Themes from the NNIP San Antonio Spring 2016 Meeting

From April 6th – April 8th, I attended the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP) Meeting in San Antonio, Texas. NNIP is a network of city partners that collects, analyzes, and evangelizes neighborhood data. The idea of “data for local action” underscores this important work. Above all, NNIP is a community of practice.



The bi-annual meetings are when partners collaborate in person and share out work. I represented the Smart Chicago Collaborative at the meeting, joining essential Chicago data intermediaries Heartland Alliance and the Woodstock Institute.

This blog post is organized by the major themes that captured my interest at NNIP:

  • NNIP’s new commitment to centralizing data training resources
  • The challenge of capturing and quantifying civic participation
  • The promise of integrated data systems for future neighborhood research
  • The need for more usability testing of local data tools

You can read a similar recap blog post from the fall 2015 NNIP Meeting in Dallas, Texas here.

NNIP 2016 4

NNIP’s commitment to data training

On the first day of the San Antonio NNIP meeting, NNIP announced a new project with Microsoft Technology and Civic Engagement: “Expanding Training in Using Data and Technology to Improve Communities.

According to the project website:

This project focuses on expanding training opportunities for local audiences who work professionally or as civic activists to serve communities and improve neighborhood conditions. Training can help these dedicated individuals use data and technology to perform their daily work more efficiently, effectively, and inclusively.  Examples include ways to access, interpret, combine, and analyze data, as well as approaches to visualize and communicate data-based stories and results.

NNIP will conduct a scan of civic training and resources across its partners and other organizations. To further inform that scan, there will be a working session at the next NNIP meeting in Cleveland. With the results from the scan and cross-city collaboration, NNIP plans to publish a guide on data training and share a bank of open curricula for local organizations to use. This would be an amazing national resource for organizations within and beyond the NNIP network.

I look forward to following this project and seeing how Smart Chicago can contribute to the bank of knowledge that NNIP assembles. Smart Chicago sees data and digital literacy as essential pieces to a healthy tech ecosystem. We have already committed to this type of training and capacity building through the Chicago School of Data and Connect Chicago. Smart Chicago has ample resources and lessons to share from our work and we are supportive of other cities seeking to replicate our models.

The challenge of capturing civic participation measures

At Smart Chicago, we see technology is a means to civic engagement and prosperity rather than an end in itself. One of the most interesting conversations at the San Antonio NNIP meeting was about quantifying and measuring civic participation in innovative ways. Representatives from Portland State University, DataSpark RI and the University of Minnesota shared their recent work in this area.

When thinking about civic participation indicators, a natural question arises: how can we go beyond voter participation and registration data to capture a more holistic picture of civic engagement in our cities? I was inspired to see NNIP partners using measures like non-emergency 311 reports and AmeriCorps volunteer data to understand local engagement and civic action across neighborhoods.

I was also interested in how different ages and demographic groups practiced civic participation.

One of my favorite resources shared was DataHaven’s 2016 Connecticut Civic Health Index which uses data on charitable giving, community meeting participation, and trust in neighborhoods to capture a well-rounded “civic health” indicator.

The promise of integrated data systems for future neighborhood research

NNIP partners from Cleveland, New York, Baltimore, Providence, Pittsburgh, and Pinellas County participated in a cross-site project called “Connecting People and Place: Improving Communities through Integrated Data Systems.”

There are several approaches to and definitions of integrated data systems, but in NNIP’s own words:

Integrated Data Systems (IDS) link data at the individual level from multiple government agencies such as schools, juvenile justice, and human services, and can also include data from non-governmental service providers. The systems can be used for case management and for program monitoring and evaluation, and have privacy protections governing access to the data.

At the NNIP San Antonio meeting, representatives from New York and Cleveland shared out their experiences from the cross-site project. New York University’s Furman Center used an integrated data system and machine learning to predict city buildings where residents’ risk of entering a homeless shelter was highest. Case Western Reserve University used their integrated data system to understand and predict kindergarten readiness.

NNIP partners shared other results and advice from integrated data system work:

NNIP has many resources on integrated data systems including a suggested reading list and an ever-growing list of projects across the country.

The need for more usability testing of local data tools

The theme of creating user-friendly interactions with data and technology was interwoven through the NNIP meeting.

