Technology

Postcard from India: Breaking Through Barriers For People With Disabilities

Microsoft’s mission is to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more. With over 1 billion people with disabilities in the world, we’re passionate about ensuring that our products and services are designed for people of all abilities. We are committed to transparency, accountability, and inclusion in our products and our culture, and we are deeply inspired by the opportunity to work with others around the world to explore what’s possible. Read more about Microsoft’s commitment here. This discussion will focus on the remarkable Ruma Roka, and how her vision and leadership created the Noida deaf Society and its enduring impact on the Youth and adult with hearing disabilities in India.

There are about 60 million deaf people in India. They often face significant poverty, lack of medical facilities and lack basic communications skills. At times, the deaf in India are not viewed as trainable workers, when, in reality, they simply have a different mode of communicating with the rest of the world. All they need is a means to communicate and a supportive environment.

Ruma’s journey from homemaker to a champion of the deaf is incredible. In a country with limited resources for the underserved, Ruma has been an advocate and a pathfinder for improving rights and livelihood for the deaf. Facing big challenges like social stigma, lack of education (curriculum and facilities) and lack of government programs, she also faced her own biggest fear: the fear of failure. Ruma began her journey in 2004, and like many nonprofit founders, she was living comfortably but not satisfied with her personal direction and impact on her community. While watching TV, she saw a program on sign language and was fascinated by the use of hands as a means of communication. This is especially interesting as she had no deaf family members, and her leadership approach demonstrates her clear vision and passion for making a difference. She made the commitment and completed her sign-language course in 2004. This knowledge connected her to the deaf community and she realized the challenges facing the deaf in India: family communications options, education and the lack of workforce opportunities. As Ruma said, “My work is not a job, it’s a responsibility”.

She identified some of the key challenges for the deaf in India:

  • The need for social skills development in addition to basic communications skills
  • The need for job skills, including the ability to translate signing into more traditional communications like writing
  • The need to have free curriculum and a workforce strategy that ultimately will include job opportunities in banks, technology and retail

To address some of these issues, Ruma started the Noida Deaf Society (NDS) in 2005. She started out in her own home with just five students. She created visual training materials and ultimately created curriculum which includes computer training for her students. She worked with local content developers and created English Reading and Writing Communication/Indian Sign Language. Perhaps most importantly, as Ruma recruited and trained her students, the students became the teachers of the next generation of students. She found that the best teachers for the deaf are the deaf themselves. They bring the passion, the drive and the ownership and don’t view their role as a job, but a mission. This was a first — professional training for the deaf that was taught by teachers who were themselves hearing impaired. Through word of mouth, NDS now reaches 1,000 students every year and has expanded to 5 centers in Noida, Delhi, Jammu and Jaipur. Ruma has been decorated with many national awards and has delivered a TED Talk:

When you enter the Noida school, the first thing you notice, of course, are the children! The two story building is divided into several classes, which are simply separated by curtains–since all the classes are taught through sign language, it’s very quiet (except for the occasional laughter), so multiple classes for various age groups and skill sets can co-exist in a relatively small space. I was also struck by how young most of the teachers are—having recently been students themselves, they seem to relate very with their younger charges. NDS also focuses on teaching students about technology. There is a small computer center, where students learn computer skills and take courses for certification.

Future expansion of NDS includes, working with more schools from across India and expanding the current curriculum and teacher leadership geographically, and possibly a primary school for early childhood learning. Another area is focusing more on the social skills for students and increasing the students’ confidence. Ruma sees teachers as the “leaders of our children” and has created an environment to positively impact thousands of young people, providing them skills, self-assurance and an improved chance at economic success. Under Ruma’s leadership, Noida School for the Deaf has truly become a lighthouse for the deaf, and provides an inspiring story of hope, economic empowerment and leadership.

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 Advisor.tv:

 

A Letter to Lorena Mesa (From Lorena Mesa)

As part of Microsoft’s commitment to diversity and empowerment, we’re thrilled to celebrate Women’s History Month with our newest spotlight series. We’ve asked local women leaders to write a letter to their teenage and college-aged selves to recall a moment in time when they felt empowered by technology. Throughout the month of March, we’ll be spotlighting this series on our blog. We hope these stories uplift you and inspire you to #MakeWhatsNext.

Greetings Lorena!

Or should I say “What up Sailor Scout?” I know you are dying to find out what happens next in the Sailor Moon / Tuxedo Mask love saga and waiting for the English dub is so difficult. Don’t worry. What happens is even better than anything you could ever imagine.

How’s the development of the Sailor Moon fan page going? Did you find out how to make a gradient background fill? What about aligning your images properly? HTML is difficult, especially when there isn’t much documentation. I promise you – it’s worth the effort. Difficult problems are the most fun to solve. Remember that.

