Civic Tech

Closing the Digital Divide in Detroit’s Lower East Side

Eastside Community Network in Detroit offers hands-on training to bridge the digital divide. Have you ever struggled to use an app or a website? Who did you turn to for help — friends, family? Bring Your Own Device Technology Training (BYOD) provides this kind of help to residents of Detroit’s Lower East Side. BYOD was brought to the community by the University of Michigan School of Information (UMSI) and longtime community development organization, Eastside Community Network (ECN). The two main spearheads of this project are Suzanne Cleage, Director of Neighborhood Growth at ECN and Kentaro Toyama, PhD, W.K. Kellogg Associate Professor of Community Information at UMSI. The program is also supported by Orlando Bailey Director of Community Partnerships at ECN and students from University of Michigan (U of M).

Eastside Community Network in Detroit offers hands-on training to bridge the digital divide. BYOD works to close the digital divide in Detroit’s Lower East Side neighborhoods. East Side hotspots, like West Village and Jeff-Chalmers, are experiencing rapid growth and receive lots of attention from the media and the city government. Other areas have yet to benefit from civic investment initiatives centered in areas like midtown and downtown.

Once a month, tech-savvy residents as well as graduate students and professors from U of M gather at the ECN headquarters to help residents increase their digital literacy skills. Questions can range from “How do I set up email?” to “What is the cloud and what happens when I put stuff in it?” ECN has both community members and academics to assist. This creates an inclusive environment where residents feel comfortable asking for help, while at the same time providing enough expertise so that all questions can be answered.

Technology can help people solve problems and connect, but only if people know how to use it. As technology becomes an increasingly essential part of everyday life, it is important to make sure no user is left behind. ECN uses email, mail, flyer canvassing and door-to-door outreach to let residents of the Lower Eastside know BYOD is happening. Sometimes, closing the digital divide means embracing analog, low-tech solutions that meet people where they are.

Orlando Bailey, Director of Community Partnerships at ECN, shared one of his favorite stories about BYOD. Ms. Minnie, a Lower East Side resident did not know how to use Skype to speak with her grandchildren in California. Once she learned how to register for and use the application, Ms. Minnie immediately Skyped her grandchildren and was able to see and chat with them. She plans to use Skype regularly to stay in touch with her family.

Eastside Community Network in Detroit offers hands-on training to bridge the digital divide. Civic tech often conjures images of large scale projects dealing with open data portals or fancy apps that help the cities communicate better with residents, but it’s important to remember that some of the most impactful civic tech work can be as simple as helping a neighbor set-up email for the first time. To ensure that civic tech does not exacerbate existing societal divisions, it’s important to proactively work on closing the digital divide. Programs like BYOD are a model for community-founded, community-led programs that increase digital literacy in America’s urban neighborhoods.

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

Microsoft Teamwork Helps Northwest Side Housing Center Thrive

As we all know, part of our work at Northwest Side Housing Center is reporting data to our funders. There was a time where we were triple-entering data into different data systems. This was a great headache for everyone involved. Enter Microsoft and their unique technology solutions. They were generous enough to help take on this headache.

When they heard of our issue at Chicago’s Do Good data conference, Microsoft posted details of the project on their shared worldwide website and used words that associate with the NWSHC, such as, “community oriented,” “social change,” and “justice.” The result: Microsoft employees from across the globe from Japan to Seattle, volunteering to help build the NWSHC a customized database to solve our data entry problem. This dream team of Microsoft volunteers took what would be a very long-term project and condensed it into a week! The results to this day are remarkable. Our data entry time has been cut in half and our team loves using the new system.

With the help and generosity from Microsoft, we’re more efficient serving the community that we care so deeply about. Today, we are in the process of getting this database approved by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) which will be the first of its kind as a result of this one-of-a-kind partnership. Without the help of such a great partner like Microsoft, we’d probably be still searching for solutions to our headache. I’d like to thank Microsoft and the worldwide team of volunteers who pitched in countless hours to make this happen.

Sean Washington joined the Northwest Side Housing Center in 2013 and is responsible for all of the Financial reporting, compliance, and General Operations for the NWSHC. He also assists with staff management, development, and organizational meetings. Before joining the NWSHC, Sean served at various non-profit and foreclosure prevention agencies including ACORN Housing, Affordable Housing Centers of America, and Illinois Housing Development Authority. At each organization Sean held a leadership role in some capacity, and brings his experience in management and leadership to the NWSHC. Sean double majored in Psychology and Human Services during his studies at Upper Iowa University. He recently completed the HACE Leadership Academy, one of the graduates of the 2017 cohort. Sean currently resides in Forest Park with his spouse and their daughter, Corinne. They were married on Sweetest Day, October 20th, 2012 and bought their first home together on that same day four years later. Ironically, it was the house Sean’s wife grew up in as a child. Sean enjoys spending time with his wife and daughter, along with playing and watching sports.

