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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
The 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 Advisor.tv 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.
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.
On 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 combined 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 http://www.citydigital.org/focusareas-1/.
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 Lynda.com 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.
Credit: Project RELO
When I agreed to take part in the Project RELO experience, I was about as informed as you are now. All I knew is that it had something to do with spending time with military vets. Perhaps like you, I thought I had a good handle on the value that America’s veterans bring to an organization. Leadership, of course. Tenacity, certainly. Endurance, check. However, after going through Project RELO, my perspective has permanently been altered, and I see that while those are qualities that vets unquestionably bring to the table, they woefully understate their value.
Project RELO is a non-profit that brings business leaders together with veterans on a multi-day series of “missions” on a military base. For a short three days, business leaders live what can only be described as a glimpse of the military experience. We witness the kind of deep professional education, personal development, character building, and intellectual challenges that have defined their military careers.
During the day, our military vets were our guides at the massive Camp Grayling in Northern Michigan. Our “battle buddies” took us through simulators where we fired imitation rounds from real machine guns and other military weapons. They ran us through convoy training and virtual reality simulations. We experienced mock negotiations with tribal leaders, navigated underground sewer tunnels, and simulated an urban assault. This just scratched the surface of helping us appreciate the extent to which our military members are trained.
At night, we debriefed, ate dinner, and had deeply earnest discussions around the fire. Incidentally, this was my first experience sleeping in a tent (best sleep ever). We learn from the veterans, in a very personal way, what they bring to an organization.
Although it can hardly be compared to a military experience, Project RELO enabled me to formulate a mental model of how military experience brings out the adaptive, collaborative, communicative, and loyalty traits in these men and women. These are merits that so many companies in corporate America say are terribly hard to find. It is best to grasp these qualities by meeting my veteran friends:
Casey: Each business leader was assigned a battle buddy. Casey was mine for the first half. Casey is a young, enthusiastic, incredibly energetic, highly intelligent young man with a strong sense of kinship. Immediately upon meeting Casey, you are part of his family. His loving and empathetic nature could lead you to believe that he was raised with strong parental bonds. Negative. It was his many deployments overseas, in battle and in peace, that kindled his collaborative spirit and his recognition of the value in every person. It was during his infantry experience, starting at age 18, where Casey formed his notion family. Casey depended on his team in the ways his team depended on him: emotionally, professionally, and, at times, existentially.
Marsha: Marsha turned 29 years old on this trip. She had been in the military for 10 years. Marsha decided early on in her career that she would take every opportunity that the military afforded her to build on her already solid foundation of intelligence. She took whatever downtime she had, even when deployed overseas, to study new languages, learn new skills, collecting associate degrees and certifications along the way. Marsha has a hard to describe warmth and sweetness about her that draws people in. You immediately know that she is a person with whom you want to spend time. A person that you want to converse with and who makes it very easy to open up. These qualities no doubt served her well professionally. Marsha’s job in the military was gathering human intelligence.
Mike: Mike (“Fletch”) claims to have only two emotions. While he may only show two, spend any amount of time with him and you get the strong sense that he is a far more complex person. A first responder now, Mike’s military career was as a Naval Officer. His passion and talent is developing others. Mike took us through a simulation that demonstrated the difficulty of keeping a motorized convoy together. Without realizing what was happening to us, we (the business folks) went from a disorganized mess to a semi-organized team. During our de-briefing, Mike helped us realize that the difference from our beginning to our end was that we discovered the power of communication. If Mike could bring us that far and make us feel that proud in an hour, imagine spending your career under his tutelage.
Jimmy “Fixit”: Jimmy “Fixit” was my battle buddy for the second half. He is without question the most selfless person I have every had the pleasure of knowing. We call him Jimmy Fixit because there is nothing he cannot fix. Part of a familial line of welders, it is not just his ample technical skill that makes up his gift. His military experience honed his resolve, creativity, and genuine desire to make others safe, happy, and great. Forget any notion of vets being rigid and protocol-driven. He showed me that one of the most valuable skills that a military vet brings is adaptability. Jimmy is quick to tell you he loves you, and he means it.
Rick: Proud father of four in West Seattle. Rick is warm, kind, and has a razor sharp intellect. He better. He is a retired US Coast Guard Rear Admiral. From Rick, I learned that American vets bring more than technical skill to a project. They bring an adaptive and collaborative mindset that is often overlooked when thinking about vet value. Rick taught me the importance of character, which is essential when you are the Commander for keeping over 3000 men and women (sometimes over 4000) in a state of readiness to respond to just about any emergency situation. Rick is the perfect gentleman.
Christian: Our guide for Project RELO, Christian, embodies and personifies leadership done well. When you talk to Christian, you are the only thing in the world that is important. You want to succeed because he wants you to succeed. You won’t fail because he assures you that you won’t fail. He will subtly facilitate the kind of teamwork, collaboration, and support that drives you to want to make others succeed. Christian loves people, teams, organizations, and of course, the veterans. All he wants from you is to share that passion. He does this by tapping into your potential and helping you realize your part — your value — in the team experience. Christian was a Captain in the Marines and is now the CIO of a large global enterprise organization.
Adaptivity. Collaboration. Passion. Compassion. Command. Character. Intellectual horsepower. Empathy. Scale. Enthusiasm. These descriptors appear time and again in corporate job descriptions and reqs. And here they are, in ample supply, in our military veterans, just waiting to be applied to the corporate domain. It seems to me that correcting the veteran underemployment problem should, in theory, be a no-brainer. Yet it hasn’t happened.
