A Chicagoan’s Introduction to Civic Tech — 2018

 |   Soren Spicknall, MSFT Chicago Civic Tech Fellow

We first published A Chicagoan’s Introduction to Civic Tech in 2016. This is an updated version of our guide.

Chicago Civic Tech Introduction

What is Civic Tech? The Use of Technology for the Public Good

Civic tech sits at the intersection of technology and community, improving lives by applying technical solutions to important civic challenges. Collaboration is at the core of the movement, in which public projects are built directly with the people they impact. No matter what your experience, anyone from any sphere (government, entrepreneurship, nonprofits, academia, etc.) is welcome to share and build ideas together in a civic tech environment. This guide is a broad overview of civic tech communities & resources in Chicago to help with your role as civic leader and organizer (whether that role is ongoing or newly minted). For any questions, further information, or a personalized tour/consultation, feel free to contact the Microsoft Cities Team here in Chicago.

Chicago Civic Tech QuickStart Guide

  1. Be passionate about solving civic problems and advancing the public good.
  2. Join a meetup (Chi Hack Night, Chicago City Data Users Group, etc.).
  3. Learn about existing projects and explore existing resources addressing challenges that you’re interested in.
  4. Start contributing to an ongoing project, or create a new one if you see a gap.
  5. Talk to people! Connect with others who care about civic tech, and learn how you can have an impact with your unique voice, skills, and perspective.

Notable Chicago Civic Tech Examples

  • mRelief – Tech nonprofit originally formed at Chi Hack Night who work with governments to provide an easy-to-use platform that enables Americans to find out if they qualify for social services through the web or text messages.
  • Civic User Testing Group (CUTGroup) – Community of Chicago and Cook County residents, organized by City Tech, who get paid to test out civic websites and apps.
  • $1 Large Lots – Open-source website combined with a civic policy initiative, put together by DataMade, Teamwork Englewood, and LISC Chicago. The $1 Large Lots program facilitates sales of city-owned land in economically challenged neighborhoods to motivated local residents.
  • Clear Water – Initiative by the Chicago Parks District and the City of Chicago’s data science team to improve forecasting of water quality each day at the city’s beaches by adopting the most successful predictive models built by civic tech volunteers and data science enthusiasts across the city.

Chicago Civic Tech Meetups

  • Chi Hack Night – Weekly Tuesday gathering of 100+ civic tech enthusiasts from all backgrounds who work on projects and network. The definitive place for the Chicago civic tech scene, with recent expansions to neighborhood-focused events like Logan Square Hack Night.
  • Connect Chicago – Monthly meeting that brings Chicago public computer centers, community technology leaders, and digital literacy experts together. Hosted by City Tech.
  • Chicago City Data Users Group – Monthly speaker series and discussion group for anyone interested in using open data to promote civic engagement, innovation, and economic opportunity.
  • Notable Community Spaces: BLUE1647, Bronzeville Incubator, Englewood Accelerator, Experimental Station, Mind + Hand, YOUmedia

Chicago Civic Tech Resources

  • Chicago Data Portal – One of the most comprehensive open government data portals in the United States, offering access to more than 1000 datasets and maps related to Chicago city departments, services, and initiatives.
  • Chicago Health Atlas – All-in-one resource for metrics related to public health in Chicago, published as part of the city’s Healthy Chicago 2.0 action plan.
  • Cook County Open Data – Central portal for raw data and visualizations related to county-level government activities.
  • Cook Central – Hub of geospatial data kept by Cook County departments, including data relevant to state and national topics (such as congressional district boundaries).
  • Microsoft Chicago – Free software, consultations, device loans, and other services to help with the civic tech goals of organizations and individuals in the Chicago region.
  • Chicago Public Library – Digital literacy training, computing centers, mobile hotspots, and more provided to populations with limited existing access (and to anyone with a desire to learn and connect).
  • Connect Chicago Locations Map – Index of more than 260 places in Chicago that offer free computer and internet training.

Chicago Civic Tech Organizations

  • City Tech Collaborative – Leading civic organization devoted to improving lives through technology. Formed through a merger of the pioneering group Smart Chicago Collaborative (which was founded by the City of Chicago, MacArthur Foundation, and Chicago Community Trust) and City Digital (a unit of UI Labs focused on infrastructure-related civic tech).
  • DataMade – Born out of Chicago’s open government community. Civic tech company building open-source technology using open data to empower citizens, government, and communities.
  • Microsoft Chicago – Providing resources and partnerships with civic organizations and leaders to create local impact through technology.
  • Center for Neighborhood Technology – Research and advocacy nonprofit focused on technology-enabled urban planning, analyzing local challenges and creating sustainable neighborhood solutions with the impacted communities.
  • Center for Technology and Civic Life – Improving local elections & engagement with civic data and resources for governments and residents.
  • Data Science for Social Good – University of Chicago program connecting data scientists with governments and nonprofits to solve real-world problems in education, health, civics, and more.
  • Hive Chicago – Network of over 80 youth development organizations, focused on leveraging the tools of the digital age to create connected learning opportunities for youth, parents, and educators.
  • Uptake.org – Philanthropic extension of analytics company Uptake, focused on leveraging data science to provide insight into issues of social impact.
  • GoCivic — GoCivic is a digital platform working with local government, schools and community-based organizations across Chicago to showcase the various opportunities that Chicagoans have to make a difference on a local. Users can engage with events such as attending a public town hall meeting to voice their ideas to elected officials, pitching in at a local shelter or even attending a happy hour that supports a local nonprofit.

Chicago STEM/Civics Education Organizations

  • Chicago Public Schools CS4ALL Initiative – CPS graduation requirement for computer science education.
  • Chicago City of Learning – City-wide platform for student learning and activities outside the classroom, allowing students to create accounts and view activities matching their interests.
  • Thrive Chicago – Meta-organization of hundreds of youth-serving groups with the shared objective of supporting all Chicago youth from “cradle to career”.
  • LRNG – National organization creating education strategies for the 21st century by connecting youth with learning communities. Chicago is a major pilot city for LRNG programs.
  • Project SYNCERE – Provides under-represented students with STEM programs and curriculum.
  • Illinois Civic Mission Coalition – Consortium focused on expanding civics education within Illinois, led by the Constitutional Rights Foundation Chicago.

National Civic Tech Organizations

  • Code for America – Nonprofit connecting technologists and local governments to improve services and to place talented individuals in government positions related to technology. Code for America’s network of local brigades sets the tone for civic tech work in many parts of the country.
  • Knight Foundation – Philanthropic organization with the mission of creating “more informed and engaged communities”, a large part of whose efforts involve investing in technological platforms for resident-driven civic impact.
  • Sunlight Foundation – Nonprofit focused on transparency in democracy and politics, heavily involved in advocating open data policies at various levels of government.
  • OpenGov Foundation – Organization developing software, events, and coalitions that push U.S. congress members and their staffers to be more accessible and responsive.

Civic Tech Glossary

  • Digital Literacy – Ability to use digital technology, communication, tools, and networks to evaluate and create information. Overlaps with civic tech in improving digital access for the public.
  • Open Data – Empowering citizens through the free access and release of information and data; generally used in the context of government, but can be applied to other organizations.
  • Open Source – Software whose source code is free to be redistributed and modified, which is useful for learning and building from existing projects.
  • For more terms and common tools, check out the Smart Chicago Glossary of Civic Tech Terms.