Leveraging Technology in Chicago’s Modern Economy

The 2017 Civic Technology Forum Explores How Technology Can Move Chicago ForwardLocal government, community and industry stakeholders gathered at Studio Xfinity for the 2017 Civic Technology Forum in Chicago. Hosted by Comcast, the forum featured Danielle DuMerer, Acting Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Innovation and Technology, Joe Moreno, Alderman of Chicago’s 1st Ward and John Fritchey, District Commissioner of Cook County’s 12th District. Forum panelists also included Elliot Fabian of Black Tech Mecca, Alya Woods of ChicagoNext and David Namkung of CLARITY Partners.

“Five years ago, tech in Chicago was hardly a conversation,” Woods said. Between 2010 and 2013, the number of tech jobs in Chicago increased by more than 25 percent, and Chicago has been one of the fastest growing cities for tech jobs. Today, public access to technology is a key driver in helping residents and businesses succeed in Chicago’s modern economy. The challenge is to make sure that the education individuals receive trains them with the right skills for success in Chicago’s job market, in which technology is at the forefront. Additionally, access to technology and the internet is crucial in priming Chicagoans, and all people, for success.

“A forum like this one that brings together local government, community and industry stakeholders is key to ensuring that the public has access to technologies that let both residents and businesses get their bite (or “byte”) of the pie,” Fritchey said. Fritchey further commented that tech access in Chicago neighborhoods and investment in innovation are keys to success in today’s economy.

“Events like the forum give Black Tech Mecca an opportunity to reshape perspectives and remove obstacles and [to] ultimately make technology more readily available to black people in the city,” Fabian commented.  Black Tech Mecca’s vision is to make the power and potential of technology accessible to every black child, entrepreneur and professional. It was great to hear from organizations like Black Tech Mecca on how democratizing technology can create efficiencies in Chicago’s growing economy.

Panelists discuss how Chicagoans can leverage technology toward economic success

DuMerer closed the forum emphasizing that “we can’t just create tech tools and not care about access and usability.” The conversation about access and accessibility must be part of the development process, not just an afterthought in today’s modern economy.

Microsoft and its fellows were thrilled to be part of this audience and conversation. Many thanks to Comcast for hosting the “2017 Civic Technology Forum” and to all the impressive panelists and audience participants for also being part of the conversation.

Doing Good is Worth Doing Well

In May 2017, the Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation celebrated five years at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and announced a $20 million gift. The Rustandy Center, formerly called the Social Enterprise Initiative, is the destination for people committed to helping solve complex social and environmental problems.

The following is an excerpt from a speech given by executive director Christina Hachikian, Booth adjunct associate professor of strategy.  

Only one human disease — smallpox — has ever been eradicated through deliberate intervention.  Polio, for instance, remains endemic in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria more than 64 years after Jonas Salk invented the Polio vaccine. That’s because disease eradication takes more than a vaccine. Leadership is required to take a solution and implement it on the ground.  

Questions of leadership in the social sector are among the most important that the Rustandy Center will strive to address through research.

But can research really have that kind of impact in the face of real, on-the-ground challenges?

Let me tell you a story.

A few years ago, Quaker Oats gave 20,780 pounds of surplus cereal bars to Feeding America. Each of its food banks wanted the bars. But to get them, they had to compete.  Bidding opened at 10 a.m. By noon, Kansas City, had won the bars.

Booth faculty members Canice Prendergast, Harry Davis, Donald Eisenstein and Robert Hamada devised Feeding America’s “choice system,” which lets food banks bid for products.

The local food banks lose more than they win, but this method of online non-cash bidding is far better than the old system. Previously, Feeding America assigned donations by rotating down a list. That system would sometimes leave food rotting in Rhode Island; cause chicken to go from Alaska to Alabama; or flood Florida with even more orange juice.

Booth faculty devised a system whereby “shares” were allocated to food banks daily, based on the poverty level and population of the community. To ensure small food banks could sometimes outbid much larger ones, smaller ones would get more shares.

