April 2017

Postcard from India: Do You Live Near Toxic Waste?

This is the second in a series of discussions about my recent trip to India with the University of Chicago’s Civic Leadership Academy. This article will focus on Environmental Sustainability and a remarkable NGO in India, which is working hard to bring information on toxins to the public domain. Microsoft has a deep commitment to environmental sustainability, for our planet, our utilization of energy, and for our legacy. Please read about our policy and programs at https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/about/corporate-responsibility/planet.

via Time Magazine

Like many Chicagoans, I hadn’t thought too much about the disposal of toxic waste. My focus on Environmental Sustainability was usually focused on carbon footprint, ice caps melting, endangered animals and wondering how paying 7 cents for a plastic bag was really going to make a difference for my great-grandchildren. A few weeks ago, Time Magazine had a small article that caught my attention. Time Labs mapped all the 1,317 so-called Superfund sites—the most toxic locations in the US, as tracked by the federal government. The density of toxic waste centered around Illinois and my home state of Michigan really surprised me.

Then I spent an afternoon in Delhi, India with the remarkable Ravi Agarwal, Founder and Director of Toxics Link. Ravi is changing the urban waste management system in India by involving local communities and the informal sector of “waste pickers” in waste disposal. He also is a strong advocate for a cleaner materials policy in industry. His work crosses boundaries locally, nationally and internationally. Toxics Link is an environmental NGO dedicated to bringing toxics-related information into the public domain. They span the struggles at the grass roots levels as well as provide global information to the local levels in India. Their focus is on articulating the issues related to toxic waste.

Ravi Agarwal, Director at Toxics Link

Toxic Links addresses the areas of hazardous and medical waste management, as well as food safety. They work in “networks”, utilizing community outreach and education, coupled with policy analysis, research training and program development. Their goal is to create the right solutions, as driven by the needs of the people. Working both in Delhi and through the country, Toxic Links also acts as part of a coalition of NGOs. An acknowledged expert in hazardous, medical and municipal wastes, Toxic Links is now addressing the emerging issues of pesticides and Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), as well as e-waste scenarios in major metropolitan areas in India. They have a nationwide network of over 5000 members.

When you hear Ravi speak, he is so gentle, erudite and has such as smile on his face, that you need to balance his demeanor with his leadership mantra: “If you don’t engage, you don’t change”. His team collaborates widely with academic institutions and they engage directly “on the ground” with stakeholders. They started out working with “waste pickers” often considered to be the lowest form of work in India. Today, they also focus on electronic waste and wrote the first report in 2003 from a developing country on this topic. Here are some of the accomplishments of Toxic Links:

  • Toxics Link Has Been Awarded the Research & Development Award 2016 for Its Outstanding Contribution in Lead Related Research.
  • Toxics Link has been organizing school awareness programs across india. Around 4,221 schools, 4,50,000 students and 13,000 teachers have been covered in 19 states.
  • “We are a group of people working together for environmental justice and freedom from toxins. We have taken it upon ourselves to collect and share information about the sources and dangers of poisons in our environment and bodies, as well as clean and sustainable alternatives for India and the rest of the world.”
  • They have even created games on e-waste to make the topic more fun for school children.

So, how can we relate the amazing work that Ravi and Toxic Links are doing to Environmental Sustainability in Chicago and the US? My perspective is that we can learn from Ravi’s leadership style and his relentless focus on pursuing and communicating the truth. As he said in our meeting:

“We come with a smile,

We come in peace,

We can wait,

We are firm and we don’t compromise”.

His team doesn’t see the environment as separate from social justice, as it’s often the poorest and most underprivileged among the Indian population that have the closet connection to toxic waste from a geographical (living) perspective. Ravi urged us to “mobilize our work at home to address the least empowered”. Because if you start there, your role as a leader becomes a position of humility, not power.

He sees systemic reform as the “north star goal”, but the reality is that he focuses on specific issues for the present, in order to actually change policy and make real improvements. He gave us the following advice as leaders to bring home to our work in Chicago:

  1. Be at the table every day!
  2. Be in the conversation every day!
  3. Commit to long term, persistent leadership, which hold the values and the culture of your organization.

