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.

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.

What You Can Do to Empower the Public and Nonprofit Sectors with Data and Technology

At Microsoft, we partner with civic organizations and governments to create new ways to leverage data and technology to tackle local priorities.  We see first-hand both the opportunity for these capabilities to help groups achieve more effective outcomes and the challenges facing busy non-profit and public sector staff in gaining the skills they need to strategically select, design and use key tools such as data analytics, visualizations, and tech infrastructure.  That is why we joined with the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP) at the Urban Institute to study the landscape of Training on Data and Technology to Improve Communities.  Today, we welcome Kathy Pettit of the Urban Institute as a guest blogger to describe the project and the newly-released resources and recommendations for how we all can work together to extend and expand these sorts of impactful training opportunities.  

— Elizabeth Grossman, Director of Civic Projects, Microsoft

CivTech St. Louis, a collaboration of nonprofits, local governments, universities, and local technologists, launched a new open source website and text reminder system enabling residents to look up their own municipal tickets and warrants and easily access information about how to resolve or contest them. In Boston, the City of Boston’s Division of Youth Engagement and Employment in partnership with the Metropolitan Area Planning Council revamped the city’s algorithm for matching students to summer jobs incorporating applicant job preferences developed by youth and alternatives for youth living farther from job opportunities.

These are just two examples among many efforts around the country to apply data and technology in innovative ways. But we need to equip all our local nonprofits and governments with the knowledge and confidence to use data and technology to identify community priorities and design effective responses. The National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP) and Microsoft’s Civic Technology Engagement Group believe training is a critical part of the efforts to accomplish this goal. Based on the lessons from our year-long joint project, we now offer a new set of resources to help local communities expand training on data and technology for local governments and nonprofits, including a brief summarizing the study results, a guide on designing and executing training, and a catalog of training materials.

A wide variety of organizations are well suited to providing training: libraries, applied university centers, local government agencies, coalition leaders, nonprofit support organizations, and civic technology groups. But many other players –  government agency and elected leaders, nonprofit executives, and funders – also have a role in ensuring that the people working to improve our communities have the skills they need to perform their jobs successfully. We suggest four ways that local and national actors can improve the quality and quantity of training and thus increase the application of data and technology in public and nonprofit planning and programs.

  • Expand the training available to government and nonprofit staff: More organizations – libraries, university centers, nonprofit support organizations, civic technologist volunteers, public agencies, or local data intermediaries like NNIP partners – should provide training. In-person classes enable participants to gain hands-on experience with data and technology while connecting with others interested in continuous learning. Our new guide for organizations interested in providing training offers steps for getting started.
  • Foster opportunities for sharing training materials and lessons: We need to encourage more regular exchange among trainers within a community and across the country. We have created a catalog with descriptions and materials from selected trainings. Other networks and interest groups should curate tailored materials for specific audiences. To advance the field of training, we also need to foster more interaction among trainers through virtual and face-to-face gatherings.
  • Identify allies who can enhance and support local training efforts: Even organizations that do not provide training directly have critical parts to play in expanding training opportunities and participation. For example, foundations should provide financial support and encouragement for developing and attending training for their grantees. Government and nonprofit leaders can create work environments that value efforts to improve staff data and technology capabilities. Changing Culture by the Johns Hopkins Center for Government Excellence shares ways to influence a government agency’s culture to have staff become more adept with using data. Collected Voices from the Nonprofit Technology Network offers guidance to nonprofits on building a culture of using data.
  • Assess the local landscape of data and technology training: Local actors across sectors should understand their community’s capacity to employ data and technology, including gaps in training on these skills. This information can help localities prioritize the audiences and topics for training. Our guide offers suggestions and a sample interview protocol on how to assess training opportunities and needs based on the experiences of the NNIP partners.

Today’s communities are facing many challenges with the prospect of more limited resources from the state and federal government. Leveraging data and technology can help our public and nonprofit sectors make more informed decisions and adapt to changing circumstances. Progress on this can be made more quickly and in more places if we invest in training development and implementation and create opportunities to share promising practices from around the country.

Our project highlights how community training delivered in person helps to ensure it is tailored for local audiences and context. Over the next month, you will hear from NNIP partner organizations in Detroit, Oakland, and Pittsburgh on how they are helping to meet the need for training on data and technology in their communities.

Microsoft Technology Center to Open in Detroit

Microsoft is coming to Detroit!

Our Michigan Microsoft team, currently hosted in Southfield, is moving to a 40,000 square foot space at One Campus Martius, where Detroit will host its own Microsoft Technology Center (MTC). At our Microsoft Technology Centers (like our Chicago location), we offer interactive and immersive experiences surrounding Microsoft technologies and initiatives. Our MTCs drive customers, partners, and everyday people looking to use cloud technology to drive impact in their communities.

