Public Lab and the Southeast Side Coalition Against Petcoke at OpenGov Hack Night

publiclab-logo-largeOn March 24th, Public Lab and the Southeast Side Coalition against Petcoke presented at Chicago’s OpenGov Hack Night about their homemade environmental monitoring kits.

Their project was in response to petcoke being dumped all over Chicago’s southeast side. Petcoke is a byproduct that oil refineries produce that’s used to as a fuel source for power plants. However, they never burn the fuel in the US because it’s illegal – instead it gets shipped overseas to burn in places without as much environmental regulation.

In Chicago, most the petcoke pollution comes in as a result of the KCBX Terminal in Indiana – which is owned by Koch Industries. Energy company BP was placing piles and piles of petcoke along the river as it was awaiting shipment. When the winds get strong, petcoke dust from uncovered shipping containers blows into southeast Chicago.

One of Olga Bautista‘s first encounters with petcoke was at a birthday party being held in a city park. A gust of wind quickly covered everyone and the birthday cake – rending the cake completely unedible. Bautista and her neighbors began to organize against petcoke in their neighborhood. To help with the effort, the Coalition worked with Public Lab to create Balloon Mapping Kits to help gather data on petcoke pollution.

The Balloon Mapping Kit was used to measure air quality on the southeast side and provide evidence of the pollution petcoke was creating.

They then put pressure on the city to pass ordinances regulating petcoke in the city. In response, the city passed an ordinance requiring that all petcoke shipments be enclosed and that companies must take measures to limit the spread of petcoke. Rather than the build the facilities to enclose the petcoke, BP has opted to simply send the petcoke elsewhere.

Petcoke is still a problem in Chicago as it still can get shipped through the city limits. The city has capped the amount of petcoke that can move through the city at any one time, but the Coalition wants to get that number to zero. The coalition urges people to call 311 and to tell elected officials that the only acceptable amount of put through for petcoke is zero. The Coalition will be continuing their work with Public Lab – which recently received a grant to conduct additional air quality monitoring.

In addition, if you see petcoke the City urges you to report it to 311.

For more ways to get involved, you can check out the environmental breakout group at OpenGov Hack Night.


Mode #5: Distribute Power

This is the final piece in a five-part series exploring how to develop civic technology with, not for communities. Each entry in this series reviews a different strategy (“mode”) of civic engagement in civic tech along with common tactics for implementation that have been effectively utilized in the field by a variety of practitioners. The modes were identified based on research I conducted with Smart Chicago as part of the Knight Community Information Challenge. You can read more about the criteria used and review all of the 5 modes identified here.

MODE: Distribute Power

The art of leading a collaborative process is the art of getting out of the way. You can follow best practices — building your work through public commons, rooting your projects in the existing social and technical practices of a community, and teaching new technical skills while listening — but if you can’t get out of the way, you can’t run a community-driven development process.

Getting out of the way means sharing project control with the group. Below are four essential tactics for sharing and releasing power that have been applied in the creation of civic technology:

Treat Volunteers as Members

Another title for this tactic could be: value your participants equally. Put everyone on the same level. No matter their status — whether or not a person contributes once to project or 50 times, whether they lead a process or follow along, whether they’re paid staff or high school students — treat the folks who participate in your project as equals, and use titles for participants that make this status explicitly.

  • Facebook journalism outlet, Jersey Shore Hurricane News, considers anyone who submits a photo, an event, a story, or a tip to be a “contributor.”
  • Although technically a non-profit, Public Lab, the DIY citizen science group, identifies all participants (folks who contribute to the listservs, wiki, in-person events around the world, etc) as part of Public Lab itself (see the org chart below) and has created structures (like working groups) for community input on decision-making.
  • Free Geek is a non-profit works with communities to transform old technology into new electronics made available to those in need. Free Geek runs on human power and uses community service as a currency. However, it makes little distinction between roles as all are essential. So, whether you’re learning how to refurbish technology, building computers in the shop, teaching a class, sorting donations, or helping to keep the facility clean, you’re a “volunteer” and you are essential.
Public Lab's organizational chart demonstrates how to include a variety of participants with equitable footing.

Public Lab’s organizational chart demonstrates how to include a variety of participants with equitable footing.

This is a foot-in-the-door technique to build trust and a way of demonstrating that any contributions a person offers as part of the co-development process will be valued — an important message to send if you want actually want a diverse group of community members to feel invested and free to drive a project.

