Adam J. Hecktman

director + problem solver

Adam J. Hecktman
Meet Adam
You may recognize Adam. He’s a regular on TV, you can hear him on the radio, he’s penned numerous articles and is the co-founder of the Chicago City Data Users Group. But some of Adam’s most important work is done behind the scenes in his role as Microsoft’s Director of Technology and Civic Engagement for Chicago. Tech giants, universities and government leaders turn to Adam for guidance on all matters technology, and he happily obliges, helping Chicago overcome challenges and capitalizing on new, exciting opportunities.

Big Shoulders: Jason Saul, Founder and CEO, Mission Measurement

Government and the social sector are the only spaces that measures impact of projects only after the money has gone out the door. Every other industry tries to predict outcomes in terms of success. Considering the sheer magnitude of people impacted by government programs and social sector projects, not having an informed notion of what the impact will be has consequences in terms of opportunity cost and often the quality of life.

Can you use predictive data to guide the investments made by these sectors? Can you make an informed analysis of how to spend dollars so that they are spent in the best way possible? Can comparisons between options be compared, especially given that the evidence of success is often the same? While working out in the gym, listening to Pandora, Jason Saul, CEO of Mission Measurement had an epiphany. Watch the story of the Impact Genome on Big Shoulders live on Advisor.TV.

Managing Sustainability Below the Earth’s Surface

An Underground Infrastructure Mapping Scan, via UI Labs

This being Earth Week, I would like to take you just slightly below the Earth’s surface. Under our city, as a matter of fact. Why? Because the infrastructure that resides underground impacts the output of carbon above ground. To understand how this works, let’s do a little exploration down below.

Beneath the streets and alleys of our city lies a labyrinth that supports daily life and commerce. Underground assets include water pipes, fiber optic lines, gas pipes, electrical lines, cable and telco lines. It also includes legacy infrastructure (think telegraph cables…yes telegraph…and conduit).

We don’t think about the underground infrastructure because we don’t see it. We take it for granted until something needs repair, or new infrastructure needs to be added. When we are inconvenienced by the lane closures associated with the opening of a street, we see it and curse it. Car, bicycle, and foot traffic are routed around the construction. In the best of circumstances, the street is sealed back up and traffic resumes as normal. Except when it doesn’t.

Too often, when a crew is working on, say, repairing underground cable lines, they may run into unexpected assets such as electrical lines. They must stop their work, seal the street, move, and the process starts again. That means that the time that traffic is inconvenienced is effectively doubled. How often is too often? According to City Digital, In the US, an underground infrastructure is hit on average of every 60 seconds at a cost of $1.6B annually).

How does this keep happening so frequently? Don’t we know what is underground? Not exactly. Today, underground coordination prior to construction is based on looking at maps (sometimes non-digital). And those maps are often two dimensional (meaning that you do not know the depth of the assets they are mapping). Further complicating the situation, the maps can be inaccurate, incomplete, or outdated.

So how does what happens underground impact the carbon output above ground in our city? Run through this (not uncommon) scenario again where a project needs to be re-started because of interfering existing infrastructure:

  • The street or lane is blocked off, and slowed or stalled traffic idles (carbon)
  • Big machines come in and rip up the street (more carbon)
  • Shoot! Something is in the way. Big machines seal up the street (more carbon)
  • Block off another section of street and continue to idle congested traffic (much more carbon)
  • Repeat until mad

So, much of the impact on the environment comes from unnecessary idling, which produces climate damaging greenhouse gases. You might think “big deal, so I idle for a minute or two while waiting to maneuver around underground street construction”. Think about this: according to Natural Resources Canada, idling for just 3 minutes every day adds 1.4M tons of CO2 emissions. Removing that is equivalent to taking 320,000 cars off the road for the entire year.

The impact on climate change is such that some countries have created policies and guidelines for reducing idling. In the US, the EPA posted guidelines that recommend turning the engine off if you are idling more than 30 seconds. Reducing the need to idle is even a better solution.

Enter City Digital’s Underground Infrastructure Mapping pilot. Last fall, City Digital kicked off a pilot to create an underground infrastructure mapping (UIM) platform that is designed to reduce the expensive need to restart these intrusive projects. The platform generates, organizes, visualizes, and stores 3D underground infrastructure data that can be securely shared by those who have assets underground.

An Underground Infrastructure Visualization, via UI Labs

Using the City of Chicago as a testbed for the platform’s development, City Digital members are deploying this new technology to create accurate 3D maps of underground assets. An engineering-grade, cloud-based data platform ensures that critical infrastructure information is securely stored and shared at the right level with the right people. The result: having accurate information prior to breaking ground not only reduces carbon output, it saves cities and utilities millions of dollars in the construction and planning processes. It is a modern take on the “measure twice, cut once” approach to reducing carbon emission.

