Launch: The Chicago School of Data Book

Today the Smart Chicago Collaborative is proud to publish and share the Chicago School of Data Book. We saw this work as an essential first step to understand and convene the mission-driven players leveraging local data for the public good.

The book summarizes the Chicago School of Data project  which included a scan of our local data ecosystem from 2013 – 2014 and a convening we built on top of that scan. Typical with other Smart Chicago projects like CUTGroup and the Array of Things Civic Engagement Project, we also included “meta” sections in the Chicago School of Data book which share specific details about how we executed our projects, what tools we used, and the guiding principles behind our program design decisions.

The Book’s conclusion wraps up the themes from the 2014 Chicago School of Data convening, but does so in current context. Specifically, three themes were brought to light as major gaps identified at the Chicago School of Data Days that are still relevant today:

  1. The need to understand local data training supply and demand
  2. The need for more data support services for capacity-strapped, mission-driven organizations
  3. The need to incentivize and facilitate collaborative data work and data sharing across specialized institutions and research fields

The Book

You can view a PDF of the book below or order a copy on Amazon HERE.

This book adds to Smart Chicago’s list of publications aimed at documenting our work, methods, and lessons. It joins the ranks of the CUTGroup book, Experimental Modes of Civic Engagement in Civic Tech, and The Civic Whitaker Anthology.

Gratitude for our Chicago School of Data Collaborators & Partners

This work would not have been possible without a few key players, which we want to call out in this blog post.

Lindsay Muscato: Lindsay is Smart Chicago’s publications consultant. She organized, edited, and assisted with design work for this book and many more of Smart Chicago’s publications.  

Andrew Seeder: Andrew was a consultant with Smart Chicago who assisted with writing for the Chicago School of Data Days blog posts, building a taxonomy around our data ecosystem, and compiling book content.

Smart Chicago Documenters: The Smart Chicago Documenters Program —  now transitioned over to the lauded community news organization, City Bureau — was integral to transforming the Chicago School of Data into lessons and writing that would live beyond the project’s lifecycle. Our Documenters were the boots on the ground note-takers and photographers that memorialized the Chicago School of Data Days.

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation: The MacArthur Foundation is one of Smart Chicago’s founders and also provided the support for the Chicago School of Data scan, convening, and book. They have championed many other civic projects across the U.S. that have catalyzed the use of data for the public good.

  • Thumbnail Schematic of Chicago Data Ecosystem with Representative Organizations

What’s Next?

Since the original scan, Chicago’s data ecosystem has only become more sophisticated. New data initiatives have emerged. The City of Chicago’s Open Data Portal has grown and now is visualized on The Array of Things will soon open up new data that can help us understand neighborhood public health and public services challenges. New data players have also emerged —  very notably, Smart Chicago’s new collaborators, City Digital at UI Labs. City Digital has demonstrated an original approach to cross-sector, collaborative problem solving, often involving original data collection or innovative data sharing agreements presenting enormous potential for civic innovation.

Going forward, matchmaking these new data sources and new collaborative opportunities to the right community organizations or data intermediaries will be key. There were 200+ institutions that participated in the Chicago School of Data Days in 2014 and likely 100+ more today that can be engaged. While the Chicago School of Data Days facilitated an important conversation around shared challenges and opportunities, it did not directly catalyze new partnerships or scope new work. Action-oriented workshops could be the future for (1) nurturing this community of practice and (2) ensure that local data work catalyzes progress or change. We need to think about creating clear pathways toward data collaboration for the public good and how our ecosystem can incentivize that collaboration.

More on the Chicago School of Data

To read more about the Chicago School of Data project, take a look at these important links:

Data Convening & Collaboration in Other Cities

We’re also inspired by many other cities convening around data and working to put data in service to the public interest. We learn about a lot of these innovative projects from the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership. Here is just some of the impressive work happening in other cities:

  • Data 101 in Pittsburgh, a series of introductory data literacy and training sessions held in libraries to engage residents with open data
  • Cleveland Data Days, an annual event that gathers local researchers and nonprofits around local data
  • Alamo Regional Data Alliance, a coalition of local data organizations that regularly meets and collaborates


Cook County Forest Preserves Map

Where can I bring my dog? How do I access that trail? Where can I go cross country skiing? Where can I have that big party? The Forest Preserves of Cook County in partnership with Smart Chicago has developed the Forest Preserves of Cook County interactive map. The Cook County Forest Preserves Map shows location and information about trails, points of interest, activities, and groves.

Some special features of interest:

  • Uses GPS to find trails, points of interest, and activities near you and get directions.
  • Users can search by activity, location name, city, and zip code.
  • The page URL updates as you search or view location details. You can bookmark all the best places to fly model airplanes or share with friends that the picnic is at Schiller Woods-East. Because the page URL updates, the browser back and forward buttons can be used to go to the last search or view.
  • Mobile friendly: The map is designed for both desktop and mobile use. On a mobile device, a user can toggle between list and map views.
  • Search and filtering is local making it more reliable out in the field with an inconsistent mobile connection.

