Women Rising: Katie Olson, Director of Operations & Services, City Tech Collaborative

Mar 6, 2018   |   MSFT Chicago Staff

This Women’s History Month, as in years past, we reached out to our network to showcase women who are working in technology, education, and civic spaces, paving the way for women’s leadership in our community and beyond. Follow along with us in Chicago, New England and New York as we celebrate Women Rising.

When Katie Olson started her career in government and city planning, she had no idea she’d be immersing herself in the world of tech and data.

As a fellow in Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office in 2011, she felt the city was missing crucial information in order to make decisions as a planner and a policymaker. Working with Chief Data Officer Brett Goldstein, she started to look at open data sets — there, she saw how governments could map open data visually, to see statistics and allow her team to make better policy decisions.

“It was that experience,” Olson says, “working with data and advanced technology that made me realize this will allow me to do my job — as a city planner and as someone working in city government — a lot better.”

This new world of data science brought Olson to UI Labs, and then its city-focused innovation platform City Tech Collaborative (City Tech). With City Tech, Olson has combined her experience in urban planning with her nearly decade-long commitment to civic technology, providing impact for all teams who come through the incubator and for the city itself.

“As one of the first team members at UI LABS, Katie was instrumental in the launch of City Digital (now part of the City Tech Collaborative), serving as a key leader in defining the process and creating the platform to bring diverse groups together to solve civic tech challenges,” says Brenna M. Berman, Executive Director, City Tech Collaborative, who nominated Olson for this series.

Olson’s focus on how the internet of things and big data can help policymakers create targeted interventions in the city, she says, is driven by the people these interventions benefit.

“The work we do at City Tech has created a number of tools for the City of Chicago to utilize,” Olson tells us, citing their Smart Green Infrastructure Monitoring tool and a soon-to-be-launched digital directory of public health services in Chicago as programs that help make Chicago one of the most advanced civic tech ecosystems in the world.

When asked about which accomplishments give her the most pride, Olson redirects attention to her collaborators and Chicagoans instead. For her, the greatest success she’s seen is Chicagoans working on the ground to make the city better.

“We also have a very active citizen community,” she tells us. “From our local Code for America brigade to the weekly Chi Hack Night — all of these assets have come together to create this broad ecosystem of civic tech.”

Her outreach expands past this standalone ecosystem, however. Katie is a strong community activist in her spare time, helping shape the way Chicagoans can create high-quality lives for themselves. She regularly volunteers with Chicago Global Shapers, Erie Neighborhood House, and Back on My Feet, organizations that work with individuals one-on-one to empower and re-shape their lives.

Here is where Olson’s mission — her “north star,” as she calls it, to create capacity for others — shines.

“These organizations speak to the ability to give people the capacity to improve their lives,” she tells us. And in her daily work, she’s furthering that mission. For her, bringing technology to the masses enables participation, empowering Chicagoans individually along the same lines as her volunteer partners.

“Civic tech to me means the ability for all residents to engage in their environment,” Olson explains. “Technology should be an enabler of civic life. Residents with technology can better understand the resources available to them, both public and private, from health to recreation. Residents should also be able to use tech to vote and advocate for people and policies that will create people and regulation that govern the way that they live.”

In Berman’s nomination, she cites Olson focus, deliberateness and tenacity as the most exciting part of her career trajectory, telling us “the communities of Chicago and beyond will benefit in measurable ways from her commitment. She has a track record to provide it.”

We can’t wait to see what new innovations Olson and City Tech bring to Chicago. And we’re honored to be on her team.

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