Digital Inclusion Meets Civic Tech: Remarks at Code for America 2015 Summit

Today I will take part in the Digital Inclusion Meets Civic Tech panel at the 2015 Code for America Summit. It’s great to talk about such a timely issue with Deb Socia of Next Century Cities, Demond Drummer of CoderSpace, Chike Aguh of EveryoneOn, and Susan Mernit of Hack the Hood.

Since important conversations like this never seem long enough, I wanted to share my thoughts here.


I’m the new Program Analyst at Smart Chicago managing the Connect Chicago initiative and other projects like the Chicago School of Data. I care about open data, Internet access, faster networks, and improving digital skills. A question I’m particularly interested in is this:


I’ve noticed that a lot of common answers involve versions or combinations of the following:


Do we think these answers are enough? When the White House released its analysis of the digital divide in the U.S., they defined being on the right side of the digital divide as having Internet access in your home. While increasing at-home subscriptions is certainly a desirable trend, is it enough to declare victory in a city?

I would say no — not in 2015. Since Internet access has become more essential and its place in our hierarchy of needs has shifted, we should expect that percentage to increase naturally, even without policy interventions. We should acknowledge that, in 2015, Internet access in your home does not necessarily give you equal opportunity in the digital economy. Things like speed, type of online activity and skill are just as key to unlocking the potential of a connection.

Also an increase in citywide broadband adoption doesn’t speak to geographic and demographic gaps in Internet access; rather, the disadvantaged or historically underconnected people and neighborhoods that see that increase are the marginal successes we care about.

We need to go further:


Getting more people online in a city, getting a faster network, or having a robust nonprofit sector does not necessarily mean that city is digital inclusive. We should care about gaps in skill and use in addition to gaps in adoption. We should acknowledge that connections themselves are not the end game— rather, educational attainment, technology sector growth for all, workforce development and increasing civic engagement are the true outcomes. As program managers and policymakers, we should plan our evaluations around these truths.

Also, faster networks alone are not enough to make a city digital equitable. It’s what you do with the network that matters. Last year as a graduate student at the Harvard Kennedy School, I wrote, “A Data-Driven Digital Inclusion Strategy for Gigabit Cities.” You can see a summary one-pager here or read a blog post about it here. One thing I observed was that some high poverty urban census tracts had very high connectivity. Why? Because they tended to be dense, walkable, and house several community anchor institutions – schools, churches computer labs or community centers. While digital inclusion programing is often built on top of these trusted neighborhood institutions, cities should care about digital deserts – areas with low connectivity and low access to digital assistance.

Another question of interest:


Here are the “almost” answers – a vision of the civic technology movement that is admirable, but arguably incomplete:


The answers below go one step further. Much of this sentiment is captured in the great work of Laurenellen McCann in Experimental Modes of Civic Engagement in Civic Tech and Sonja Marziano in the Civic User Testing Group (CUTgroup).


The benefits of civic technology do not travel in one direction. Civic hackers have as much to gain from including diverse, non-expert and non-technical residents in their work as the residents themselves do. Residents seek ways to learn about solving social problems with technology, data or mobile applications. Civic hackers seek to create tools that solve relevant problems and truly work for everyone.


Despite the way we talk about them, civic tech and digital inclusion are not separate movements with separate missions. Both seek to make residents’ lives better through technology. The differences lie in the method and associations. When a resident thinks of a civic hacker, they might think of a person who seems smarter than them coding away at a hackathon. When a resident thinks of a digital trainer, they might think of the volunteer in the library public computing center. Wouldn’t it make both jobs easier (and the city better) if the civic hacker could also talk to the library trainees and the digital trainer attended the hackathon? Let’s make that happen.


Digital inclusion professionals have a lot to offer the civic tech community. These trainers and program professionals are experts in community outreach, skilled in training, and are the boots on the ground in their neighborhoods.

Unfortunately, digital inclusion professionals are not always paid to or encouraged to think about civic tech. I feel lucky in this respect because I work for Smart Chicago – an organization built for Chicago specifically to care about both civic tech and digital equity. The only thing I have to do to form a digital inclusion-civic tech partnership is Slack Sonja Marziano or wheel my desk chair three feet behind me to her work station!

These are her people:


These are my people:


This is just one place where civic tech meets digital inclusion in Chicago.


