schools focusing on digital skills for students including the Early College STEM Schools program (ECSS), the Board approved graduation requirement for all students to take computer science classes, and expansion of the Computer Science 4 All program, to name a few.

Monday, April 18, 2016: Chicago Tribune Section 1, Page 3:Study: Chicago Slow in bridging the digital divide. A new study by Karen Mossberger, an Arizona State University professor and formerly the head of the Department of Public Administration at the University of Illinois at Chicago shows we still have a lot of work to do. Karen is a lead researcher on the digital divide, and her study shows what we all know—that there is still a sizable gap in the number of people with access to broadband, particularly on the South and West sides.

Digital Divide

So how does the Connect Chicago announcement on Saturday help these areas where the digital divide still exists?

  1. Over the past year, Connect Chicago has cemented civic and financial support with multiple organizations to focus on erasing the digital divide. Partners include: Cisco, Clarity Partners, Comcast, Get IN Chicago, Gogo, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Microsoft, Motorola Mobility Foundation, The Otho S.A. Sprague Memorial Institute, and Sprint. This shows an unprecedented alignment and coordination of the City’s technology assets. I have had the honor to co-chair the Technology Advisor Council with this amazing group of people and organizations, with my co-chair Brenna Berman, CIO of the City of Chicago.
  1. Connect Chicago is expanding the currently Chicago Public Library Cybernavigator program from 48 branches to nearly all 80 branches, creating an additional 350-400 new training hours per week across Chicago.
  1. Connect Chicago is funding the integration of digital skills training into the LISC Chicago’s Financial Opportunity Centers, looking to train 1,000 more residents in digital skills during 2016. I also have the honor to serve on the Board of Advisors and am extremely excited about expanding this outstanding program that reaches throughout the City.
  1. Connect Chicago will continue to expand its outstanding impact as the “connector” of people, organizations and initiatives that are all things Digital, such as the monthly Connect Chicago Meetups, a new, updated portal that has a wide range of training, curriculum and shared information for digital access and skills.

So, roll up your sleeves, my friends. We still have a ways to go, which is why programs that connect the initiatives focused on bridging the digital divide are so critical for Chicago. We are large, we are spread out, we are diverse and we are aware of the challenges we face. Our collective vision is for Chicago to be the global leader in ensuring that its residents and their communities are connected and empowered through technology. As Mayor Emanuel said, “By teaching digital skills, we give Chicago a stronger and more dynamic economy”. Join us! You can learn more about Connect Chicago at:

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Shelley Stern Grach
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.