As we spent considerable time discussing values, Ravi believes that “values are there because you hold onto them”. You will know when your work is respected, and it helps to provide your team members very clear responsibilities. Values are held in systems…the way you respect and reward people is a demonstration of your values. It’s probably not a surprise that Ravi is also an accomplished artist, as he believes Art helps you lead a team in several ways. It helps you look at things differently, look at nature and ecology and the planet with a sense of wonderment and respect. It is this lens of leadership, this focus on values, and the ability to wait and not compromise that are lessons we can bring home and use every day.

Managing Sustainability Below the Earth’s Surface

An Underground Infrastructure Mapping Scan, via UI Labs

This being Earth Week, I would like to take you just slightly below the Earth’s surface. Under our city, as a matter of fact. Why? Because the infrastructure that resides underground impacts the output of carbon above ground. To understand how this works, let’s do a little exploration down below.

Beneath the streets and alleys of our city lies a labyrinth that supports daily life and commerce. Underground assets include water pipes, fiber optic lines, gas pipes, electrical lines, cable and telco lines. It also includes legacy infrastructure (think telegraph cables…yes telegraph…and conduit).

We don’t think about the underground infrastructure because we don’t see it. We take it for granted until something needs repair, or new infrastructure needs to be added. When we are inconvenienced by the lane closures associated with the opening of a street, we see it and curse it. Car, bicycle, and foot traffic are routed around the construction. In the best of circumstances, the street is sealed back up and traffic resumes as normal. Except when it doesn’t.

Too often, when a crew is working on, say, repairing underground cable lines, they may run into unexpected assets such as electrical lines. They must stop their work, seal the street, move, and the process starts again. That means that the time that traffic is inconvenienced is effectively doubled. How often is too often? According to City Digital, In the US, an underground infrastructure is hit on average of every 60 seconds at a cost of $1.6B annually).

How does this keep happening so frequently? Don’t we know what is underground? Not exactly. Today, underground coordination prior to construction is based on looking at maps (sometimes non-digital). And those maps are often two dimensional (meaning that you do not know the depth of the assets they are mapping). Further complicating the situation, the maps can be inaccurate, incomplete, or outdated.

So how does what happens underground impact the carbon output above ground in our city? Run through this (not uncommon) scenario again where a project needs to be re-started because of interfering existing infrastructure:

  • The street or lane is blocked off, and slowed or stalled traffic idles (carbon)
  • Big machines come in and rip up the street (more carbon)
  • Shoot! Something is in the way. Big machines seal up the street (more carbon)
  • Block off another section of street and continue to idle congested traffic (much more carbon)
  • Repeat until mad

So, much of the impact on the environment comes from unnecessary idling, which produces climate damaging greenhouse gases. You might think “big deal, so I idle for a minute or two while waiting to maneuver around underground street construction”. Think about this: according to Natural Resources Canada, idling for just 3 minutes every day adds 1.4M tons of CO2 emissions. Removing that is equivalent to taking 320,000 cars off the road for the entire year.

The impact on climate change is such that some countries have created policies and guidelines for reducing idling. In the US, the EPA posted guidelines that recommend turning the engine off if you are idling more than 30 seconds. Reducing the need to idle is even a better solution.

Enter City Digital’s Underground Infrastructure Mapping pilot. Last fall, City Digital kicked off a pilot to create an underground infrastructure mapping (UIM) platform that is designed to reduce the expensive need to restart these intrusive projects. The platform generates, organizes, visualizes, and stores 3D underground infrastructure data that can be securely shared by those who have assets underground.

An Underground Infrastructure Visualization, via UI Labs

Using the City of Chicago as a testbed for the platform’s development, City Digital members are deploying this new technology to create accurate 3D maps of underground assets. An engineering-grade, cloud-based data platform ensures that critical infrastructure information is securely stored and shared at the right level with the right people. The result: having accurate information prior to breaking ground not only reduces carbon output, it saves cities and utilities millions of dollars in the construction and planning processes. It is a modern take on the “measure twice, cut once” approach to reducing carbon emission.

Microsoft is proud to partner with City Digital as we build on the success of the Smart Green Infrastructure Monitoring (SGIM) project, and move our focus to what underground. As underground infrastructure becomes more familiar to us, we’re looking forward to the next steps of reducing emissions and helping save the earth, little by little.

To learn more about Microsoft’s commitment to environmental sustainability, head to the Microsoft Green Blog.

Postcard from India: An Array of Themes

This is the first in a series of blogs about my recent trip to India with the University of Chicago Civic Leadership Academy. It’s taken me some time  to simply digest everything that we saw and experienced, and to think through the “big themes” and how those themes either relate to Civic Engagement in Chicago. Today’s discussion will focus on the “Array of Themes” that India kindles and I’ll share a few early highlights of our visits so you can see the diversity of the country.