“We are excited to relocate and be part in the revitalization and the growing tech hub of Detroit,” said Tracy Galloway, General Manager of the Great Lakes region for Microsoft. “Our new location will be home to Detroit’s Microsoft Technology Center; where we provide world class technology solutions and innovation for our customers as well as a home for community outreach around STEM.”

As part of our growing involvement in Detroit, we’re looking forward to building new innovations and opportunities to engage with the people of Detroit. The Motor City has embraced innovation as part of its core values, and we’re thrilled to join the city to boost these initiatives.

The Microsoft Technology Center Detroit is expected to open in early 2018.

Learn more about the Microsoft Technology Center Detroit at our MTC hub.

Read the latest on our partnership via the Detroit Free Press.

Residential Property Analysis: Motor City Mapping

The economic turmoil in the city of Detroit has devastated the housing market. Over the years, the conditions of many homes across the city have slowly eroded from dense, stable neighborhoods to blighted, barely-habitable structures. As buildings and neighborhoods have deteriorated, more families have vacated their homes in pursuit of destinations with more opportunity. This has left many architecturally-sound homes that are in good condition, unoccupied due to the “blight” of the surrounding environment.

In order to change the narrative that is taking place with the residential housing market in different Detroit communities, Data Driven Detroit (D3) and LOVELAND joined forces to develop the Motor City Mapping project (MCM), conducting the largest public data collection initiative in the history of Detroit. With the support of Rock Ventures, The Kresge Foundation, The Skillman Foundation, the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, JP Morgan Chase, Michigan Nonprofit Association, and other amazing organizations, D3 hired over 200 Detroit resident surveyors to conduct a parcel by parcel survey of Detroit properties using LOVELAND’S mobile surveying application.

With hard work, diligence, and in the snowiest winter in Detroit’s recorded history, the team collected data from approximately 380,000 structures in Detroit, ranging from the condition of the structure to the occupancy of the structure. The cumulative efforts of the different parties lead to the development and launch of the Motor City Mapping online website which displays a map of the different Detroit properties by neighborhood with an in-depth breakdown of the structures in each community. The goal of the MCM portal was to create a comprehensive database of detailed information including the condition of each and every property of Detroit that would allow policy makers/community organizers to make analytical decision making when it comes to the redevelopment of different Detroit communities.

The research conducted by these different parties is the basis of my PowerBI presentation titled: MCM Residential Property Analysis. Using the 2009 Detroit Residential Parcel Survey (DRPS) dataset (details the information about the residential properties surveyed in 2009) and the 2014 MCM dataset (details the information about same residential properties surveyed in 2009, along with commercial properties), both extracted from Data Driven Detroit, I created visualizations using Microsoft’s PowerBI to compare the changes in residential properties for both years. The objective of this analysis was to determine how the residential housing stock in the city has changed from 2009 to 2014 and to offer some innovative strategies that the city of Detroit could apply to rebuild the housing market.


The visual above displays information comparing the changes in Detroit residential properties from 2009 to 2014. Table 1.1 (Top-Left) shows detailed information about each residential property surveyed in both years, comparing the changes in the housing conditions. Information in this table includes the properties’ address, neighborhood, the property condition 2009, the property condition in 2014, and the whether or not the property has improved, declined, or maintained condition. Table 1.2 (Top-Right) displays the total amount of homes that have maintained, improved, or have declined in condition rating between the initial survey in 2009 and the most recent survey in 2014. According to the data, 190,876 homes have maintained condition, 26,508 homes have declined, and 17,425 homes have improved from 2009 to 2014.

The four graphs on the bottom of this visual display the conditional changes of all the residential properties surveyed from 2009 to 2014.  Graph 1.3 (Bottom-Left) shows in 2009, 1,468 homes were suggested for demolition (the worst condition rating) compared to 2014 where 4,042 homes were suggested to be demolished (an increase of 2,574 residential properties). Table 1.4 (2nd from left) shows that in 2009, 5,992 residential properties were in poor condition compared to 2014 where 8041 properties were determined to be in a similar condition (an increase of 2,049 residential properties). Table 1.5 (3rd from left) shows that in 2009, 21,357 homes were determined to be in fair condition compared to 2014 where 27,546 homes were in a similar state (an increase of 6,189 residential properties). Table 1.6 (Bottom-Right) shows that in 2009, 205,996 homes were measured to be in good condition compared to 2014 where 203,992 homes were determined in a similar state (decrease of 2,004 residential properties).

