Civic User Testing Group (CUTGroup): Remarks at Code for America 2015 Summit

Today, I will talk about the Civic User Testing Group (CUTGroup) during the 2015 Code for America SummitIn 2013, Dan O’Neil presented at the CfA Summit about the CUTGroup as a model for changing the relationship between government and residents. Since that summit two years ago, we have doubled the number of CUTGroup testers from 511 to over 1,000 testers, we have tested sixteen websites and apps, we have expanded to all of Cook County, and we continue to add processes to engage with people in the CUTGroup. The work is never done.

I now run the CUTGroup project for Smart Chicago. Here are my thoughts about how not only to run a CUTGroup, (we lay this out in detail in the CUTGroup book and blog posts) but how to sustain a CUTGroup by leading with community engagement.


The Civic User Testing Group (CUTGroup) is a new model for UX testing, digital skills, and community engagement. What makes the CUTGroup the CUTgroup is the merging of these three components into one experience. To build a CUTGroup, you need to devote time to all these components equally.

The CUTGroup is a central program for Smart Chicago because it cuts across our three areas of focus: access, skills and data. Access: we conduct the majority of our tests in public computer centers and libraries in the community. Skills: for the tester who is introduced to new technology, and for the developer who learns ways to design tests and engage residents. Data: we help improve existing technology and encourage the creation of better technology.


The CUTGroup is the community of people in Chicago and all of Cook County who come together in libraries and public computer centers to test and have conversations around technology. In Chicago, we have testers from every part of the city, all 50 wards and all 77 community areas. We are now reaching the rest of Cook County.


These residents are paid to test websites and apps to help create better technology. We pay every CUTGroup member $5 for signing up, and then $20 when they participate in a test. As of today, we have done 19 tests that cover a wide range of topics such as schools, transportation, social services, neighborhood information, and more.


The motto below is key to this work. It removes the idea that residents do not understand technology as well as technologists. Instead, it permits testers to participate, give their feedback and show that their ideas are a valuable part of the process.


We talk about the methods and processes in the CUTGroup book to help other cities run their own CUTGroup.


Asking how to start or run a CUTGroup is important, but I think the question below is more important.


The answer is easier than we think.


So, when is it not a CUTGroup?


It’s not a CUTGroup when you are only testing civic apps. In other words, it’s not a CUTGroup if you put the tech first. The “civic” in Civic User Testing Group has to describe the group before it describes the user testing. At Smart Chicago, we are beginning to move away from the language of “testing civic apps” because there are more important criteria in determining what to test. We determine whether or not to test technology based on these criteria:

  • Interest and desire to do CUTGroup testing and talk with residents (commitment to be part of the process!)
  • The technology reaches a large and diverse group of residents and could have or has an impact on their lives
  • Willingness to listen and then respond to the feedback and make changes

Not everyone who seeks CUTGroup testing might see that the tech they created is a “civic app,” and that is ok.


A CUTGroup needs to lead with engaging with people around technology and that becomes easier when you know that people want to help make tech better. They want their voices heard and they know so much about how they use technology and how they want technology to work for them.





The first step to engaging through UX testing is inviting and recruiting people to join the CUTGroup and recruit from inside your networks as well as outside of it. It is crucial to open the CUTGroup to everyone and, then once they are in the group, to build one-on-one relationships with new testers. That way, no matter how they were recruited – by a friend, from a flyer in a library, from an organization – they are on the same level with all of the testers in the group. It does not matter how they get to you, but how they are included in the CUTGroup experience.


I cannot emphasize the statements below more. Recruit anywhere and everywhere. If we only recruited from one place or one group, or stayed with the same method of recruitment, we would miss so many people who want to join and participate. The tech we test cannot define who is in our CUTGroup.



Here are a couple of very specific ways that we try to be inclusive in CUTGroup.

