August 2017

ThinkChicago Lollapalooza: Bringing Together Remarkable Students

Every summer, Chicago’s signature music festival, Lollapalooza, fills Grant Park with the sounds of musicians and music fans. The word, Lollapalooza, meaning “remarkable person or thing,” defines not just the music festival, but it has also come to define the remarkable students that visit Chicago each year for ThinkChicago.

ThinkChicago takes place the week leading up to Lollapalooza (the music festival) with the goal of retaining and attracting top tech talent to Chicago. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, World Business Chicago and the University of Illinois, invite University students to Chicago to learn about the city’s vibrant innovation ecosystem, and to show visiting students what an incredible place Chicago is to live and work. For the third year in a row, Microsoft has had the honor of contributing to ThinkChicago’s wonderful efforts. This year, we facilitated a panel on Civic Innovation and we introduced the students to Microsoft Chicago’s efforts in Machine Learning, Civic Technology and Urban Engagement.

The first day of ThinkChicago kicked off at Motorola Chicago, where the students were welcomed by Mayor Emanuel.

Following Mayor Emanuel’s introductions, Microsoft’s own Shelley Stern Grach moderated a panel on Civic Innovation in Chicago. The panel featured Charlie Catlett from the Urban Center for Computation and Data (UrbanCCD), Danielle DuMerer from the Department of Information Technology (DoIT), Katie Olson from UILABS, and Kenneth Watkins from Blue1647. The discussion focused on how science and technology are enabling and empowering Chicago’s communities. Many of the key messages expressed the importance of policy, and transparency and collaboration amongst various sectors, as vital to driving innovation and success across Chicago.

To draw on the panels introduction and discussion of Civic Innovation, the students transferred to mHUB Chicago where they took part in a Civic Innovation Challenge. Microsoft’s Adam Hecktman was there to see the students at work.

For the final day of ThinkChicago, Microsoft Chicago hosted 60 students at our Envisioning Lab for a demo by Adam Hecktman on Machine Learning. Adam introduced the students to AI facial recognition, sentiment analysis, speech to text, and the immeasurable capabilities of emerging technologies.  

Microsoft Chicago Fellows, Soren Spicknall and Anna Draft (me!), followed up with insights on Microsoft’s Fellowship program. Soren spoke to the group of his work in Data Science and Civic Technology and how both are being applied for social good. I spoke of my work in Public Policy and community engagement and how both are necessary for improving digital literacy and accessibility. Thanks to Microsoft’s Fellowship program, Soren and I have been able to pursue our passions. We have also been able to experience how collaboration (between ourselves on a smaller level, and amongst Microsoft partnerships, on a grander level) drives innovation and success across Chicago.

Before the students were set free to experience four full days at Lollapalooza, we concluded with Q&A. The ThinkChicago students were curious, they asked applicable questions, and they were wonderful to connect with. Since ThinkChicago, we have received a number of positive inquiries from the students interested in everything from Civic Innovation, Machine Learning, Data Science, Public Policy, and job opportunities!  

Congratulations, and a very big thank you to Mayor Emanuel, World Business Chicago, the University of Illinois, the amazing panelists, and the students for coming together for ThinkChicago. The City of Chicago is set for success thanks to everyone’s remarkable efforts and dedication.

For more information about ThinkChicago, visit  

Big Shoulders: Heather Holmes, CEO and Founder, Genivity

Data around a person’s health has become common-place. Between electronic healthcare records, wearable fitness devices, exercise equipment and programs, and consumer hereditary tests, we are almost inundated with data about our physical well-being. Financial data has long been a mainstay of our lives. We use it to create our budgets, prepare for retirement, and do our estate planning.

Heather Holmes made a bet. She bet that by connecting health and wealth planning, advisors and their clients could create more effective and realistic plans while turning the process into a “family collaboration.” And she was right. She created Genivity. She positions Genivity as a family-engagement platform for financial advisors. providing advice on health risks and care costs to help retain clients and their next generation heirs.

I met Heather at a breakfast for a co-hort of WiSTEM participants out of 1871 Chicago. WiSTEM creates a space for women founder. It brings some of the best and brightest of female founders in Chicago together. It is one of the many programs that amazes me with every passing cohort.

When you first meet Heather, you are taken by her command of individual and family health, genetics, and medical records. Then she hits you with her depth of knowledge of how estate planning works, and how it can go horribly wrong. I asked her if her background was in genetics or finance. “Neither,” she tells me matter-of-factly, “I was a TV news reporter”. Of course! Obviously, there is a fascinating story here. See my interview with Heather and how Genivity takes the scariness out of two scary domains.