On 10/30/17,  we rolled out the alerts functionality. The map will now show any alerts on the map detail panel. There is also a list version that is embedded on the Forest Preserves website under “Construction, Closures & Other Work“.

The web application is built on two pieces of source code: Trailsy and Trailsy Server, both pioneered by Code for America. All of the data used to power the site is open for all and can be followed on the project’s GitHub page. I am a long-time Smart Chicago Consultant and the main developer on the project who is also working closing with Cook County’s Department of Technology to tackle open data processes and policies countywide. This project was made possible with funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention through the Healthy Hotspot initiative led by the Cook County Department of Public Health. Learn more at

So what can you do at the Cook County Forest Preserves? Here are 5 suggestions:

  1. Did you know that you can play Disc Golf at Cook County Forest Preserves Rolling Knolls Disc Golf Course in Elgin?
  2. Hike 16 miles through the North Branch Trail System Red Paved Trail.
  3. Check out the Kid’s Corner and Butterfly Garden at Sand Ridge Nature Center in South Holland.
  4. Go on a Treetop Adventure and Zip Line at Bemis Woods.
  5. Rent a boat at the Busse Lake Boating Center and explore Busse Lake.

Let us know what you think! Tweet to us @smartchicago and to me @joshkalov.

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.

Youth-Led Tech 2016 Innovations

 Youth-Led Tech 2016 is in the books, however the work that was done in partnership with the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center  (JTDC) and Nancy B. Jefferson School is still resonating. This being my first year with Smart Chicago and performing in my role as Youth-Led Tech Project Coordinator was everything I thought it would be; innovating, engaging, inspiring and fulfilling. We undertook a groundbreaking opportunity working with 50 youth students at JTDC. Over the course of several months and numerous meetings, Smart Chicago received the nod to present Youth-Led Tech at JTDC, and Chicago Public Schools (CPS) granted approval for the Youth-Led Tech program to provide the .5 credits high school students needed towards their graduation requirement. JTDC residents without a high school diploma or GED are required to attend school during their stay.

Access and Skills

The JTDC program presented unique challenges due to the high security levels in the facility. These challenges were overcome with the development of a modulated curriculum on a closed platform which allowed the JTDC students to experience the technology training and develop their websites in a nearly identical format as the community students. The six week curriculum was modified to three weeks for this pilot to meet the specific needs of this population. During each of the three week sessions we served two cohorts of students.

Students who successfully completed the program were awarded certificates of completion at a graduation held in their honor where they presented their websites to proud family members, friends, JTDC staff members, and teachers. Similar to the community program youth were also provided with an earned learning incentive of keeping the laptop used during the program. Students completing the Youth-Led Tech program and are released on or before 12/31/2016, can contact Smart Chicago to retrieve the laptop and be formally connected to other programming as a recidivism prevention opportunity.

“Smart Chicago is committed to providing ongoing opportunities to support and connect our youth to services that will provide increase access to resources, especially those that touch tech in an effort to sustain and improve the quality of their lives. JTDC students, although currently involved in the juvenile justice, are bright, innovative, and full of potential. The Youth-Led Tech JTDC program pilot proved that if challenged to learn, make better decisions, increased access to technology and tools, and inspiring hope through redemptive opportunities, many of these youth have the ability to be positively contributing community members. We all should want that.” Kyla Williams, Interim Executive Director, Smart Chicago Collaborative

Creative Career Day

Along with the intensive technology training the students at JTDC/NBJ also participated in the 7th Annual Creative Career Day event. This event is a one day opportunity for the students to interact with the Arts and Culture community to visualize employment opportunities in those sectors. This year the event was expanded to include traditional and non-traditional business and tech occupations. Students had the privilege to hear from over 19 organizations and and interact with nearly 40 professionals.

The impact of both programs can be seen in the comments from the presenters as well as the students:

“…thanks so much for this wonderful opportunity to reach out to youth.  It is an important event and I look forward to next year.”  Dr. Lorri Glass, Governor’s State University

“I truly appreciate the opportunities this summer with your programs, they definitely made an impact on my life and I was honored. David Wilkins, RallyCap

“It was the best one ever!” “I could see myself doing that.” “The people had real stories about their life.” Student Comment

Statements like these are part of the reasons why Smart Chicago strives to innovate around solutions and make data driven decisions. Due to the noted success of the program, JTDC administration has requested programming for the Fall 2016/Winter 2017. Youth-Led Tech staff are currently working on a proposal to support meeting that request. 

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.