Microsoft is proud to partner with City Digital as we build on the success of the Smart Green Infrastructure Monitoring (SGIM) project, and move our focus to what underground. As underground infrastructure becomes more familiar to us, we’re looking forward to the next steps of reducing emissions and helping save the earth, little by little.

To learn more about Microsoft’s commitment to environmental sustainability, head to the Microsoft Green Blog.

Big Shoulders: Trisha Degg, Director of Talent Programs for ITA

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? As the old joke goes…practice. How do you nurture an interest in programming into a successful career? Turns out the answer is the same…practice. Today, the Illinois Technology Association (ITA) is launching its High School Tech Challenge, giving students the opportunity to practice their coding skills, and giving them an opportunity to win scholarship money at the same time. The challenge, which launches April 3 and runs through April 14, is sponsored by Chicago e-discovery company kCura and is virtual, so students can take it anywhere, at anytime.

Using a platform called HackerRank, participants choose the programming language that they are comfortable with (Python, C++, Java, etc.) and are presented with problems to solve. The problems get progressively more challenging, and students have one hour to complete it. The five top overall coders will win a $500 scholarship, as well as an invitation to the ITA Summit.

In the end, ITA is confident that they will tap into something in some of these participants that will drive them on to further their education and inspire their careers. Watch as Trisha Degg, Director of Talent Programs for ITA, talks with me about the High School Tech Challenge on my latest segment of Big Shoulders, on


Big Shoulders: Charles Adler, Founder at the Center for Lost Arts

Meet Charles Adler. Charles has a storied history of enabling creatives to pursue their passions. In co-founding Kickstarter, Charles enabled creatives gain access to the capital required to turn those passions into businesses and real assets. The birth of Kickstarter was a watershed moment in the history of funding.

Wanting to do more for this group, he has now created a physical space for creatives in Chicago called Lost Arts. Located on Goose Island, it is really four physical spaces: a design studio, prototyping lab, workshop and an event space. Charles has gone from something very global (Kickstarter) to something very local. However, two ventures aren’t quite as different as they at first seem. After all, this is no ordinary “maker space.”

Billed as part lab, part workshop, part atelier, part incubator, part school and part playground, it provides access to the tools that you would expect to see (3D printers, soldering irons, sewing machines, etc.). But that is not what makes Lost Arts special. The secret sauce is the way it empowers creatives with access to “community and, by virtue of the community, knowledge.” How did he discover that this community was required and that it would lead to knowledge? He opened the space, invited some friends, and… he watched.

See what happened next in this interview with Charles, my latest segment of Big Shoulders, on

Big Shoulders: Anna Bethune, Brave Initiatives

There is no question that we need more girls to be interested in technology. Coding, design, and data careers all need a strong pipeline of girls and young women to ensure that we have women represented in the field. And there are great programs designed to build that pipeline.

I would argue that it is not enough to inspire girls to be technologists. It is just as important that we teach them to be the next generation’s leaders. Brave Initiatives is on a mission to, in their words, “empower high school girls to be agents of change in the world through design, coding, and leadership training.”

At Brave Initiatives’ BraveCamps, high school girls learn development skills, for sure. But what makes Brave Initiatives different is that they teach those skills by having girls look at some of the tough issues impacting the city and its neighborhoods. Once they identify a civic priority that they would like to influence, they are taught time management skills, project management skills, communication skills, and, yes, HTML/CSS/Javascript. It is a great blend to nurture the civic leader in each.

Watch my interview with Brave Initiative’s co-founder Anna Bethune, an inspiring leader herself. I hope you enjoy this latest segment of Big Shoulders.

Watch Adam’s live chat with Anna on

Big Shoulders: Matt Wolf, Managing Director, Dandelion

Dandelion works with cities to help communities achieve access to opportunities and to activate underutilized assets in neighborhoods. Early on, this was the team that helped Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan get elected in a storied campaign (the campaign brought him to a 2013 primary victory as a write-in candidate). It consists of a tactical team of designers, developers, content creators, project managers and others who wrap their talent around civic projects. They establish trust with limited-budget clients such as non-profits, private foundations, and governments, and leverage that trust to “deploy new ideas” in cities. And they have deployed more than 100 of those projects in the last 5 years. Now they are bringing that experience and those skills to Chicago. Watch Matt Wolf from Dandelion talk in my latest Big Shoulders about place-based projects for economic development and those around creative re-use.