Lessons from Detroit: Empowering the Community through Data Training

In June, the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP) at the Urban Institute and Microsoft released a collection of resources and recommendations on extending and expanding training opportunities for staff at civic organizations and governments to help them leverage data and technology to tackle local priorities.  To illustrate the foundations, learnings, and impacts that informed the NNIP study, we are delighted to have NNIP partners from around the U.S. sharing their experiences in developing and operating their local training programs in a series of guest blogs.  Below is one of these experiences. Other posts in this series are available from the Urban Institute and the OaklandPittsburgh, and Seattle partner organizations.

— Elizabeth Grossman, Director of Civic Projects, Microsoft

Data Driven Detroit (D3) is metropolitan Detroit’s community data hub. We collect, analyze, interpret and share accessible, high-quality data and information to drive informed decision-making. Our work is focused on increasing data-driven outcomes and collaborative planning processes throughout metro Detroit and Michigan. In that vein, D3 offers trainings and workshops to help community leaders and residents learn how to utilize data to improve their work.  

I spoke to Monique Tate, a community activist who has served her community for over 25 years. Monique works to increase resident participation in community development activities; redevelop commercial corridors; and enrich all Detroiters with improved internet access and digital literacy skills through the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition. From 2013 to 2015, D3 offered a series of workshops that taught attendees how to collect their own data, access D3 and the city’s open data portals, and visualize the data. Monique attended several of these trainings and in turn helped plan workshops during the Motor City Mapping project.

What did you learn from the D3 data workshops?

In those workshops, we learned to use the LocalData app to collect data in the field as well as how to use the D3 and City of Detroit’s open data portals. Knowing how to use the open data portal and the Motor City Mapping platform helped me integrate data in my own work.

I also use the portals to answer other people’s questions about property conditions in their neighborhoods. I’ve taught residents and community organizations how to look up information like tax foreclosures and vacancies so that they can more quickly obtain that information.

D3’s workshops taught me how to collect data in ways that support community development, and Motor City Mapping showed me the relevance and influence of mapping. I later applied these skills in a project about the East Warren Business Corridor. The local community organization, residents, and the District manager wanted to assess the retail corridor, build more cohesive relationships between the businesses and other organizations, and inspire the business development association along the corridor. I trained residents from the community so they could assist in data collection, and we documented information about each business and its structure.

The process strengthened connections on the business council and provided new data so we could work together to apply for community block grants for beautification and development of our commercial corridor. The data collection also led to the identification of some businesses that are interested in continuing the project. We also published all the data from the corridor initiative online to help future researchers and planning efforts.

How have our data workshops, both the ones you attended and the ones you helped plan, affected your own work in community development?

I’ve learned how to visualize data, which is important because graphics and maps tell the story more persuasively than writing out the information.

In my work for the Morningside neighborhood, we created a map to highlight the many amenities of the neighborhood. The excitement it created increased participation in the community group and encouraged people to move into the neighborhood because they understood what is available.

What would you tell other community activists about the value of data and technology training?

Learning about using data from experts like D3 helps you become better at your own job. It makes grant applications and reporting easier because you understand how to get data directly from the source instead of spending hours trying to sift through reports to find it. We’re blessed to have D3 staff in our community.

Data allows you to quickly respond to questions with accurate information. Data also helps us understand our own community more completely, which assists our organizations in maintaining relevance and supporting sustainability. If you build a central repository of data, your organization can preserve knowledge over time and reduce the challenges of staff turnover.

For Motor City Mapping, you helped us organize a variety of data workshops. What would you say is the key to developing quality training sessions?

Workshops need to be easy, relevant, and clear.

First, have an easy-to-understand message that takes into consideration the diversity of age, education, and experience. Don’t dumb down the concepts, but make sure they are accessible to the audience.

Second, think about the format. For example, it would be helpful to create and share videos on how to analyze data. Many people don’t want to read, but they will watch a video.

Third, inspire participants and communicate the relevance of the training. People need to understand why they need data and why it’s important to their project.

Lastly, understand how your audiences are going to use the data. For example, lay people utilize D3 data and tools for grants where they need to select a geography and easily filter to specific data. Showing them clear steps for accessing and analyzing data to do what they need for their jobs makes trainings worthwhile.