First, we use physical gift cards because it’s the closest thing to cash that we can get. We want to give testers something that they can use anywhere they normally would shop. Even though physical gift cards cost more than digital gift cards we use them because they are easier to use and can be used anywhere.  We also cannot assume that people shop online in their normal day-to-day.


Recently, we incorporated text messaging into the CUTGroup process to reach people who do not have regular access to the internet. Out of our 1,000+ CUTGroup members today, 29% of our testers said their primary form of connecting to the Internet is either via public wifi or their phone with data plan. Testers will be able to sign up for CUTGroup and receive text notifications when new tests come up and being to respond to participate.




The next step centers on how we communicate with our testers and how we keep in contact with them. First, we never share information with our CUTGroup testers about anything other than CUTGroup. This maintains a relationship that only centers on the program that they signed up to be a part of.

We keep regular and open communication about upcoming tests, and explain the reasons behind why or why not we picked them for a specific test. If they are not selected for a test, we still want to share what the test was about so that they feel included in what is happening and can still interact with the website on their own.


When testers sign up for CUTGroup, we  do not gather information about demographics, and prefer to ask questions that relate to their devices and the ways they connect to the Internet.  This keeps our sign-up form simple and easy to fill out. Also, we are more interested in learning about the tester’s non-technical and technical experiences, and we value learning about these experiences more than gathering demographic information. We do not have a database of testers’ age, race, income levels, or education. These things are just not as important.


We do design the screening questions to gather better information about testers for that specific test. If necessary, this is when we capture information about demographics.


This allows testers to voluntarily give us more information. If they do not feel comfortable with answering the questions for a specific test, they do not have to, and they can still be part of the CUTGroup. Letting people choose how they interact with us is important and we want to feel comfortable in these interactions.



When it comes to the CUTGroup test, it is hard to listen and leave expectations aside. When you bring in developers and project managers, they have their own assumptions of how the test will go (and so will you).  However, the unexpected solutions that testers come up with can sometimes be the most valuable part of UX testing. It is important to step back, listen, and not tell testers why they are right or wrong  or what they should have done. This is hard because we want to help if they are getting stuck. What is better is to really focus on understanding how they are doing the task you asked of them.


We generally test in branches of the Chicago Public Library because it allows us to visit new neighborhoods and reach new people. We are very lucky to have such a great resource in the Chicago Public Library since there is a library in every neighborhood. It would be really easy for us to test in our own offices, but meeting people in their community allows new people to participate in testing. We love going to them.


It is important to talk about the person’s experiences not just about how they use technology. We want to ask how testers get information, how they do things in their normal day-to-day, and how they see technology fitting into those experiences.


Once testing begins, we keep asking questions to learn more about what testers are doing and their expectation. We ask them why they clicked on that button/link or why they are using that feature. Their responses help us gather insight not only about the tech being tested but also tech in general. Their UX experience is influenced by other tech they know and learning about those expectations helps understand how to build tech better.


We also always ask testers for very specific ways to improve the website or app. “Tell us anything and everything you can” is a phrase I use often because I never want testers to feel their improvements are too big or too small. I want to hear all of their ideas. We consistently ask this question across tests, and it gives testers to contribute to the creation.


Another big part of our work is teaching developers how to incorporate user testing in the development of their technology. By requiring that the developer be part of the process, we put them in front of testers to see and hear for themselves how real people would use their tech.   



The last piece of engaging with the CUTGroup is making the changes that the testers suggested.


Once a test is completed, I spend a lot of time working on the analysis. I take a look at each question and provide quantitative and qualitative data. We want to see how easy it was for testers to finish a task as much as we want to understand their expectations of the technology and its functions. We also want to learn about whether or not they think this website is for them, if they like it, and if they would use it again.


The last step is the hardest, and not always completely in our control, but my goal is always to find better ways to help developers make changes on their website or app. This is a process of collaboration and there needs to be a commitment made at the beginning of the process that the developers, project managers, or organization staff will make some changes based on the conversations they had with CUTGroup testers.

After that happens, I want to show testers what they helped to create and show them that we listened.


