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.

Recap of CUTGroup Collective Call with CUTGroup Detroit

On November 7, we conducted our first CUTGroup Collective Call with about 20 individuals who are either interested in or working towards a CUTGroup model for their own city or wanted to hear about recent developments in the CUTGroup program. In this first call, we highlighted CUTGroup Detroit who, in the last seven months, built a CUTGroup tester base and conducted their first test on a city tool that displays commercial property information. The CUTGroup Detroit team– Noah Urban, Meghin Mather, Ayana Rubio from Data Driven Detroit (D3) and Ivoire Morrell, Civic Tech Fellow with Microsoft – provided great insight about tester recruitment, test process and results from their first test.

Here is their presentation:

Here are the full notes from the call, which includes a link to the audio:

Some takeaways

As someone who leads CUTGroup efforts in Chicago, and has been assisting cities like Detroit and Miami with their own CUTGroups, I still learn a lot from hearing CUTGroup Detroit’s perspective on their work.

Gift cards create program legitimacy

“He wasn’t sure if it was a legitimate enterprise until he received his $5 gift card in the mail… that $5 was confirmation that it was a legitimate organization.” -Ayana, D3, shares the benefit of sending a $5 gift card to testers upon sign-up.

This quote really stood out to me when listening to the CUTGroup Detroit team answer a question about the benefits of sending a $5 gift card. I am often asked why we send $5 gift cards for people to sign-up for CUTGroup and I respond with multiple answers ranging from people like money to confirming address eligibility to the value we see in getting device information during sign-up. To hear how the gift card helps create program legitimacy in Detroit gives me additional insight of the importance of using gift cards.

Tell your story during recruitment

At Smart Chicago, we are very good at documenting what we do and how we do it, but I was impressed with how CUTGroup Detroit told a story about their recruitment process. Their recruitment strategy was to have a street team and a social media campaign and to write about their experiences each week. The street team, led by Ivoire, walked through communities to hand out flyers and encouraged the people they met to sign up and follow CUTGroup Detroit on social media. They also connected with community organizations to do additional outreach with those networks.

CUTGroup Detroit invited a photographer to document, and they wrote (fun) blog posts about their experiences through this on the ground, recruitment effort over four weeks. Here’s just one snippet with lessons learned after the CUTGroup Detroit street team walked through Midtown neighborhood in the scorching heat of summer to recruit:

What were the lessons learned this week? Well, one the big things is that we need to memorize our license plate numbers so we can park without worrying about tickets because the city is handing them out like fliers. We got a ticket for being a few minutes over the time and we couldn’t pay over the app because no one knew the license plate number of the car we were using. So memorize your license plates people. Secondly, we are not as hardcore as we thought we were. Walking around midtown is no joke. As I write this blog my heels are still recovering from all that walking. We also decided that we need to be proactive in reaching out to organizations well ahead of time so they are more receptive to us when we show up and talk to them about CUTGroup Detroit. Our street team was also pivotal in making week two of recruiting successful. We thank them for all the effort they put in.

It was great to follow CUTGroup Detroit on their journey and feel like I was a part of it even from Chicago.

Cross-collaboration model across institutions can help build a CUTGroup

Detroit was unique when they approached me about building a CUTGroup because it involved so many different people and partners, whereas previously CUTGroups were built and maintained by one group or organization. Shelley Stern Grach, Director of Civic Engagement for Microsoft Chicago, described CUTGroup Detroit as a “perfect storm” of partners coming together. The collaboration happened very naturally and through the training we did together, individuals defined their roles.

“It’s actually has been really helpful to have the City [of Detroit] involved from the beginning. The City has provided insight about the strategic goals of the civic tech ecosystem and the CUTGroup Detroit team has been able to shape the program to complement the bigger strategy.” -Noah, D3, describing learnings from working with city partners/institutions.

Next steps

We look forward to continuing the CUTGroup Collective calls on other topics and to highlight experiences faced by cities building CUTGroup in their own city. If you have any questions about CUTGroup or CUTGroup Collective, please contact Sonja Marziano at

Introducing the first CUTGroup Collective Call: CUTGroup Detroit’s Story

CUTGroup recruitment happening in Detroit

CUTGroup Detroit Recruitment; photo by Christon Marie photography

We are beginning a new series of community calls for those who are interested in the CUTGroup model for their own city or hearing about recent developments in the CUTGroup program. We see enormous value in sharing experiences with others organizations who are already engaging with residents in technology projects or are looking for resources like the CUTGroup to make that engagement happen.