About the Author

Stephanie Quesnelle is a research analyst at Data Driven Detroit, a social enterprise that provides accessible, high-quality information and analysis to drive informed decision-making.  Stephanie holds a Master of Public Affairs from Indiana University and loves developing quantitative models to understand the world around her.  In 2012-2013, Stephanie served as a Fulbright Scholar in Gdansk, Poland and remains passionate about preserving her Polish heritage in Detroit.  

Big Shoulders — Grant Nikseresht and Chester Hsieh, Illinois Tech

There is hacking. And then there is AquaHacking. AquaHacking Challenge is an annual event focused on using technology to improve Great Lakes water quality. Each year, they focus on a different Great Lake. This year’s focus was on reducing threats to Lake Erie from urban areas, agriculture and industry.  

Shared by the province of Ontario and the US states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and New York, Lake Erie is the source of drinking water for over 11 million people. Like all the Great Lakes, Lake Erie is a major water resource at risk. Water quality is impacted by industrial pollution, agricultural runoff, and invasive species. Combined with climate change (which is causing the lake to become warmer), the ecosystem could be permanently altered if these issues are not addressed.

That is where the AquaHacking Challenge comes in. The challenge asked “Water experts, hackers, engineers, and other creative minds work together as a team for 10 weeks to develop functional, marketable innovations to help solve Lake Erie’s water issues.” Chicago is not on Lake Erie (we have our own Great Lake). But we do have talented individuals who care about water issues. Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel put it like this: “We have a shared responsibility to do what we can to protect the Great Lakes. And the AquaHacking Challenge is a great way to engage top minds in finding solutions to address the issues facing our waterways”.  

The Mayor charged Current, a Chicago accelerator that works on research targeted at water innovation and technology development, to pull together a team. Current did one better: it put together two. One team was formed of former classmates of mine at Illinois Tech. Grant Nikseresht and Chester Hsieh are candidates for the Masters of Data Science program, and are enthusiastic about applying their skills and creativity on difficult water challenges. The focus: Harmful Algal Blooms (HAB). Sounds bad? It is. In fact, it is toxic. How do they form and what can be done? Watch my interview with Grant Nikseresht and Chester Hsieh from Illinois Institute of Technology to find out.  Let’s hack.

Stitching Data Stories: Detroit Fiber Artist Creates Piece Informed by Data

Artist Dolores Slowinski grew up in the 1950s on Detroit’s Westside. During her childhood and in subsequent conversations with people she met, she remembered hearing that West Warren was a marker of racial divide, with Black families living north of West Warren and Polish families living south of it. In 2016, Slowinski received an invitation from graphic artist/printmaker, Ryan Standfest, to participate in his comic strip inspired collaborative project: Detroit Sequential, which later became an exhibition hosted by Signal Return, a letterpress studio in Detroit. She decided to make a piece that explored the truth of the West Warren myth. She ended up stitching a data visualization.

Her sequential piece, Detroit West Side Patterns, explored the changing demographics and population loss of her neighborhood based on census data. Though Slowinski could locate the information on her own, she did not have the skill to isolate the data she needed. She reached out to Data Driven Detroit (D3) for help. D3 is a data intermediary that provides accessible high-quality information and analysis. D3 Data Analyst Ayana Rubio helped Slowinski identify the data she needed to bring her vision to life.

Slowinski chose to highlight census data from 1950, 1960, 1980, and 2000 to show how the neighborhood changed during her lifetime.

“I made black French knots for the black populace; white French knots for the white populace; and used grey cross-stitches for the lost populace. I had to count the knots carefully, to try to be as accurate as possible,” she said of her piece. “The title alludes to the two ‘zones’ I designated on Detroit’s west side; ‘patterns’ alludes to not only the shifting racial demographic but also to the idea of cross-stitch patterns.”

Slowinski integrated geospatial and census data into her piece: “I reduced a map… to fit inside a 4 in x 4 in square. I transferred the outline of the map to perforated cross-stitch paper. I translated the percentage of black and white residents of the total population of each zone to the percentage of holes in the cross-stitch paper…a lot of simple math calculations. I worked with census data provided by Data Driven Detroit from 1950, 1960, 1980, and 2000…each decade in one of the 4 squares.”

In the 1950s, Slowinski was told that north of West Warren was a black neighborhood, and south was white. However, census data from 1950 reveals that there were actually more black families living south of West Warren at that time. The 1960s census data reveals that, while the area north of West Warren was becoming much more diverse, the population was still majority white.

