We believe in making the smallest amount of software to be useful to the largest amount of people in connecting residents to their government, their institutions, and each other.
Let’s break that down.
We believe in making
This means two things: that we have core beliefs and we make things that support those beliefs.
the smallest amount of software
This means that we don’t make a new piece of software when a perfectly suitable one already exists. This applies to open source, where we re-use and improve existing software that already has a community around it, rather than build from scratch. An example is the locator tool for Connect Chicago: we like Derek Eder’s searchable map template, but we needed a distributed set of people to be able to edit entries, so we had him make that.
It also means that we acknowledge and use the immense World Wide Web for what it is, rather than what part we own. An example of this is Foodborne Chicago, where, instead of making a new place for people to post messages about food poisoning, we go to the place where people are already talking about it. Our Patterns system is another example– this custom software fills in teeny gaps between Mailchimp, Wufoo, and enterprise email.
We believe in paying for software that other people have made, so as to support an ecosystem of good stuff. Examples of this are our relationships with LocalData and Textizen. We understand that this increases the brittleness of our systems, because if a key element is removed (if Wufoo shuts down, for instance), we would have to find another service and re-create the proper hooks for us to do what we want. We like that better than the alternative, which is to maintain separate functionality, at a much greater overall cost.
to be useful
this means that we think, think, think, about everything before we make anything and test, test, test everything after we make it.
We think about “useful” in terms of two important audiences. The primary audience is regular residents— the millions of urban dwellers who need new tools and approaches to help make their lives better. We use the Civic User Testing Group and we’re always developing new ways like our Documenter programs and by experimenting with the meetups we support to bring people earlier and deeper into our process.
A secondary audience is the developer community— great people who makes tools for these regular residents. With our developer resources and hosted web space, we build out this community and help strengthen it as a force for commercial software.
We hosted Mike Migurski’s Metro Extracts for this reason, as well as large data dumps of building, crime, and weather data. In and of themselves, they don’t serve residents, but they allow for a greater fluidity of data that helps developers create new tools to do. We support these more research-oriented projects with server space and developer resources, but we probably wouldn’t subsidize developer time to create new software.
to the largest amount of people
our focus is Chicago, which is not a small place, but still narrows our focus. We seek to make Chicago a market laboratory for the rest of the world.
On the Chicago front, it means that we seek to create tools that are broadly appealing, especially to people with lower incomes living in neighborhoods that are not usually the focus of apps. Having said that, we create software that is valuable to anyone, regardless of income, vocation, or location. They are equally useful to anyone in the city. We have a motto here. “Everybody means everybody”.
It also means that we measure audience and attempt to make popular products and we’re honest about where we’re at. Connect Chicago has ~6,000 visitors per month, and Chicago Early Learning has about 3,400. We value offline partnerships (if you call 311 in Chicago, they use and direct you to use Connect Chicago) as well as online techniques in driving traffic.
in connecting residents to their government,
We see ourselves as helpful only in the connection. We’re a teeny-tiny organization that provides no city services, inspects no restaurants, provides no early childhood education, and so on. We live in the connection. We have no logins, seek to capture no relationships, and our joy comes in people passing through.
we value the power of the hundreds of delegate agencies, nonprofits, and other workers who use software to serve people. We don’t make software that already exists, and we don’t seek to provide functions that are already done elsewhere.
The Affordable Care Act Outreach App we did for LISC Chicago is a great example. They just needed just a little support. We spent $2,000, set up a simple web form, created a custom texting app, and it led to bigger impact from a high-capacity institution.
and each other.
software is powerful when it brings people together. We like to help.