The data from these different charts show that the quality of residential properties has declined since 2009. More homes have declined than have improved since 2009, showing (as most Detroiters know) that there is much more to accomplish in order to improve the housing market. One of the biggest statistics that jumps out to me is the increase of homes suggested for demolition from 2009 to 2014. The number of homes basically tripled in this housing condition state, showing the severity of the housing decline from 2009 to 2014.


The second visual posted above displays more information from the MCM data, with a detailed focus on residential properties by neighborhood. Table 2.1 (Top-Left) is a slicer tool that contains the different neighborhoods surveyed in the MCM dataset. When selecting a checkbox (or checkboxes) for the displayed neighborhoods, the information in the other tables related to the selected neighborhoods are highlighted. Below is an example of using this tool when selecting the neighborhoods Conner, Denby, and Tireman (To reference the Master Plan Neighborhoods mentioned in this dataset, click here).


Table 2.2 (second from left) is a treemap that displays the number of properties that have declined in condition by neighborhood. The five neighborhoods where the most residential properties declined were:

  1. Tireman (1,417)
  2. Conner (1,274)
  3. Mt. Olivet (1,254)
  4. Mackenzie (1,167)
  5. Harmony Village (1,105).

Table 2.3 (Top-Right) shows the number of residential properties that are in poor and suggest demolition conditions by neighborhood. The five neighborhoods with the most homes in these conditions were:

  1. Tireman (806)
  2. Conner (696)
  3. Davison (534)
  4. Chadsey (485)
  5. Brighmoor (463)

Table 2.3 (Bottom-Left) shows the number of unoccupied homes by neighborhood in 2014. This table includes the name of the different neighborhoods and the number of structures unoccupied by number of housing units. This table could be used to build neighborhood redevelopment strategies based on the number of unoccupied residential units. For example, there are large amounts of unoccupied single unit homes in nearly all of the surveyed neighborhoods, which would be ideal for young couples and single parent families. To attract individuals to live in these neighborhoods, strategies should be implemented to make these particular neighborhoods more attractive to small families including making these homes more affordable, as well as injecting these communities with after-hour establishments for the entertainment of young couples, parks/community centers for parents to take their children, and other institutions.

Table 2.4 (Bottom-Middle) displays details about the different homes that have fire damage according to the 2014 survey. This table includes the property’s address, zip code, unit type, neighborhood, and the current condition of the property. Table 2.5 (Bottom-right) shows information on the number of homes that needed boarding by neighborhood in 2014. The five communities that have the most properties in need of boarding were:

  1. Conner (1,617)
  2. Tireman (1,428)
  3. Mackenzie (1,248)
  4. Burbank (1,195)
  5. Mt. Olivet (1,163)

The tables presented in this visual show the Detroit neighborhoods that should be focal points when it comes rebuilding the residential housing market in the Motor City based on the declining conditions of residential properties. The common trend I see in three of the five tables is with the neighborhoods of Conner and Tireman. These two communities have the highest number of declining residential properties, the most residential properties in poor/suggested demolition condition, and the largest number of residential properties that need boarding. These are definitely two communities where additional intervention is required.

One program that generates great optimism in regards to the Detroit residential housing market is the Detroit Neighborhood Initiative. Established by the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America (NACA), Bank of America, Opportunity Resource Fund, and the City of Detroit, this outstanding collaborative makes home ownership a reality through the creation of a remarkable mortgage program designed to make residential housing more affordable for prospective Detroit homeowners. I believe this initiative will have a profound impact on the Detroit housing market. This program offers the following benefits to citizens that sign-up:

  • No down payment
  • No closing costs
  • No fees
  • Below market fixed rates (3.5% – 30 year / 2.875% – 15 year)
  • 30 year – One percent of mortgage permanently reduces rate by .25% to virtually zero
  • 15 year – One percent of mortgage permanently reduces rate by .50% to virtually zero
  • Available on all property types: new, existing, single to four families, condo
  • Credit Score never considered in mortgage process
  • Homebuyers individual payment history utilized
  • Underwriting done by NACA

Including renovation funding in the mortgage will play a huge role in improving the quality of housing in the Detroit area. Before the creation of this program, obtaining renovation funding to improve housing was a huge barrier for prospective homeowners. Mortgages can only be issued for the appraised value of a house, but due to the low values of residential sales ($10,000, for example), individuals are unable to finance renovations when buying a house as costs exceed $50,000 in some cases. Including renovation funding with the Detroit Neighborhood Initiative bypasses this barrier giving prospective homeowners the power to invest in the homes they desire to purchase while sequentially rebuilding the residential housing market through the renovation funding poured into the property.

