Week in the life of a Civic Tech Evangelist Part 1: #micities conference

| Ivoire Morrell, MSFT Chicago Civic Tech Fellow


The past week of my life has been Civic Tech heaven! From traveling to Ann Arbor to speak at the #micities conference to cloud surfing on my first flight to the Sunlight Foundations Transparency Camp held in Cleveland Ohio, I’ve gained deeper insight about the amazing world of Civic Tech and Engagement from some of the brightest advocates across the nation. From building Smart Cities through civic technology, to building 21st century skills for high school students through inventive educational initiatives, I have been absorbing valuable information about what other advocates are doing to make the world we live in a better place. Journey with me as I take you on a voyage into the emerging sphere of Civic Tech and Engagement through the lenses of a Civic Tech Evangelist.


The first stop on my epic adventure was on October 8th, 2016, when I traveled to the University of Michigan (GO BLUE!) to participate as a lightning talk speaker for the #micities conference. The #micities conference is an event designed for different Civic Technologists to discuss how they are using information technology to impact community engagement, solve problems in urban communities, and improve the quality of life for citizens across the state of Michigan. The event was keynoted by the brilliant Dr. Anthony Townsend, author of the 2013 book Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia, who shared his insights on different digital technology practices governments, businesses, and citizens are administering across the world to address timeless urban adversities. Dr. Townsend’s conversation expounded on the impact of digital master planning discussing how cities like Chicago, London, Dublin, and New York are using digital technology to impact the societal advancement in different sectors of each cities ecosystem.


One of the plans Dr. Townsend discussed was Chicago’s Technology Plan. Chicago’s technology plan is one that infuses the five comprehensive strategies of developing next-generation infrastructure, expanding digital literacy, infusing civic technological innovation, promoting tech sector growth, and creating an efficient/effective open government in order to fulfill the vision of Chicago being a city where technology “fuels opportunity, inclusion, engagement and innovation”. When reflecting on this vision, I cannot help but think of the amazing work my colleagues Kevin Wei, Adam Hecktman, and Shelley Stern conduct in Chicago to enhance the cities civic technological landscape. Through nurturing the digital literacy skills of senior citizens through the ingenious initiative DigiSeniors, promoting innovation and civic engagement through the cutting edge creation of the Chicago City Data User Group, and through serving as key advisors to technology organizations, government officials, community cohorts, and other influential institutions, this terrific trio has made everlasting impacts on Chicago becoming a thriving Smart City.

After Dr. Townsend’s presentation, the spotlight shifted to the lightning talk sessions where five speakers (myself included) were given approximately six minutes and forty seconds to share information about how we are using civic technology to impact our respective communities. Here is a brief rundown of the different speakers and the projects they are working:

  • Kevin Liberman: Realizing Urban Data
    • Kevin Liberman, of the Guikema Reasearch Group, addressed the important question of how to optimize human wellbeing through the constraints of the environment. Kevin discussed how his team uses urban analytics, infrastructure resilience, statistical learning, predictive modeling, and decision risk/analysis to make urban systems more efficient.
  • Adam Engstrom: Ethics of Designing with Open Data
    • Adam Engstrom, student at the University of Michigan, talked about ethics in designing open data. Adam discussed how developers must hold themselves to a higher ethical standard when creating digital tools for communities they intend to serve. He discussed some of the deficiencies of select digital tools in the city of Jackson and emphasized the importance of developers making digital tools transparent to citizens in order to aid them with making better decisions.
  • Jonathan Stroud: Data Analysis of the Flint Water Crisis
    • Jonathan Stroud, member of the University of Michigan Data Science Team, spoke on how his team is using data science and machine learning to determine what homes are at high risk of elevated lead readings in the city of Flint. Working with University of Michigan and Google researchers, Jonathan’s team has incorporated their research into an application called UniteFlint, which allows citizens to conduct risk assessments of their homes water lead readings. This application also has aided construction workers with the lead service line replacement in the city of Flint.
  • Samuel Krassenstein: Taking the First Steps Toward a Smart City
    • Samuel Krassenstein, a city of Detroit employee and MBA/MUP candidate, gave the audience his insight on building a Smart City. Samuel spoke on how the city of Detroit is taking steps in the right direction toward becoming a Smart City through tools like the Open Data Portal, SeeClickFix, and the Traffic Signal Management System. He also spoke on how technological innovation and collaboration with change makers will help Detroit take those next steps towards becoming a Smart City.

During my lightning talk session, I presented the amazing civic engagement initiative that I am sure you all have heard about called @cutgroupdetroit. To those have not heard, the Civic User Testing Group (CUTGroup) is a community of residents who get paid to test civic websites and apps to help create better technology. The feedback provided by citizens testing the civic technology goes directly into improving the usability and functionality of the technology resulting into enhanced civic tech for the entire community.


During my presentation, I talked about the creators of CUTGroup (@SmartChicago), the birth of @cutgroupdetroit, highlighted the recruitment efforts, and elaborated on the first CUTGroup test we conducted on September 8th, 2016 at the Ford Research & Engagement Center (for more info on our first test, check out Shelley Stern’s blog here). The overall message I intended to send to the #micities audience was that through hard work, dedication, community connectivity, and most importantly, correlated collaboration, powerful movements can be established that are capable of creating lasting impacts on the communities we inspire to innovate.


What did I learn from this enlightening experience? I learned more about how civic tech is reshaping communities and building brighter futures for citizens all across the mighty mitten. I obtained more knowledge about the inner workings of Smart Cities and learned more about the different civic driven blueprints cities are using to make improvements to their cities . There are so many awesome approaches being taken throughout the globe to create Smart Cities and by studying from what others are doing to improve their cities, positive changes can made to improve our own. I like to send a big thank you to Scott TenBrink and the University of Michigan for inviting me to share the amazing initiative at the #micities conference. It was truly an excellent experience that shed light on some amazing initiatives that are being powered by civic tech.

I also like to give a huge shout out to the incredible CUTGroup Detroit team. To Sonja Marziano, Garlin Gilchrist, Shelley Stern, the @D3detroit team, Boitshoko Molefhi, and the CUTGroup Detroit Street team, it was an extraordinary experience working with you all on this project. CUTGroup Detroit would be impossible without all of the hard work and commitment we collectively put forth. I look forward to continuing our civic engagement efforts as we move forward with CUTGroup Detroit.

Stayed tuned for part two of my series where I document my adventures at the Points of Light Civic Accelerator.

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