Teach Students to Become Teachers

Handing off control and treating people as equals doesn’t mean removing structure or leadership. Projects that sustain community development are those that enable participants to expand their skills and responsibilities as they’re interested in doing so, with specific tracks for leadership that are accessible to everyone from the onset.

  • As noted above, by default, all participants in Public Lab are identified as part of Public Lab. But for those participants who are interested or active in coordinating projects or contributing to the Lab at a different scale (from helping with communications to moderating community discussion lists), Public Lab has an open call for community leaders called “organizers” which anyone can join.
  • Digital Stewards programs often enable graduates to mentor, if not fully teach, the next group of stewards, further developing the technical skills individuals pick-up from the program and deepening the communal history and relationship with the wireless networks the stewards oversee.
  • Mobile Voices (or VozMob) is a content and technology creation platform built for, by, and with immigrant and low-wage workers in Los Angeles. VozMob has a few mechanisms for individual and group-level leadership, including a tier of “Affiliates”, peer organizations and groups active in sharing stories through the platform who decision-making.

White-label Your Approach

“White-labeling” means putting a product, service, or program model out into the world in such a way that anyone can rebrand it as though they made it.

An illustration of the Digital Stewards approach. Image via OTI.

An illustration of the Digital Stewards approach. Image via OTI.

For example, several times throughout this series we’ve looked at a program called “Digital Stewards” in both Detroit and Red Hook, Brooklyn. Although these two programs use the same language (“Digital Stewards”) in reference to a training program to help design, build, and maintain community wireless networks, the programs are not one and the same, nor are they “chapters” or the expression of a single brand.

Rather, each Digital Stewards program is an imprints of a white-labeled training course on digital stewardship developed by the Open Technology Institute (OTI) at New America in conjunction with Allied Media Projects (AMP) that is available for anyone to adopt and use. OTI identifies its role in the creation of Digital Stewards not as the parent or owners, but as a “resource center”, adding to the Digital Stewardship materials over time and responding to requests from communities (like Red Hook, Brooklyn) for support in training. Neither OTI nor AMP exerts copyright or brand control over how the program exists in the world and neither identifies as “owning” the program.

Removing “ownership” is a direct expression of the open ethos that drives civic tech and way of ensuring that communities get genuine ownership over a technology or other civic project, even if the development of this project is guided by an external organization.

Other examples:

Be a Participant

Ultimately, you can’t marshal a community’s energy unless you’re part of that community. To share experiences and engage in the wants, needs, and interests of the people your civic project is meant to serve.

Participation is a mindset shift. Instead of leading, you as a practitioner, are listening. (Much like the two-way teaching style talked about in Mode #3.) Whether you’re an individual doing work close to home or an organization supporting distant activity, to be a participant is to allot time and space to others and to seek opportunities to support work that supports them.

  • Public Lab’s paid staff directly coordinates with and wields a number of communications platforms to listen to its extended community and brings together its network in an annual meeting (called a “barnraising”) to build relationships, tinker with tech, make big decisions, and break bread.
  • EPANow is an ongoing experiment in youth-driven hyperlocal news co-founded by Stanford University Knight Journalism Fellow Jeremy Hay with residents of East Palo Alto, California. Jeremy is not an East Palo Alto (EPA) native, but is helping to steward the project after local community activists asked for his help. Hay started with a defined vision of what the news platform would be, but has since slowed his approach, both directly in response to community challenge and in response to his own revelations and experiences working with (and, increasingly as part of) the EPA community.

“While I am not superfluous to the process, and what I bring to it is important, I am of necessity secondary.”

(More about Jeremy’s journey participating in EPA as an outsider is documented here.)

Help Wanted: Health Navigators

Smart Health Center LogoThe Smart Chicago Collaborative seeks to immediately contract with 2 Health Navigators to work in our Smart Health Centers program. The Health Navigator will provide assistance to patients/participants in Smart Health Centers to connect to their own medical records and in finding reliable information about their own health conditions utilizing the internet or other technology tools. This position requires a high level of teamwork, flexibility, and customer focus; the ability to interact with youth, adults, and the general public in an appropriate manner is required.

The ideal candidate will have an interest in community health with great writing and documentation skills. All candidates must be proficient with using basic technology hardware and software, familiarity with social media and comfortable providing health-related information in a creative manner. An added plus would be experience in using lightweight tools such as video, photos, and screencasts to provide feedback to the Smart Health team.

Full details on the position and how to apply can be found here.

Smart Chicago teams up with Code for America for National Day of Civic Hacking

logoOnce again, Smart Chicago Collaborative will be a national partner for National Day of Civic Hacking providing training content as well as running our own National Day of Civic Hacking events here in Chicago.