It all comes back to making change happen because if we are inviting, asking, listening, but not responding — the test is hollow. We are not respecting our testers and their suggestions and it comes full-circle to our motto. If it doesn’t work for them… it doesn’t work.


To follow my presentation at the summit, check out some of these hashtags #CUTGroup and #CfASummit. You can also follow me at @ssmarziano.

Here is my entire presentation:


Digital Inclusion Meets Civic Tech: Remarks at Code for America 2015 Summit

Today I will take part in the Digital Inclusion Meets Civic Tech panel at the 2015 Code for America Summit. It’s great to talk about such a timely issue with Deb Socia of Next Century Cities, Demond Drummer of CoderSpace, Chike Aguh of EveryoneOn, and Susan Mernit of Hack the Hood.

Since important conversations like this never seem long enough, I wanted to share my thoughts here.


I’m the new Program Analyst at Smart Chicago managing the Connect Chicago initiative and other projects like the Chicago School of Data. I care about open data, Internet access, faster networks, and improving digital skills. A question I’m particularly interested in is this:


I’ve noticed that a lot of common answers involve versions or combinations of the following:


Do we think these answers are enough? When the White House released its analysis of the digital divide in the U.S., they defined being on the right side of the digital divide as having Internet access in your home. While increasing at-home subscriptions is certainly a desirable trend, is it enough to declare victory in a city?

I would say no — not in 2015. Since Internet access has become more essential and its place in our hierarchy of needs has shifted, we should expect that percentage to increase naturally, even without policy interventions. We should acknowledge that, in 2015, Internet access in your home does not necessarily give you equal opportunity in the digital economy. Things like speed, type of online activity and skill are just as key to unlocking the potential of a connection.

Also an increase in citywide broadband adoption doesn’t speak to geographic and demographic gaps in Internet access; rather, the disadvantaged or historically underconnected people and neighborhoods that see that increase are the marginal successes we care about.

We need to go further:


Getting more people online in a city, getting a faster network, or having a robust nonprofit sector does not necessarily mean that city is digital inclusive. We should care about gaps in skill and use in addition to gaps in adoption. We should acknowledge that connections themselves are not the end game— rather, educational attainment, technology sector growth for all, workforce development and increasing civic engagement are the true outcomes. As program managers and policymakers, we should plan our evaluations around these truths.

Also, faster networks alone are not enough to make a city digital equitable. It’s what you do with the network that matters. Last year as a graduate student at the Harvard Kennedy School, I wrote, “A Data-Driven Digital Inclusion Strategy for Gigabit Cities.” You can see a summary one-pager here or read a blog post about it here. One thing I observed was that some high poverty urban census tracts had very high connectivity. Why? Because they tended to be dense, walkable, and house several community anchor institutions – schools, churches computer labs or community centers. While digital inclusion programing is often built on top of these trusted neighborhood institutions, cities should care about digital deserts – areas with low connectivity and low access to digital assistance.

Another question of interest:


Here are the “almost” answers – a vision of the civic technology movement that is admirable, but arguably incomplete:


The answers below go one step further. Much of this sentiment is captured in the great work of Laurenellen McCann in Experimental Modes of Civic Engagement in Civic Tech and Sonja Marziano in the Civic User Testing Group (CUTgroup).


The benefits of civic technology do not travel in one direction. Civic hackers have as much to gain from including diverse, non-expert and non-technical residents in their work as the residents themselves do. Residents seek ways to learn about solving social problems with technology, data or mobile applications. Civic hackers seek to create tools that solve relevant problems and truly work for everyone.


Despite the way we talk about them, civic tech and digital inclusion are not separate movements with separate missions. Both seek to make residents’ lives better through technology. The differences lie in the method and associations. When a resident thinks of a civic hacker, they might think of a person who seems smarter than them coding away at a hackathon. When a resident thinks of a digital trainer, they might think of the volunteer in the library public computing center. Wouldn’t it make both jobs easier (and the city better) if the civic hacker could also talk to the library trainees and the digital trainer attended the hackathon? Let’s make that happen.