By the time you are thirty, everyone is going to want to know how to code. Your effort learning the basics of HTML and CSS will inspire you to teach other women to code, specifically young women.

Want to know something else? When you’re thirty, you’ll be able to watch all the anime you want with the click of a finger thanks to online streaming services. No more waiting for those not-so-good fan dubs at your all too infrequent trips to Mitsuwa, the Japanese marketplace!

Lorena, I know sometimes you feel alone because your interests may be different than those around you. That’s okay. It’s your interests that make you, well, you. Okay, so maybe anime isn’t the most popular thing. Perhaps learning HTML and building fan pages on Angelcities isn’t “normal” for a teenaged girl. But who wants to be “normal”? Lorena, you have an appetite for exploring the unknown, learning something new, trying the wild and wacky!

Your willingness to try new things out will reward you with a rich life and satisfying career (ultimately as a software engineer!). You’ll be able to travel internationally to speak at conferences, to organize communities that align with your core values, and to teach others the things that you love the most. Many will tell you that your passion for learning has been an inspiration for them in their own lives.

Continue to be bold, Lorena. Do as Sailor Moon does and “never back down from a real fight”. If you want to code – code. If you want to watch anime – watch anime. Whatever you put your mind to, you can do it.

This, I promise you, is the secret to “live long and prosper”. (Oh yes, there will be more Star Treks. And yes, they are so good!)

In geeky solidarity,
Future Thirty-Year-Old Lorena

Political analyst turned coder, Lorena Mesa is a Sprout Social platform software engineer, Director on the Python Software Foundation, PyLadies Chicago co-organizer, and Write/Speak/Code conference organizer. Lorena loves to make meaning out of data, asking big questions and using her code to build models to derive that meaning. Part Star Wars fanatic but mostly a Trekkie, Lorena abides by the motto to “live long and prosper”.

Contact Info: lorenamesa.com @loooorenanicole

A Letter to Sarah Sexton (From Sarah Sexton)

As part of Microsoft’s commitment to diversity and empowerment, we’re thrilled to celebrate Women’s History Month with our newest spotlight series. We’ve asked local women leaders to write a letter to their teenage and college-aged selves to recall a moment in time when they felt empowered by technology. Throughout the month of March, we’ll be spotlighting this series on our blog. We hope these stories uplift you and inspire you to #MakeWhatsNext.

Dear Sarah,

Being a wallflower blending into crowds is fine, for a while. The teenage years were a shy and innocent time. But well-behaved women never make history. When life throws you some nasty curveballs, you will be forced to do a lot of growing up. (Start reading Game of Thrones right now to learn how to adapt.)

You don’t like being in the spotlight right now, and that’s fine. There will be days when there is no ceremony to congratulate you for your accomplishments. There will be days when the world is dark. During your adolescence, you will see your world get so dark that you will think there is no end in sight to your grief. But the good news is: You are powerful. You are unconquerable. I say this because at age 26, I’m still alive, living independently in a lake-view high rise apartment on the north side of a huge, bustling city. You don’t just survive – you THRIVE. Teaching my brain how to think with logic and reason and going into the Computer Science major in college was the best decision I ever made!

I changed majors FOUR times. I loved art, animation, writing, AND computers. I could save you a year’s tuition and tell you to skip straight to the Computer Science department and minor in Communications, but I am afraid that any advice that does not put me right here at this moment in time would be a mistake. It’s okay to fail, if you do it fast and early, because the more you fail, the more you learn. Your attention to detail, technological skills, critical thinking, and high capacity for quick learning will serve you well.

The best course of action for trying to succeed, in a world where not everyone has the same advantages, and not everyone is treated equally, is to be the most confident and capable at what you do. Always understand that everyone else is also living a life as vivid and complex as yours. I work in the tech industry, populated by the brightest minds and the hardest workers. It is a constant challenge, but I live for that challenge, and it is the most rewarding struggle. It is perfectly acceptable to stand on the shoulders of giants. Let everyone see that you can do the job you were hired to do. If you can do that, respect and responsibilities will follow.

If you quit anything because of nay-sayers, you’d be letting the haters win. You’d be doing exactly what they want you to do. You’d be giving up and letting them get away with it. So instead of dropping out of a club because you’re being bullied, I challenge you to become President of it. Instead of fleeing a college major because you’re being harassed in it, I challenge you to make the Dean’s list every quarter, fight for straight As, report the harasser, make friends with everyone else in that department, and graduate with honors.

To paraphrase a quote from my favorite 14-year-old character in Game of Thrones, Daenerys Targaryen, “It is true that I am only a young girl, and do not know the ways of war. Explain to me how you propose to defeat ten thousand applicants with your one job application. Innocent as I am, these odds seem poor to me.” The answer is simple: Take hold of your power. What will you do? “I will do what queens do. I will rule.”