Pairing the MCM dataset with the Detroit Neighborhood Initiative would be a great strategy to track home improvement and to also formulate blueprints toward rebuilding the residential housing market. Knowing the communities with deteriorating residential properties along with the specific details about the infrastructure of each property would give more insight to urban planners and community advocates looking to strengthen community stability. While other strategies and efforts must be ignited to help improve housing in Detroit, the Motor City Mapping dataset, and Detroit Neighborhood initiative serve as two beacons of hope for restoring Detroit’s residential housing market.

To view and interact with the MCM PowerBI visualization, click here.

Cold Temps, Warm Hearts in Detroit!

Oh, the weather outside was frightful last week, traveling from sub-zero Chicago to sub-zero Detroit. I felt like I was in a “Frozen” version of Groundhog Day, repeating Chicago’s coldest weather in how many years as it arrived in Detroit. Lucky me. I had my flannel-lined jeans, my Omni-Heat Pillsbury Dough-girl coat and, of course, my Uggs. I can do this!

First stop was Tech Town for a full morning with our great friends DataDrivenDetroit@D3. Met with the whole team and got to play Mrs. Claus as Microsoft donated a sleigh full of Surface Pro 4’s to the D3 team to use for CUT Groups, community work and analysis. We even got red type pads to mark the holiday season.

Group with Surface Devices

In addition to playing with our new toys, we discussed plans for 2017, including expansion of CUT Groups and looking into a regional data collaborative. D3 is doing amazing work to accelerate the civic tech ecosystem.

My next meeting was with Mark Crosswell, of Points of Light. Mark and his wonderful colleague Megan Christenson, run the Civic Accelerator, a Points of Light program. Our Civic Tech Fellow, Ivoire Morrell and I wanted to learn more about this program, which is focused on Youth Education and Workforce Development. “CivicX” is the first national accelerator program and investment fund in the country focused on “civic ventures”—for profit and early stage ventures that solve social problems by including people as part of the solution to critical social programs. The 10 week, boot camp-style program convenes 10-15 teams in person and online with the goal of equipping each venture to seek investments and scale their social innovation. You can learn more about the Civic Accelerator at @civicaccleratr#CivicX, and

Microsoft has been a big fan of CivicX and Ivoire, my Chicago colleague Adam Hecktman, and I have attended mentoring workshops through the 2016 program, which focuses on my two favorite (and freezing!) towns of Chicago and Detroit. We discussed the overall program goals with Mark, then Ivoire and I headed off to Ford Motor Company’s corporate headquarters in Dearborn, where Ford graciously hosted CivicX Demo Day 2016, which was organized and run by Megan…

At the gorgeous auditorium at Ford, we saw the various teams presenting their concepts in a Ted-talk format. The entrepreneurs each had 3 minutes to pitch their solution. The audience voted for Most Innovative Solution, Greatest Social Impact and Most Compelling Story. I absolutely LOVE these categories! Having worked 1:1 with some of the teams as they were developing their plans, it was awesome to see the progress and inspiring to see the focus on social impact.

Here are some photos of some of the Pitches:

As I bundled off to return to 8 inches of snow over the weekend in New Buffalo, I reflected on the incredible momentum and positivity in Detroit. Truly a great revival story, that has a broad spectrum of organizations and very committed people. If Chicago is the city of Big Shoulders, Detroit is the city of Warm Hearts.

Oh, yes, it could have been worse. Ask the Chicago Bears. Happy Holidays!!!!!

Celebrating the Hour of Code with Detroit Middle School Students


In recognition of Microsoft reaching over 300 Detroit Middle School students for Hour of Code on Friday December 9th, 2016, Detroit City Councilman Andre Spivey, awarded Microsoft Technology Center the prestigious Spirit of Detroit award.  In addition, the Technology Center was also recognized by Congresswomen, Brenda Lawrence, with a Proclamation declaring December 9th Microsoft Technology Center Day.

dsc_0173The Microsoft Southfield MTC hosted Hour of Code with students from Hamilton Academy Middle School in Detroit. The Hamilton students won an essay competition for the privilege to attend Hour of Code at the MTC.  The 13 middle schools who participated in the competition were able to experience Hour of Code via Skype. Charles Stacy Harris and Kevin H. Smith broadcast from the MTC while the Hamilton students were treated to a tour.

We are honored and humbled with the award and proclamation.

dsc_0163 Thank you to the Drew Costakis and the entire MTC Staff and a special thank you to our partner, Sandra Ware, Director of Community Engagement, MTA Elementary School, for creating a great day for the students!