Digital inclusion professionals have a lot to offer the civic tech community. These trainers and program professionals are experts in community outreach, skilled in training, and are the boots on the ground in their neighborhoods.

Unfortunately, digital inclusion professionals are not always paid to or encouraged to think about civic tech. I feel lucky in this respect because I work for Smart Chicago – an organization built for Chicago specifically to care about both civic tech and digital equity. The only thing I have to do to form a digital inclusion-civic tech partnership is Slack Sonja Marziano or wheel my desk chair three feet behind me to her work station!

These are her people:


These are my people:


This is just one place where civic tech meets digital inclusion in Chicago.


We’re thinking of ways Connect Chicago (a network of aligned programs, public computing centers and trainers across the city) and the CUTgroup can work together to make Chicago the most connected, skilled, digitally dynamic city in America.

One idea? Let’s get feedback from CUTgroup’s 1000+ testers on the digital skill offerings in the city. How easy is it for them to learn what they want? What resources are lacking? What resources exist that they don’t know about? We want to collect all the unknown unknowns. Chicago can better understand the “user experience” of its residents, not in relation to a new application or website, but in relation to the digital access and skills ecosystem in their city and community. As it turns out, a significant chunk of our CUTgroup testers rely on mobile and public Wi-Fi:

Are there other creative ways digital inclusion projects and the civic tech community can partner and strengthen one another? We’re confident. Let’s have that conversation. If you have ideas, we want to hear about them.

Talking to each other is fun, but doing stuff is better. Here are actionable items we can take home after the Summit:


Civic hackers, pledge to involve five people you don’t currently know in your next project. Embrace civic user testing groups as opportunities to learn, teach and inspire; measure success not only the number of apps created and tested, but in the number of people engaged. Digital trainers and digital inclusion program managers, go to a hackathon or civic tech convening, present a specific wish list, and take your trainees and co-workers with you.


To follow the panel on Twitter, see our hashtags #CfADigInc and #CfASummit and follow me at @DKLinn.

Here’s the presentation as a download:

Smart Chicago + Code for America Summit 2015

Radar screen

The Code for America Summit, “a roll-up-your-sleeves conference that brings together innovators from hundreds of governments across the U.S. along with civic-minded technologists, designers, community organizers, and entrepreneurs” starts on September 30.

Smart Chicago has a unique relationship with Code for America and performs a singular role in the community of civic-minded people and organizations here in Chicago and across the country.

Here’s a look at some of the presenters and speakers at this year’s conference and they work we’ve done with them over the years. Lots of the support we provide is quiet and under the radar, so we thought we’d make some noise and put some blips on the green screen.

Continue reading

Incomplete History of Civic Technology Events in Chicago

One of the defining characteristics of  Chi Hack Night is how many people show up there on a regular basis. Chi Hack Night is now consistently reaching attendance numbers of 80 to 120 people and has featured speakers such as Chicago CIO Brenna Berman, WBEZ’s Linda Lutton, the University of Chicago’s Charlie Catlett and more. Currently there have been 173 hack nights and counting. Smart Chicago has been covering and supporting this growth from the get-go.

In a chapter I wrote for Beyond Transparency called, “Building a Smarter Chicago“, I briefly listed some of the key gatherings and efforts in Chicago that helped make us a center for civic tech. With some research help from Christopher Whitaker,  I wanted to expand on that and write down what I knew about the history of such gatherings. Do you know something we’re missing? Hit us up at @smartchicago.

Before we started getting together, there was a group of people who just did stuff. Adrian Holovaty created in 2005. He later founded EveryBlock with help from the Knight Foundation. I joined as a co-founder and People Person (ya, I know). The work we did we — uncovering and presenting civic data and conversations in 16 cities— naturally put us at the center of things in the country.

