June 2017

Detroit Hosts First Neighborhood Tech Talk in Cody Rouge

On June 20th in the Cody Rouge neighborhood on Detroit’s far west side, the first Neighborhood Tech Talk was held in the basement of Grace Community Church. Hosted by Grand Circus, this event brought technologists and entrepreneurs of color to one of Detroit’s westside neighborhoods to talk about their paths to careers in tech. The term “neighborhoods” in Detroit typically refers to areas that have not seen the same kind of economic investment and growth as thriving areas such as Midtown, Downtown, and Corktown. This discussion series aims to increase diversity in Detroit’s growing tech scene and connect people in the neighborhoods with potential tech mentors.

Panelists Marlin Williams, Diversity and Inclusion Entrepreneur-in-Residence at TechTown and founder of Sisters Code, Justin Cook, Co-Founder of Pro:Up, Ashley Williams, founder and CEO of RIZZARR, And Monica Wheat, Lead at Detroit Startup Week and founder of Digerati Girls / Digerati Kids, talked about what led them to careers in tech.  They also discussed both positive and negative experiences they had as minorities in the industry.

An audience of about thirty people listened to the panel talk about computer science and entrepreneurship. For some panelists, their inspiration to pursue a career in tech came from the desire to build a business. Justin Cook told the audience how his idea for an app that helps students find job, volunteer, and scholarship opportunities came from working as a high school guidance counselor.  Other panelists echoed this sentiment, encouraging students to seek out solutions to challenges they face everyday because diverse perspectives identify a wider range of challenges and more innovative solutions.

The panel discussion was followed by a Q+A. Local community benefits advocates asked about opportunities to get coding programs started in the Cody Rouge neighborhood. While programs currently exist in Midtown and Downtown, due to inadequate public transportation, some Cody Rouge residents are unable to get to those locations. This concern highlights the need for increased access to computer science education programs in the neighborhoods.

At the end of the event, the panelists, all from Detroit, offered to connect and serve as mentors for students who may not have previously considered a career in tech. Studies have revealed the importance of having a mentor from a similar background who can empathize with and guide mentees through challenges they may face. Events like Tech Talks in the Neighborhood are an important part of creating a more diverse and inclusive tech community and providing opportunities for all Detroiters.

Doing Good is Worth Doing Well

In May 2017, the Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation celebrated five years at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and announced a $20 million gift. The Rustandy Center, formerly called the Social Enterprise Initiative, is the destination for people committed to helping solve complex social and environmental problems.

The following is an excerpt from a speech given by executive director Christina Hachikian, Booth adjunct associate professor of strategy.  

Only one human disease — smallpox — has ever been eradicated through deliberate intervention.  Polio, for instance, remains endemic in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria more than 64 years after Jonas Salk invented the Polio vaccine. That’s because disease eradication takes more than a vaccine. Leadership is required to take a solution and implement it on the ground.  

Questions of leadership in the social sector are among the most important that the Rustandy Center will strive to address through research.

But can research really have that kind of impact in the face of real, on-the-ground challenges?

Let me tell you a story.

A few years ago, Quaker Oats gave 20,780 pounds of surplus cereal bars to Feeding America. Each of its food banks wanted the bars. But to get them, they had to compete.  Bidding opened at 10 a.m. By noon, Kansas City, had won the bars.

Booth faculty members Canice Prendergast, Harry Davis, Donald Eisenstein and Robert Hamada devised Feeding America’s “choice system,” which lets food banks bid for products.

The local food banks lose more than they win, but this method of online non-cash bidding is far better than the old system. Previously, Feeding America assigned donations by rotating down a list. That system would sometimes leave food rotting in Rhode Island; cause chicken to go from Alaska to Alabama; or flood Florida with even more orange juice.

Booth faculty devised a system whereby “shares” were allocated to food banks daily, based on the poverty level and population of the community. To ensure small food banks could sometimes outbid much larger ones, smaller ones would get more shares.

Here’s how the head of a Michigan food bank described it: “Deciding which products to bid on isn’t easy, but we know our service area better than anyone else. For better or worse, the decision making is now precisely where it needs to be.”