A week in the life of a Civic Tech Evangelist Part 2: Points of Light Civic Accelerator

This is part of a series by Ivoire Morrell, a Microsoft Chicago Civic Tech Fellow and all-around civic tech enthusiast. See part one of this series here.

Points of Light

The next stop after the #micities conference was on Thursday, October 13, where I attended the Points of Light Civic Accelerator First Look event in Detroit. The Points of Light Civic Accelerator is a program that truly embodies civic engagement. With the increasing number of unemployed young adults in the United States who lack the workforce-ready skills to land employment in growing industries, and with Detroit having one of the highest youth unemployment rates in the nation, the proactive problem solvers at Points of Light proposed the question: How might we improve educational outcomes and ensure workforce success for youth in Detroit and the Great Lakes region? The solution to this dilemma: The Civic Accelerator.

Civic Accelerator (CivicX) is a groundbreaking program that serves as an advocate toward furthering the advancement of emerging for-profit/nonprofit civic ventures within the Midwest and beyond that focus on education and workforce development. Placing these different ventures into a 10-week entrepreneurial boot camp/investment fund, Civic Accelerator focuses on building expedited innovation of educational outcomes and youth workforce development in areas including: Alternative learning models, experiential training, developing 21st century job ready skills, carving workforce pathways, and creating greater access to internal liberators (social services, professional mentoring, career services, and healthy living).


Before heading to CivicX First Look, I made a stop at Data Driven Detroit for a meeting with my friend Dustin O’Hara, who is a doctoral candidate in Information Studies at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). We met to talk about CUTGroup Detroit, which is one of the projects Dustin is researching for his dissertation focused on Smart cities and civic engagement. During our conversation, Dustin mentioned an awe-inspiring community revitalization project he is researching in the Highland Park called Avalon Village. Knowing of my passion for rebuilding communities through reading my blog series, Community Takes Commitment, Dustin invited me to take a tour of Avalon Village and to meet the individuals behind this conception.

CivicX First Look

Moments after leaving D3, Dustin and I arrived at Avalon Village. The atmosphere of the area was simply astounding. Construction workers were wrapping up one of the parks many imaginative institutions called the homework house. The homework house will serve as an after school destination of creation allowing students to receive help with homework through tutoring programs, create music at the in house recording studio, learn about STEM, and so much more. Avalon Village will also host other environment enhancers including a restaurant called the Blue Moon Café, a store called the Goddess Marketplace where female entrepreneurs can sell their products, a greenhouse to café food system, alternative living/business spaces made out of shipping containers, urban gardens, basketball courts, and other enlightening establishments.

The mastermind behind this virtuous vessel of communal cohesion, Shamayim Harris, became inspired to initialize Avalon Village after a tragic hit and run incident claimed the life of her 2-year son, Jakobi Ra (rest peacefully young Jakobi). In his honor, she launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for Avalon Village. Her Kickstarter campaign was a huge success raising $243,690 and gaining donations from others who strive to see positive change in impoverished Detroit communities. The first installation at Avalon Village was Jakobi RA Park which serves as a gathering place for celebrations and other community events.

I did not get a chance to meet Shamayim during my visit at Avalon Village, but I would just like to say your story of tragedy to triumph is compelling and truly admirable. Through your resilience during affliction, you have pioneered a grassroots movement that is not only reshaping the infrastructure of Highland Park, but transforming the minds and hearts of the citizens that dwell in the community, giving them hope for a brighter tomorrow. I pray that your movement scintillates the cerebral sensors of citizens living in impoverished communities throughout the globe, inspiring them to initialize similar strategies to revolutionize their neighborhoods.

After leaving Avalon Village, I headed to MASH Detroit, a dynamic community co-op that hosts collaboration efforts between innovators and creators across Detroit, which was the destination for CivicX First Look. After greeting the magnificent Points of Light team which includes Ayesha Khanna, Mark Crosswell, Megan Christenson, and Jasmine Cato, I took my seat and awaited the start of the evening’s main event.

The format for CivicX operated like a friendly shark-tank style even where the newest class of Civic Accelerator participants were given three minutes to pitch to the audience what their respective ventures are doing to stimulate educational and workforce development in the city of Detroit. After each ventures pitch, the audience was given two minutes to ask questions and provide intuitive insight on the content of each pitch, highlighting what was effective, what was ineffective, and what could be improved or modified to increase the vitality of the presentation. The ventures were divided and presented in three different categories: 21st Century Skills, College Prep & Completion, and Workforce Success.