Here’s how the head of a Michigan food bank described it: “Deciding which products to bid on isn’t easy, but we know our service area better than anyone else. For better or worse, the decision making is now precisely where it needs to be.”

In short, the model worked. But of equal importance are the questions it raises. Can this model be applied to other resources? What other lessons can we learn? What kind of leadership and buy-in was needed for wide-spread adoption of this model?

The mission of the Rustandy Center is to marry practical knowledge with academic insights into how the sector functions. And we seek answers the Booth way — by questioning, testing ideas, and seeking proof.

Armed with these insights, we strive to help people increase their odds of solving seemingly intractable problems.

Because doing good — from eradicating polio to distributing food to the hungry — is worth doing well.

Christina Hachikian is the executive director of the Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. She leads the center’s global work as the hub for people solving complex social and environmental problems.  In particular, she is responsible for strategy and direction, as well as resource development and partnerships.  She is also an adjunct associate professor at Booth, and teaches courses on scaling social innovation and on social enterprise strategy, as well as serving as a coach for the school’s Social New Venture Challenge.

Fellow Profile: Anna Draft

Where are you from? Lincoln Park, Chicago

School/grad year/major: BA, Middlebury College (2010), Joint Major Philosophy/Religion, Russian Language Minor. MPP Candidate, The University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy (2018), Policy Analysis and Disability Inclusion

Last thing you searched on Bing: Wonder Woman, show times

Why did you choose Microsoft’s fellowship program? Following graduation from college, I worked for Challenge America, a national database that connects injured military members and their families to resources in their local communities. This non-profit experience, and later experiences working in the digital strategy and design spaces, led me to recognize the major interdependencies between technology innovations and disability inclusion. Microsoft’s fellowship offers an incredible opportunity to engage with and learn from the current accessibility and digital equality efforts of Shelley Stern Grach and Adam Hecktman (here in Chicago) and Jenny Lay-Flurrie and team (in Seattle). By learning from leaders in the disability and accessibility advocacy fields and collaborating with local government officials, private companies, non-profits and public-sector organizations, this fellowship provides an unparalleled opportunity to explore innovative solutions for empowering Chicagoans with different technological resources and abilities.

What’s your favorite civic project in the Chicago area? Though miles away from some of my favorite hiking trails and ski mountains, Chicago does an incredible job of bringing green initiatives to our beautiful flatlands! The Riverwalk, the 606 and the Lakefront running/biking trails, Chicago’s green, open and accessible spaces are high on my list of favorite civic projects.

Who is your civic tech mentor/idol? Marca Bristo of Access Living. Marca was a key driver in writing the 1990 American’s with Disabilities Act, calling for (among other requirements) lifts on buses, accessible facilities, ATMs and telecommunications, as well as access within the workplace. I greatly admire her work in the city of Chicago and beyond.

What projects are you working on for your position as tech fellow for Microsoft Chicago? Among other outreach efforts and meetups, I’ll be focusing on the launch of DigiSeniors, which was started by the incredible, Civic Tech Fellow, Kevin Wei. I’ll also be working on Microsoft’s Women in STEM and Accessibility strategies throughout this fellowship in coordination with CPS, ADA25, ITKAN and others.

What excites you about civic tech? For me, civic tech doesn’t mean I need to be a developer or a data scientist (of which I am neither) to innovate. I am excited about facilitating new connections between developers, data scientists, government and policy experts, and public and private organizations to accomplish big things for the city of Chicago.

What’s one problem you hope civic tech will solve for cities? Microsoft and its partners are well positioned to improve digital literacy and workforce opportunities for Chicago’s impoverished neighborhoods, senior citizens and people with disabilities. I am beyond excited to be a part of this mission in my role as a Civic Tech Fellow.

Fellow Profile: Meghan Urisko

Meghan Urisko, Microsoft Civic Tech Fellow in DetroitWhere are you from? I’m a nomad who has lived in Los Angeles, Detroit, Paris, San Francisco, Brooklyn, Boston, Greenville, and Grosse Pointe. Currently, I live in Ypsilanti, MI.

School/grad year/major: I just finished the first year of my Master of Science in Information at the University of Michigan School of Information and will graduate in 2018. I’m specializing in Civic Experience Design.

Last thing you searched on Bing: Surface Pro

Why did you choose Microsoft’s fellowship program? I was honored to be selected as the Microsoft Civic Tech Fellow in Detroit so I can utilize my user-centered research and design skills to improve citizen experience. I look forward to learning more about serving communities with open data.