The goal of the CUTGroup Collective is to convene organizations and institutions in cities to help others establish new CUTGroups, create a new community, and share and learn from one another. For our first community call, we want to highlight CUTGroup Detroit’s story. Over the last few months, a collaboration across multiple entities invested in Detroit– the City of Detroit, Data Driven Detroit, and Microsoft– recruited for and conducted their first CUTGroup test. On our first call, the team involved will talk about their successes and challenges in building CUTGroup Detroit.

You’re invited to join us on Monday, November 7 from 2:00 – 3:30 CT for the first CUTGroup Collective community call. Go to this link to participate in the call on November 7:

Here is a document with more details including the schedule and call-in information:

Questions about CUTGroup? Contact Sonja Marziano at

Smart Chicago is helping build CUTGroup Detroit

Spirit of DetroitWe are excited to announce that Smart Chicago is partnering with the City of Detroit, Data Driven Detroit, and Microsoft, to help build the first Civic User Testing Group (CUTGroup) in Detroit. This is part of our CUTGroup Collective efforts to convene organizations and institutions in cities to help others establish new CUTGroups, create a new community, and share and learn from one another.

In April, we announced we would conduct UX testing on websites and tools that use data that is part of the White House’s Opportunity Project initiative. “The Opportunity Project expands access to opportunity for all Americans by putting data and digital tools in the hands of families, communities, and local leaders, to help them navigate information about the resources they need to thrive.” While we initially wanted to align this work with the national efforts of National Day of Civic Hacking, we quickly learned that we needed to take smaller steps to building a CUTGroup and planning for a test in another city. We began planning with Detroit, one of our CUTGroup Collective members, and a city that has curated data related to opportunity as part of the Opportunity Project.

In the last months, I have been working closely with the CUTGroup Detroit team to share ideas and insights from our CUTGroup experiences in Chicago. We have discussed recruitment and communications strategies, as well as test planning and design. In the upcoming weeks, Detroit will begin recruitment and in mid-August, we will conduct a test around a tool that helps people understand more about commercial or other non-residential properties in Detroit.

This work with Detroit is the start of an ongoing relationship through the CUTGroup Collective. Smart Chicago plans to be available to help CUTGroup Detroit grow and create better technology and where we will learn from Detroit experiences to help other cities build CUTGroups.


I am overwhelmed by the support and hard work of our Detroit partners to make this happen. I wanted to acknowledge them here:

First, we are grateful to the Knight Foundation, which makes the CUTGroup Collective possible. They are funding this work through our Deep Dive, where we are part of a cohort representing a diverse set of approaches to expanding community information and increasing community engagement.

The City of Detroit and Garlin Gilchrist, Director of Innovation & Emerging Technology, is leading the strategy and vision of CUTGroup Detroit.

Data Driven Detroit (D3) is managing the recruitment and logistics of CUTGroup. D3 is an organization that provides accessible high-quality information and analysis that drives informed decision-making. Our appreciation for their involvement goes to Erica Raleigh, Executive Director, Noah Urban, Project Lead & Senior Analyst, Kibichii Chelilim, Data Manager & Programmer, and Boitshoko Molefhi, the MSU InnovateGov Summer Intern.

Microsoft is extending their support for Civic Tech in both Chicago and Detroit to focus on CUTGroup Detroit. Microsoft’s Detroit Civic Tech Fellow, Ivoire Morrell, has been a key person in planning and putting together the pieces in building CUTGroup Detroit. Ivoire works closely with Shelley Stern Grach, Microsoft’s Director of Civic Engagement, who always provides important insights in every conversation and who made CUTGroup Detroit part of Ivoire’s project plan.

We are excited about what we can do together and look forward to sharing what we learn this summer!

CUTGroup Presentation at Gigabit City Summit 2016

2016-Gigabit-City-SummitA couple of weeks ago, I went to the Gigabit City Summit, “a three-day learning and networking opportunity exclusively designed for leaders in current and emerging Gigabit Cities,” hosted by KC Digital Drive. I was invited to present on the Civic Tech track entitled “Build a Volunteer Coding Brigade.”

Here are some of my remarks and my presentation:

While I do not run the volunteer coding brigade, I do run a program that pulls together residents, staff from community organizations and municipalities, and technologists for the goal of improving technology. The Civic User Testing Group (or CUTGroup) is a community of 1,500 residents in Chicago and all of Cook County who are paid to test websites and apps and help create better technology.