Points of Light

21st Century Skills

Amongst the different ventures that presented for 21st century skills were Atlantic ImpactDetroit Food AcademyFlying ClassroomHenry Ford Learning Institute, and WeThrive. Each venture offered a refreshing perspective on how to impart 21st Century Skills to the youth of Detroit. Atlantic Impact, a nonprofit organization from Detroit, MI, for example transmits educational growth to Detroit students attending highly impoverished schools by using local and global travel to traverse the terrains in which students live, exposing them to different environments, which sequentially triggers a new found sense of hope for the student’s future. WeThrive, a nonprofit entrepreneurial mentorship program from Santa Monica, California, collaborates with college students from different universities, pairing these students with middle school students from under-resourced communities, allowing the middle school students to learn life/educational skills from individuals who are activity pursuing academic excellence.

College Prep & Completion 

ALEX (Anyone’s Learning Experience)FletchGenFKD, and Overgrad were the four ventures that pitched their solutions for College Prep & Completion in Detroit. While all of the ventures were great, the venture that really caught my interest was Fletch. Fletch is a For-profit organization out of Chicago, Illinois, that helps colleges increase utilization of student support services including tutoring, advising, and financial aid. Using a mobile application, Fletch allows students to input their college courses and form study groups with other students on campus. Students are able to upload course material, share notes, and receive virtual assistance from other students in their study group. The app also allows students to receive updates on different university support services like financial aid, tutoring, advising, and career services through push notifications. The overall goal of this initiative is to help all college students achieve academic success through using the plethora of resources implanted on college campuses, which will result in higher college retention rates.

Workforce Success

BLOCDetroit Training CenterGrow Detroit’s Young TalentThe Impact LabJOURNI, and Skill Scout were the ventures that pitched their solutions for Workforce Success in Detroit. While each venture presented unique and insightful approaches to enhance workforce success in Detroit, JOURNI and Skill Scout thoroughly impressed me. JOURNI, a non-profit organization established in the city of Detroit, strives to empower individuals from undeserved, urban communities by providing them with the tech education needed to compete and thrive in the local ecosystem. Through providing youth centered programming courses, beneficial job opportunities, social economical resources, and other services, JOURNI is depositing vital technological skills to those who are less fortunate. Learning these skills will allow individuals to break through the barriers that barricade their brilliance, uplift their communities through technological progression, and earn better employment opportunities.

Skill Scout, a For-Profit company located in Chicago, Illinois, was simply sensational. This organization transforms how companies and candidates connect with each other through using video job posts and engaging work sample applications. Instead of reading through a long job description, candidates can view the job they desire through simply watching an engaging video showing what the position entails using this platform. Skill Scout takes an inventive, future focused approach to linking job candidates with job opportunities in a way that will rewrite the future of job searching.

Points of Light

October 13th was one of the most inspirational days I have had as a civic tech evangelist. From visualizing the remarkable community transformation at Avalon Village to learning about the invigorating educational and workforce development ventures at CivicX, I feel extremely encouraged about the future of Detroit. Not only do I feel encouraged, but I feel empowered to work more diligently toward making a substantial impact in Detroit. One narrative that is shared between Avalon Village and CivicX is the passion for positive progression. The individuals at both of these destinations have heroic hearts and astounding ambition. Their movements are not driven off self-gratification or personal personification but off the liberation of other individuals who are in less fortunate situations. I have nothing but deep gratitude for what each entity is doing to help others and I wish them all overflowing success.

Stay tuned for the third part of my blog series where I document my experience at the Sunlight Foundations Transparency Camp in Cleveland Ohio.

Civic Tech in Chicago — October’s Top Events


Welcome, October! We’re gearing up for tricks and treats throughout the whole month in Civic Tech, STEM, and beyond. Fall into October with us:

October 4

Chi Hack Night
6pm — 10pm
Braintree office 222 W. Merchandise Mart Plaza 8th Floor, Chicago

The Chi Hack Night is a free, weekly event in Chicago to build, share and learn about civic tech and tools to create, support, or serve public good.

Join us every Tuesday from 6-10pm on the 8th floor of the Merchandise Mart to hear from interesting speakers, learn from each other and work on civic projects. Non-techies are very welcome!

October 5

Data on Inequality of Life Expectancy in Chicago
The Microsoft Technology Center Chicago | Aon Center 200 E. Randolph Ste 200 Chicago

Judith Singleton and Euan Hague DePaul faculty from the Departments of Health Sciences and Geography respectively team up with DePaul students Eric Phillips and Sophie Mimica at Chicago City Data Users Group on Wednesday evening, October 5th at the Microsoft Technology Center to showcase their research, creation of maps and their website ( examining life expectancy in Chicago’s 77 neighborhoods along with measures of social determinants of health.

