Recap of the Digital Inclusion Leadership Awards at #NLC15

Smart Chicago was at  the National League of Cities 2015 Congress of Cities in Nashville, TN to help distribute the first annual Digital Inclusion Leadership Awards. The awards were created by Next Century Cities and the National League of Cities in partnership with Google Fiber to recognize municipalities that have made major strides and investments in closing their digital divides.

Chatt pic for blog

I assisted with the planning and judging of these awards. As a Program Analyst for Smart Chicago working for the Connect Chicago Initiative, I have have had the privilege to be part of this cross-city, cross-sector community of practitioners who think about the digital divide everyday.

Over 30 city governments applied for the awards. From mobile tech vans to matching technology grant programs, these city-supported programs have helped helped get more residents online.

Here are the winners:

Screen Shot 2015-11-17 at 11.24.37 AM

You can read cases about the winners and each winning program here!

How to Get More Residents Online

At the Congress of Cities, I moderated a Solutions Session with two of the Digital Inclusion Leadership Award winners: Austin, TX and Davidson, NC. The cities were invited to describe their winning programs and give concrete, specific recommendations to other municipalities seeking to replicate their work.

Screen Shot Panel

I found both of these cases to be compelling. Austin’s Digital Assessment survey work (conducted every three years) is a great model for institutionalizing the regular collection of essential Internet access and use data across neighborhoods. Davidson’s Eliminate the Digital Divide Program featured the clever “Squeeze Out the Digital Divide” – a part fundraiser, part youth-driven community awareness campaign that uses lemonade stand revenue to fund devices for school-age children.

Here is the full presentation from the Solution Session:

Lessons for Chicago

Back in 2009, the American Reinvestment & Recovery Act infused Broadband Technology Opportunity Fund grant money into many cities to help close the digital divide. Cities like Chicago and the ones above are all experimenting with ways to institutionalize digital inclusion work in the aftermath of that grant funding – whether it’s device lending and refurbishment, public computing labs, awareness campaigns, Internet access survey work, and digital training programs.

This is why Connect Chicago is so important. We’re working with partners all over the city – both public and private – to coordinate Chicago’s digital access and skills ecosystem and support the trainers on the front lines of digital inclusion work.

One thing I noticed was that almost every winning city from the Digital Inclusion Leadership Award had a City Hall Champion in the form of a mayor, an agency head, or a department. Connect Chicago benefits from both the Mayor’s office and the Chicago Department of Innovation & Technology being on its Steering Committee. This involvement sends a clear message: the digital life of every Chicagoan matters.

Despite the great work being done in the field, there are untapped opportunities for  innovation and experimentation. At Smart Chicago, we want to understand how to increase and strengthen the network of digital access and skills resources across the City. Specifically we’re thinking about:

  • How to create referral systems for training across decentralized, but complementary services
  • How to track digital access and skills outcomes. Though we can collect data on participation and certification
  • How to engage with residents about their desire to learn new digital and technical skills. How do they want to learn? What do they want to learn? What are the obstacles in the way of learning those things?

We know we are not alone in asking these questions. Now, through the Digital Inclusion Leadership Awards and the community of applicants, winners, and best practices that it’s assembled across the country, we have a peer network of organizations to collaborate with.

To become a member of the Digital Inclusion Learning Network, fill out this form

Themes from #NNIP Dallas 2015

The National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP) is a network of trusted city organizations committed to collecting, analyzing, and sharing neighborhood data in service to their communities. Partner organizations convene twice a year to share their work and collaborate on topics from policing to tracking investments in neighborhoods. Last week, I attended the NNIP meeting in Dallas, Texas.


It’s worth noting that the humans behind the number crunching and data visualizations were of extremely high quality. I was struck by the camaraderie, creativity, city pride, and good ole fashioned work ethic coursing through the NNIP culture.

It’s also worth noting that any conference or meeting that starts with a “what’s your favorite dataset?” icebreaker is just awesome.

Here’s a look at the major themes that arose throughout the three days of conversations, panels, and tours.

Neighborhood Data Needs Context

It was no accident that presenters from Dallas, Austin, and other cities had trouble making sense of neighborhood indicators without also nodding to historical and social context.