Watch Adam’s chat with Mike live on

Big Shoulders: Dan Shalmon, External Engagement Coordinator, Cline Center for Democracy

Dan Shalmon

You know what would be a really cool job?  One where you are at the intersection of the heart of democracy and extreme-scale data analysis.  Meet Dan Shalmon of the Cline Center for Democracy at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). There, students and faculty are working together to use information to understand and better democracy.

The Cline Center uses data, combined with research tools and algorithms that they created, that derive deep insights and understanding of a variety of understudied topics around democracy.  They accumulate, curate, and leverage data to study democracy-related topics such as civil unrest, development of global social indicators, ethnic and religious group trends, sentiment analysis, and measuring rule of law constructs, just to name a few.

The research topics themselves require strong domain expertise.  But acquiring the data to do the evidence-based research is a monumental challenge.  Much of the data that they work with is unstructured – think of articles from the media, other research, and journals going back decades.  Not only is it text based, a good chunk of it is non-digital.  This is where the tools and methods that the Cline Center truly shines.  Join me in this episode of Big Shoulders where Dan Shalmon takes us through his work.

Watch Adam’s chat with Dan live on

Big Shoulders — Jeffrey Szorik, Votesphere

screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-1-46-35-pmThe latest election cycle has taught us some interesting things about ourselves and our democracy. First, we don’t understand the electorate to the point that we thought we did. That is important, as understanding the opinions and positions of citizens is a cornerstone of the republican form of democracy. Second, we have seen, even prior to this election cycle, that partisan politics in the way it is implemented in the US has not kept up with the complexity of the real world and real world situations that require government action.  

In my latest Big Shoulders, an web series exploring Chicago’s civic technology space and its leaders, I met Jeff Szorik, founder and CEO of Votesphere. Almost immediately I found my fundamental beliefs about citizen sentiment and understanding of issues challenged. Votesphere is an application that, using a smartphone, gives people a multi-dimensional way of understanding our own political identity, and a way to understand where the gaps are in our understanding of important issues of our time. In the end, it becomes much more than a profile-builder. It helps us learn about the challenges, the policy, and the topics that matter to the functioning of our nation.  

In this interview, hear Jeff discuss what led him to develop Votesphere. You will see how it provides a much different way of looking at your political profile. And you will learn how to get started in sharpening your voice to help break political deadlock.

Watch my talk with Jeff live on

It’s raining. It’s pouring. We’re flooding.

Flooding. There is something about water coming into your house that is so…invasive.  And when it comes in as bacteria carrying storm water from a sewer system, it is that much more upsetting and expensive.  Now multiply that equation by 181,000 (the number claims of property damage from flooding in the Chicagoland area over the last 5 years), and you have yourself a $773 million situation.  This is the situation that the City Digital Smart Green Infrastructure Monitoring project was designed to address.  Let me explain how we got here.

Sewer systems in major cities across the US and around the world often times are a century or more old.  Chicago built ours in 1856, as a combined system (carrying wastewater and stormwater together, away from people and homes and toward treatment plants).  And while the city spends approximately $50 million per year to clean and modernize the sewer lines and related structures, it is still a system built on notions of water events prior to our knowledge and understanding of climate change.  

Climate change has altered the behavior of water events.  As an example, storms are now more intense, shorter in duration, and more localized than they were 100 years ago.  This taxes the sewer systems in various locations around the city during times of intense rainfall.

In addition, there is far less green space in the city than there was 100 years ago.  Green spaces soak up stormwater.  The soil, and native plants living in it, utilizes that water and naturally cleanses some of the runoff.  When we build streets, roadways, parking lots, and buildings, we replace that green space with something impermeable.  Streets and rooftops, are like man-made rivers – they take stormwater and send it into the sewer system.  More hard surfaces + less green space = more water going into the sewers.

For years, we have known that adding “green elements” to the built environment diverts water from the sewers and puts it back into the natural system.  Rain gardens, rain barrels, cisterns, and permeable pavers are all natural elements that act to ultimately get more water back into the ground, less into the sewer system.  What we haven’t known is:

  • How much water is diverted from the sewer system?
  • Which green elements work best in which locations and under which conditions?
  • What is the quality of the water once it goes through the natural system?