What’s your favorite civic project in the Detroit area? The Digital Stewards Training Program, which trains community members to build and maintain their own wireless communications infrastructure. I’m also inspired by the city’s payment kiosks which provide residents without connectivity a convenient method to pay water, tax, and electricity bills.

Who is your civic tech mentor/idol? I’m thrilled to be working with Erica Raleigh and the whole team at Data Driven Detroit. I have admired their work for years.

What projects are you working on for your position as tech fellow for Microsoft Chicago?

My main goal is to help Microsoft foster a meaningful role in supporting Detroit’s civic tech scene. Some of my projects will include developing an in-depth understanding of the existing civic tech community, supporting Data Driven Detroit in documenting local government and community data, training non-technical partners on technologies useful to the civic space, and supporting the Detroit Civic User Testing (CUT) Group.

What excites you about civic tech? Technology has the ability to have a large and positive impact on a wide variety of civic issues. It’s really exciting to join Microsoft at the forefront of exploring new ways that technology can support cities.

What’s one problem you hope civic tech will solve for cities? I hope the civic tech sphere will continue to champion public education on data and technology literacy so that tech solutions are inclusive solutions.

Fellow Profile: Soren Spicknall

Where are you from? I don’t feel tied to any one place above others, but I spent time living in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Alabama before moving to Chicago three years ago.

School/grad year/major: Illinois Institute of Technology, December 2018, co-terminal BS in Computer Science and MS in Data Science

Last thing you searched on Bing: I most recently searched “define fickle” to make sure I was using the right word when describing the behavior of characters in a film I was discussing with a friend.

Why did you choose Microsoft’s fellowship program? My work in computing has always been rooted in a desire to unite technical knowledge with sociopolitical advocacy. I had previously interacted with Adam Hecktman during an interdisciplinary project at Illinois Tech, and when he introduced this fellowship opening at ChiHackNight, I knew that it was an opportunity that both aligned with my interests and would be overseen by somebody who I enjoy working with.

What’s your favorite civic project in the Chicago area? Though it’s an obvious choice, the very existence of the City of Chicago’s Data Portal is a huge catalyst for civic tech work in the city. With improvements being made and new data sets being added regularly, the Data Portal (and the Department of Innovation and Technology overseeing it) is indicative of a general cultural shift toward government data openness.

Who is your civic tech mentor/idol? Rather than pointing out a specific name, I’d like to focus on the one person in each successful civic tech team whose every fifth word seems to be “stakeholders.” A civic tech project that is only accessible to civic technologists is a failed project, and those individuals who constantly push for input from voices outside the civic tech community help keep our discipline healthy.

What projects are you working on for your position as tech fellow for Microsoft Chicago? In addition to general outreach at meetups like ChiHackNight and the Chicago City Data User Group, I’ll be developing and heading up Microsoft Chicago’s blockchain strategy over the span of the fellowship. This work already includes partnerships with members of the Blockchain Education Network, UChicago’s Center for Data Science and Public Policy, and THRIVE Chicago, and there are sure to be more collaborators brought on board in the near future.

What excites you about civic tech? I have never wanted to be the kind of developer who works in a room filled only with other coders, and I’ve never wanted to be the kind of data scientist whose skills are put to use figuring out the most effective way to market soap. I want to be one component of an interdisciplinary team that has an impact on major issues and topics in government and society, and the realm of civic tech brings together developers, policy experts, citizen activists, and more to accomplish those goals.

What’s one problem you hope civic tech will solve for cities? I am excited by the potential of civic tech (and, specifically, of data science) to target infrastructure improvements in cities. Foot traffic data, water runoff data, and countless other measures of different pieces of physical infrastructure can give us a clearer picture of where repairs, redevelopment, and new projects could be most effectively implemented.

What’s Next After Microsoft — Civic Tech Fellow Alumnus Kevin Wei

Read Adam Hecktman’s goodbye to Kevin here.

Where did you study? I’m a proud graduate of UChicago Class of 2017, with a BA in Economics and Public Policy

What were your main duties as a Microsoft fellow?

Personal Projects – The fellowship gives everyone an awesome opportunity to pick and work on personal projects that are meaningful and help contribute to the civic tech ecosystem in a unique way. It’s such an awesome experience to have the support of the Microsoft Chicago team while you’re working on these projects which are specifically catered to your interests and skills; I developed a passion for digital access/literacy and data storytelling, and you can see that manifested in my projects such as DigiSeniors or Divvy Data Analysis.