This program is a successful part of including resident voice in building technology in Chicago. A few months ago, we also launched the CUTGroup Collective which is a network of people in other cities who are interested in the CUTGroup model. We started this network to help others replicate the practice of CUTGroup.

The CUTGroup Collective consists of people working in government, universities, community organizations, and technology who are actively thinking through how to incorporate the pieces that make a CUTGroup: usability testing, digital skills, and community engagement.

The premise of CUTGroup is simple: we pay residents a $5 VISA gift card to join, and then $20 VISA gift card for each test that they participate in. CUTGroup tests happen all over the County in libraries and public computer centers and we will test websites and apps created at hack nights, websites that non-profit organizations created to help their communities, and government websites.

This is a resource that Smart Chicago provides to our technology ecosystem at no cost because we see that the immense value CUTGroup adds to technology while the technology is being built. Smart Chicago helps determine the goals that our partners want out of UX testing, then design UX tests for their specific piece of technology and their needs.

Then, on a given CUTGroup night, we hang out in libraries in different neighborhoods and we’ll pair developers to test with residents and see how or if their tech is serving residents’ needs. On CUTGroup evenings, we will see all levels of digital skills, different devices, ages, accessibility needs, and different backgrounds. We are very interested in tester’s backgrounds and their offline and online experiences: how people find information and get through their everyday lives, with or without technology.

This type of information combined with data from usability testing helps us provide specific, actionable next steps for the tech we test.

Our motto is: “If it doesn’t work for you, it doesn’t work!”


With the CUTGroup, we have tested all sorts of tech including Chicago Public Schools website once they did their mobile redesign, or the Ventra app before it was launched, mRelief that allows you to determine your eligibility for social services, or Chicago Cityscape which uses build permits open data.

We have seen technology be improved from small fixes such as a layout change to big changes like accessibility tags. We also see on the other side when we think about the CUTGroup that our biggest success metric is that people enjoy participating. They like feeling like they are part of creating better technology. And not often enough do we ask people to be contributors to the tech process.

So CUTGroup has been successful in Chicago and we are always continuing to grow the program, be more accessible to new groups of people, and we are interested in growing and creating new ways to help developers use the feedback from CUTGroup tests to make changes. We added text message system to CUTGroup so testers who don’t rely on email could sign-up via text and know about upcoming new tests.

CUTGroup is fluid, changing, and maturing. Other groups in cities ask us about starting a CUTGroup we wrote the book (an actual book) on how we do it.


It’s exciting when groups in other cities see the value in the work that we do and replicate it. Being open is a leading principle at Smart Chicago.  In technology, the main way is the use of open source code. For the CUTGroup, that was easy. The code for our website and management tool are on GitHub. We share all of our test results, our tools, the questions we ask, and the responses from our testers.

But it also means having open processes, so that people know what you’re doing, how you’re doing it, and how they can affect it. This is about allowing others “in,” wherever that may be in any particular situation.

We wrote the CUTGroup book in September 2014 as a resource to start and run a CUTGroup. These steps were crucial, but we wanted to find a way to allow more people in—to engage directly with workers in other cities not to only to replicate our model, but also establish a network that helps create sustainable and successful CUTGroups.

As we teach through the CUTGroup Collective we want to learn, too about what works other places so we can be more useful and we transcend just sharing the how but more of the why.

Just one example of this is that in CUTGroup we host tests at libraries.

King Library mRelief CUTGroup Test

Why? Libraries provide the infrastructure like meeting room space, power outlets, and WiFi that makes CUTGroup testing possible. They also have a wide geographical reach—in Chicago, there is a library in each one of the 77 community areas—and are typically close to public transit. In addition, libraries are a community space where people feel comfortable and even when going to a new neighborhood you can expect from a library.

This doesn’t mean another city needs to host their CUTGroup in a library to be a CUTGroup. Maybe it’s a church basement, a community health center, or a McDonald’s. CUTGroup could look different across cities but feel the same and reach the same goals.


My vision for the CUTGroup Collective is to convene organizations and institutions to help establish new CUTGroups in other cities, create a new community to share and learn from one another. As I said before we’re still early in this, building and growing, but there is interest from other cities.


And the more I do this work and talk with other cities, I understand how programs or any model being replicated needs direction and guidance but flexibility and opportunity for some experimentation to see how it works in new communities.

That’s where I am at right now. Listening to other cities and thinking through and finding clear ways that CUTGroup can fit into the great work happening in other places.

And I would love to talk to each and every one of you about that.
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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.