October 8

UChicago Second Annual Civic ScopeAthon
9:30am — 7:30pm
Center for Innovation and Exchange 1452 E 53rd St 2nd floor, Washington Room, Chicago

A civic scope-a-thon is a hackathon, whose main objective is to focus on a civic-minded or community-based problem, form cross-functional teams to scope out the problem, break the problem down into its parts and develop a plan to address the problem. The solutions may or may not be entirely tech-oriented, or only parts of the solution may have a tech component.

Our civic scope-a-thon provides the opportunity to gain problem-scoping skills, learn about other civic-tech organizations, network with community leaders, and to join a team and enjoy the thrill and excitement of a full day scope-a-thon. If any or all of this pique your interest—we look forward to seeing you at the event!

October 11

Chi Hack Night
6pm — 10pm
Braintree office 222 W. Merchandise Mart Plaza 8th Floor, Chicago

The Chi Hack Night is a free, weekly event in Chicago to build, share and learn about civic tech and tools to create, support, or serve public good.

Join us every Tuesday from 6-10pm on the 8th floor of the Merchandise Mart to hear from interesting speakers, learn from each other and work on civic projects. Non-techies are very welcome!

October 13

CivicX First Look Fall 2016
6pm — 9pm
MASH Detroit 14711 Mack Avenue, Suite B, Detroit

How might we improve educational outcomes and ensure workforce success for youth in Detroit and the Great Lakes region?

October 13

Chicago Women Developers Hack Night
1871 222 W. Merchandise Mart Plaza, 12th Floor, Chicago

This weekly event gives ladies a space to code together. Whether you’re just getting started, or are a veteran in the tech world, there’s a seat for you at the table. BYOL: Bring your own laptop!

October 13

SIU Technology and Innovation Expo
2pm — 6pm
1871 222 W. Merchandise Mart Plaza, 12th Floor, Chicago

Join inventors from SIU Carbondale, the SIU School of Medicine, and SIU Edwardsville to experience innovation at SIU and find ways to partner with our faculty, students, and spin-out companies

October 14

Chicago Women In Tech Conference
8:30am — 6:30pm
Gleacher Center 450 North Cityfront Plaza Drive, Chicago

We believe women in tech can transform society through their unique experiences and resources. Join technologists from across Chicago and beyond for a one-day conference dedicated to growing and investing in yourself and the Chicago women in tech community. Open to women and men across platforms and technologies, the Chicago Women in Technology Conference will bring the achievements, aspirations, and career interests of women in technology to the forefront. Hear from successful women on topics like failing fast and moving forward, overcoming roadblocks, and continuing a successful career while also having a family. With plenty of built-in discussion time, a fireside chat, and a screening of “CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap,” you’ll walk away empowered and with a stronger community of supporters.

October 17

Election 2016: What to Expect & Why
10am — 11:30am
The Standard Club 320 S Plymouth Ct, Chicago

Join ICPR for a free forum on the November General Elections and what to expect in national and state races.

October 17-23

The Sixth Annual Chicago Ideas Week
600 West Chicago Suite 775, Chicago

Don’t miss out on seeing one of the most diverse speaker lineups in the world for only $15 per ticket. Get inspired to change your world by these policymakers, entrepreneurs, scientists, artists, business leaders, activists and more.

October 18

Chi Hack Night
6pm — 10pm
Braintree office 222 W. Merchandise Mart Plaza 8th Floor, Chicago

The Chi Hack Night is a free, weekly event in Chicago to build, share and learn about civic tech and tools to create, support, or serve public good.

Join us every Tuesday from 6-10pm on the 8th floor of the Merchandise Mart to hear from interesting speakers, learn from each other and work on civic projects. Non-techies are very welcome!

October 19

DisruptHR Chicago, Part Deux
5:30pm – 8:30pm
1871 222 W Merchandise Mart Plaza #1212, Chicago

12 speakers with a recognized voice and something really disruptive to share will be given 5 minutes each to wow you – they’ll do it while 20 slides advance automatically every 15 seconds. It’s energetic, thought-provoking, and high-impact. We’ve identified some of the best in the area to take the stage.

October 25

15th Annual Chicago Innovation Awards
5pm — 8:30pm
Harris Theater 205 East Randolph St., Chicago

Join 1500 people as Chicago’s innovation community comes together to shine a bright light on the creative spirit of Chicago by focusing attention on the most innovative new products and services introduced in the region. The winners each year are innovations that uniquely fill unmet needs, spark a competitive response in the marketplace, exceed market expectations, achieve financial success, and improve people’s lives. They emerge from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. Most importantly, the Chicago Innovation Awards remind us that innovation is thriving in the Chicago region.