Future blogs will focus on a few of the inspiring leaders we visited, and how their leadership skills can be translated to the challenges here in Chicago.

Let’s start with a quote which graces the wall of the Microsoft Delhi office which I visited on my second to last day in India. We’ll talk more about the office at a later time, but I felt this was a great summary of the values of every leader and every place we visited:

In Sanskrit:
Vipadi dhairyam atha abhyudaye kshamaa sadasi vaakpatutaa yudhi vikramaha
Yashasi cha abhiratihi vyasanam shrutau prakriti siddham idam hi mahaatmanaam

In English :
Courage in trouble, forbearance in prosperity, eloquence in the assembly, valour in battle, eagerness in gaining fame, attention to the holy scriptures – all these are natural to great ones.

Over the course of the trip, several themes emerged and are summed up by a comment from Rashish Nanda, the Chief Executive Office of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, India: “India lives in many centuries at the same time”. How perfectly this helps describe the beauty, the cultural mash-up, the digitization of India living right next to extreme poverty. Each morning we started our program at the modern campus of the University of Chicago Center in Delhi. We met with noted senior executives and NGO leaders who fought for change and human rights.

Following are the themes that I observed during our visit:

  1. The scale of the challenges in India are massive. Delhi has nearly 20 million people and the scope of trying to impact that range of people is enormous. I found the leaders we met tackled their challenges “one person at a time”, always moving forward and the scope didn’t diminish their energy or optimism.
  2. Women’s rights are also a key issue and the mountain that the NGO female leaders climbed were clearly higher than for male NGO leaders. Which made the impact and the focus of the women we met with all the more impressive. We’ll hear more about Ruma Roka, Founder and Chief Executive, Noida Deaf Society in a future blog.
  3. Society itself is in a self-discovery process. It’s both evolving to catch up with the 21st Century and keeping true to its heritage and culture at the same time. Think about Chicago, “born” in 1837 and how we are building a global tech hub. Now think about Delhi: The Indian capital city of Delhi has a long history, and has been an important political center of India as the capital of several empires. Much of Delhi’s ancient history finds no record and this may be regarded as a lost period of its history. Extensive coverage of Delhi’s history begins with the onset of the Delhi Sultanate in the 12th century. Since then, Delhi has been the center of a succession of mighty empires and powerful kingdoms, making Delhi one of the longest serving Capitals and one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world.
  4. The sounds! The senses! The colors! The creative expression! India expresses its cultural heritage through dress, colors, spices, deep faith and horns honking. The call to worship, the vibrant colors literally everywhere and the constant collision of 21st Century traffic with people selling their wares as they have been sold for generations. The presence of TV screens at the magnificent Golden Temple is a great example.
  5. Leadership is everywhere in India. It’s with the mother who is changing her child’s life through sending her to the School for the Deaf. It’s with the engineers and scientists who focus on toxic waste and work tirelessly to change policies to improve the health of the country. It’s with the Foundation leaders who focus on preserving the green space and the heritage of Humayun’s Tomb through an urban renewal initiative, similar to the urban renewal in Bronzeville, Englewood or along 63rd Street.

The leaders we met with put the spark of human dignity back into people who had been defeated by life. They were faced with leading across boundaries (ethnic, caste, government/private sector). They faced challenges of public sectors everywhere: how do you motivate and energize bureaucracy? How do you battle corruption? How do you do urban planning in a geography that originally had 50,000 citizens and now has nearly 20 million people to house, feed, and educate. They face the challenges of managing multiple stakeholders (imagine the challenges of restoration, culture and funding for Humayun’s Tomb! But then again, Humayun managed to be buried with both of his wives….). The leaders we met with felt that community ownership was key to success (sound familiar, Chicago?). Leadership qualities include the ability to look deeper and create customized solutions, being nimble, being analytical and using data to evaluate success through pre and post assessment, and above all, being passionate.

In our next blog, we’ll learn more about the remarkable Noida Deaf Society and how one women literally brought children who had no education nor means of communication into a school, where those children are now the teachers.