There was lots of other activity. In 2005, I launched CTA Alerts  to help riders communicate about issues with the CTA. In 2009, Harper Reed (who would later be the CTO of Obama for America) created an unofficial CTA API that set transit apps on fire in this town. There was even more action in the worlds of MCIC and other institutions and private consulting firms.

But this post aims to codify the history of civic technology and open governments groups in Chicago. It’s big, and incomplete, so bear with me and help me out.

The 8 Principals of Open Data

While this meeting didn’t happen in Chicago, one of the most important meetings of this movement occurred on December 7th, 2007 in Sebastopol, California. The meeting was organized by Carl Malamud and Tim O’Reilly with the goal of establishing principals of open data and with attendees including Lawrence Lessig, Tom Steinberg, Bradley Horowitz and more.  The meeting had a significant Chicago presence including Adrian Holovaty, Dan O’Neil,  Karl Fogel, and Aaron Swartz.

The meeting laid down the 8 Principals of OpenData, which would later help influence open data policies nationwide.

Independent Government Observers Task Force

One of the first open government events happened in Chicago on August 4th, 2008. The IGOTF Non-Conference brought together CEOs, professors, and nonprofit executives involved in placing case law on the Internet for free access. That meeting was productive in introducing players to each other in a series of cooperative efforts. EveryBlock People Person Dan O’Neil hosted the event and Omidyar NetworkSunlight FoundationGoogle, and Yahoo! were sponsors.

OpenGov Chicago – April 2009

The OpenGov Chicago(-land) meetup group was founded in April of 2009 by Joe Germuska, who was an attendee of IGOTF. He asked me to help organize meetings. The group has one of the largest continuities google groups about open government in the country. Its first meeting on Meetup was a social event at Clark Street Ale House. The meetup group was created for citizens who are interested in seeing their federal, state, and local government function more efficiently and responsively. The group is inspired by people who are actively building tools and experimenting with solutions along these lines, like the Sunlight Foundation and GovTrack. The group stated right on the home page that it believes that open source software practices and internet culture provide good examples of how people can work cooperatively on complex problems to produce meaningful results, but you don’t have to be a techie to be part of this meetup.

OpenGov Chicago has always stated flat-out that you don’t have to be a techie to be part of the Meetup. I think that helped set the tone that the community here is open— we got so many different people from different walks of life.

Illinois Data Exchange Affiliates

One of the other early incarnations of open government groups was the Illinois Data Exchange Affiliates (IDEA). a voluntary coalition of government agencies and nonprofit organizations working to improve and facilitate public access to public data through web-based XML data transfer. Led by Greg Sanders and Justin Massa, the group met regularly and focused on institutions that worked with data.

CityCamp 2010 – Chicago

Jen Pahlka at City Camp Chicago 2010

The very first CityCamp was held in Chicago in 2010 at the University of Illinois’ Chicago Innovation Center. CityCamp originally emerged from Transparency Camp and the Gov20 Camp. (Here’s a google doc featuring the meeting notes from that Transparency Camp that spawned CityCamp.)

At this meeting, Jen Pahlka presented about Code for America – an organization which would grow into a a massive international operation  with countless people in its network and a ton of work.

CityCamp itself would also grow into its own brand with dozens of events happening around the world.

On a personal note, former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley wrote a letter of welcome to all attendees. That letter constituted my greatest opengov victory of the last mayoral administration— I took the train to get the signed letter from the mayor’s office on the way to UIC.

Daley Letter, Apps for Metro Chicago and Urban Geek Drinks

With the election of Rahm Emanuel as Mayor of Chicago, and the national acceptance of open government data pretty much a settled matter, the pace began to change quickly. One of the Mayor’s first acts was to sign an Open Data Executive Order that set the city on the path to opening up their data. John Tolva was hired as the city’s first Chief Technology Office and Brett Goldstein was hired as the city’s first Chief Data Officer.  The Department of Innovation and Technology not only published data to the portal, but they hooked up their business systems directly to the portal so that data sets would update automatically.