In short, the model worked. But of equal importance are the questions it raises. Can this model be applied to other resources? What other lessons can we learn? What kind of leadership and buy-in was needed for wide-spread adoption of this model?

The mission of the Rustandy Center is to marry practical knowledge with academic insights into how the sector functions. And we seek answers the Booth way — by questioning, testing ideas, and seeking proof.

Armed with these insights, we strive to help people increase their odds of solving seemingly intractable problems.

Because doing good — from eradicating polio to distributing food to the hungry — is worth doing well.

Christina Hachikian is the executive director of the Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. She leads the center’s global work as the hub for people solving complex social and environmental problems.  In particular, she is responsible for strategy and direction, as well as resource development and partnerships.  She is also an adjunct associate professor at Booth, and teaches courses on scaling social innovation and on social enterprise strategy, as well as serving as a coach for the school’s Social New Venture Challenge.

Lake View High School Unveils Innovation Lab

Lake View High School students test out the new innovation labWhen I was in high school, I was printing pictures in a darkroom and carving wooden spoons by hand. Today, students of Lake View High School (LVHS) are accomplishing the same, and even greater, results with more innovative technologies and fewer hand nicks. On June 14, LVHS unlocked the door to their new Innovation Lab, a DIY workshop where students assemble to create, invent, learn and make their visions come to life. Students, faculty, friends, family and partners gathered to experience the Lab for the first time following a ribbon cutting ceremony performed by an LVHS Senior, Principal PJ Karafiol and Assistant Principal Tyrese Graham.

Lake View High School unveils new innovation lab, STEM opportunities for students

Students, faculty, friends, family and partners, enter the Innovation Lab for the first time

LVHS Wildcats are among four other CPS Early College STEM Schools in Chicago. Their mission, which involves heavy emphasis on innovation through Computer Science, Design Thinking and Project-Based learning programs, emanates as you enter the Innovation Lab. The Lab includes Microsoft Surface Studios, HoloLenses, 3-D Printing Machines and more, all of which will equip students with fundamental and advanced technological skills for the future. Introducing these technologies at an earlier age will better prepare these students for college and later employment opportunities.

The Innovation Lab, many months in the making, is truly a remarkable opportunity for student development and innovation. LVHS students, empowered through modern technology and with resources to develop new skills, will be positioned to thrive in today’s world and beyond. As a proud partner with LVHS, Microsoft is thrilled to support the school’s ever-growing STEM and Computer Science initiatives, as well as their brand-new Innovation Lab.

Fellow Profile: Anna Draft

Where are you from? Lincoln Park, Chicago

School/grad year/major: BA, Middlebury College (2010), Joint Major Philosophy/Religion, Russian Language Minor. MPP Candidate, The University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy (2018), Policy Analysis and Disability Inclusion

Last thing you searched on Bing: Wonder Woman, show times

Why did you choose Microsoft’s fellowship program? Following graduation from college, I worked for Challenge America, a national database that connects injured military members and their families to resources in their local communities. This non-profit experience, and later experiences working in the digital strategy and design spaces, led me to recognize the major interdependencies between technology innovations and disability inclusion. Microsoft’s fellowship offers an incredible opportunity to engage with and learn from the current accessibility and digital equality efforts of Shelley Stern Grach and Adam Hecktman (here in Chicago) and Jenny Lay-Flurrie and team (in Seattle). By learning from leaders in the disability and accessibility advocacy fields and collaborating with local government officials, private companies, non-profits and public-sector organizations, this fellowship provides an unparalleled opportunity to explore innovative solutions for empowering Chicagoans with different technological resources and abilities.

What’s your favorite civic project in the Chicago area? Though miles away from some of my favorite hiking trails and ski mountains, Chicago does an incredible job of bringing green initiatives to our beautiful flatlands! The Riverwalk, the 606 and the Lakefront running/biking trails, Chicago’s green, open and accessible spaces are high on my list of favorite civic projects.