Civic Chat — Networking Our Neighborhoods: Gabrielle Lyon, Chicago Architecture Foundation and Heather Van Benthuysen, Chicago Public Schools

Civic education has always been a priority in Chicago, as a city that prides itself in its political involvement and civic engagement. Yet it has only recently become a requirement for Chicago’s students. Heather Van Benthuysen, Civic Education Manager at Chicago Public Schools, has changed this, and is working to inspire Chicago students to become active participants in their communities through experiential civic education.

Remember the Wacker’s Manual of the Plan of Chicago? Chicago Public Schools (CPS) has partnered with the Chicago Architecture Foundation for No Small Plans, a graphic novel inspired by and built for CPS teens based on the Wacker’s Manual. The 144-page novel follows the adventures of teens in Chicago’s past (1928), present (2017), and future (2211) in Chicago’s individual neighborhoods.

In Shelley Stern Grach’s latest Civic Chat: Networking Our Neighborhoods, she sits down with Heather Van Benthuysen and Gabrielle Lyon, Vice President of Education and Experience at Chicago Architecture Foundation, to explore No Small Plans and civic education in Chicago.

Watch Shelley’s chat with Heather and Gabrielle live on Advisor.tv.

Support No Small Plans — purchase or donate a copy in advance here.

Chicago City Data User Group — The Impact Genome: Predicting Social Impact

The government and the social sector in philanthropy are the only places in the economy that measure impact only after a program has been funded.  Every other business uses data to predict the impact. The Impact Genome is a universal evidence base to research, evaluate and predict what works in social change. The Genome spans 132 common outcomes across 11 areas of social impact.

The idea is to apply the same concept used in the music genome (think of how Pandora figures out what you like) to a decision-support platform for civic funders and policymakers. It will allow practitioners to build programs using evidence “decoded” by pulling in unstructured data from academic research studies together with existing social policy.  They then use that data to estimate the impact of the programs (and standardize the reporting).  Among other benefits , this project will also allow  for benchmarking and rationalize how resources are allocated.

This short video explains it. And on April 5th, as part of our Chicago City Data User Group, we got to hear Mission Measurement founder Jason Saul talk about the genesis of this project, the data it uses, and the data it will create.

Miss our meetup? Have no fear — we meet on the first Wednesday of each month. You can catch up on what you missed in the Twitter moment below:

Civic Tech in Chicago — April’s Top Events

Spring has sprung! We’re ready to shed our extra layers, head out of the underground, and enjoy the (almost) warm weather. Plus, this month is officially Information Technology Month in Illinois — there’s so much to celebrate!

Embrace the season with us with these top events this month:

All Month

Innovate Lake Erie
Cleveland Water Alliance

The Erie Hack is a data and engineering competition that unites coders, developers, engineers, and water experts to generate enduring solutions to Lake Erie’s biggest challenges. The competition includes $100,000 in prizes for the most creative and effective hacks. Working from challenge statements derived from ideation sessions with NASA representatives and regional stakeholders, teams are charged with creating innovative digital tools, hardware innovations, and engineering solutions that build “the Blue Economy”: the emergent economic sector dedicated to the sustainable stewardship of bodies of freshwater around the globe. The Erie Hack provides regional high school students, college students, and professionals the opportunity to combine their own expertise with solid mentoring to create technologies with the potential to invigorate Lake Erie’s environment and economy.

ITA Tech Challenge Teaser

​In conjunction with the Illinois Governor’s new proclamation that April is Information Technology month, and to provide an additional opportunity to practice your coding and programming skills before the fall Tech Challenge, ITA has launched the Tech Challenge Teaser. This challenge is similar to the Tech Challenge in the fall, but on a smaller scale and is administered 100% virtually between April 3rd and April 14th.

April 4

Chi Hack Night — Smart Green Infrastructure Monitoring
6:00pm
Braintree office 222 W Merchandise Mart Plz 8th Floor, Chicago

Flooding in the Chicagoland area due to excess stormwater has resulted in over 182,000 claims of property damage with a total estimated cost of $735 million over the last five years. This damage is the result of combined sewer system backups into homes and waterbodies.

To alleviate this, the City of Chicago has allocated $50M to augment the combined sewer system with green infrastructure. The program has focused on implementing a combination of traditional and green stormwater infrastructure.

Last year City Digital, part of UI Labs, kicked-off their Smart Green Infrastructure Monitoring pilot that brought together a team including Microsoft, Opti, Senformatics, West Monroe Partners, and AECOM to develop a new collection of technologies to remotely monitor the performance of green infrastructure.