Brett Goldstein recruited people from the OpenGov Chicago meetup and other technologists to form the “Nerd Herd” – an informal group of people who would meet regularly to talk about technology issues affecting the city.

At the time, there hadn’t been many civic apps created in part because there was no data to fuel them. (You had to either get the data through a Freedom of Information Act or just create the data yourself.) As part of the city’s strategy, the City partnered with the Metro Chicago Information Center to run the Apps for Metro Chicago Contest to help kickstart projects that used newly opened city, county, and state data.

As part of the year long event, MCIC held several hackathons at Google’s Chicago headquarters. The content would inject a lot of energy into the community and resulted in the creation of 52 civic apps. The winner, SpotHero, has gone on to become a major Chicago startup and recently just completed a $20 million dollar funding round.

The other big event that was happening at this time was an informal monthly gathering hosted by Justin Massa called Urban Geek Drinks. The venue provided an enormous networking opportunity where people with an interest in civic issues and technology could meet and talk.

Code for America Fellowship, Connect Chicago, and OpenGov Hack Night

In 2012, Chicago became a Code for America Fellowship City with the task of creating an Open311 interface for the City of Chicago with Smart Chicago Collaborative providing funding. At the same time, Smart Chicago was helping to administer the city’s Broadband Technology Opportunity Grant and starting to host the Connect Chicago Meetup for people interested in closing the digital divide in Chicago.

Post Apps for Metro Chicago, there continued to be an interest in civic hackathons including two “Idea Hack Chicago” events hosted by Veronica Ludwig, Christopher Whitaker and Josh Kalov in partnership with Code for America as part of their fellowship year.

One of the teams that formed during the very first Google Hackathon for Apps for Metro Chicago contest was Open City – first founded by Paul Baker,  Chad Pry, Nick Rougeux, Ryan Briones and Derek Eder. Their entry,, was one of the first civic apps to make use of open data and had a great reception when released. The volunteer group had continued to build apps even after the contest, but found it difficult do complete work outside of their 9-5 jobs without experiencing hackathon fatigue. Derek Eder and Juan Pablo-Valez had an idea to create a weekly hack night event as a space to work on their projects.

On March 22nd, Derek Eder and Juan Pablo-Valez hosted the first OpenGov Hack Night at offices of Webitects. A few months later, Code for America would launch the Brigade Program that would strive to harness volunteer energy around civic technology. Christopher Whitaker applied and was accepted as the Chicago Brigade Captain with a plan to support existing work and try and network resources within the community.

At the same time, Whitaker joined Smart Chicago as a consultant and was paid to attend hack night and document the movement. At that point, Derek Eder had left Webitects to start his own civic tech development shop Datamade with Smart Chicago being their first client working on projects like the Chicago Health Atlas and Chicago Early Learning.

Over the next few weeks, OpenGov Hack Night would continue to grow and quickly outgrew the offices at Webitects. Through Smart Chicago’s founding membership at 1871, OpenGov Hack Night moved to the IMSA classroom where it would say for the next few years. (Smart Chicago would provide a number of keys to civic technologists over the next few years.)

Several apps that used data to tell stories about the city was featured in the Chicago Architecture Foundation exhibit “City of Big Data” which uses interactive displays to display different aspects of city data.

Over the next few years, OpenGov Hack Night would grow and serve as a model for groups around the country. The space would outgrow even 1871 and move to the offices of Braintree where they are now. As part of the move, they changed their name to Chi Hack Night to reflect caring about more than just open government. Chi Hack Night is now run by Derek Eder and Christopher Whitaker along with a volunteer leadership council with members running their own breakout groups within Chi Hack Night.

Fewer, but more focused hackathons

As regular gatherings of civic technologists became the new normal, it had the effect of reducing the number of hackathons. Instead of having one every weekend, there were fewer but more focused hackathons. Smart Chicago helped to run several of these particularly around National Day of Civic Hacking. Chicago’s early success at National Day of Civic Hacking would result in a partnership with organizing organizations like SecondMuse and Code for America to provide training material for newer communities.