On the first day of the meeting, the San Antonio NNIP partner CI:Now discussed how residents’ difficulties with understanding and using online forms impacted CI:Now’s ability to collect neighborhood data. If forms were not user-friendly or if residents in a neighborhood lacked the digital skills to fill out the online forms, there was an obstacle to both civic engagement and meaningful research.

The NNIP meeting’s session on website redesigns also echoed the theme of usability challenges. Building or improving portals or data products requires feedback. Unfortunately, there is not always a local organization or civic process in place to dedicated that that usability work.

Given this repeated theme throughout the NNIP meeting, I was pleased to see Nic Moe of Austin’s Children’s Optimal Health facilitate a “camp” conversation on how partners can embrace UX testing.

Smart Chicago would like to be a resource for NNIP partners interested in broader civic engagement and usability testing. Smart Chicago wrote the book on civic user testing. We also share best practices from our CUTGroup project through the new CUTGroup Collective. We are pleased to invite NNIP partners into the CUTGroup Collective and help organizations build a civic user testing community in their own cities. In addition to making data and technology tools better, this testing is also vehicle for meaningful resident engagement and skill-building.  

You find out more information about the CUTGroup Collective and get involved with the community here.

NNIP San Antonio was a thought-provoking convening hitting on many moving target projects and questions that Smart Chicago grapples with daily — from the Array of Things Civic Engagement work to Healthy Chicago 2.0 on the Health Atlas. We are pleased to collaborate with this network and seek new ways to contribute to and add value to this community of neighborhood data practitioners.

You can access the presentations and materials from the San Antonio NNIP meeting here.

Meet the Project Manager and Project Coordinator of Youth-led Tech

We are extremely excited to welcome Monica Swope and Anthony Smith to our Youth-led Tech 2016 Team.

Youth-Led Tech 2016

Monica SwopeMonica is leading the program as Project Manager while Anthony is providing solid resources and assistance as Project Coordinator. Monica is Principal Education Consultant for Learning Dimensions; a Chicago based educational consulting company committed to transformative learning environments. “The key to economic empowerment is made possible through greater access to technology and education, and that is something that should be available to all regardless of one’s zip code,” sites Monica as her desire and philosophy for participating in the Youth-led Tech program. She has a wealth of experience including teaching public school, educational administration, and is an adjunct faculty member of Loyola University-School of Education. Monica also is a yoga instructor, all of which will come in handy as the program gears up.

IMG_4034Anthony comes to Smart Chicago from a Teen Pregnancy Prevention program supporting Chicago Public School students. A big portion of his interactions with students was around making better decisions, identifying life goals, and understanding values about who the kids were and how where they came from could affect their life’s path. Anthony was a mentor for youth in the Roseland and Englewood Communities, and coaches basketball at Crane High School. Anthony quotes April Chamberlin as his reason for wanting to work in the Youth-led Tech program, “Education is evolving due to the impact of the Internet. We cannot teach our students in the same manner in which we were taught. Change is necessary to engage students not in the curriculum we are responsible for teaching, but in school. Period.” With this type of attitude, our youth will certainly be better for having Anthony.

LISC Chicago Begins Integrating Digital Skills into Financial Opportunity Centers

Under Connect Chicago, LISC Chicago Financial Opportunity Centers are integrating digital skills training into their programming. This investment was launched on Saturday April 16th by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and other Chicago leaders.

LISC pic

This investment builds on an infrastructure of trusted community institutions that already provide income support, financial literacy training, and job training to residents. The blending of digital training components with traditional LISC programming has created pilot successes in the past. Under the Smart Communications Demonstration between 2011-2012, LISC Chicago Financial Opportunity Centers found that patrons who participated in digital skill training alongside other support services were 50% more likely to get a job than those that didn’t.

To assist with this integration, LISC Chicago hired Skill Scout. According to the Skill Scout website:

Skill Scout’s team is comprised of professionals with deep experience in workforce development, community organization, community collaboration, and the design and deployment of novel solutions in the market.

We came together through our work at gravitytank, on a design project to connect job seekers to employment in a more meaningful way.

