Structural Success in Civic Tech

This blog post is also published on Data-Smart City Solutions and is by Glynis Startz — Smart Chicago’s 2016 Harvard Ash Center Summer Fellow. Glynis is assisted 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.

As a Harvard Ash Fellow this summer, I spent 10 weeks working at the Smart Chicago Collaborative, a civic organization dedicated to improving lives in Chicago through technology. I was brought on to work on Smart Chicago’s resident engagement for Array of Things, a series of environmental sensors being installed around the city. In addition to assisting with the day to day aspects of that project, I got to step back and think more closely about the Internet of Things and civic engagement. You can find the resulting blog posts here. In addition to this more tangible work, I also was able to learn about the breadth of projects Smart Chicago works on, and see how they, as an organization, function.


Glynis, our 2016 Summer Ash Fellow, greets Pilsen residents at our Array of Things Public Meeting in Lozano Library

Smart Chicago has a unique structure, functioning between the governmental and non-profit spheres. It was founded jointly by the City of Chicago, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the Chicago Community Trust, and sits within the latter. This structure puts Smart Chicago in a privileged space. They have both stability and a lean, agile structure difficult to maintain in a government office. From this position Smart Chicago has prioritized reaching out to communities while maintaining ties to the government, philanthropy, and tech spaces — being a bridge between these communities in addition to their specific project work. Sitting at Smart Chicago this summer, I was exposed to many different aspects of the civic tech sphere as well as the wider community, but it also made me aware how rare that position was. Most cities are without a Smart Chicago, and many may never be able to create a similar model.

Smart Chicago is very open about its successes, lessons, and individual project information. It’s also open to spreading their unique model, but it’s hard to see how to export that to cities or areas who cannot provide that stable foundation. How do you take success in one arena and hack it together to work in in areas with less (or different types of) local support? It’s something I thought about more generally this summer, watching the civic tech ecosystem in Chicago. How can we export all these successes in major urban centers to small cities or counties that operate under even greater financial and expertise constraints?

To some extent this is already being done. Areas and organizations who want to prioritize civic tech aren’t waiting for a perfect solution or someone to give them resources, they’re figuring it out. But there are many more areas that don’t have the internal drive or knowhow to push through new projects but which could benefit just as much. Smart Chicago has been working to help adapt some of their successful projects to other cities. A great example of this is their Civic User Testing Group (CUTGroup) which brings residents in to provide user feedback for civic technology projects. This summer Smart Chicago helped Detroit adopt the model.

Not everything can be exported in this way, however. Some innovations are simply too expensive or complicated to run, or may not work the same way in a new location. Smart Chicago’s government-philanthropy model may be one of these goods, not feasible for every city at present, but an innovation with outcomes to try for. I think what we all need to strive for is the ability to disentangle the essential from the fluff in any venture. When you strip it way down, what are the wires that hold a project or organization’s value? Can these be achieved by a different method or set of founding partners? For Smart Chicago, the essentials seem to be the smarts and dedication of the people who work there, and the little extra freedom to test things out and experiment. Smart Chicago strikes me as an exemplar of what most of us internally understand works, but still struggle to create, particularly within government: a place where people are supported enough to be comfortable going out on a limb and stable enough to spend time spreading their successes.


Thank you for join us this summer, Glynis!

An Infographic on Computers & Internet Access in Chicago from 2013 – 2015

What is the state of at-home computer and broadband adoption in Chicago? We analyzed the most recent American Community Survey (ACS) data so we can begin to understand the state of digital inclusion in Chicago:

The information above points to some staggering truths about information access in our city. Over 220,ooo households (about 1 in 5) still do not have access to the Internet in 2015, whether because of the monthly cost, skill barriers, or relevancy barriers. In 2015, some Chicago households were smart phone-dependent — a situation that no doubt makes activities like applying for jobs or completing homework quite difficult. Also, seniors, minority populations, and residents with lower educational attainment are more likely to be a the wrong side of this divide.

Recently, the City of Chicago wrote comments to the federal government regarding a new Broadband Research Agenda. The City recommended how federal data sources and agencies can make it easier for municipalities to evaluate their connectivity issues on the neighborhood level and make smarter investments to diagnose and fill local gaps.  This work is essential, given the fact that we know that city-level averages from the ACS for computer ownership and household Internet access are not enough to shine light on gaps and divides within Chicago.