Who is your civic tech mentor/idol? Marca Bristo of Access Living. Marca was a key driver in writing the 1990 American’s with Disabilities Act, calling for (among other requirements) lifts on buses, accessible facilities, ATMs and telecommunications, as well as access within the workplace. I greatly admire her work in the city of Chicago and beyond.

What projects are you working on for your position as tech fellow for Microsoft Chicago? Among other outreach efforts and meetups, I’ll be focusing on the launch of DigiSeniors, which was started by the incredible, Civic Tech Fellow, Kevin Wei. I’ll also be working on Microsoft’s Women in STEM and Accessibility strategies throughout this fellowship in coordination with CPS, ADA25, ITKAN and others.

What excites you about civic tech? For me, civic tech doesn’t mean I need to be a developer or a data scientist (of which I am neither) to innovate. I am excited about facilitating new connections between developers, data scientists, government and policy experts, and public and private organizations to accomplish big things for the city of Chicago.

What’s one problem you hope civic tech will solve for cities? Microsoft and its partners are well positioned to improve digital literacy and workforce opportunities for Chicago’s impoverished neighborhoods, senior citizens and people with disabilities. I am beyond excited to be a part of this mission in my role as a Civic Tech Fellow.

Fellow Profile: Meghan Urisko

Meghan Urisko, Microsoft Civic Tech Fellow in DetroitWhere are you from? I’m a nomad who has lived in Los Angeles, Detroit, Paris, San Francisco, Brooklyn, Boston, Greenville, and Grosse Pointe. Currently, I live in Ypsilanti, MI.

School/grad year/major: I just finished the first year of my Master of Science in Information at the University of Michigan School of Information and will graduate in 2018. I’m specializing in Civic Experience Design.

Last thing you searched on Bing: Surface Pro

Why did you choose Microsoft’s fellowship program? I was honored to be selected as the Microsoft Civic Tech Fellow in Detroit so I can utilize my user-centered research and design skills to improve citizen experience. I look forward to learning more about serving communities with open data.

What’s your favorite civic project in the Detroit area? The Digital Stewards Training Program, which trains community members to build and maintain their own wireless communications infrastructure. I’m also inspired by the city’s payment kiosks which provide residents without connectivity a convenient method to pay water, tax, and electricity bills.

Who is your civic tech mentor/idol? I’m thrilled to be working with Erica Raleigh and the whole team at Data Driven Detroit. I have admired their work for years.

What projects are you working on for your position as tech fellow for Microsoft Chicago?

My main goal is to help Microsoft foster a meaningful role in supporting Detroit’s civic tech scene. Some of my projects will include developing an in-depth understanding of the existing civic tech community, supporting Data Driven Detroit in documenting local government and community data, training non-technical partners on technologies useful to the civic space, and supporting the Detroit Civic User Testing (CUT) Group.

What excites you about civic tech? Technology has the ability to have a large and positive impact on a wide variety of civic issues. It’s really exciting to join Microsoft at the forefront of exploring new ways that technology can support cities.

What’s one problem you hope civic tech will solve for cities? I hope the civic tech sphere will continue to champion public education on data and technology literacy so that tech solutions are inclusive solutions.

Microsoft Store and B~STEM Host One-Day Only Events

Girls learn STEM at Microsoft Store YouthSpark Summer ProgramAccording to BestColleges.com, only 6.7 percent of women are graduating with STEM degrees. With this we have a responsibility today to educate and inspire females of all ages to advance our world by pursuing careers in traditionally male dominated industries.

B~STEM Project and Microsoft Store understand this responsibility. B~STEM Project is an organization focused on helping young girls and women to engage, learn and grow within business and STEM-related disciplines across industries. From June 23 – 30, B~STEM will host We Hack Too, an eight-day virtual hackathon. Select Microsoft Store locations are excited to host kick-off events on Friday, June 23, and set everyone up for a week of fun with a Business Development and Design Incubator.

The events will give high school and college women opportunities to collaborate with professional mentors to design products and develop business strategies, while 8 to 12-year-olds will be invited to attend coding and gaming workshops.