Evangelism – Civic technology is all about inclusivity, and showing anyone and everyone the potential of technology for public good was really important. Presence and ‘showing up’ is what gets things done in Chicago, so whether it was hackathons like Migrahack or Tech for Justice, community organizations like Blue1647 or LISC, and civic tech meetups like ChiHackNight or Chicago City Data User Group, I made sure I was there to talk civic tech! No matter where you come from, everyone has something to contribute!

While personal projects and evangelism were important, I could write a whole book on the amount of amazing things I did during the fellowship, from device loans to relationship building. But to sum it up, I think it’s safe to say that there are so many amazing individuals, organizations, and efforts that are doing amazing things across the city, and I absolutely enjoyed every second of meeting and working with the wonderful people who are dedicated to making the world a better place through tech.

What has been your favorite project with the Technology and Civic Engagement Team?

DigiSeniors is an initiative to provide essential digital skills to senior citizens across Chicago. I had worked on it for the entirety of my fellowship, doing user experience research, creating the curriculum, and managing the program as we scaled across the city. This was one of my favorite projects because it really crystalized the power of collaborative ecosystem. Whether we were training nonprofits with our curriculum with Smart Chicago Collaborative, piloting a service-learning project with CPS/Senn High School, the list goes on and on…, it was clear that we need to continue addressing the digital divide across the city. But of course, I also have to give a side shout out to my public policy thesis, which analyzed why Chicago’s civic tech ecosystem was one of the best in the world!

Where is civic tech taking you next?

For now, I’ll be joining a rotational program at LiveRamp, a marketing-tech company in San Francisco, but I’ll never forget my civic tech roots! I know I’ll be heavily involved with the various civic tech groups in the Bay Area, like Code for America and the San Francisco Brigades and hope to learn and grow there! It’s an honor to have been a part of this wonderful civic tech ecosystem and have the ability to say, “you know in Chicago, we did this…”

What advice do you have for future fellows?

I’ll echo some advice from a previous fellow, the wonderful Erin Simpson, when I say that the core mantra of “build with people, not for people,” will always remain relevant. Whatever you’re building, keeping the civic tech ideals of accessibility and inclusivity will always lead you in the right direction.

And I would be remiss to not mention the fact that Adam Hecktman and Shelley Stern Grach are the best team and mentors you could ever ask for, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without them; learn as much as you can from them!

What’s Next After Microsoft — Civic Tech Fellow Alumnus Ivoire Morrell

Where did you study? I Graduated Manga Cum Laude from Lawrence Technological University earning my Bachelors in Computer Science.

What were your main duties as a Microsoft fellow? As a Microsoft Fellow, my main duty was to serve the city of Detroit through using Civic Engagement, Civic Technology, and data analysis as vehicles to drive positive change. I was able to carry out this mission through spearheading recruitment and managing the civic tech movement CUTGroup Detroit, creating informative visual reports through data analysis of some of Detroit’s most critical issues using Microsoft’s powerful data processing tool PowerBI, authoring several blogs about insights from my data analysis, instructing students throughout Detroit at Hour of Code workshops, serving as the technical partner for a data collaborative with the Census Bureau, and so much more.

What has been your favorite project with the Technology and Civic Engagement Team? I had the privilege of being a part of so many great projects during my time as a fellow that I can’t say I have one particular favorite. Two that I really enjoyed were the CUTGroup Detroit project and teaching students at the Hour of Code classes. Both of these projects were driven by making a positive impact on the community, which is something I strive to do every day. Being able to voyage throughout Detroit and interact with the people that make this city so great with CUTGroup Detroit recruitment was an amazing experience. Being able to inspire students through instructing coding classes was equally gratifying.

Where is civic tech taking you next? My next step in the world of civic tech will be at Data Driven Detroit (D3) where I will serve as a full-time Microsoft Civic Tech fellow for the city of Detroit. D3 has been a gracious host to me over the past year as a Microsoft Fellow and I look forward making an even greater impact on the city of Detroit as I step into the full time role.

What advice do you have for future fellows? My advice to all future fellows is to never lose sight of the mission that propels you. Stay focused on making the community a better place for all of those around you whether it be through Civic Engagement, Civic Technology, serving others, or simply being a voice for the voiceless. Don’t let the fact that you’re working for the world’s greatest company or the clout that can come from being in a position of influence distract you from the mission of impacting the community.