The first panel of the NNIP meeting was just as much about the origins of geographic inequity as it was about the data of geographic inequity. Nakia Douglas of the Barack Obama Male Leadership Academy, John Fullinwider of Lumin Education, Regina Montoya of the Mayor’s Poverty Task Force in Dallas, Theresa O’Donnell of the City of Dallas, and Donald Payton of the African American Genealogy Interest Group discussed the city’s “divides” – especially the prominent north-south divide.  The panel pointed out that these modern inequalities stem from both historical and present racial discrimination.

nnip 2

Living out this need for context, NNIP scheduled tours in Dallas. I had the opportunity to visit the Cottages at Hickory Crossing, the city’s first Housing First community. The 50 approximately 400 square foot single occupancy homes are for the homeless, mentally ill, and previously incarcerated. Future residents of the Cottages will have access to a suite of supportive on-site health and social services.

We walked through the construction, asked questions, and learned about the evaluation plans paired with the program. Even before the residents have moved in, the Cottages are planning an evaluation of the initiative – tracking resident outcomes and savings to Dallas taxpayers, for example. Residents are those who incur the highest cost to taxpayers by remaining homeless, less healthy, and less supported.

nnip 1

By the way, the Cottages at Hickory Crossing have their own Target registry if you would like to help furnish the homes!

NNIP Partners as Local Leaders & Conveners

Several NNIP partners discussed how they lead the conversations and collaborations around data within their cities. Many hold “Day Days” – events usually involving trainings and/or collaborations around neighborhood datasets of interest. Milwaukee’s Impact Inc. is holding their first Data Days this week. Charlotte, NC held their Data Days earlier in October.

One of the most interesting examples of data leadership? Every month Cleveland’s NNIP partner, the Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development at Case Western University, convenes all of the city’s organizations that collect data so they can share their work and build up a citywide data catalogue.

To accomplish their local work, NNIP partners form strong, trusted relationships with government agencies, police departments and other public collectors of data. During the meeting, partners what it took to open up in-demand local data and information for residents. One of my favorite insights came from Data-Driven Detroit (D3) who shared concrete advice for cities working with police departments to open up data.

Going forward, I hope NNIP partners can continue to discuss how data can build and repair community relationships in our cities. In Chicago there is so much work to do in this area. Data can be open and free, but if residents don’t trust it, there is still work to be done. Our own Kyla Williams spoke to this on social media while following the NNIP meeting remotely:

Data for Local Action

NNIP isn’t just about the data for data’s sake; it’s about turning data into informed local action. At the end of the day, if the data aren’t useful, used, or noticed then they are worthless. It’s all about democratizing information for community empowerment and smart policy decisions. This theme echoed several times throughout the NNIP meeting. One example was in Impact, Inc.’s mantra: “Not data without stories, no stories without data.”

During the meeting, NNIP dared its partners to make their tech ecosystem. What does that mean? It means taking inventory of information lifecycles in your city and where residents and local organizations fall in those process maps. After all, it’s not enough to know how data is collected, analyzed, and repurposed; cities also need to know how neighborhood indicators and data stories can be turned into smart policy changes and smart local programs.

Here at Smart Chicago we’re also been thinking about ecosystem definition, turning data into action, and formulating meaningful resident engagement around Chicago’s data work. Between Array of Things, WindyGrid, and last year’s Chicago School of Data, there’s a lot to talk about! There are also essential Chicago partners with excellent neighborhood data: DePaul’s Institute for Housing Studies, the Woodstock Institute, and the Heartland Alliance. We need to work together to centralize our neighborhood data, engage with residents and make sure that Chicago isn’t just a “smart city,” but a smart city that works for everyone.

NNIP as a Community of Learning

The NNIP meetings are called “meetings” and not conferences for a reason. There was a palpable roll-up-your-sleeves attitude across the participating partners. I heard stories of people traveling to friends and collaborators in other cities to help replicate successful work nationally. Again, this is a great group of humans.

Those of us visiting NNIP or attending for the first time certainly saw the value of these meetings. Collecting, using, and disseminating neighborhood data to improve your city can be slow work with long-term gains. Having a supportive national network facilitating peer learning seems like an essential ingredient to progress.

Well said, April! Let the homework begin!

To see all NNIP documentation on the Dallas 2015 meeting, see their website.

Health Advocates Weigh Data, Equity in Obesity Targets

Health workers review the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children policy agenda on Sept. 16, 2015.

Health workers review Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children policy agenda.

Childhood obesity is a stubborn problem to reverse in communities starved for cash. In a new five-year plan, Chicago health advocates put a priority on targeting funds and tracking results.

“We are not seeing significant improvement in disparities,” dietitian and food consultant Tracy A. Fox told the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children. The group outlined its policy agenda at a Sept. 16 meeting.

A decades-long rise in obesity rates has leveled off at 17 percent, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. “It’s a plateau at an insanely high rate,” Fox said.

The overall trend also disguises rising obesity rates among minorities. “For African-Americans in particular we are seeing pretty significant increases. So I think we have our work cut out for us,” she said.

“As you discuss your policy agenda for this coalition, I would think about always viewing what you’re doing through the lens of how this would impact disparities,” Fox advised. “If you’re going into a middle- or upper- income school and you’re making significant changes, that’s really cool and that’s really nice. But are you then widening the gap between what’s happening in the city with African American and Latino kids and white middle- and upper-income kids?”

The group is refocusing priorities as both city and state lawmakers consider one of its initiatives, a tax on sugary beverages.

“There’s an argument to be made, if you’re just looking to lower consumption, then where that money goes is maybe not as important as just raising the price of soda,” said executive director Adam Becker. Still, the group is pushing for proceeds to benefit public health instead of sweetening general revenues.

“The feasibility is not really a question anymore,” Becker said. “It’s more the political will.”

The City Council health committee in September considered a penny-an-ounce tax. But its chair, Ald. George Cardenas (12th Ward) has not committed to advancing the plan. A state tax on distributors gained Chicago and suburban sponsors but has not advanced in the Legislature.

“It shows momentum,” said Elissa Bassler, chief executive of the Illinois Public Health Institute. “It’s being seriously considered as a source of revenue to improve health and invest those revenues into health initiatives.”

As new policies gain traction, data analysis has emerged as a priority. “Just because a bill got signed into an act or an ordinance passed doesn’t necessarily mean the things you intended to have happen are indeed happening,” Becker said. “A lot of the real hard work comes when you have to then monitor where things are going.”

Obesity and overweight in kindergarten, 6th and 9th grades, 2012-13 (Chicago Public Schools)

Obesity and overweight pupils in kindergarten, 6th and 9th grades, 2012-13 (Chicago Public Schools)

For example, Illinois requires schools to take body-mass measurements, but the consortium wants the data tracked to identify areas in need. In the latest review of Chicago Public Schools data, roughly half of students were overweight or obese in 11 of Chicago’s 77 community areas.

The coalition of public-health advocates wants to build on recent legislative victories. Childcare centers in Illinois now must meet standards on physical activity, nutrition, screen time and breastfeeding. The group seeks to extend the licensing requirements to child-care family homes.

Less sugar and fat are now required in subsidized school food programs, along with more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean protein and low-fat dairy. The consortium wants to maintain the higher standards and expand a federal summer nutrition program, which reaches only 15 percent of eligible children in Illinois.

“We work a lot in school breakfast,” said Bob Dolgan, executive director of the Greater Chicago Food Depository. “And it’s surprising even in low-income school districts how few administrators think about the fact that they have children coming to school without a meal and not eating until lunchtime. How can they possibly concentrate and excel in school without a meal?”

The group also pledges to spread novel ideas such as doubled food stamp benefits at farmers’ markets, a loan pool to build grocery stores in food deserts, and a “baby friendly” designation for hospitals that support breastfeeding.

And it advocates plans to encourage recreation and make streets safer. “In the first several iterations of the transportation bill, there’s been a big shift of more money for walking and bicycling,” said Melody Geracy, deputy executive director of the Active Transportation Alliance. “It is still a microscopic grain of sand in terms of the overall transportation budget. Still, it’s a target” for cost-cutters, Geracy said.

The group’s five-year plan retools an agenda set at a 2010 conference of local advocates. Policy-focused members shared a draft this spring with the group’s executive committee. Becker said national advisors provided details on policy specifics. Lurie Children’s Hospital, where the consortium is based, checked for conflicts with its own positions.

“You all as a city are probably farther ahead than a lot of even big urban cities in terms of really trying to come together with a unified agenda,” Fox told the group.

The policy document says political support is “particularly threatened” for federal health supports such as Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health. The CDC program pays for health screening in Chicago minority communities.

She advised local advocates to talk up their victories. “The more evidence base you have, the better,” she noted, but success stories from the front lines are more likely to engage lawmakers.

Local policy strategists suggested that closing gaps in outcomes will require wider access to preventive care. “Reducing disparities isn’t the same as creating equity,” said Joseph Harrington, regional health officer for the Illinois Department of Public Health.

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

The 606 Advisory Council converts to Park Advisory Council

606_mapLast November we hosted an OpenGovChicago event on park district advisory councils. As OpenGovChicago founder Joe Germuska put it, this was part of our ongoing effort to “learn more about existing microdemocratic systems in Chicago”. More:

In dozens of locations, several times a year, citizens get together to make their local parks and schools better, or to better understand the public safety situation in their beat. We’d like to meet the people who are active in these processes, and also people who would like to participate but are not managing to get involved. Maybe there are ways that software can help these groups gather and distribute information, to learn from their peer councils around the city, and to involve citizens who aren’t able to physically attend the meetings.”

Since that meeting, we’ve continued to help gather and maintain info on Advisory Councils. Here’s a mega-spreadsheet. Many people have contributed to this— please add any info you know!

The 606 Trail is the City of Chicago’s newest park. The park district opened last week after almost a decade of work between the community and the city.

Originally, the 606 was originally a 2.7 mile elevated train line called the Bloomingdale Line that was abandoned in 2001. Train traffic on the line had been slowing since the 1990s and the City of Chicago had brought residents of the Logan Square neighborhood together to propose an idea to turn the train line into a greenspace.

That result of that discussion was the formation of the Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail – an all-volunteer organization formed to advocate on behalf of the local community around the Bloomingdale Trail Project. Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail then partnered with The Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit, to help bring together a coalition of groups to make the 606 a reality.

Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail is now an official Park Advisory Council.

For more information on how you can get involved in Park Advisory Councils, check out the Park District website here.

Parks Take Active Health Role at Obesity Conference

LaSalle II school

Children play at LaSalle II school, 1148 W. Honore.

Health workers treating obesity in children are looking beyond what they see in clinics, to what’s at play in Chicago parks.

“Can you imagine camping in Chicago within 15 minutes of downtown?” said Zhanna Yemakov, Chicago Park District conservation manager. At the quarterly meeting of the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children, Yemakov outlined park plans for the roughly 1,000 acres of Southeast Side brownfields now among park holdings.

Other speakers addressed the city’s playgrounds, plazas and pocket parks. “Our focus is what we call a socio-ecological approach, where we look at all the factors that influence childhood obesity at all levels,” said Adam Becker, CLOCC executive director, after the June 9 conference. The focus extends beyond individual cases to family, community and the broader social and political environment.

Chicago Health Atlas

Chicago Health Atlas: Diabetes hospitalization per 10,000 residents, 2011

A 2013 city study finds Chicago Public Schools students have above-average obesity rates – 48.6 percent of sixth-graders were overweight or obese. In 8 of the city’s 77 community areas, fewer than one-third of students fell outside the healthy range; in 15 communities, it was about half.

Overweight and obesity do carry long-term risks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In children and adolescents, they include cardiovascular disease and elevated blood sugar levels that can lead to diabetes within a decade.

Obese children also are more likely to become obese adults, with higher rates of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, cancers and osteoarthritis. The Chicago Health Atlas charts variations by neighborhood in several such adult conditions, including diabetes, high blood pressure, and breast and colorectal cancers.

“If you’re focusing on one you’re not going to solve the problem,” Becker said. “We try to measure impact as best as we can, but with obesity it’s just so complicated. You can’t just say A equals B. The lines are very indirect.”

Continue reading