These free events will take place in the following store near you:

Each store event will have its own unique theme spanning STEM-related topics including clean energy, gaming, entertainment and digital media, biotechnology and tech startups. To learn more about the topic of the event at your local Microsoft Store and to register for the event, please visit bstemproject.org.

Not located in a city with an event? Microsoft Store offers a range of free programs, year-round that empower youth by providing direct access to technology and hands-on learning. If you haven’t been to a Microsoft Store program yet, take a look at the video below that captures Microsoft Store YouthSpark camp energy and testimonials from real student and parent participants.

To see a full list of available in-store events and programs at your local Microsoft Store visit, Microsoft.com.

Fellow Profile: Soren Spicknall

Where are you from? I don’t feel tied to any one place above others, but I spent time living in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Alabama before moving to Chicago three years ago.

School/grad year/major: Illinois Institute of Technology, December 2018, co-terminal BS in Computer Science and MS in Data Science

Last thing you searched on Bing: I most recently searched “define fickle” to make sure I was using the right word when describing the behavior of characters in a film I was discussing with a friend.

Why did you choose Microsoft’s fellowship program? My work in computing has always been rooted in a desire to unite technical knowledge with sociopolitical advocacy. I had previously interacted with Adam Hecktman during an interdisciplinary project at Illinois Tech, and when he introduced this fellowship opening at ChiHackNight, I knew that it was an opportunity that both aligned with my interests and would be overseen by somebody who I enjoy working with.

What’s your favorite civic project in the Chicago area? Though it’s an obvious choice, the very existence of the City of Chicago’s Data Portal is a huge catalyst for civic tech work in the city. With improvements being made and new data sets being added regularly, the Data Portal (and the Department of Innovation and Technology overseeing it) is indicative of a general cultural shift toward government data openness.

Who is your civic tech mentor/idol? Rather than pointing out a specific name, I’d like to focus on the one person in each successful civic tech team whose every fifth word seems to be “stakeholders.” A civic tech project that is only accessible to civic technologists is a failed project, and those individuals who constantly push for input from voices outside the civic tech community help keep our discipline healthy.

What projects are you working on for your position as tech fellow for Microsoft Chicago? In addition to general outreach at meetups like ChiHackNight and the Chicago City Data User Group, I’ll be developing and heading up Microsoft Chicago’s blockchain strategy over the span of the fellowship. This work already includes partnerships with members of the Blockchain Education Network, UChicago’s Center for Data Science and Public Policy, and THRIVE Chicago, and there are sure to be more collaborators brought on board in the near future.

What excites you about civic tech? I have never wanted to be the kind of developer who works in a room filled only with other coders, and I’ve never wanted to be the kind of data scientist whose skills are put to use figuring out the most effective way to market soap. I want to be one component of an interdisciplinary team that has an impact on major issues and topics in government and society, and the realm of civic tech brings together developers, policy experts, citizen activists, and more to accomplish those goals.

What’s one problem you hope civic tech will solve for cities? I am excited by the potential of civic tech (and, specifically, of data science) to target infrastructure improvements in cities. Foot traffic data, water runoff data, and countless other measures of different pieces of physical infrastructure can give us a clearer picture of where repairs, redevelopment, and new projects could be most effectively implemented.

Postcard from India: Breaking Through Barriers For People With Disabilities

Microsoft’s mission is to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more. With over 1 billion people with disabilities in the world, we’re passionate about ensuring that our products and services are designed for people of all abilities. We are committed to transparency, accountability, and inclusion in our products and our culture, and we are deeply inspired by the opportunity to work with others around the world to explore what’s possible. Read more about Microsoft’s commitment here. This discussion will focus on the remarkable Ruma Roka, and how her vision and leadership created the Noida deaf Society and its enduring impact on the Youth and adult with hearing disabilities in India.

There are about 60 million deaf people in India. They often face significant poverty, lack of medical facilities and lack basic communications skills. At times, the deaf in India are not viewed as trainable workers, when, in reality, they simply have a different mode of communicating with the rest of the world. All they need is a means to communicate and a supportive environment.