Over the next several months we will release more writing and research on the state of digital inclusion in Chicago. You can follow our work on this blog and on the Smart Chicago Twitter account. You can also join our community of digital inclusion practitioners and advocates at Connect Chicago Meetups. Our next Meetup will be on Friday, October 28, 2016 at the Chicago Community Trust.  You can get more details on the event and RSVP here.

Note: You can see an older version of the infographic above in this blog post.

Introducing the first CUTGroup Collective Call: CUTGroup Detroit’s Story

CUTGroup recruitment happening in Detroit

CUTGroup Detroit Recruitment; photo by Christon Marie photography

We are beginning a new series of community calls for those who are interested in the CUTGroup model for their own city or hearing about recent developments in the CUTGroup program. We see enormous value in sharing experiences with others organizations who are already engaging with residents in technology projects or are looking for resources like the CUTGroup to make that engagement happen.

The goal of the CUTGroup Collective is to convene organizations and institutions in cities to help others establish new CUTGroups, create a new community, and share and learn from one another. For our first community call, we want to highlight CUTGroup Detroit’s story. Over the last few months, a collaboration across multiple entities invested in Detroit– the City of Detroit, Data Driven Detroit, and Microsoft– recruited for and conducted their first CUTGroup test. On our first call, the team involved will talk about their successes and challenges in building CUTGroup Detroit.

You’re invited to join us on Monday, November 7 from 2:00 – 3:30 CT for the first CUTGroup Collective community call. Go to this link to participate in the call on November 7:

Here is a document with more details including the schedule and call-in information:

Questions about CUTGroup? Contact Sonja Marziano at

CUTGroup #24 – OpenGrid

Our CUTGroup Proctor, Nathalie Rayter, wrote the final analysis report for this test. The CUTGroup Proctor Program trains once highly active CUTGroup testers to learn more about usability (UX) testing and CUTGroup test processes.

CUTGroup #24 - OpenGridFor our twenty-fourth Civic User Testing Group (CUTGroup) session, we tested OpenGrid– an open-source interface developed by the City of Chicago that allows residents to search for, interact with and visualize City of Chicago’s datasets.

“OpenGrid has an intuitive user interface that’s highly responsive and efficient. The application is accessible from any devices (e.g., mobile, laptop, tablet or desktop). It’s unique, functional, and an easy to use tool to find city data. It extracts city data and displays it in an illustrative form which makes it easier for a user to search and understand the information.”
– City of Chicago Department of Innovation & Technology (DoIT)

The City of Chicago DoIT conducted some user research and testing of OpenGrid before this CUTGroup test, but it tended to be with high-capacity users or City of Chicago staff. The DoIT department wanted to better understand how residents with different levels of data familiarity and digital skills might use OpenGrid.

“Programmers, however, make up a very small portion of the overall population of a city – as a platform grounded in open data, OpenGrid’s mission is to be accessible by anyone who wishes to learn more about their city…

CUTGroup’s process provides a vital link between developer and user that the civic tech world sometimes lacks.  It’s one of the most human crowd-sourced enhancement mechanisms that a civic app developer could have in her toolkit.”
Sean Thornton, Program Advisor for the Ash Center’s Civic Analytics Network and writer for Data-Smart City Solutions


On April 12, we sent out an email to 1,132 CUTGroup testers who live in Chicago. We wanted to know if they would be available for an in-person test on April 20, 2016. When segmenting our testers, we were interested in including testers who described themselves as not being very familiar with using datasets in their personal or professional lives. We also wanted to include testers who had varying degrees of familiarity with what was happening in their neighborhoods. Lastly, we wanted to include testers with different types of devices.

Screening Questions

During our initial call-out for testers, we heard from 98 CUTGroup members. We received a lot of good information just from the screening questions.

  • 38% of respondents used the Chicago Data Portal before
  • 38% of respondents use or work with datasets in their professional lives, but only half of these respondents said they used the data portal in the past

We were looking to include 20-25 testers for this test. We wanted to test with half of them on laptops and the rest on a variety of mobile devices.

Test Format

For this in-person test, each tester was paired up with a proctor who at this time was either a City of Chicago DoIT employee or involved with the project (this test happened before we formalized a proctor program). Proctors guided testers through doing multiple tasks on OpenGrid, observed the results, and took notes on the testers’ experiences and feedback. This test also utilized A/B testing, where 13 of the testers (“A” Testers) began on (OpenGrid’s homepage) and the other 10 testers (“B” Testers) on (the app interface). We also wanted testers to test either on laptops that we provided or their own mobile device. 

"A" testers reviewed this informational homepage

“A” testers reviewed this homepage.

