Kyla Williams Co-Presents Today at Philanthropy Ohio’s Annual Conference

Today, Leon Wilson, CIO of the Cleveland Foundation, and I will co-present at the Philanthropy Ohio’s annual conference with a theme this year of “Philanthropy Forward” and a concentrated discussion on Digital Civic Engagement & Community-Centered Design. Philanthropy Forward ’17 is set to inform practices, strategies and goals and connect peers in the field of philanthropy. The conference will also focus on the future of philanthropy with insight into the current state of the sector – fueled by recent research – addressing transitions, change and the leadership pipeline. With several networking and roundtable discussions, attendees will discover how to shift failures to successes, effectively fund advocacy and civic engagement and hear from  exceptional leaders across the state and country.

Leon and I also presented in April 2017 at the Council on Foundations Annual Conference “Leading Together” as part of a panel discussion with: Aaron Deacon, Managing Director, Kansas City Digital Drive; Elizabeth Reynoso, Assistant Director of Public Sector Innovation, Living Cities; and Lilly Weinberg, Program Director/Community Foundations, John S. & James L. Knight Foundation on “Supporting Civic Engagement through Technology and Community-Centered Design”. After finishing that presentation we decided more collaborative sharing between cities was necessary and lead to this opportunity at Philanthropy Ohio.

Community building in the digital era requires providing a space for the public sector and local communities to interact. Building solutions with peoplenot just for them – by using community-centered design can have profound social impact. This has been central to Smart Chicago’s work and has lead to the building of processes, products, services, and other lightweight tech solutions that have been helpful.

Our presentation today has the learning objectives:

  • To introduce different models developed in communities to address civic engagement digitally
  • To encourage the consideration of embedding support for digital civic engagement into existing grantmaking & advancement efforts

You can follow the happenings of the conference on Twitter @PhilanthropyOH and @SmartChgoKyla or by using the hashtag #PhilFWD17.


Good News!!! The Smart Chicago team is moving and now will be co-located with the City Digital Team at UI Labs. As such, our individual emails will be changing to:

Kyla Williams 

Sonja Marziano

Denise Linn     

Leslie Durr       

Our new mailing address is 1415 N. Cherry Avenue Chicago, IL 60642 and general phone number is 312.281.6900.

Please check our website at or follow us on twitter @smartchicago for more updates.

We appreciate your patience during this time of transition.

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

Chicago Launches First Universal Preschool Application

Early Bird Preschool ApplicationOn May 16, 2016, the City of Chicago launched its first universal preschool application to help more families enroll in Early Learning. Here is part of the Mayor Office’s press release:

Mayor Rahm Emanuel today launched the city’s first universal early childhood online application site, providing parents and families across the city with a comprehensive menu of preschool opportunities available under Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and the Department of Family and Support Services (DFSS). Starting today, this new system will improve access for parents seeking a program for their 3- or 4-year old child by helping them identify opportunities open in their neighborhood.

“Every child in every neighborhood deserves a quality education and that must begin in their earliest years,” said Mayor Emanuel. “These improvements to our early learning enrollment process will ensure that all of our families—no matter their needs—will be able to find and secure a quality early learning program for their child that will provide a foundation for the rest of his or her academic career.”

The online system will create a streamlined process, providing comprehensive information on all programs available to families, making it easier to select a program among the City’s more than 600 high-quality community-based and school-based preschool programs. By moving the application process online, the administration will reduce barriers and allow parents to complete the application from any computer, tablet or smart phone.

Parents still begin their experience on the Chicago Early Learning portal, where they can search for and compare early learning programs. After parents find two early learning programs that suit their needs, they are able to access the “Early Bird” application at and complete the application for preschool programs.

Parents are also able to call the Chicago Early Learning hotline at (312) 229-1690 or visit Chicago Early Learning Family Resources Centers for additional help with the application. Family Resource Centers are libraries and centers across the city where Early Learning specialists are stationed to help parents navigate the early learning process.

Smart Chicago built and managed Chicago Early Learning since its inception in 2012. We continue to work closely with our partners at the City of Chicago, Chicago Public Schools (CPS), and Department of Family and Support Services (DFSS), to improve the portal to better serve the needs of Early Learning specialists and parents.

We are excited about the addition of a universal preschool application because we see how it can improve parent’s experience in enrolling their child in early learning programs whether they are applying for a community-based program or a CPS-based program.