We’re thinking of ways Connect Chicago (a network of aligned programs, public computing centers and trainers across the city) and the CUTgroup can work together to make Chicago the most connected, skilled, digitally dynamic city in America.

One idea? Let’s get feedback from CUTgroup’s 1000+ testers on the digital skill offerings in the city. How easy is it for them to learn what they want? What resources are lacking? What resources exist that they don’t know about? We want to collect all the unknown unknowns. Chicago can better understand the “user experience” of its residents, not in relation to a new application or website, but in relation to the digital access and skills ecosystem in their city and community. As it turns out, a significant chunk of our CUTgroup testers rely on mobile and public Wi-Fi:

Are there other creative ways digital inclusion projects and the civic tech community can partner and strengthen one another? We’re confident. Let’s have that conversation. If you have ideas, we want to hear about them.

Talking to each other is fun, but doing stuff is better. Here are actionable items we can take home after the Summit:


Civic hackers, pledge to involve five people you don’t currently know in your next project. Embrace civic user testing groups as opportunities to learn, teach and inspire; measure success not only the number of apps created and tested, but in the number of people engaged. Digital trainers and digital inclusion program managers, go to a hackathon or civic tech convening, present a specific wish list, and take your trainees and co-workers with you.


To follow the panel on Twitter, see our hashtags #CfADigInc and #CfASummit and follow me at @DKLinn.

Here’s the presentation as a download:

Launch: The @CivicWhitaker Anthology

the-civicwhitaker-anthology-coverToday marks the publication of The @CivicWhitaker Anthology: Three years of organizing, writing, and documenting in Chicago civic tech at the Smart Chicago Collaborative. Here’s my introduction:

Hiring Christopher Whitaker to work as a consultant for Smart Chicago was one of the best decisions I made here.

Together, we created a new job type— part documenter, part organizer, part evangelist, part original writer and thinker about an emerging subsector of the technology industry— civic tech.

Through our work together, he’s helped build one of the strongest civic hacking communities in the country, been an essential part of the growth of the largest network of civic tech volunteers in the world, helped make the first weekend in June a national day of civic hacking, worked with a dozen emerging companies and organizations to grow revenue and impact, and served as a critical thread in the national fabric of this important movement.

This book is a simple anthology of the best of his vast work.

Take a gander here or just download it for yourself.

The @CivicWhitaker Anthology from Smart Chicago Collaborative

If you appreciate this book, hit us up. Sharing is caring!

Smart Chicago + Code for America Summit 2015

Radar screen

The Code for America Summit, “a roll-up-your-sleeves conference that brings together innovators from hundreds of governments across the U.S. along with civic-minded technologists, designers, community organizers, and entrepreneurs” starts on September 30.

Smart Chicago has a unique relationship with Code for America and performs a singular role in the community of civic-minded people and organizations here in Chicago and across the country.

Here’s a look at some of the presenters and speakers at this year’s conference and they work we’ve done with them over the years. Lots of the support we provide is quiet and under the radar, so we thought we’d make some noise and put some blips on the green screen.

Continue reading

Health Advocates Weigh Data, Equity in Obesity Targets

Health workers review the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children policy agenda on Sept. 16, 2015.

Health workers review Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children policy agenda.

Childhood obesity is a stubborn problem to reverse in communities starved for cash. In a new five-year plan, Chicago health advocates put a priority on targeting funds and tracking results.

“We are not seeing significant improvement in disparities,” dietitian and food consultant Tracy A. Fox told the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children. The group outlined its policy agenda at a Sept. 16 meeting.

A decades-long rise in obesity rates has leveled off at 17 percent, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. “It’s a plateau at an insanely high rate,” Fox said.

The overall trend also disguises rising obesity rates among minorities. “For African-Americans in particular we are seeing pretty significant increases. So I think we have our work cut out for us,” she said.

“As you discuss your policy agenda for this coalition, I would think about always viewing what you’re doing through the lens of how this would impact disparities,” Fox advised. “If you’re going into a middle- or upper- income school and you’re making significant changes, that’s really cool and that’s really nice. But are you then widening the gap between what’s happening in the city with African American and Latino kids and white middle- and upper-income kids?”

The group is refocusing priorities as both city and state lawmakers consider one of its initiatives, a tax on sugary beverages.

“There’s an argument to be made, if you’re just looking to lower consumption, then where that money goes is maybe not as important as just raising the price of soda,” said executive director Adam Becker. Still, the group is pushing for proceeds to benefit public health instead of sweetening general revenues.