"B" testers began directly within the OpenGrid app

“B” testers began directly within the OpenGrid app


On April 20, we tested OpenGrid with 23 CUTGroup testers at the Chicago Public Library Legler Branch located in the West Garfield Park neighborhood.

This presentation was shared with the City of Chicago DoIT team that highlighted top results from the test. 


Through the A/B format of this test, we learned how important the context from the OpenGrid homepage is. Testers who started directly in the app were typically more confused about next steps or misunderstood what OpenGrid does. We did hear, though, that there is a lot of information on the OpenGrid homepage, and parts of the homepage spoke to different audiences (especially technical audiences), which made testers feel that this website was not necessarily targeted to them.

“I wouldn’t understand this unless I was in technology. ‘Open source’ is definitely for the ‘tech folks’ and does not matter to me.” -Yoonie, #A18

7 out of the 13 “A” testers who started on the OpenGrid homepage said this website was targeted to Chicago residents, whereas, there was much less consensus about who the target audience is among testers in Group B.

Testers who started on the OpenGrid homepage typically clicked “Launch” (7 out of 13 testers clicked on this button) as their first step. “B” testers did not have a clear sense of what to do first, and therefore, did more exploratory actions to learn more about what OpenGrid does.

Ease of use

As the test designer, I was not prepared for how difficult some of the tasks would be to complete on both mobile and laptop devices. Test sessions typically lasted over an hour, and the majority of testers said that the tasks were “difficult” or “very difficult” to complete. We were lucky to get great, actionable feedback from our CUTGroup testers, which I translated to open GitHub issues on the City of Chicago’s repository.

Overall, how easy do you think it is to use the OpenGrid website?

Group A
5 – Very easy 0%
4 – Easy 23% (3)
3 – Neutral 23% (3)
2 – Difficult 31% (4)
1 – Very difficult 23% (3)

Group B
5 – Very easy 0%
4 – Easy 20% (2)
3 – Neutral 40% (4)
2 – Difficult 10% (1)
1 – Very difficult 30% (3)

We heard a number of improvements that the OpenGrid team could make to improve searching for, finding, and filtering datasets. 13 testers recommended that changes should be made to the OpenGrid search tools to make it easier for users to find the information they are looking for. 7 of these testers thought that the search bar should respond to addresses/zip codes or tags like “311.” 3 testers commented that the existing search filters are too complicated and that they should be simplified. Paloma (#B8) says, “Commonly used queries was easy; all other filters made it difficult.”

7 testers mentioned that they would improve the descriptions and instructions that orient the user to the OpenGrid interface. 2 of these testers recommended adding instructions that suggest how a user would interact with the page, such as suggesting a search or having sample questions. For example, Cleveland54 (#B3) says, “The advanced search panel should be pushed down with a note at top saying ‘welcome, you can search blah blah here.’ The landing page should have a description of the website and then launch to the site.”

We also saw that there needed to be a stronger connection and responsiveness between the filters and the map. Testers were making changes to their search criteria in the advanced search panel and were expecting to see those changes on the map. We also saw that testers would move the map, not create a map boundary using the tool, and then use advanced search expecting that the advanced search panel was connected to their map view and they would get results in that location.


The biggest theme we saw throughout this test was that testers faced numerous challenges with the language on OpenGrid. From the homepage review, where testers thought that the language was targeted to the tech community, to the search and filtering functionality, the biggest improvement that could be made to OpenGrid is including more accessible language.

“It needs to be user-friendly for all Chicago citizens – terms like ‘geo-spatial filters’ don’t mean anything to most users. It sounds deep, but gets people nowhere. This isn’t Star Trek over here.” -Renee54, #A4

Testers also faced challenges viewing the dataset, and not always easily being able to distinguish what the field types meant. Searching required testers to know the exact field name when filtering down the results to more relevant information.

Our biggest recommendation to the OpenGrid team was to take time reviewing the site, and incorporating plain language to content, datasets, and functions.

Next Steps

Once the CUTGroup test was completed, we updated the City of Chicago’s GitHub repository with all pertinent issues that represented the top challenges our CUTGroup testers faced. The City of Chicago DoIT continues to work in the open– inviting developers to participate in open calls, sharing notes on status updates, and documenting their current and future work.

The recent OpenGrid v.1.2.0 release addressed issues that directly came from our CUTGroup testers:

The newest version contains improvements to OpenGrid to make it easier to use. The latest release contains friendlier language, an improved user interface to highlight more important features while deemphasizing more technical options, and reducing the number of mouse clicks to see data.

