Prioritizing Resident Engagement When Implementing the Internet of Things

This blog post was originally published on Data-Smart City Solutions and is by Glynis Startz — Smart Chicago’s Harvard Ash Center Summer Fellow. Glynis is assisting with Smart Chicago’s Array of Things Civic Engagement work, among other smart cities-focused projects. Glynis is a Master in Public Policy Candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School.

The Array of Things Public Meeting at Lozano Public Library | June 14, 2016

The Array of Things Public Meeting at Lozano Public Library | June 14, 2016

This summer the Smart Chicago Collaborative is working with the City of Chicago and the operators of the Array of Things urban sensing project to engage with residents broadly and gather feedback on the project’s Governance and Privacy Policy. This project was recently mentioned in an article by Stephen Goldsmith about implementing Internet of Things (IoT) initiatives. In it, he recommended that cities consider five key themes:

  1. Leverage existing physical infrastructure
  2. Engage the local data ecosystem (ie partner with local researchers or non-profits)
  3. Employ a clear data management strategy
  4. Address security and privacy concerns with transparency
  5. Turn collected data into action

These five points are important technical aspects of a successful IoT initiative, but it’s also important to consider non-technical themes of IoT work. One less highlighted theme vital to IoT reaching it’s full potential in a city: engaging residents early and often.

Engaging with residents to see what they need, and designing projects that reflect that feedback, is necessary and useful. Effective engagement can provide valuable information to improve the implementation of an IoT project, in addition to easing resident objections or concerns.

Why Engagement Matters for Everyone

Engaging with residents is traditionally thought of as a way to gather and maintain local support for a project, but it can also enable implementers to take advantage of unknown neighborhood (institutional) knowledge to make a project more effective. We often see transparency and engagement as a chore–a political requirement instead of something which has more direct and functional value.  

Governmental or academic implementers sometimes underestimate residents and their genuine interest in innovative projects. There is a tendency to assume residents don’t want to engage in the complexities of a problem, and that it is therefore better for the project heads to go ahead and do what they’ve determined is right, but this undersells the commitment and sophistication of many citizens. Because IoT applications almost always touch on data and sensors, engagement involves privacy issues and can seem particularly scary. There are a few predictable reactions to open discussion of these issues which can put anyone off having that talk, but it’s a mistake to assume you know how the majority of residents will react.

A good example of this is the discussion that was reported around an IoT transportation project in Aberdeen. Researchers were concerned about data anonymity because of the low population of the project area, but when residents were brought into the discussion they felt the utility they gained from the project (improved tracking of bus arrival times) made that cost worthwhile.

Learning from Engaging

With that underestimation comes an undervaluing of the feedback residents can provide. There are vast reservoirs of relatively untapped institutional knowledge about neighborhoods or cities in residents’ minds. The more feedback you open yourself up to, and the more time you spend answering questions and listening, the more useful information you can gather. Sometimes you’ll learn things you didn’t know you didn’t know.


Brenna Berman and Charlie Catlett overview the Array of Things governance & privacy policies at a public meeting | June 22, 2016

The importance of engaging residents around civic technology more generally is something the Smart Chicago Collaborative has been grappling with for several years. The Civic User Testing Group (CUTGroup), a community of residents in Chicago and all of Cook County who get paid to test out civic websites and apps, is one example of direct resident engagement with technology tools. Smart Chicago’s Array of Things Civic Engagement work could be considered an extension of that purpose — directly engaging Chicago residents in shaping technology projects and policies, rather than a tool. By acknowledging that there are some things best learnt from residents and users, these initiatives use civic engagement to improve technology and service delivery in Chicago.

Engagement around the Array of Things project recognizes the potential value of that input. In addition to gathering feedback about privacy concerns, events were a chance for residents to air concerns and ask clarifying questions about data, privacy, and governance, but they also became a forum for researchers to learn what new information residents could provide about their environment, and increase their involvement. Researchers would do well to follow up and continue to learn.

The engagement meeting referenced the historical and contextual knowledge of the area residents could provide, and which researchers may want to draw on when choosing sensor locations. For example, Charlie Catlett told attendees at the Lozano Library Public Meeting that they could influence the exact placement of sensors if there were reasons the Array of Things team didn’t know about or hadn’t thought of. Residents of every neighborhood are likely to have superior information about precisely where various aspects of their ecosystem can best be evaluated.