Updates to Chicago Early Learning

In the last few months, we made some considerable improvements to the search functionality to give parents more flexibility in search terms. Parents are able to search for part of a center’s name (such as the short name for a CPS location) to find a specific location. They are also able to search by zip code and community area more easily. We also improved address search to be more flexible and accommodate a parent searching by cross-streets, for example.

We made changes to the search page to consolidate some of the information and better use the space to give parents more important information about a center first. We heard from our partners that the top questions they hear from parents when asking about a center are about the ages the center serves, and whether the center offers full day or part day programming.

Chicago Early Learning Search Screenshot

We also have been working closely with the City of Chicago to update content on the portal to help parents give more information about the enrollment process, including a refreshed Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) page.

As part of the Early Bird application process, we are listening to more feedback from our partners, the Early Learning specialists, and parents & caregivers and continue to make improvements to the Chicago Early Learning portal. More to come!

Chicago Early Learning Finder at ChiHackNight

mReliefChicagoEarlyLearningFor the August 11th #ChiHackNight, mRelief, the City of Chicago’s Cara Bader and our own Sonja Marziano talked about the new Chicago Early Learning Finder.

The Chicago Early Learning Finder lets Chicago residents see if they are eligible for Early Childhood Programs through either the mRelief website or by texting “Hello” to 773-377-8946.

The finder works by having residents answer short and simple eligibility questions. Once completed, the finder recommends three locations based on the resident’s eligibility and preference. When the resident selects the location they want it will connect them to the Early Childhood Learning Portal where they can kick off the enrollment process.

Smart Chicago has run the Early Learning Portal since 2012. In 2013, they worked with the Azavea team to integrate SMS messaging into the portal.

At the time, here’s what Azavea had to say about the project.

“An interesting challenge the design team will face in the upcoming work will be to refine the SMS interface to the application. During the usability tests and demos of the application, we’ve received a lot of excited feedback about this feature. It provides a way for users to access the data behind the application by sending and receiving text messages. There is a dearth of resources that describe good user experience (UX) design in the realm of SMS interfaces, so through the examination of existing SMS products and iterative redesign, we are looking forward to learning some of the tricks to creating a great SMS user experience.”

With mRelief’s experience with screening for social services, they were the perfect fit to help residents understand the different options for early learning childhood programs. This is one of the largest screeners that mRelief has ever built. Here’s the timeline that they used to build the Learning Finder.


The City of Chicago paid mRelief to do this work— one of the first civic startups in Chicago to conduct business directly with the city.

To find out more about mRelief, you can visit their website at

Compare & Contact Feature in Chicago Early Learning

chicago-early-learning-logo-grayToday, Smart Chicago is launching a new feature on the Chicago Early Learning portal that will help parents kick off the process of enrollment. The Chicago Early Learning portal has been a resource for parents to find early learning programs near their home or work. Parents are able to compare programs side-by-side to select the best option for their child. With the new Compare & Contact Feature, parents will be able to contact multiple locations they are interested in learning more about.

Phase 3


This is one part of our Phase 3 work, where we wanted to help facilitate the enrollment process. While parents were able to compare locations before, the goal now is to drive more parents to kick off communication with locations of their choosing. We did this in a couple of ways:

  • On the search results page, we changed “Favorites” to “Compare and Contact” to be more descriptive about this new feature. We also changed the heart symbol to an envelope to make it clearer that parents are contacting locations.
  • We incorporated three different ways for parents to add locations to their list— in the search results list of locations, in the detail pages, and on the map.

Parents then can compare locations side-by-side and click “Contact.” They will reach a form that gives the locations some information about themselves and their children’s ages. Providers at those locations receive these forms and reach out to parents to provide additional information about their programs and enrollment.


Next Steps

We are hoping to make this an effective process for both parents and the providers at the locations. Therefore, we will continue to gather feedback and implement changes to make this process better. We will conduct Civic User Testing Group (CUTGroup) tests to speak directly with parents and see how we can make the portal fit their needs better. We will also continue to collaborate with our partners to understand the enrollment process better and create a portal and process that reflects enrollment.

Other Updates

Here are other additions to our Phase 3 work that will be coming up next:

  • Create a better search that allows users to find more relevant results. This includes implementing a search radius feature so parents can find the locations most convenient to them
  • Add more information about the enrollment and application sites
  • Update internal layout that will lead more parents to compare and contact locations they are interested in