Love,

Sarah at 26 years old!
P.S. Here’s some words of wisdom down the pathway of years: The only resource you can never get back is Time, and nothing is more important in the long run than your Soul. So never waste too much time, and never allow anything to crush your soul. The old “gingers have no souls” joke is good for a laugh, but you DO have a soul, and it is with you every time you look in a mirror and every time you go to bed. Mom and Dad love you, and all your friends love you, but only YOU can keep your soul well-fed and happy. You don’t have to “sell out” to make money. You’ve passed your most difficult test in life if the mirror’s reflection is your friend.

Modernize Your Nonprofit with Software Donations from Microsoft

Our first Modern Nonprofit Day at our Chicago office on March 22 was a success! At Modernize Your Nonprofit, we were pleased to have a wonderful turnout of about 90 attendees from various local nonprofits who joined us to learn about our Microsoft Cloud offerings. They learned how nonprofits can leverage our software donation program to help achieve their company’s missions. The event was a partnership between Microsoft Philanthropies, the Microsoft Citizenship team and Microsoft partner Tech Impact.

Tech Impact shared information about how nonprofits can use Office 365, Azure and PowerBI:

  • Office 365 offers email, shared calendars, file storage and sharing,  productivity apps, online meetings & VoIP phones for nonprofits.
  • Azure offers infrastructure, software and platform as a service in the cloud and a migration away from onsite servers.
  • Power BI can serve as a visualization toolkit that helps nonprofits to better understand and communicate their work to stakeholders.

Photo by Mary Monroy-Spampinato

Miss the training but interested in modernizing your nonprofit? You can still make 2017 the year that your organization lowers technology costs while improving productivity and efficiency. Learn more about our free and discounted services and products — Read case studies about how other nonprofits have benefited from donations, find out if your nonprofit’s is eligible, and get answers to questions you may have at www.microsoft.com/nonprofits.

Our thanks to all who attended the training! We look forward to continue to serve our local communities with our software donations and resources.

Microsoft Philanthropies has committed $1 billion in cloud services for nonprofits and researchers to support the public good and, to date, has donated $465 million to 71,000 organizations. You can read more about this in their impact letter.

A Letter to Karin Norington-Reaves (From Karin Norington-Reaves)

As part of Microsoft’s commitment to diversity and empowerment, we’re thrilled to celebrate Women’s History Month with our newest spotlight series. We’ve asked local women leaders to write a letter to their teenage and college-aged selves to recall a moment in time when they felt empowered by technology. Throughout the month of March, we’ll be spotlighting this series on our blog. We hope these stories uplift you and inspire you to #MakeWhatsNext.

It was likely my proudest moment in 3rd grade. I’d written a paper on this new invention called CAD (Computer Assisted Design). I was so excited by this new technology and the ability to draw using a computer. I drew a picture of the computer, keyboard and the special “pen” that could be used to “draw” designs. I prepared my first essay outline (the longest the teacher had ever seen!) and a cover page. The future was at my fingertips. I couldn’t wait to share my new found knowledge with anyone who’d listen.

With the advent of smartphones, robots that vacuum your floor and driverless cars, my CAD discovery seems so insignificant now. But in 1977, it was a big deal. Personal computers didn’t exist. Indeed mainframes, dinosaurs that filled entire rooms, sometimes floors, were the norm. This was a far cry from today’s compact, lightweight portable devices everyone now carries in their pockets.

My curious 8-year-old self did not foresee the technology that we now take for granted. Nor could I have known how much I’d rely on it, be beholden to it, or sometimes even crave a break from it. (I’ve given up Facebook for Lent for the past two years!). I’m now a 47 year-old Chief Executive Officer of the nation’s second largest workforce development system. I manage a large non-profit organization with a budget of $60 million and a staff of 65 people. On any given day I receive as many as 100 emails across my work and personal accounts. I carry two phones, a Surface Pro, USB cords, a projector adapter, an external battery charger, a WiFi hotspot and an oversized purse every single day.

None of this entered my mind when I opted to bypass lunch period during junior year of high school in favor of typing class. I attended the performing arts program of a school with multiple educational tracts—typing was not offered in my program. But I thought it was important to learn to type in preparation for college, so there went lunch. It was the right move. That typing class was the launching pad for my word processing skills and the ability to type up to 90 words per minute. While I perfected college application essays on my mom’s IBM Selectric, Apple and IBM computers would be the tools for completing college papers, law school application and appellate court briefs. Later, I’d move from merely typing to designing presentations, to analyzing and demonstrating data through attention-grabbing graphics.

So much of my life would be significantly more difficult without the technology I use daily: the Outlook calendar that coordinates my and my children’s schedules across my work and personal devices; the address book that holds phone numbers I once committed to memory but now would be hard-pressed to recall in a pinch; the apps through which I manage my retirement, checking, savings and credit card accounts. And, text messaging! Oh how many times has a quick text helped me keep an appointment, find out where my children are, or get updates on an event I couldn’t attend?