Engage or Inform

When we’re talking about civic engagement, it’s very important not to confuse informing with engaging. Helping residents understand the project is different from, but a necessary precursor to, collecting targeted feedback about the project and what aspects are useful or not to residents. If a project isn’t willing to be responsive to that feedback, they are informing, not engaging.

I think interaction with citizens in the data and open government sector can be split into three levels. The first level is technical transparency. This is creating an open data portal or putting the text of some policy up online. Technical transparency allows an organization to say they are being open without actively reaching out to citizens. The second level is informing–explaining to citizens what you’re doing while you’re doing it. This goes further than technical transparency in that it requires at least some attempt to curate open information for citizens, but it doesn’t require an explicit feedback loop. The third level is engagement, taking the time not only to inform residents, but to listen to and react to their questions, concerns, and desires. Engagement is the hardest to do well, and the most time consuming, but it can also provide the most value added for everyone involved.

A city or project should decide which of the three levels of interaction is appropriate and manageable. This may depend on the magnitude of privacy concerns or likely impacts on residents, on the potential malleability of the project, and on whether the design of the project makes local knowledge potentially valuable. For some IoT implementations, especially ones testing specific hypotheses, some aspects of the project may not be open to change. To measure the lake effect, for instance, Array of Things may need sensors set up in a certain formation. Sometimes simple informing is ok, and sometimes it’s not.

To capture the full value of the IoT, cities must not only “integrate it into existing data strategies” as Goldsmith points out, but integrate it into the existing social and cultural structures as well.

A resident snaps a picture of an Array of Things sensor at a public meeting | June 22, 2016

A resident snaps a picture of an Array of Things sensor at a public meeting | June 22, 2016

Smart Chicago Congratulates Envision Chicago Student Scholarship Winners

envision_logoOn July 20th, 4 Chicago public high school students were honored with a commemorative resolution at the Chicago City Council Meeting. These students were the winners of the Envision Chicago pilot program and each was awarded a  $1,000 scholarship for proposing improvements to city laws.

Envision Chicago, a project of  the OpenGov Foundation in collaboration with the City Clerk, challenged youth in participating schools — the Marine Leadership Academy, Chicago Excel Academy of Rosalind, Taft High School, and Lake View High School — to propose ways to change laws and improve lives in Chicago.

Read more about Envision Chicago winners in this OpenGov Foundation Press Release. Here is an excerpt:

It’s clear that when government meets students on their terms, and respects their voices, great things can happen. These students learned positive engagement practices on a user ­friendly website of the Chicago Municipal Code and 86 students dove in, discovered laws covering issues they cared about and shared their ideas.

Here is a glimpse at the social media from the day:

Smart Chicago was pleased to sponsor this pilot initiative along with Microsoft Chicago, Comcast, ComEd, and Haymarket. Congratulations to all the youth who participated in this civic project.

Smart Chicago is helping build CUTGroup Detroit

Spirit of DetroitWe are excited to announce that Smart Chicago is partnering with the City of Detroit, Data Driven Detroit, and Microsoft, to help build the first Civic User Testing Group (CUTGroup) in Detroit. This is part of our CUTGroup Collective efforts to convene organizations and institutions in cities to help others establish new CUTGroups, create a new community, and share and learn from one another.

In April, we announced we would conduct UX testing on websites and tools that use data that is part of the White House’s Opportunity Project initiative. “The Opportunity Project expands access to opportunity for all Americans by putting data and digital tools in the hands of families, communities, and local leaders, to help them navigate information about the resources they need to thrive.” While we initially wanted to align this work with the national efforts of National Day of Civic Hacking, we quickly learned that we needed to take smaller steps to building a CUTGroup and planning for a test in another city. We began planning with Detroit, one of our CUTGroup Collective members, and a city that has curated data related to opportunity as part of the Opportunity Project.

In the last months, I have been working closely with the CUTGroup Detroit team to share ideas and insights from our CUTGroup experiences in Chicago. We have discussed recruitment and communications strategies, as well as test planning and design. In the upcoming weeks, Detroit will begin recruitment and in mid-August, we will conduct a test around a tool that helps people understand more about commercial or other non-residential properties in Detroit.