There are 10 LISC Chicago Financial Opportunity Centers (formerly known as Centers for Working Families) where digital skills training will be integrated:

We know that there are other community organizations that are seeking to integrate digital skills training into their work and missions. For instance, the Chicago Citywide Literacy Coalition has created a Technology Pilot Program to embed computer training in adult education and literacy work. LISC Chicago, under Connect Chicago, will not only integrate digital skills into their programming, but also share out their integration experience and lessons with others. By sharing, they can benefit institutions across Chicago as well as LISC Financial Opportunity Centers nationwide.


Skill Scout’s first task was to scan the field and assess existing Financial Opportunity Center services, resources, and challenges. On April 14th, Skill Scout convened representatives from Financial Opportunity Centers and shared preliminary findings from this first phase of work. A few themes arose:

It’s important to break down “training silos”

Digital skills shouldn’t always be taught as a completely separate track – rather, there should and can be multiple formal and informal ways of onboarding people into learning computer and technology skills.

For instance, a Resume Prep Class should leave students with a completed resume, but also leave them proficient in Microsoft Word and give them the knowledge they need to save and forward that resume electronically. Or, a financial coach assisting with a job search can teach a student how to use Google Maps – that job seeker can use the map to scan businesses in their neighborhood and see where they might want to apply first.

There is a need for more (or at least centralized) instructional tools

IMG_6864LISC Financial Opportunity Center staff took inventory of some of their favorite teaching tools and online resources: Blue Ocean Logic, Credit Karma, Kahn Academy, and Google forms. One trainer even mentioned that she likes to create mock online job applications through Google forms so that students can get comfortable with with forms and typing. Also, because it’s on a Google form that she controls, she can see their answers and give them feedback.

Staff at Financial Opportunity Centers mentioned that majority of their students have smartphones. Some want instruction to set up an email account on a smartphone, workshops coming up on taking professional pictures, or instructions to forward a resume. Also, students sometimes don’t know how to transfer skills from a smartphone to a computer. Some students even try to type up their resume on their smartphones. Creating a suite of tutorials to meet this demand for smartphone instruction is something that the Connect Chicago Meetup has discussed before.

Building in practice time is key

All agreed that all teaching tools and methods should be interactive and hands-on, if possible. When learning new skills, regular practice is just as important as learning. Since people in programs at Financial Opportunity Centers are very busy, it’s important to build purposeful practice time into existing lessons instead of filling the entire time with instruction.


There is demand for more coordinated, standardized assessment

Trainers and staff agreed: regular, standardized pre and post instruction assessment that trainers could use across Financial Opportunity Centers would be ideal.

Northstar is an assessment that Chicago Commons recommended the Northstar assessment uses. The assessment gives them enough information to understand the needs of students. The Center for Changing Lives pointed out that all pre and post assessment done should be in the context of a concrete goal relevant to the student’s life.

Skill Scout Videos for LISC Chicago Financial Opportunity Centers

Skill Scout worked with LISC Financial Opportunity Center staff and trainers to develop short video tutorials to address some of the most common student challenges: uploading a resume, copying & pasting, twin accounts, how to understand your paycheck, and how to access benefits. For the “How to Access Benefits” tutorial, Skill Scout highlighted MRelief, an all-woman software development team that Smart Chicago has supported through our CivicWorks Project and tested through CUTGroup.

See them below:

The Launch of Task Force Tracker

Today marks the launch of a new project, Task Force Tracker:  “an annotated, updated and independent hub for public use that will measure the ~200 individual recommendations against existing contracts, policies, potential conflicts and public discourse; such as the Fraternal Order of Police contract, local legislation and media reports.”

This is a joint project of Smart Chicago, City Bureau, and Invisible Institute. From the Smart Chicago side, it is done through our Documenters program, which is run by Kyla Williams.

It continues the work in our justice program, where we documented the community forums held by the Chicago Police Accountability Task Force. Our basic idea was to come up with a way to number, explain, and track every recommendation from their report. “Recommendations for Reform: Restoring Trust between the Chicago Police and the Communities they Serve“. To provide context around previous attempts at change and index the barriers to implementation. To provide a space where others can contribute and we create a living corpus of knowledge about the work we share as a city.

The result, a little more than a week later, is this independent project by two of the most principled journalism outfits in the country, working to bring community voice to bear on some of the most important issues we face in this city.