What I learned about our military veterans in this immersive training experience was nothing short of profound. Everything I knew about vets before was cliché. Eating with them, sleeping with them, learning from them, relying on them, laughing with them, crying with them, they awakened in me the pathway for developing the same attributes that I admired so greatly. If they could give me this level of personal growth in 72 hours, imagine what they could bring your organization.
Businesses of all sizes have been using productivity platforms to collaborate for decades now. Further, social networking has become the de facto way that we share ideas and interests with like-minded people all over the world. Both technologies have helped people overcome traditional barriers to conversation, ideation, and planning. Civic Artworks has recognized the applicability of such platforms to community organizing and communicating with public officials. To that end, they have created a platform of their own that gives communities the tools they need to shape the future of their neighborhoods.
In my latest Big Shoulders, an Advisor.tv web series exploring Chicago’s civic technology space and its leaders, I had the pleasure of hosting Zach Borders, the CEO and Founder of Civic ArtWorks. Zach explains how the Municipal platform empowers community members with the tools they need to fund, plan, and execute projects that impact their neighborhoods.
Watch my talk with Zach Borders live on Advisor.tv.
If you want to get to Champaign-Urbana from Chicago, here is my suggested route:
Depart the city heading south.
Drive through high corn fields and lush soy fields.
When you feel your mind being blown, you have arrived.
Specifically, you have arrived at the University of Illinois Research Park where both enterprise companies and startups bask in the glow of advanced science and research. I made the trek with Laura Freichs, the Director of Research Park, as my guide for the experience.
First, let me describe the physical space — 15 buildings over a sprawling 200 acres of space adjacent to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) campus. There are, at any given time, 100 corporate companies with corporate innovation centers housed there. There are an additional 50 startups sprouting out of the beautiful and collaborative EnterpriseWorks tech incubator housed at Research Park.
Let’s cover the corporate innovation centers first. Some of the largest companies in the US are doing research and development at Research Park, much of it focused on data, advanced computation, and advanced modeling. The companies doing research vary in industry, from Abbott and Abvie in life sciences, to Capital One and CME Group in financial services, to ABInBev and Dow in process manufacturing.
What kind of work do these corporate titans do at Research Park?
Caterpillar not only houses a simulation center and an advanced data innovation lab at Research Park, they have also employed over 500 student interns, more than 100 of whom have landed jobs as engineers at Cat. Yahoo has 165 employees doing advanced software development and research, and created a home base for their Hadoop Center of Excellence and Data team. These companies all see access to a top talent pipeline as a key benefit, not to mention the early look at trends in the innovation and data spaces they get by being located in close proximity to UIUC.
For me, the corporate partners were the icing on the cake. I was there to learn about the startups. Specifically, I was looking to meet with startups that had either a civic tech or smart cities focus. I wasn’t disappointed. Laura and her team brought me to EnterpriseWorks , a 43,000 sq ft incubator. EnterpriseWorks houses startups that are heavily invested in science-based commercialization opportunities…heavy, heavy science. Given that UIUC is home to some of the world’s top engineering talent and computing resources (their Blue Waters supercomputer is the fastest in the academic world), this makes sense.
Some of the companies and researchers I met included:
Dr. Kaustubh Bhalerao, a researcher in biological nanotechnology, who has been working on ways to dramatically reduce the cost of testing nitrogen content in the soil. Nitrogen fertilization is essential for profitable crop production, and optimizing for nitrogen improves the food supply.
Dr. Yanfeng Ouyang and Rebekah Yang of TEST (Transportation Engineering Solutions & Technology), a spinoff from a U of I project for the Illinois Tollway. They look at the sustainability of roadways across the lifecycle, from building them to using them. They use advanced science and engineering research to build tools that will improve environmental and economic impacts of transportation infrastructure (both roads and rail).
AE Machines and their Chief Technology Officer, Amy LaViers, could have had me for the entire day if they would let me play with their product all day. Amy had Ardiuno littleBits sprawled across a table. Her company built a drag and drop design interface so that the young and non-technical can have fun learning about the internet of things. It will truly broaden the opportunity for IoT.
Tim Sinclair, the CEO of Ringr with a seasoned radio voice (he was actually a sports announcer in an earlier life). Ringr solves the problem of remote interviews on your podcast sounding, well, remote. With his technology, a remote conversation sounds like you are in the same room.
Quicket Solutions, whose CEO, Christiaan Burner, showed me how his Software as a Service solution for law enforcement can bring a notoriously antiquated field into the age of the cloud. Any law enforcement agency, with low risk and no up-front investment, can turn paper-based reporting evidence management, and compliance into a process served up from the cloud to any of a number of endpoints.
Granular, a Bay area creator of farm management software ERP software, has a regional HQ in Research Park. They were one of a number of businesses in the AgriTech space. Given that the region is heavily invested in agriculture, it makes sense to do your research where you have access to and input from your future customer base.
These are the people Laura with whom Laura gets to spend each day. Every group I met with pushed my adrenaline levels just a little bit higher. What truly capped it for me was my visit to the Cline Center for Democracy, a group that brings data, democracy, and the human condition together with research like I had never seen before. Story for another blog.
And if I sound like a fan…well…I was Class of 1988.