This work with Detroit is the start of an ongoing relationship through the CUTGroup Collective. Smart Chicago plans to be available to help CUTGroup Detroit grow and create better technology and where we will learn from Detroit experiences to help other cities build CUTGroups.


I am overwhelmed by the support and hard work of our Detroit partners to make this happen. I wanted to acknowledge them here:

First, we are grateful to the Knight Foundation, which makes the CUTGroup Collective possible. They are funding this work through our Deep Dive, where we are part of a cohort representing a diverse set of approaches to expanding community information and increasing community engagement.

The City of Detroit and Garlin Gilchrist, Director of Innovation & Emerging Technology, is leading the strategy and vision of CUTGroup Detroit.

Data Driven Detroit (D3) is managing the recruitment and logistics of CUTGroup. D3 is an organization that provides accessible high-quality information and analysis that drives informed decision-making. Our appreciation for their involvement goes to Erica Raleigh, Executive Director, Noah Urban, Project Lead & Senior Analyst, Kibichii Chelilim, Data Manager & Programmer, and Boitshoko Molefhi, the MSU InnovateGov Summer Intern.

Microsoft is extending their support for Civic Tech in both Chicago and Detroit to focus on CUTGroup Detroit. Microsoft’s Detroit Civic Tech Fellow, Ivoire Morrell, has been a key person in planning and putting together the pieces in building CUTGroup Detroit. Ivoire works closely with Shelley Stern Grach, Microsoft’s Director of Civic Engagement, who always provides important insights in every conversation and who made CUTGroup Detroit part of Ivoire’s project plan.

We are excited about what we can do together and look forward to sharing what we learn this summer!

Launch of New Chicago Early Learning Preschool Application System

On July 1, 2016, the City of Chicago launched an online application system for parents to apply for preschool programs at over 600 sites throughout the city and immediately see if their child is eligible for a preliminary placement with a provider. This happened weeks after the Early Bird application process was launched on May 16, 2016: the City’s first universal preschool application for both Chicago Public School (CPS)-based and community-based programs.

Chicago Early Learning Homepage

As part of this launch, Smart Chicago rolled out a new version of the Chicago Early Learning portal to provide better information about high-quality early learning programs, help parents search and find centers based on their needs, and allow them to compare locations to choose the best options for them. Once parents have compared and selected centers, they are directed to the application system with their top choices. Parents are also able to call the Chicago Early Learning Hotline or visit a Family Resource Center for assistance with their application process.

Updates to Chicago Early Learning

More Information about Early Learning Programs

The City of Chicago wanted the Chicago Early Learning portal to be a key place with information about the importance of early learning programs and details on how to apply. We added a number of pages, including:

A “Parent Information” page for families to learn about high-quality early learning programs. This page provides an explanation of programs, as well as helpful tips for parents to use when choosing a program.

A “How to Apply” page that provides step-by-step instructions on how to apply to preschool programs.

A “City Resources” page that shares other opportunities and resources for families with children ages 0-5.

Updated Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) to help parents understand the application and enrollment process.

Center’s Seat Availability

One of the biggest updates to Chicago Early Learning is being able to show center’s seat availability. We changed the map icons so that they would provide clearer information about the centers. Parents can see on the map if a center is community-based or CPS-based, nationally accredited, and if it has a lot of seats available or only a few. Parents still are able to use filters to refine their search and then add the preferred centers to their “Compare & Apply” list or click on a center detail page for more information.

Chicago Early Learning Search Page

We also refined the design of the rest of the site to match marketing efforts by updating the color scheme, logo, and images.

Data & Handoffs

Once parents have searched for centers and added them to their “Compare & Apply” list, they can click “Apply” which sends up to six choices to the City of Chicago’s application system. Parents are then able to fill out their parent profile and complete an application. Parents are able to view their preliminary placement or waitlist status for the sites they choice, and then submit an application for up to two of their site preferences (one placement and one waitlist).

Chicago Early Learning receives updated seat availability status and any other changes to the center’s information directly from this system.