“The feasibility is not really a question anymore,” Becker said. “It’s more the political will.”

The City Council health committee in September considered a penny-an-ounce tax. But its chair, Ald. George Cardenas (12th Ward) has not committed to advancing the plan. A state tax on distributors gained Chicago and suburban sponsors but has not advanced in the Legislature.

“It shows momentum,” said Elissa Bassler, chief executive of the Illinois Public Health Institute. “It’s being seriously considered as a source of revenue to improve health and invest those revenues into health initiatives.”

As new policies gain traction, data analysis has emerged as a priority. “Just because a bill got signed into an act or an ordinance passed doesn’t necessarily mean the things you intended to have happen are indeed happening,” Becker said. “A lot of the real hard work comes when you have to then monitor where things are going.”

Obesity and overweight in kindergarten, 6th and 9th grades, 2012-13 (Chicago Public Schools)

Obesity and overweight pupils in kindergarten, 6th and 9th grades, 2012-13 (Chicago Public Schools)

For example, Illinois requires schools to take body-mass measurements, but the consortium wants the data tracked to identify areas in need. In the latest review of Chicago Public Schools data, roughly half of students were overweight or obese in 11 of Chicago’s 77 community areas.

The coalition of public-health advocates wants to build on recent legislative victories. Childcare centers in Illinois now must meet standards on physical activity, nutrition, screen time and breastfeeding. The group seeks to extend the licensing requirements to child-care family homes.

Less sugar and fat are now required in subsidized school food programs, along with more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean protein and low-fat dairy. The consortium wants to maintain the higher standards and expand a federal summer nutrition program, which reaches only 15 percent of eligible children in Illinois.

“We work a lot in school breakfast,” said Bob Dolgan, executive director of the Greater Chicago Food Depository. “And it’s surprising even in low-income school districts how few administrators think about the fact that they have children coming to school without a meal and not eating until lunchtime. How can they possibly concentrate and excel in school without a meal?”

The group also pledges to spread novel ideas such as doubled food stamp benefits at farmers’ markets, a loan pool to build grocery stores in food deserts, and a “baby friendly” designation for hospitals that support breastfeeding.

And it advocates plans to encourage recreation and make streets safer. “In the first several iterations of the transportation bill, there’s been a big shift of more money for walking and bicycling,” said Melody Geracy, deputy executive director of the Active Transportation Alliance. “It is still a microscopic grain of sand in terms of the overall transportation budget. Still, it’s a target” for cost-cutters, Geracy said.

The group’s five-year plan retools an agenda set at a 2010 conference of local advocates. Policy-focused members shared a draft this spring with the group’s executive committee. Becker said national advisors provided details on policy specifics. Lurie Children’s Hospital, where the consortium is based, checked for conflicts with its own positions.

“You all as a city are probably farther ahead than a lot of even big urban cities in terms of really trying to come together with a unified agenda,” Fox told the group.

The policy document says political support is “particularly threatened” for federal health supports such as Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health. The CDC program pays for health screening in Chicago minority communities.

She advised local advocates to talk up their victories. “The more evidence base you have, the better,” she noted, but success stories from the front lines are more likely to engage lawmakers.

Local policy strategists suggested that closing gaps in outcomes will require wider access to preventive care. “Reducing disparities isn’t the same as creating equity,” said Joseph Harrington, regional health officer for the Illinois Department of Public Health.

The Launch of CUTGroup Text Message Sign-ups

In the Civic User Testing Group (CUTGroup), we’ve built a community of over 1,000 residents in Chicago and Cook County who get paid to test websites and apps to help create better technology. We’re proud of how many people we have already reached with the CUTGroup, but we continue to value continuous recruitment and finding new modes to invite people to join. Today, we are announcing that residents can now sign up for CUTGroup via text message.

Participation Barriers

The start of this project began when I wrote to testers who never came to a CUTGroup test before. This was at the end of December, 2014, when 186 CUTGroup members (out of 817) had never opened up an email that we sent. I wanted to know what some of the barriers were for them that stopped them from participating in a test, and just get a better idea about what was going on. I wrote these emails from my work email (not Mailchimp) in case our emails were going to spam:

Thank you for being a part of the Civic User Testing Group (CUTGroup)! I’m writing because it looks like you have not received or opened any of our e-mails. We are always looking for a diverse group of people to test with and we’re looking to determine why some sign up and don’t participate.