October 25

Chi Hack Night
6pm — 10pm
Braintree office 222 W. Merchandise Mart Plaza 8th Floor, Chicago

The Chi Hack Night is a free, weekly event in Chicago to build, share and learn about civic tech and tools to create, support, or serve public good.

Join us every Tuesday from 6-10pm on the 8th floor of the Merchandise Mart to hear from interesting speakers, learn from each other and work on civic projects. Non-techies are very welcome!


CUTGroup Detroit Proves to Be Cutting Edge

I’ve been reflecting on the past year we’ve been supporting civic tech programs in Detroit. We started with the recognition that “something neat” was going on in Detroit and perhaps Microsoft could provide a bit of a boost, energy and support to some key groups to help the Civic Tech Ecosystem. Through a bit of research and human networking, we landed on our great partners at Data Driven Detroit. We interviewed a ton of students who were interested in joining the Microsoft team as Fellows and thankfully landed on Ivoire Morrell, a talented young man with an amazing combination of tech skills, commitment and values (read more from Ivoire here). We explored the priorities of the City of Detroit, working with Garlin Gilchrist II, who accurately describes himself as a servant leader and father of twins (with a passion as @DetroitCivTech). One of the key priorities of the City of Detroit was figuring out how to use technology to efficiently and effectively deliver city services to its citizens. All of us had various levels of exposure to Smart Chicago Collaborative’s fantastic Civic User Testing program (CUTGroup) and as a team—a true public/private partnership—we decided that this was going to be our launch into true civic tech for Detroit. Voila! @CUTGroupDetroit was born!

cutgroup-flyerCreating a new CUTGroup is a process and a labor of love. It seems simple: create a Civic User Testing Group which is a community of residents of Detroit who get paid to test out websites and apps. While this seems straightforward  to people in the tech industry or a thriving civic tech ecosystem, try building it when your community members may not have internet at home, or a device at home, or the digital skills necessary to go online and figure out if a website or app even works. So, how do you find the people to build the community? You hit the road—putting up flyers on lampposts and delivering notices to nonprofit organizations. You send a ton of tweets, and re-tweets. You call your friends to help spread the word. Oh, yes, during the hot, hot days of August. And over time, word spreads. And from zero to hero, you sign up over 200 interested users (and growing).

Then, you need to figure out what to test. So many websites, so little time. Working with the City, the decision was made to review a commercial property website and mobile app. We really didn’t know what to expect in our first test, because we don’t really know in advance the skills of the users who sign up—will they be able to give us the feedback we need to tweak the website to make it “usable” for the citizens of Detroit.

Ford Resource and Engagement Center at 2826 Bagley in Detroit

Then, you need to get people to actually sign up for your test. So they need to be available on the date you pick. And they need to be able to use public transportation (or drive) to the user testing site. Good parking, a space that is open after 5 pm, a space that is accessible….all of this plays into the details of running a CUTGroup for the very first time. We are indebted to the hospitality and accessibility of the Ford Resource and Engagement Center at 2826 Bagley in Detroit. They staff was fabulous to work with, and it’s a wonderful, local community center close to expressways with free parking.

Then, you need to go to Costco. Because what is a CUTGroup without munchies. Cookies, candy, water, soda…oh, yeah!!!

Joel of CUTgroup instructing a new userSo, we assembled everything—the gift cards to pay the users, the food, checked the internet, trained our facilitators (thank you Sonja Marziano!), and got ready for our users to show up. And show up they did! We had 100% attendance, which I am told is something of a record as CUTGroups go. That tells me that we are on to something here…the users of Detroit are really, really interested in understanding their data and providing feedback to City officials on what is meaningful and understandable. We ran our program from about 4 pm-7:30pm. After a short wrap up and a lot of self-congratulations (well deserved), we set a time to convene and analyze the data we received through the program. The feedback from Joel, who works for the City and was a terrific facilitator, was that he “could start making changes now based on the feedback”. That’s the kind of 360 degrees circle you want to have.

So our journey is on its way. We still have to roll up our sleeves and drill deep into the evaluation for each user. Joel and his team need to figure out how many changes are doable and what the ROI will be. But we are getting there. We’re getting people who are interested in providing feedback. And they are going to tell their friends to come to the next testing day. We have a place and space, and a process that we know works. And we have lots and lots of websites and apps to test in the future. So, Detroit, get ready for CUTGroupDetroit!