“I come from a family of makers. This was my way of both exploring my family’s mythology and dispelling it, visually and by hand,” said Slowinski of her piece.

Detroit West Side Patterns also highlights how dramatic the demographic shift was in this neighborhood between 1960 and 1980. As Detroiters new and old work to understand the city’s complicated past, this data visualization stitches together the story of a neighborhood that changed. Slowinski’s piece invites viewers not only to explore her own lived experience, but to ask why this shift occurred in a larger context.

Her work also reveals the change in population between 1980 and 2000. This highlights population loss even increasing well after the 1967 rebellion. Slowinski was able to examine the accuracy of her lived experience through exploring census data.

“Obviously, mine is not a scientific representation by any means, but rather my impression of what happened based on my experience and conversations and made clearer by the data,” said Slowinski, reflecting on her piece.

Learning to work with data helped Slowinski separate the familial from fact. She describes her previous work as more organic and says that data helped her to develop a more informed concrete end-piece. She plans to continue working with data; for her next project, Slowinski will explore the impact Catholic school closings had on the Detroit education eco-system. She is working with Loveland Technologies to obtain this data, as well as information on the closing of public and charter schools in the city.

Civic Tech in Chicago — August‘s Top Events

Hello, August! This month’s all about sun and fun — and these top picks for civic tech events in our city:

August 1, 8, 15, 22, 29

Braintree office 222 W Merchandise Mart Plz 8th Floor, Chicago

Join us every Tuesday from 6-10pm on the 8th floor of the Merchandise Mart to hear from amazing speakerslearn from each other and work on civic projectsEveryone is welcome!

We are a group of thousands of designers, academic researchers, data journalists, activists, policy wonks, web developers and curious citizens who want to make our city more just, equitable, transparent and delightful to live in through data, design and technology.

August 2

Chicago City Data User Group
The Microsoft Technology Center Chicago Aon Center – 200 E. Randolph Ste 200, Chicago

The Center for Neighborhood Technology delivers game-changing research, tools, and solutions to create sustainable and equitable communities. From sustainable water strategies to transit-oriented development to cargo and freight movement, CNT takes a data driven approach to the environmental and economic sustainability of our neighborhoods.

Dr. Peter Haas is CNT’s Chief Research Scientist. He recently showed a group of participants in the Urban Sustainability Challenge the data and tools that they leveraged and built around land development in the city and I knew it had to be shared! Peter has been integral in the development of CNT’s location efficiency metrics, and developed its well-known Housing and Transportation (H+T ®) Affordability Index.

Join us on August 2nd at the Microsoft Technology Center Chicago to hear Peter talk about data used around land development. And…there will be pizza.

August 3

FinTank’s Data Analytics and Business Intelligence
333 South Wabash Avenue Suite 2700, Chicago

Please join us as we continue our Data Analytics + Business Intelligence (BI) journey at FinTank.
Data Analytics + Business Intelligence covers the process of collecting, analyzing, and telling stories with data to help businesses see farther into the past so they can make better decisions in the future.

August 5

Design for America Project Expo
Northwestern University | Donald P. Jacobs Building 2001 Sheridan Rd., Evanston

This year, DFA teams will explore: “How can we expand accessibility in urban areas?” Teams will share their work to ensure the inclusion of those with differing abilities into the fabric of our communities and the future development of our cities.

August 8

ITA Tech Talk: Tales from the Trenches
SPR Consulting Office 233 S. Wacker Drive, Suite 3500

​It seems like almost everyone around us in technology is assembling an IoT demo. They even make it look easy. Sure, with the tools available today getting a demo together can go rather quickly, but moving your idea to an enterprise environment where the solution needs to be rock solid and bulletproof takes considerably more time and rigor.

Would you like to know more about how an IoT project really operates? Join our panel of experts as they reflect on real-world experiences working in IoT projects from the trenches.

August 10

ITA Tech on Tap
Enova Office 175 W. Jackson Blvd., Suite 1000

​You are invited to join ITA at the Enova office to network and collaborate with your peers in the Chicago tech community. Enjoy an adult beverage while developing new relationships, expanding your contact base and driving your business forward.

August 15

Women Influence Chicago
Avionos, 33 N LaSalle Street, The Vault – Lower Level (basement), Chicago

​Register now for Women of Influence Chicago on Tuesday, August 15 from 5:30 – 7:30pm for an exciting event focused on empowering women to find their way in a tech- and data-enabled world.