Other such events included the Geeks Without Bounds “Everyone Hacks” event at Groupon. The hackathon, co-hosted by Chicago Women in Developers, was specifically targeted towards getting more women into the tech space. After the event, Chi Hack Night saw an increase in the diversity of it’s attendees.

Another event that’s grown over the years is the Center for Neighborhood Technologies Urban Sustainability Apps competition that  connects coders, designers, and developers with community leaders and representatives to solve neighborhood problems.

A flowering of more

As the community has grown there have been other groups that have formed to help bring together people around the intersection of technology and civic lift.Smart Chicago has hosted Data Potluck at our offices at the Chicago Community Trust and early on at 1871 due to their membership there. Other great groups are the City Data Users GroupMaptime Chicago, the Chicago Data Visualization Group, and more.

Again, what are we missing? Hit us up.

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.

National Day 2015 Round-up

logoLast week was a busy week for civic technologists in Chicago with several events being held throughout the city as part of the National Day of Civic Hacking. We’ve provided a quick roundup of everything that happened last week as well as some thoughts to next steps.

CitySDK Launch at Chi Hack Night


The Census Bureau launched their open data software development kit (SDK) at Chi Hack Night on Tuesday.  They also helped to break the current attendance record with 124 people coming in to hear Presidential Innovation Fellow Jeff Miesel demo the CitySDK. (You can catch the full demo here and the meeting notes for the event here.)

Steve Vance has already updated his Cityscape app to take advantage of the new CitySDK. He’s created a webpage as part of Chicago Cityscape that gets the median home value and median rent for the Census tract containing your GPS-based location.

You can get more updates on the CitySDK project by following them on Twitter.

Urban Sustainability Apps Competition 

On Friday, the Center for Neighborhood Technologies kicked off the weekend with the Urban Sustainability Apps Competition. The event was hosted by Stephen Philpott and took place over the entire weekend.

In attendance at the event was the CTO for the US Census Bureau Avi Bender as well as the City SDK team. The competition kicked off with some advice from Eve Tulbert – Founder of FreedomGames.

Eve’s group didn’t win the CNT Apps competition, but through the event they launched their company and now have paying customers. This year’s winner was Purshable – and app that helps grocery stores sell produce that is about to expire. You can get the full details on the event from the CNT blog. 

Organize! Civic Tech Leader Training

For Civic Tech Leader Training, we wanted to provide training for people already active in their communities – but wanted to learn more about the technology side of things.

We kicked off with David McDowell from the Southwest Organizing Project who gave us an orientation into community organizing. From there, we learned about the ins-and-outs for FOIA from Matt Topic of the Better Government Association. Before we got into the tech portion of our training, we had a brainstorming session about what problems we should be focusing on in the city and how we could leverage technology to address them. We took collaborative notes during the day so that you can see all of the ideas that we generated. Our brainstorming session was later joined by US Chief Data Scientist DJ Patil who also gave some short remarks and answered questions from the audience. In the afternoon, our own Josh Kalov taught about data portals and Microsoft’s Adam Hecktman gave a class on how to use Excel to analyze open data.

We also spoke about how to use tech tools and shared some tips on social media. To cap off the day, Claire Micklin from talked about how to run a hack night project.

Adler National Day of Civic Hacking

To cover the Adler National Day of Civic Hacking event, we sent our Documentor Nicole Cipri to the Adler event. Here’s an excerpt her dispatch:

On June 6th, the Adler Planetarium joined venues across the world to host Civic Hack Day. Organized by Hack For Change, Civic Hack Day brings together community members, developers, programmers, and organizers to tackle tough problems and present practical solutions. Hackers come from a variety of backgrounds and bring diverse skill sets. Problem-solvers, makers, coders, tinkerers, anyone is invited to join the events.