Ruma’s journey from homemaker to a champion of the deaf is incredible. In a country with limited resources for the underserved, Ruma has been an advocate and a pathfinder for improving rights and livelihood for the deaf. Facing big challenges like social stigma, lack of education (curriculum and facilities) and lack of government programs, she also faced her own biggest fear: the fear of failure. Ruma began her journey in 2004, and like many nonprofit founders, she was living comfortably but not satisfied with her personal direction and impact on her community. While watching TV, she saw a program on sign language and was fascinated by the use of hands as a means of communication. This is especially interesting as she had no deaf family members, and her leadership approach demonstrates her clear vision and passion for making a difference. She made the commitment and completed her sign-language course in 2004. This knowledge connected her to the deaf community and she realized the challenges facing the deaf in India: family communications options, education and the lack of workforce opportunities. As Ruma said, “My work is not a job, it’s a responsibility”.

She identified some of the key challenges for the deaf in India:

  • The need for social skills development in addition to basic communications skills
  • The need for job skills, including the ability to translate signing into more traditional communications like writing
  • The need to have free curriculum and a workforce strategy that ultimately will include job opportunities in banks, technology and retail

To address some of these issues, Ruma started the Noida Deaf Society (NDS) in 2005. She started out in her own home with just five students. She created visual training materials and ultimately created curriculum which includes computer training for her students. She worked with local content developers and created English Reading and Writing Communication/Indian Sign Language. Perhaps most importantly, as Ruma recruited and trained her students, the students became the teachers of the next generation of students. She found that the best teachers for the deaf are the deaf themselves. They bring the passion, the drive and the ownership and don’t view their role as a job, but a mission. This was a first — professional training for the deaf that was taught by teachers who were themselves hearing impaired. Through word of mouth, NDS now reaches 1,000 students every year and has expanded to 5 centers in Noida, Delhi, Jammu and Jaipur. Ruma has been decorated with many national awards and has delivered a TED Talk:

When you enter the Noida school, the first thing you notice, of course, are the children! The two story building is divided into several classes, which are simply separated by curtains–since all the classes are taught through sign language, it’s very quiet (except for the occasional laughter), so multiple classes for various age groups and skill sets can co-exist in a relatively small space. I was also struck by how young most of the teachers are—having recently been students themselves, they seem to relate very with their younger charges. NDS also focuses on teaching students about technology. There is a small computer center, where students learn computer skills and take courses for certification.

Future expansion of NDS includes, working with more schools from across India and expanding the current curriculum and teacher leadership geographically, and possibly a primary school for early childhood learning. Another area is focusing more on the social skills for students and increasing the students’ confidence. Ruma sees teachers as the “leaders of our children” and has created an environment to positively impact thousands of young people, providing them skills, self-assurance and an improved chance at economic success. Under Ruma’s leadership, Noida School for the Deaf has truly become a lighthouse for the deaf, and provides an inspiring story of hope, economic empowerment and leadership.

What’s Next After Microsoft — Civic Tech Fellow Alumnus Kevin Wei

Read Adam Hecktman’s goodbye to Kevin here.

Where did you study? I’m a proud graduate of UChicago Class of 2017, with a BA in Economics and Public Policy

What were your main duties as a Microsoft fellow?

Personal Projects – The fellowship gives everyone an awesome opportunity to pick and work on personal projects that are meaningful and help contribute to the civic tech ecosystem in a unique way. It’s such an awesome experience to have the support of the Microsoft Chicago team while you’re working on these projects which are specifically catered to your interests and skills; I developed a passion for digital access/literacy and data storytelling, and you can see that manifested in my projects such as DigiSeniors or Divvy Data Analysis.

Evangelism – Civic technology is all about inclusivity, and showing anyone and everyone the potential of technology for public good was really important. Presence and ‘showing up’ is what gets things done in Chicago, so whether it was hackathons like Migrahack or Tech for Justice, community organizations like Blue1647 or LISC, and civic tech meetups like ChiHackNight or Chicago City Data User Group, I made sure I was there to talk civic tech! No matter where you come from, everyone has something to contribute!