If CUTGroup isn’t working out for you, we would like to hear why! Please respond to this e-mail or fill out this form.

I wanted to see if they were receiving our emails, if the locations were tough for them, if they only wanted the $5 VISA gift card for signing up, or anything else. A number of testers reached out to me and said that my emails were going into their spam folder (we use Mailchimp for all of our email campaigns). Now, every time someone signs up and I send a gift card, I add a letter thanking them, but I also tell them that adding our email addresses can avoid our emails ending up in the junk mail folder.

I also heard from a lot of testers that sometimes the date/time or location can be hard for certain testing opportunities. This is understandable, and we try to move around the city with our testing locations. Here is a look at all the neighborhoods we tested in so far:

View CUTGroup Testing Locations – 09.24.15 in a full screen map

Hearing from our testers about why or why they don’t participate also got me thinking about the way that we set up communication around tests could be a barrier to participation. We normally invite testers in our initial call-out email about a week or two before the test date. We do that because we know by that time, testers probably know their schedule and can confirm their availability. This helps us with our no-show rate.

However, if you do not have internet access at home and rely on public computer centers, you are limited by your time commitment on a public computer and might not have a chance to respond to our emails in time. Out of our 1,000+ CUTGroup members today, 29% of our testers said their primary form of connecting to the Internet is either via public wifi or their phone with data plan. 

Text Message

We were interested in offering a text solution for residents to sign up for the CUTGroup and then also receive notifications when a new test is available. The impetus behind this project is to serve the large and growing number of residents who do not have regular access to the internet. By adding a text mode, the CUTGroup will be more effective at discovering resident’s voice.

In addition, even if you are connected on a regular basis, text message is still a really powerful tool.

Here is how it works:

Residents text a message to this phone number: 773-747-6239 to initiate the sign-up. We start with a short message to let them know that they will be answering 10 questions. We knew our usual form was a little long, and so we decided to only focus on  the questions we needed to ask. We understood by asking some testers less questions than others, that this would bifurcate our testers. Therefore, we have a mission to choose people via text message to bring them in, get them in front of computers and access to technology. In addition, this is when these CUTGroup testers will complete their entire profile.


We are using both Twilio (check out this toolkit), a cloud communications platform that allows web apps to make and receive phone calls and SMS text messages, and Wufoo, an easy-to-use tool we use to create forms. These tools then send the data to Patterns, an application we created to help manage the CUTGroup.

Thanks to Smart Chicago consultant Josh Kalov for doing all the tech work in this project.

texting on an older model phone


In the next month, we will be implementing a notification system to testers who prefer text messaging for new testing opportunities. We are looking a step further to build a system where these testers who will not only hear about new tests, but also respond to our screening questions and tell us their availability via text.

More to come on that! We are excited that we are beginning to leverage text message as part of our CUTGroup process.

Community Feedback Session at #ChiHackNight

hacknightfeedbackAt last night’s ChiHackNight, the group went through a community feedback session in order to give everyone a chance to voice their opinion. It’s the first time that Chi Hack Night as had a community feedback session in it’s three and half year history.

It was a great way for the group to listen to the community and to better understand what people want to get out of the group.

Chi Hack Night is organized by Derek Eder and Christopher Whitaker along with a volunteer leadership council. The average attendance has been upwards of seventy people. Every week, the group breaks out into smaller breakout groups led by a over a dozen volunteer leaders.

The Leadership Council meetings are open to anyone and publicly documented. They generally happen at least once a month.

For this hack night, the goal was to see how Chi Hack Night could improve. To do this, four boards were set up with the following questions:

  • What do you like about Chi Hack Night?
  • What would you like to learn from this community?
  • What kinds of presentations should would you like to see?
  • What could we do differently or better with this community?

Breakout leaders were named to help lead the discussion (Genevieve Nielsen, Rose Afriyie, Cathy Deng and Karl Fogel) and each led a group around the four boards. At each board, people were encouraged to write down on sticky notes what the answers to each of the questions. After five minutes, each group would rotate.

After all four groups have had a chance to answer the question, each group leader called out the top five ideas. The boards were then rolled into the Leadership Meeting so they could jot down all the ideas. Here’s the highlight reel:

You can check out the Leadership Meeting notes for the full results and here’s a writeup by