We are excited about opportunities through the CUTGroup to do usability testing on more data-focused websites and applications. While a lot of testers found OpenGrid difficult to use, out of 11 testers who said “Yes,” they liked OpenGrid,  appreciated that they were able to access new information and data that they were not aware of before this test. This test OpenGrid is an example of how we can continue to learn about how residents interact with data and their potential needs in using open data and then create better user experiences around understanding and using data.

Final Report

Here is a final report of the results:

Here is the raw test data:

CUTGroup #24 - OpenGrid

Inclusive Innovation for Smart Cities: HUBweek 2016

unknownThis September I had the opportunity to attend HUBweek and participate in the roundtable “#Tech4Democracy: Meet the Change Makers.” The event, hosted by the Harvard Ash Center, explored the potential and pitfalls of digital technology in realizing democratic values such as participation, transparency, accountability, responsiveness, and equal representation. I was honored to join amazing leaders in the field: Seth Flaxman from DemocracyWorks, Rey Faustian from One Degree, and Tiana Epps-Johnson from the Center for Technology and Civic Life right here in Chicago.

One of the major themes of HUBweek was inclusive innovation. That theme is certainly worth discussing within the context of smart city work. Inclusive innovation in smart cities could mean everything from building usable tools, building equitable technology infrastructure, or having ethical data collection practices. During the roundtable conversation our moderator asked me the question below which has sit with me ever since:

What would be a “home-run” in the smart city space: an innovation that the city could adopt that would make a big, positive difference in the lives of Chicagoans?

Though it would have been tempting to brainstorm a cool, hypothetical “home-run” piece of technology on the spot, my mind gravitated toward innovative processes, not tools. This might be because here at Smart Chicago, we just wrapped up the Array of Things Civic Engagement Project which challenged us to create an inclusive process for gathering feedback on Chicago’s newest “smart city” project.  Of course, if things happen the way we think they will, cities will only get smarter. Array of Things is unlikely be the last “smart city” innovation deployed in Chicago’s public spaces. Given that, perhaps a lasting, valued innovation would be the creation of a values-driven smart city process — a framework we can follow to ensure that current and future smart city projects are deployed with residents and for residents. After all, these projects — whether are they sensors, fiber networks, or Wi-Fi kiosks — shouldn’t just be innovative or new. We should also expect these smart city technologies to be accessible, welcoming, relevant, and usable.

You can listen to the whole event on soundcloud. The roundtable begins on 4:50:

Announcing the October Connect Chicago Meetup: Computer Refurbishing in Chicago

At the next Connect Chicago Meetup, we’ll learn about computer refurbishing programs in Chicago. Refurbishing programs produce discounted devices (laptops, PCs, tablets) for organizations and individuals, often incorporating technology training and professional development in the refurbishing process. Lunch will be served. Please RSVP here and include your full name so we can register you with building security.

Event: Computer Refurbishing in Chicago

Date: Friday, October 28, 2016

Time: 11am – 1pm

Place: Chicago Community Trust — 225 N. Michigan Ave.

Chicago is home to several computer refurbishing programs. At our Meetup we’ll feature the work of PC Rebuilders & Recyclers (PCRR) and have a discussion about device availability. Our special guest speaker for this event will be Sarah Cade of PCRR. More about PCRR: 

Founded in 2000, PC Rebuilders & Recyclers (PCRR) has a two-fold purpose of bridging the digital divide and supporting environmental responsibility through the refreshment of prematurely retired computer systems.  In doing so, we provide a responsible way for corporations to dispose of their unwanted equipment as well as an inexpensive way for anyone to invest in technology.

Come meet and network with computer trainers, nonprofit professionals,  technologists, and fellow residents who care about digital access & skills in Chicago. 

This summer I had the opportunity to meet Sarah and tour the PCRR space. It was fascinating to see the process and hard work behind computer refurbishing and recycling. Accessible free and discounted devices are an important ingredient to an equitable technology ecosystem. At this Meetup we will not only learn more about this work, but also  strategize as a community how to strengthen ties between trainers and device refurbishers. Join us!

Another notable refurbishing program in Chicago is FreeGeek, a not-for-profit community organization that recycles used computers and parts to provide functional computers, education, internet access and job skills training to those who want them. Check out their website for open shop hours, training opportunities, and volunteer opportunities.

About the Connect Chicago Meetup. The Connect Chicago Meetup is a monthly gathering of computer trainers, nonprofit professionals, and fellow residents who care about the digital lives of Chicagoans. Email me with any questions, concerns or ideas: