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: Haven Allen, Executive Director, mHub Chicago

Anyone who says that manufacturing is a 20th century industry has never been to mHub in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood. A bewildering 63,000 square foot space that houses the community that is creating breakthrough products, boosting the local economy through physical manufacturing, and laying the foundation for a new manufacturing workforce. To quote mHub, they foster connections between local manufacturers, university researchers and Chicago’s entrepreneurial community of makers and technologists, not to mention investors who are eager to support new businesses.

The physical space is sensory overload. There is ample equipment to help startup manufacturers build and leverage electronics, plastic fabrication, metals, textiles and rapid prototyping. An entrepreneur with an idea for a physical product can use this “microfactory” for small production runs without the major capital outlays required to build a plant from scratch. Add to that the community and support you get from the mHub staff and other entrepreneurs and you have a formula for the next wave of Chicago’s manufacturing.

And lest you think it is all business, I recently spent a weekend at mHub watching students compete in a robotics competition. While the event space was filled with students prepping their inventions for battle in a ring, the manufacturing space was filled with parents and children building creations to compete at the Hebocon (an ugly robot contest…I actually found many of the robots endearing).

Haven Allen is the Executive Director and co-founder. An entrepreneur himself, Haven was an economic development strategist at World Business Chicago, the mayor’s economic arm. Spend ten minutes with him and you realize that this is a guy that, for all his humility, knows a lot of stuff. He spent time in the Peace Corps, the publishing industry, and owned his own business. He found time to get a Policy masters at the University of Michigan, and a Political Science degree from the University of Illinois. Here, he talks to me about his current passion, building the next generation of physical product manufacturers.

Watch Adam’s chat with Haven Allen live on

Saying Goodbye to Civic Tech Fellow Kevin Wei

Summer time is transition time. It is bittersweet. It is the time when we welcome new Civic Tech Fellows to our team. And it is also time when we say goodbye to the Civic Tech Fellows who have served our civic tech community and our city with such passion and inquisitiveness.  

A little bit about the program: Microsoft’s Civic Technology Engagement team understands that many of society’s greatest challenges require a strong grasp that comes only with being present, being empathetic, and doing some solid listening. It also requires the energy and passion to solve those challenges at the local level.  

To help us do exactly that, Microsoft created the Civic Tech Fellows program. We offer fellowships to students who are building a strong command of a variety of civic tech related disciplines: policy, economics, computer science, data science, design, etc. Our Fellows not only become a valuable part of the conversations that take place in our metros, but they also develop the strategies and technologies that help represent Microsoft’s engagement with community groups, non-profits, the tech sector, social entrepreneurs, academic institutions, and government officials.  

This summer, we say goodbye to Kevin Wei, who has been our Civic Tech Fellow for the last year and a half. If you have ever been to a Chi Hack Night (the weekly gathering of Chicago’s civic tech community), you have likely met Kevin. I say that because if you didn’t reach out to him, he has reached out to you.  His passion for using technology to solve the seemingly intractable challenges of our city and society are so genuine, so deep, that he simply wants you to come along and join him on his journey.

You clearly see this when he leads the Civic Tech 101 sessions for folks who are new to Chi Hack Night: he is removing stereotypes, eliminating hesitations, and welcoming newcomers. And if you haven’t been to a Chi Hack Night (shame on you and), you may know him from his amazing breadth of work. He helped Microsoft scale our DigiSeniors program, spreading digital literacy to those who could otherwise become marginalized in the digital world.  

Kevin learned and leveraged Microsoft data tools like Power BI to help make meaning derive insights from City of Chicago open data (see his Divvy Bike visualizations here), often partnering with others to extract the most out of it.  Kevin has also become an authority on Microsoft’s vast array of open source tools and products. He has helped Blue 1647 light up their civic tech muscle. He has been a gracious and welcoming host of the Chicago City Data Users Group. And, somewhere along the line, he studied hard and graduated with degrees in economics and public policy.

And now, we have to say goodbye to Kevin as he pursues his career. Kevin will be (temporarily) leaving Chicago to build new skills, embrace new people, and contribute to civic tech and society in new ways. While we will very much miss all the work that he does in Chicago, I will mostly miss Kevin the friend. He is thoughtful and wise beyond his years. And while I watch his career grow from a distance, I’ll look forward to his eventual return to his roots: the civic tech community of Chicago.

Keep your eyes on this blog to meet our new crop of civic tech fellows!

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