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.

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