My children undoubtedly think I’m corny when I wax nostalgic about how “there were no ______ when I was your age.”  But it’s true, there were no cellphones when I was growing up, no computers, no apps, no flatscreen TV’s, Bluetooth or You Tube. I’m not really that old—it’s just that technology has evolved with an incredible speed. So much so that I’m certain in another 20 years when my children are parents, they’ll hear themselves saying to my grandchildren, “we didn’t have that when I was your age!” and they’ll smile. And they’ll realize that just like me, they too were able to master all of the new technology as it became the norm and changed their lives forever.

Karin Norington-Reaves serves as CEO of the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership. In this capacity she oversees the administration of federal, state and philanthropic funds and the creation of effective programs that assure symmetry between the skills demanded by a changing economy and those offered by the region’s workforce. Karin serves on the Cook County Economic Development Advisory Committee (EDAC) as well as on the Board of Advisors for LISC Chicago.

Karin brings more than 10 years of experience in education, community/economic development, and workforce development to the position. Prior to her appointment Karin served as Director of Cook County Works; Deputy Director of the Office of Urban Assistance for the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO) and Chief of Staff for the City of Chicago’s 20th Ward. Karin holds a J.D. from Southern Methodist University School of Law in Dallas, Texas and a B.A. in Spanish Language and Literature from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. 

Celebrating World Water Day 2017

Water makes the world go ’round — but what happens to it on a day-to-day basis?

At this point, we are all aware that water conservation is an urgent need. Only 1 percent of the planet’s water supply is fresh water, and much of that is used for production purposes. Between 2000 and 2050, manufacturing is expected to increase its use of fresh water by 400 percent.

So how can we incorporate water conservation into our growing need to use more water?

Tech companies are using data to find the answers — Microsoft has partnered with Ecolab and Trucost to prioritize resourcefulness and sustainability through data analysis and smart financial modeling. Together, we’ve launched the Water Risk Monetizer in New York City, a water risk analysis and financial modeling tool that translates water scarcity risks into financial terms, and enables businesses to factor current and future water risks into decision making.

Through the dedication of growing technologies like IoT, machine learning, and other cloud-based technologies, we’re hoping to inspire others to use tech to minimize environmental impact and help us in our commitment to sustainability and environmental awareness.

Recently, our own Adam Hecktman joined West Monroe Partners to explore water quality and scarcity, as well as the impact industrialization has had on water conservation. As our supply of clean drinking water continues to dramatically diminish, our industry has a responsibility to seek solutions to water problems. Organizations like City Digital and Opti use smart sensors to address these issues, and we’re looking forward to learning about other projects at today’s World Water Day Summit.

Read Adam’s blog with West Monroe Partners here.

Read more about the Water Risk Monetizer on the Microsoft Green Blog.

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.

Taking Library Data Off The Shelf

Since its founding in 1871, the Chicago Public Library (CPL) has continually transformed itself to meet the needs of Chicagoans. In 2014, in the face of rapidly-changing norms around library usage nationwide, CPL responded by collaborating with Civic Consulting Alliance to create its strategic plan, which provided a roadmap for how CPL should grow, invest, and innovate to serve its nearly 10 million annual patrons.

CPL frequently uses its strategy as a guidepost to make decisions about programs and services at all levels of the organization. However, CPL lacked a method to measure its progress towards fulfilling each of its strategic goals. To remedy this situation, the Library decided to invest in a performance management system to monitor and report progress towards its goals.

Civic Consulting Alliance supported the Library in identifying metrics tied to the goals of its strategy, and Allstate Corporation, on a pro bono basis, created a dashboard to track and understand those metrics. The Civic Consulting/Allstate team then developed the process and norms to make performance decisions based on findings from the dashboard.

In November, the Library held its first monthly performance management meeting, where senior staff used data to inform management and programming decisions. By adopting performance management practices, the Library will be equipped to make its strategic vision a reality — and improve services for millions of patrons.

“Performance management presented the logical next step from our strategic planning efforts and has allowed us to focus on areas of our work that most need our attention,” said CPL Commissioner Brian Bannon. “As a result of our collaboration with Civic Consulting, our senior leadership is better prepared to make decisions that improve services for Chicagoans.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Imagine if every time a city made plans for street surfaces, parks, streetscapes, or the water system itself, it had the data to understand how to best leverage the opportunity to add green infrastructure.  Further, it would have insights as to which types of green infrastructure would work best in various locations.  Of course, we plan on extending type of experimentation to other water issues, but that is a blog for another time.   For more information on Smart Green Infrastructure Monitoring and other City Digital projects, go to http://www.citydigital.org/focusareas-1/.