Enter the world of sensors and data.  The Smart Green Infrastructure Monitoring project was one of the first projects to use the City of Chicago as a test bed for experimentation at scale.  In this case, we used the city to test a water monitoring solution that could scale to multiple cities around the globe.  City Digital selected multiple locations around Chicago to place sensors in different “green elements” to understand how they reduce the impact of flooding.  As an example of one such green element, in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, we incorporated permeable pavers (instead of impermeable asphalt) into a street scape system, which itself was part of a broader City project to create a shared plaza.  We added sensors beneath the pavers to determine how much water was absorbed into the ground (utilizing expertise from engineering company AECOM, and University of Illinois based-startup, Senformatics), and thereby diverted from the sewer system.  

optiOn Goose Island (where UI LABS is located), we built a bioswale with native plants. Working like rain gardens, bioswales are areas at the bottom of a sloped landscape filled with native vegetation to drain runoff water and remove pollution.   Again, sensors were added to determine the amount of water absorbed into the ground, water that otherwise would have been diverted to a sewer.  And other locations in the city will have other types of elements, and sensors to gather data on their performance.

Once the sensors pick up this data, it is collected in the Azure cloud.  There, it is city-digital_dashcombined with other data sources (such as weather forecasts) and is prepared for visualization on a dashboard through our Azure partner Opti, who focuses on new technology approaches to managing stormwater.  Over time, the data collection and analysis will also include metrics on the quality of the water as it passes through a natural system, allowing us to understand how runoff is handled.  Bringing all of this distributed data together will enable insights that a city can use as it plans for capital improvements.  

Imagine if every time a city made plans for street surfaces, parks, streetscapes, or the water system itself, it had the data to understand how to best leverage the opportunity to add green infrastructure.  Further, it would have insights as to which types of green infrastructure would work best in various locations.  Of course, we plan on extending type of experimentation to other water issues, but that is a blog for another time.   For more information on Smart Green Infrastructure Monitoring and other City Digital projects, go to

Learning Python to Celebrate #CSEdWeek

This week marks Computer Science Education Week. It is held annually, and it is primarily to inspire students to take the time to learn about computer science, specifically coding. One of the sources of that inspiration is trying to demystify coding and demonstrate that anyone can do it.  That proverbial “anyone” includes…me.

I am going to learn Python this year.  I have said that I would do that for several years now, but this is the year. In fact, I am forcing the issue by taking a CS course at DePaul University, where I will be working on my Masters in Predictive Analytics.

So why learn to code and why Python?

Programming languages and the way program development works is important in my industry, for sure. But that is not why I am doing it. My role at Microsoft is to work with civic leaders, government leaders, community organizers, activists, and civic technologists to help figure out how technology can be applied to some of the most intractable social challenges in Chicago. Much of that is ideation, brainstorming, understanding and refining the problem, identifying who is impacted, where is the data, and so on. All of that is crucial to overcoming challenges or capitalizing on opportunities before one line of code is written.


Adam J. Hecktman, Microsoft’s Director of Technology & Civic Innovation for Chicago

My contribution to date has been providing resources to civic technology projects from Microsoft and from my own network: thought leadership, technology resources, occasional sources of funding, etc. And…I fell in love with civic tech.  I fell in love with the challenges, the opportunities, the people, and the neighborhoods that are served by the outcomes. So I want to do more than provide the early-stage resources. I want to help build those solutions. And to do that, I need to learn the process and mechanics of problem solving through coding.  

So why Python? For one thing, the fact that it is easy to learn and easy to read makes it a good language to help understand how programmers think through a problem. A person with no programming language skills could look at a listing from a Python program and just by reading could figure out what it does. The faster you can learn how programmers think through a problem, the faster you will be able to do it yourself.

For another, there are many learning resources out there. Everything from online tutorials (such as those at and Code Academy) to books (for adults and kids alike, at any level). And there are so many people in the civic tech space that know Python that getting help will not be an issue. My course at DePaul, naturally, will be super-beneficial to helping me think like a programmer.

Third, Python has an enormous ecosystem of libraries. Libraries are pre-built code that you can use to do all kinds of things for you. For example, there are libraries for data science including Pandas (for data analysis, statistics, social science functions, etc.) and NumPy (for scientific functions); libraries for gaming (such as Pygame and Pyglet); and libraries to just make things easier (like BeautifulSoup, Requests, and OpenPyXL). There are thousands.

Last, there are many development environments that make actually putting the Python code all together easy (called Integrated Development Environments).  I plan on using the Python tools for Visual Studio. It will help me learn while editing my code with tool tips and code snippets. Plus, it will help as I look for various libraries and frameworks I may want to use as I advance in my skills.   

It is cliché to say that if I can do it, anyone can do it. But seriously, if I can do it, so can you. Let’s celebrate Computer Science Education Week together this year by diving in deep. Learn more about Computer Science Education Week at the Microsoft on the Issues blog.