With the City of Chicago, the monitoring technology has been deployed at four green infrastructure sites across the City to monitor the performance of a variety of green infrastructure types, including a bioswale, permeable pavers, infiltration planters, and tree grates.

Adam Hecktman, Microsoft’s Director of Technology & Civic Innovation Chicago, Dana Al-Qadi, Engineer at AECOM and Tom Schenk, Chief Data Officer at the City of Chicago will present details on the pilot formation, solution deployed, and initial findings from this effort.

April 5

The Impact Genome: Predicting Social Impact
6:00pm – 7:00pm
Microsoft Technology Center, Chicago | Aon Center 200 E. Randolph Ste 200, Chicago

Join us on April 5th to hear Mission Measurement founder Jason Saul talk about the genesis of this project, the data it uses, and the data it will create. 6:00pm at the Microsoft Technology Center Chicago.

April 7

ADA Diabetes Innovation Summit
​12:00pm – 5:30pm
MATTER 222 W Merchandise Mart Plaza #1230, Chicago

The American Diabetes Association’s Diabetes Innovation Summit promises a unique, interactive and immersive experience focused on building a network of those committed to exploring investable opportunities that will accelerate and catalyze the Association’s mission.  Feedback from the diabetes community will fuel conversations about daily challenges facing individuals living with diabetes.
April 10
Roosevelt @ UIC & ICPR: Who Writes the Rules Matters
11:00am – 12:30pm
UIC Student Services Building 1200 W Harrison, Chicago

Roosevelters know that Who Writes the Rules Matters, so we’re bringing together students and legislators in partnership with the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform to figure out how everyone can have a seat at the table. Join us for a panel discussion followed by a collaborative workshop as we seek to understand structural and practical barriers to democratic access for young people.

April 12

April 2017 Chicago International Student Career Fair – Employer RSVP
10:30 AM – 3:30 PM
DeVry University 3300 North Campbell Avenue, Chicago

The Chicago International Student Career Fair will provide a platform for your company to meet hundreds of talented, skilled professionals, students and alumni.

Connect with international professionals and talent from universities. We are confident that this event will provide you with unique access to our talented international students in greater Chicago specializing in business, technology, health sciences, fine arts, architecture, engineering and more.

April 19

Celebrating Hon. Adlai and Nancy Stevenson
The Illinois Campaign for Political Reform 500 N Dearborn St, Suite 518, Chicago

On Wednesday, April 19th, ICPR will honor Hon. Adlai and Nancy Stevenson with the Mikva Legacy Award for Truth and Justice at Noon at Petterino’s in Chicago

Judge Mary Mikva will join ICPR to present the Stevensons with this honor for their extensive work in Illinois through advocacy, public service, and the Stevenson Center on Democracy

April 27

Microsoft – Adapting Experiences for Virtual and Mixed Reality
5:30 PM to 7:30 PM
Tech Nexus (Conference Room C/D) 20 N. Wacker Drive, Suite 1200, Chicago

The principles used for building a standard 3D experience fundamentally change when considering virtual and mixed reality. New devices such as the Microsoft HoloLens lets users interact with digital content in relation to the real world, disrupting the way we build experiences. This session will explain how to consider these concepts during development as well as introduce the new medium of building 3D Mixed Reality applications and games using C#, Visual Studio, and Unity. Whether itching to build your own applications or enthusiastic about designing for these ever-changing virtual mediums, you’ll walk away with the tools to build your own.

Big Shoulders: Trisha Degg, Director of Talent Programs for ITA

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? As the old joke goes…practice. How do you nurture an interest in programming into a successful career? Turns out the answer is the same…practice. Today, the Illinois Technology Association (ITA) is launching its High School Tech Challenge, giving students the opportunity to practice their coding skills, and giving them an opportunity to win scholarship money at the same time. The challenge, which launches April 3 and runs through April 14, is sponsored by Chicago e-discovery company kCura and is virtual, so students can take it anywhere, at anytime.

Using a platform called HackerRank, participants choose the programming language that they are comfortable with (Python, C++, Java, etc.) and are presented with problems to solve. The problems get progressively more challenging, and students have one hour to complete it. The five top overall coders will win a $500 scholarship, as well as an invitation to the ITA Summit.

In the end, ITA is confident that they will tap into something in some of these participants that will drive them on to further their education and inspire their careers. Watch as Trisha Degg, Director of Talent Programs for ITA, talks with me about the High School Tech Challenge on my latest segment of Big Shoulders, on Advisor.tv: