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.

Women in Tech Speakers Series

Co-authored by Kyla Williams and Derek Eder

Smart Chicago Collaborative and Chi Hack Night have teamed up to create a speaking series in celebration of Women’s History Month in an effort to elevate the talented, diverse women in civic-driven technology across Chicago.

Too often in the tech space we hear about what people do or what product they have made and less about their personal narratives. In this series, we encourage our speakers to share their stories as a transformative learning and inspirational opportunity.

Additionally, we acknowledge the lack of diversity in the civic tech community and believe that becoming more community-based with easier opportunities for engagement and gaining experience will spurn interest in the field and potentially serve as an economic solution to fill technology vacancies in Chicago.

This partnership is especially timely considering Smart Chicago is currently an all women team fighting the good fight on behalf of civic technology and engagement and Chi Hack Night has set a priority area of focus on diversifying its thriving developer community.

The Women in Tech Speakers Series will coincide with the four weekly Chi Hack Night events that occur on Tuesdays at Braintree in Merchandise Mart for the month of March.

Additionally, two community events will be held on Wednesday, March 29th in Homan Square and Thursday March 30th at the DuSable Museum.

It’s important to ensure we are not just highlighting women in technology and their respective stories, but also their roles within the field. Further, if we are going to influence a paradigm shift and draw more interest into the field, demystifying roles and types of opportunities is necessary. We are hopeful that we will be able to continue this partnership and related activities on an ongoing basis, as this is important work.

Event #1 – March 7th, 6pm

The Speaker Series kicks off tonight March 7th with special guest Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.

222 W Merchandise Mart Plz, 8th Floor
Chicago, IL 60654

RSVP – sold out!

Event #2 – March 14th, 6pm

Next week will feature Sandee Kastrul, president and co-founder of i.c.stars, an innovative nonprofit leadership and technology training program founded in 1999 to prepare inner-city adults for technology careers and community leadership.

222 W Merchandise Mart Plz,8th Floor
Chicago, IL 60654


Event #3 – March 21st, 6pm

Our third event will feature Melissa Pierce, Director of “Born with Curiosity: The Story of Grace Murray Hopper”, an independent documentary about Grace Hopper, who in 1944, was one of the first programmers of the Harvard Mark I computer and invented the first compiler for a computer programming language.

222 W Merchandise Mart Plz,8th Floor
Chicago, IL 60654


Event #4 – March 28th

On Tuesday, March 28th, we will welcome Robin Robinson, a longtime Chicago television news anchor turned special advisor on community affairs for the Chicago Police Department. In her talk, Robin will discuss the role she has taken on and the work needed to rebuild trust between the Chicago Police Department and the communities it serves. We also welcome the Chicago Federation for Women as they share their Talk It Out initiative, a weeklong conversation series designed to spark understanding about gender bias and the ways it affects women and men.

222 W Merchandise Mart Plz, 8th Floor
Chicago, IL 60654


Event #5 – Creators & Founders: Women in Civic Tech

Wednesday, March 29th we will welcome a panel of creators and founders, with speakers Allyson Scrutchens of Forward Planning and Dima Elissa of VisMed-3D.              

Homan Square Community Center
3517 W. Arthington Street
Chicago, IL 60624


Event #6 – Amplifiers of Community Voice: Women in Civic Tech

Thursday March 30th  we will welcome a panel of amplifiers of community voice with speakers Andrea Hart of City Bureau, Aviva Rosman of Ballot Ready, and Tiana Epps-Johnson of Center for Tech and Civic Life.

DuSable Museum-Auditorium
740 East 56th Place
Chicago, IL 60637


We hope you’ll join us in celebrating Women’s History Month and Chicago’s unique and amazing civic technology community. Here’s to Women’s History Month and fruitful partnerships!


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. 

Launch: The @CivicWhitaker Anthology

the-civicwhitaker-anthology-coverToday marks the publication of The @CivicWhitaker Anthology: Three years of organizing, writing, and documenting in Chicago civic tech at the Smart Chicago Collaborative. Here’s my introduction:

Hiring Christopher Whitaker to work as a consultant for Smart Chicago was one of the best decisions I made here.

Together, we created a new job type— part documenter, part organizer, part evangelist, part original writer and thinker about an emerging subsector of the technology industry— civic tech.

Through our work together, he’s helped build one of the strongest civic hacking communities in the country, been an essential part of the growth of the largest network of civic tech volunteers in the world, helped make the first weekend in June a national day of civic hacking, worked with a dozen emerging companies and organizations to grow revenue and impact, and served as a critical thread in the national fabric of this important movement.

This book is a simple anthology of the best of his vast work.

Take a gander here or just download it for yourself.

The @CivicWhitaker Anthology from Smart Chicago Collaborative

If you appreciate this book, hit us up. Sharing is caring!

Leaving Smart Chicago. Also: The @Civicwhitaker Anthology!

Whitaker speaking at the Civic Tech Forum in Tokyo, Japan

Speaking at the Civic Tech Forum in Tokyo, Japan

Over the past three and a half years, I’ve been a consultant for the Smart Chicago Collaborative helping with research, writing, and manage events, Chicago’s National Day of Civic Hacking, the CivicWorks Project, and helping to organize and document the Chi Hack Night. Today will be my last day consulting for the Smart Chicago Collaborative.

Before I joined Smart Chicago, I was working at the Illinois Department of Employment Security (during the height of the recession) and getting my Master’s in Public Administration (International Non-Profit Management) from DePaul University. That experience would prove to be quite the education into the state of government technology.

When I began to do consulting work here, first with writing for the blog and later managing the CivicWorks Project, I began to learn a whole other side of things. I learned how a civic organization should be run.

Perhaps the favorite thing about consulting for Smart Chicago is that through the work I was able to learn a lot of things – and write about it.

The @CivicWhitaker Anthology

That means that all together, the Smart Chicago blog has a wealth of knowledge about civic technology. Smart Chicago has taken many of these lessons and is combining them into a book—  “The @CivicWhitaker Anthology”, which will be available next week during the Code for America Summit. Stay tuned.

Here’s a look at some highlights of my work here that will be included in the book:

The CivicWorks Project

The CivicWorks Project  was funded by the Knight Foundation and the Chicago Community Trust to spur support for civic innovation in Chicago. The program goals are to produce 200 content pieces, 5 apps that solve government problems, and 5 apps that solve community problems. I served as the project manager for Civic Works.

These projects were small scale projects with budgets of about $10,000, and I worked with high capacity organizations who do great work in their community. This also enabled me to support the work of many emerging organizations and companies including Textizen, LocalData,, FreeGeek Chicago, and mRelief. Some of these projects were simply connecting existing technology in ways I knew would support their work (Providing LocalData to SWOP) while others were more on the experimental side (Crime and Punishment in Chicago and Convicted in Cook). If anyone ever asks you what a Master’s of Public Administration degree is good for – it’s for being able to understand problem solve inside governments and non-profits.

Being able to do this in the context of technology tools for organization was a tremendous privilege.

Chi Hack Night

In addition to managing this project, a large part of my work with Smart Chicago involved covering Chi Hack Night. By being paid to go to Chi Hack Night, it enabled me to take a much greater part in the event. (Before, I would run from my office on Chicago’s north side and race downtown to make the event in time.) It also meant being able to be one of the more productive Code for America Brigade Captains since I could wake up in the morning and think only about civic tech things instead of a different day job. One of the things that’s been interesting for me personally is watching other Brigade members also transition into full time civic tech positions. To me, one of the biggest benefits of Brigades is that they act as “farm teams” that help develop talent for civic technology organizations.

Chi Hack Night is a fantastic learning environment. The convergence of developers, non-profit employees, designers, government employees, data scientists in an environment that discourages jargon and sets up opportunities for each side to learn from the other. One of the most fascinating things to watch at Chi Hack Night is the technologists becoming more knowledgable about civic issues and those from the civic sector becoming more technically savvy. As part of my role at Smart Chicago, I’ve been blogging about hack night and have written over a hundred blog posts covering hack night presentations.

National Day of Civic Hacking

Another aspect of the work that I’ve done has been with National Day of Civic Hacking, which has been one of the biggest magnets for getting people into the civic tech space. As part of my work, I helped to write how-to guides for newer communities on everything from how to run a hackathon to an introduction to civic technology.

Why I’m leaving Smart Chicago now

When I first started with Chi Hack Night it was still in its early stages and now has grown beyond anyone’s expectations and is fully sustainable on its own. (With its own blog and twitter handle!) With Chi Hack Night growing in leaps and bounds, Smart Chicago will be stepping back from its coverage of the event.

National Day of Civic Hacking is another event that’s grown tremendously since its inception. The event now helps to spur civic innovation communities across the country. With it now being managed by Code for America Communities (which I’ve been doing consulting for since last year), there’s also less of a need for Smart Chicago to provide the same level of writing than it was before. With so many groups doing their own event locally, Smart Chicago will focus on other things and will not be hosting another National Day of Civic Hacking event.

Additionally, Smart Chicago will be expanding their Documenters program to include more people. This post from the Knight Foundation is a prime example of why the documenting the work is so important. Without the documentation aspect of the work that we do, there’s not a real way to learn from our it.

I’ve learned a lot from my work at Smart Chicago, but now it’s time for other people to have the same opportunity to learn from working with the organization. Smart Chicago will be expanding the number of documenters continuing to write down lessons learned from Smart Chicago’s work.  Having learned all I can from doing this type of work, it’s time to move on to other adventurous and new learning opportunities.

If you’re interested in keeping in touch, you can follow me on Twitter at @civicwhitaker or email me at You can also catch me at the Chi Hack Night every Tuesday at 6:00pm.