One of the first speakers of the first community forums that we documented held by the Chicago Police Accountability Task Force said something that has stuck with me:

“I’m going to put it where the goats can get it — at the heart of this is racism and racist officers and their behavior.”

It stuck with me because it is such a good approach— if you want someone to hear your message, you have to put it where they are and make it easy to consume. It also stuck with me because what this resident said maps the thrust of the actual task force report, which wrote, “We arrived at this point in part because of racism.”

When there is communion— when we are all working from the same foundation, when we’re all talking, with specificity, about the same ideas and approaches— we win, together. This project, in my view, helps bring that communion.

This work was done in the context of our KCIC Deep Dive, where we are part of a Knight Foundation cohort representing a diverse set of approaches to expanding community information and increasing community engagement. 

Crowd at Chicago Police Accountability Task Force Community Meeting #2

Announcing the May Connect Chicago Meetup: IT Career Training with the Center for Changing Lives

Our next Meetup will feature the Center for Changing Lives and their new IT Career Preparation Program. This program takes participants on a learning pathway from basic digital skills to job preparation in the information technology field.

The Connect Chicago community will learn about this program, hear about the program’s progress and lessons learned, and have a larger discussion about IT training prerequisites and digital skill learning pathways in Chicago. Lunch will be served. Join us!

Event: Center for Changing Lives’ IT Career Preparation Program

Where: The Chicago Community Trust

When: Wednesday, May 25th from 11am to 1pm

Come join a cross-sector discussion on IT training. Come meet and network with computer trainers, nonprofit professionals, and fellow residents who care about the digital lives of Chicagoans. Our special guests will include the coaches, instructors, and students from the Center for Changing Lives.  RSVP at this link.

Mayor Omar

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Omar Damacela, the Digital Literacy Coach for the Center for Changing Lives, at the Connect Chicago Launch on April 16th

About the IT Preparation Program

According to their flyer:

“Center for Changing Lives’ Information Technology Career Preparation Program is designed to support you in setting and achieving your IT employment goals through comprehensive training in career-readiness, foundational computer science and digital literacy skills, and CompTIA A+ Certification. After completing this 32-week program, you will be ready to enter the IT field as a Help Desk Associate, Installation Technician, and User SupportTechnician – jobs starting at $13-$15 per hour.”


About The Center for Changing Lives


“Key Coaching Points” – tips we saw on the wall of the Center for Changing Lives during a site visit.

The Center for Changing Lives (CCL) is a LISC Chicago Financial Opportunity Center. CCL partners with participants to uncover possibilities, overcome barriers, and realize their potential. Its work includes coaching on financial, employment and resource mobilization goals that enhance lives, training and skill enhancement opportunities, and advocacy and organizing on economic policy and practices that open up opportunities and resources.

Smart Chicago’s Recap of the Connect Chicago Launch

On April 16th, a coalition of public and private partners announced the next chapter in Chicago’s digital leadership: Connect Chicago. Smart Chicago joined the Chicago Public Library, LISC Chicago, World Business Chicago, Chicago Public Schools, the Chicago Public Library Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, the Connect Chicago Technology Advisory Council, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel in launching this initiative.

Omar talking

Internet access is key, but Connect Chicago doesn’t stop there. Connect Chicago seeks to increase access to the Internet, increase digital skills, and increase civic & economic engagement through technology. This will be accomplished by investing in leadership, the scaling of evidence-based programs, and innovation.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel held up Connect Chicago as an example of what can be accomplished through public-private partnerships. Through Connect Chicago, digital learning opportunities will be made available citywide through Chicago Public Library Branches and LISC Financial Opportunity Centers.

Mayor Logo

Smart Chicago is proud to be the home for this important work. Connect Chicago speaks to two of our focus areas: access and skills. From our seat at the Chicago Community Trust, we have hosted and encouraged a community of practice around digital equity through Connect Chicago Meetups. The trainers and community organizations involved work everyday to close technology gaps. We will continue to build community, collaboration, and innovation across the entire ecosystem.

See this blog post by Dan X. O’Neil to access pictures and see the press release from Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

For more information on Connect Chicago, visit To get involved and receive regular updates about Connect Chicago, fill out this form.

Smart Chicago’s Twitter Recap of the Connect Chicago Launch