Last year, Hack For Change saw 123 events in 13 different countries, including at Adler Planetarium. Kelly Sutphin-Borden, an educator with the Adler who also handled logistics for the Hackathon, said this was the third year the Adler had participated in Civic Hack Day. Last year, groups created several seed projects, including an app to help link homeless LGBTQ youth to resources, and a searchable and simplified website explaining the CPS code of conduct to students and parents.

This year, six different people pitched issues facing Chicago. Among the proposals:

  • A website to help engage citizens on proposed legislative regulations.
  • A media campaign to protect Chicago birds.
  • An online archive for photographs by Vivian Maier, a Chicago-area street photographer, which would complement a brick-and-mortar archive of her works.
  • A more accessible and streamlined portal to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Handbook
  • A data collection app for, which would collect cancer patients’ treatment histories and share them with researchers.
  • An app to help hospital patients with follow-up care after their discharge

The last of the problems presented, about helping discharged hospital patients, was proposed by Dr. Pam Khosla, an oncologist at Mount Sinai. She had not planned on participating in Civic Hack Day, but only on keeping her daughter company there for a few hours. She became inspired after listening to some of the other proposed issues. She confessed that she’d heard about Hack For Change first on WBEZ, and had been confused by the term. “I thought all hacking was bad,” she explained. “Who are we hacking? Why?”

Mount Sinai is a hospital on Chicago’s West Side, an area of the city that suffers from high rates of poverty. Many of Khosla’s patients have trouble navigating the labyrinthine process of longterm cancer treatment. Some of her patients have limited English, or low literacy, or no support network to help them. She envisioned an app or device in which a patient could input their treatment plans, and would then remind them to book transportation to their appointments, take their medication, or help explain procedures or processes. The point was to get better patient compliance, and thus, better quality of care.

After presenting the problems, Clint Tseng of Socrata offered a crash course in accessing open data provided by Chicago, Cook County, and the state of Illinois. He also stayed on hand to help groups utilize this data for their projects. Individuals broke up into teams to tackle each of these issues, usually starting with a brainstorming session. Problem Owners were interviewed about what kind of solutions would be practical, while everyone pitched in to come up with ideas for formats, funding possibilities, and organization. After a rough idea is drafted, the group had the next 24 hours to fine-tune their proposed solution, presenting it the following morning.


To cover LexHacks, we sent Stephen Rynkiewicz to cover the legal hackathon that happened at WeWorkChicago. Here’s an excerpt from his dispatch:
At LexHacks, developers, designers, lawyers, lean thinkers, project managers, data analysts and other professionals were challenged to work together to create solutions that improve the efficiency and delivery of legal services, as well as the access to legal services.
“I want lawyers to step up and embrace these technologies, so that we don’t have 80 percent of folks who have a need go without legal services,” explains Daniel Linna, an organizer of the Chicago Legal Innovation & Technology Meetup group. “We can do work with developers, designers, technologists, data analysts, lean thinkers to do that.” Lisa Colpoys, executive director of Illinois Legal Aid Online, organized one of two crowdfunded contests. “Our mission really is to break down the law, make it simple enough so people who can’t afford a lawyer can handle their legal problems,” Colpoys says. “This system is scary. It’s complicated. If people want to go to court on their own, they typically don’t do very well, at least without education and some support,” Colpoys says. “Our challenge is to create some sort of a tool for people to evaluate whether it’s worth it to pursue some case or claim, or defend their case or claim.“
Jon Pasky first organized legal hackathons to recruit developers to resolve a complaint he heard from tech startup founders. “They want to talk to their lawyer,” Pasky says, “but people I found in the small business and startup side don’t, because they’re afraid of the bills.”

With Ric Gruber, who worked his way through law school as a developer, Pasky launched Openlegal, the flat-fee website that recruits clients for their law office. “Every time we automate part of the process, we’re able to hire more lawyers instead of more admin staff,” Gruber says. “We’re saving our clients 30 to 50 percent because we’ve cut administrative waste.”