While personal projects and evangelism were important, I could write a whole book on the amount of amazing things I did during the fellowship, from device loans to relationship building. But to sum it up, I think it’s safe to say that there are so many amazing individuals, organizations, and efforts that are doing amazing things across the city, and I absolutely enjoyed every second of meeting and working with the wonderful people who are dedicated to making the world a better place through tech.

What has been your favorite project with the Technology and Civic Engagement Team?

DigiSeniors is an initiative to provide essential digital skills to senior citizens across Chicago. I had worked on it for the entirety of my fellowship, doing user experience research, creating the curriculum, and managing the program as we scaled across the city. This was one of my favorite projects because it really crystalized the power of collaborative ecosystem. Whether we were training nonprofits with our curriculum with Smart Chicago Collaborative, piloting a service-learning project with CPS/Senn High School, the list goes on and on…, it was clear that we need to continue addressing the digital divide across the city. But of course, I also have to give a side shout out to my public policy thesis, which analyzed why Chicago’s civic tech ecosystem was one of the best in the world!

Where is civic tech taking you next?

For now, I’ll be joining a rotational program at LiveRamp, a marketing-tech company in San Francisco, but I’ll never forget my civic tech roots! I know I’ll be heavily involved with the various civic tech groups in the Bay Area, like Code for America and the San Francisco Brigades and hope to learn and grow there! It’s an honor to have been a part of this wonderful civic tech ecosystem and have the ability to say, “you know in Chicago, we did this…”

What advice do you have for future fellows?

I’ll echo some advice from a previous fellow, the wonderful Erin Simpson, when I say that the core mantra of “build with people, not for people,” will always remain relevant. Whatever you’re building, keeping the civic tech ideals of accessibility and inclusivity will always lead you in the right direction.

And I would be remiss to not mention the fact that Adam Hecktman and Shelley Stern Grach are the best team and mentors you could ever ask for, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without them; learn as much as you can from them!

What’s Next After Microsoft — Civic Tech Fellow Alumnus Ivoire Morrell

Where did you study? I Graduated Manga Cum Laude from Lawrence Technological University earning my Bachelors in Computer Science.

What were your main duties as a Microsoft fellow? As a Microsoft Fellow, my main duty was to serve the city of Detroit through using Civic Engagement, Civic Technology, and data analysis as vehicles to drive positive change. I was able to carry out this mission through spearheading recruitment and managing the civic tech movement CUTGroup Detroit, creating informative visual reports through data analysis of some of Detroit’s most critical issues using Microsoft’s powerful data processing tool PowerBI, authoring several blogs about insights from my data analysis, instructing students throughout Detroit at Hour of Code workshops, serving as the technical partner for a data collaborative with the Census Bureau, and so much more.

What has been your favorite project with the Technology and Civic Engagement Team? I had the privilege of being a part of so many great projects during my time as a fellow that I can’t say I have one particular favorite. Two that I really enjoyed were the CUTGroup Detroit project and teaching students at the Hour of Code classes. Both of these projects were driven by making a positive impact on the community, which is something I strive to do every day. Being able to voyage throughout Detroit and interact with the people that make this city so great with CUTGroup Detroit recruitment was an amazing experience. Being able to inspire students through instructing coding classes was equally gratifying.

Where is civic tech taking you next? My next step in the world of civic tech will be at Data Driven Detroit (D3) where I will serve as a full-time Microsoft Civic Tech fellow for the city of Detroit. D3 has been a gracious host to me over the past year as a Microsoft Fellow and I look forward making an even greater impact on the city of Detroit as I step into the full time role.

What advice do you have for future fellows? My advice to all future fellows is to never lose sight of the mission that propels you. Stay focused on making the community a better place for all of those around you whether it be through Civic Engagement, Civic Technology, serving others, or simply being a voice for the voiceless. Don’t let the fact that you’re working for the world’s greatest company or the clout that can come from being in a position of influence distract you from the mission of impacting the community.