Helpful Text

Chicago Early Learning provides information for both infant/toddler programs (ages 0-3), and preschool programs (ages 3-5). The application system currently only handles preschool programs, and therefore, we had to be thoughtful on how to help parents understand this distinction.

On each center detail page, we added statements to help give parents direction on next steps.

Chicago Early Learning Helpful Text 1

We wanted parents to still be able to search for and compare infant/toddler programs but know that they should contact the site directly to apply.

Chicago Early Learning Helpful Text 2

Gathering Feedback & Next Steps

Another simple, but important, change we made was adding a way for parents to give us feedback about the site. We added a link in the footer to a form that parents can fill out if they are having issues finding the information they need, or if they have other ideas for improvements.

In the future, we also expect to do additional CUTGroup testing to make sure we are meeting the needs of our users. User testing has been a valuable part of building the portal since the first phases.

We will continue to gather feedback from our partners, the Early Learning specialists, and parents & caregivers and be responsive when making future improvements to the Chicago Early Learning portal. Questions, comments, and feedback are always welcome at

An Infographic of Connect Chicago from January — March 2016

Connect Chicago is a cross-sector civic leadership initiative that seeks to make Chicago the most digitally skilled, connected, and dynamic city in America. In 2016, we’ve made investments to strengthen and expand our city’s digital learning ecosystem. Under Connect Chicago, the CyberNavigator Program out of the Chicago Public Library has expanded citywide, digital skills training has been integrated into LISC Chicago Financial Opportunity Centers, and the Connect Chicago Meetup has continued to be a platform for sharing ideas and best practices across the community of practice.

Here is a summary of some of the work accomplished in early 2016:

The work has just begun. To get involved, join the Connect Chicago Meetup Group. Meet and network with residents, nonprofit professionals, corporate representatives, and technology trainers. Learn about new programs, tools, and best practices for closing technology gaps. Join and learn about upcoming events here. Interested partners can contact Denise Linn at

Documentation from the Array of Things Public Meeting at Harold Washington Library

We’ve compiled documentation from the Array of Things Public Meeting on June 22, 2016 at Harold Washington Library. This is part of our Array of Things Civic Engagement project — a series of community meetings and feedback loops to create dialogue around the Array of Things project, collect community input on privacy, and introduce concepts around how the Internet of Things can benefit communities.


The purpose of the Array of Things Public Meeting was to educate the public on the Array of Things project and help facilitate community feedback on the Array of Things Governance & Privacy policy. These were open meetings in Chicago Public Library Branches. No knowledge of technology or sensors was required to be a welcome, meaningful addition to the event.


Here is a link to a Smart Chicago album on Flickr with all photographs from the event. See a selection of the photographs below:

Social Media

Here is a Storify of the meeting created by Smart Chicago:


 Below is the flyer used to the promote the event. Smart Chicago documenters tasked with outreach distributed flyers and event information around the city, focusing on community spaces like churches, computer centers, libraries, small businesses, etc.

Lavelle_Dollop Coffee
Here is an agenda that was distributed at the meeting:

Here is a map distributed at the meeting that showcases the possible Array of Things Sensor node locations:

Here is the full text of the privacy policy that was distributed during the event also found online here:

Here is a one-pager distributed to meeting participates describing how they can provide feedback on the policy:


 Here are the slides that Charlie Catlett of UrbanCCD used at the event:

Here are the slides that Brenna Berman, CIO for the City of Chicago, used at the event:


Below are the detailed notes from the event which we continue to compile and improve. Very important disclaimer: this is an unofficial record of proceedings and not an exact transcript of the event — rather, a summary of the conversation. We are certain that there are errors and omissions in this document. If you have any questions, comments, or concerns, contact Smart Chicago here.

This documentation is made possible by our Smart Chicago Documenters Program. Our Documenters program is an essential tool for us to add new thinkers, generate ideas, and expand the field for civic tech. The Program played an important role in other Smart Chicago Projects like the Chicago School of Data and the Police Accountability Meeting coverage. Leah Lavelle, Liz Baudler, and Veronica Benson assisted with event outreach. Liz Baulder assisted with notes. Angel Rodriguez took pictures. Lucia Gonzalez and Veronica Benson provided general event support.