This year, the national organizer for National Day of Civic Hacking is our long-time partner Code for America. Our consultant, Christopher Whitaker will be helping Code for America’s communities team with organizing as well as helping Smart Chicago to provide training content. Our training content will include things like our How to Run a Civic Hackathon and How to Livestream an Event.

Last year, we provided a number of blog posts and videos to help train civic technologists. These blog posts included:

We’ll be updating our old content to ensure it’s current. We’ll also be adding new content to help train civic technologists including lessons on GitHub, Mapbox, WordPress, and more. Additionally, we’ll be writing primers on how to work effectively with governments and nonprofits – as well as primers on subject areas like health, safety and justice, transportation, and education.

Stay tuned for more!

Cook County Data Updates for the Month of March

Cook County January 1831Here are some Cook County Datasets updated in March 2015:

Mode #4: Lead From Shared Spaces

This is the fourth piece in a five-part series exploring how to develop civic technology with, not for communities. Each entry in this series reviews a different strategy (“mode”) of civic engagement in civic tech along with common tactics for implementation that have been effectively utilized in the field by a variety of practitioners. The modes were identified based on research I conducted with Smart Chicago as part of the Knight Community Information Challenge. You can read more about the criteria used and review all of the 5 modes identified here.

MODE: Lead from Shared Spaces

Communities are built around commons— collaboratively owned and maintained spaces that people use for sharing, learning, and hanging out. Commons are the foundation upon which all community infrastructure (social, technical, etc) is built and are often leveraged by multiple overlapping and independent communities.

Although often thought of as semi-permanent physical spaces, like parks or town centers, commons can also be digital (i.e. online forums, email lists, and wikis), temporary (like pop-ups or weekend flea markets), or a variety of other set-ups beyond and in-between.

A commons is a resource, offering tools, news, and know-how that both community insiders and outsiders can wield. Tapping into a commons not only helps identify social and technical infrastructure, it provides a key opportunity to listen and learn about what matters most to a community. The following two tactics look at how civic tech practitioners can not only use commons for collaborative work, but can contribute to their stewardship, as well.

Leverage Existing Knowledge Bases

Knowledge commons are spaces where people collect and access information, be it archival info (like one would get from a library) or news (like one gets from a neighborhood listserv).

7r8dg7w7uz17paca (1)Depending on the circumstances and the folks behind the wheel, the creation of a knowledge commons can itself be a form of civic technology— a tool for a community to use for its own benefit.

DavisWiki is a hub for both hyperlocal history and current events in Davis, California. Launched in 2004, DavisWiki started as an experiment in collaboratively surfacing and capturing unique local knowledge that was otherwise locked in the heads of neighbors or lost in search engines. The site gained popularity by coordinating with existing social infrastructure, such as the university system in Davis and the local business community, and within a few years residents had contributed over 17,000 pages. 

As more residents use DavisWiki, the platform’s role has changed. In addition to being a popular catalog,  knowing that DavisWiki was available as a knowledge commons has enabled residents to leverage the platform for additional civic ends over time. For example, the wiki was part of coordination of the public response (and record-breaking rally) to a police officer pepper-spraying a student on the UC Davis campus in 2011 and has been used to explore, discuss, and collaborate with government a number of local planning initiatives.

Public Lab is a different sort of knowledge-based community: although many of the folks who participate in Public Lab (via their wiki, email listservs, in-person meetings, and other forums) work in their own local contexts, the community associated with Public Lab is international in scope, bringing together citizen scientists from around the globe who are researching and crafting inexpensive DIY tools for environmental science that anyone can use.

In this way, Public Lab plays the role of a bridge, connecting many knowledge commons together in one great public-facing resource that can boost local work by giving it a broader audience and more data inputs.

Community meeting. Image via Public Lab.

Community meeting. Image via Public Lab.

Leverage Common Physical Spaces

Although the network model of Public Lab enables a high degree of exposure for local work, nothing says “free PR” quite like door-knocking or standing on your neighbor’s roof to install an Internet router. Both the Detroit and Red Hook Digital Stewards instances lead with this idea, leveraging common spaces in their communities (neighborhoods and city districts) to plug into existing social infrastructure and get community members on board and involved.

Approaching technology development with an eye towards the physical world also enables an additional dimension of sustainability. While both Digital Stewards instances are ultimately about developing digital commons, by tapping into physical resources and the social structures that maintain them, the Stewards extend the communal care and maintenance to include the new technology over time.

Up next: Mode #5: Distribute Power.