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.

Trust and Authenticity – Reflections from the Knight Media Learning Seminar 2017

Last month, the Smart Chicago team went to Miami to participate in the 10th anniversary of the Knight Media Learning Seminar (MLS)– a two-day conference which “brings together leaders and funders from across the country to discuss ways to promote more informed and engaged communities.” This year, in response to the political climate, conversations appropriately focused on trust and authenticity in journalism and communities. In every plenary and breakout session I participated in, speakers and attendees answered questions on how to build trust and authentic relationships with audiences/users/communities.

The insights that I take away from my time at MLS is that we are still trying to figure out what trust looks like and it’s difficult, and critical, to create authentic processes to build trust. These are part of the questions that I still think about now that I am back in Chicago– is the work we are doing creating trust with our communities? And how can we make sure we engage more people in the technology that we create?

Journalism Engagement Projects

On the first day of the conference, I attended a breakout discussion moderated by Molly de Aguiar of the Dodge Foundation that highlighted journalism engagement projects from across the country.

The conversation was kicked off by describing what good engagement looks like. The panel’s responses ranged from relationships with audience members, responsive feedback loops, and organizational culture. This question challenged me to think about how “good” engagement looks like in my work, especially in the Civic User Testing Group (CUTGroup) where I aim to build and include Chicago’s communities in the process of building better technology.

There was consensus across the panel to not engage with people just to engage with them, but create opportunities to be part of their community. Engagement between organizations and their audience should look and feel like a relationship. Organizations should not only request feedback from their audience but also use it.

This is an important lesson that I have learned through CUTGroup. It is easy to invite people to participate and gather their feedback on technology products and processes, but it is critical to be responsive to that feedback. I often work closely with our partners to understand and prioritize CUTGroup feedback into actionable changes. Once changes have been outlined or made, I share back to our testers to show how their participation has made an impact.

Fake news, Trust, and Truth in the Digital Age

On the second day of MLS, I attended a breakout session facilitated by Bill Adair of Duke University and Claire Wardle of First Draft that allowed audience participants to address and discuss fake news directly. We discussed whether or not news and media outlets have told their stories well enough or if these outlets should tell their stories.

This made me think about think about Smart Chicago’s efforts around transparency and open data– whether that is through documentation of processes on our blog, our open data partnership with Cook County or CUTGroup testing on data portal. By making data and processes open, we know that not everyone will find or use that data, but transparency creates opportunities to build accountability and trust. I am hopeful that from the distrust that people currently have for the news could lead to opportunities for media organizations to engage with their audience and become more transparent in their storytelling processes.

KCIC Cohorts

After MLS, Smart Chicago participated in a reunion of the Knight Community Information Challenge (KCIC) cohort– a program that encouraged community and place-based foundations to take part in human-centered design thinking exercises and offered matching grants for news and information projects.

Knight tested this process over the past few years, with four other foundations, and it was extremely successful. We both attended the workshops and watched the evolution of these foundations’ projects first hand, as they went from the research to prototype stages. Along, the way, we made an important realization: that what is being designed matters less than how it is designed. The solution can be a product or a program, or something else entirely. But the way the creators listen, understand and work with people to develop ideas and solutions around information needs is much more important.

Knight is continuing their investment of the original cohort– which includes Silicon Valley Community Foundation, Incourage Community Foundation, Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and the Chicago Community Trust – to continue their work and be ambassadors to a new upcoming cohort of foundations.

In our last cohort meeting, each foundation facilitated their own mini-design thinking challenge based on what they learned from the previous years of participating in design-thinking activities. Smart Chicago and the Chicago Community Trust’s (CCT;s) design challenge question was “What makes storytelling authentic?” and “How do you capture stories in a collaborative way?” We compiled examples of stories that we believe were successful at being authentic to see if the cohort could identify what makes one story more authentic than another. As a funder collaborative within CCT, there’s opportunity for more collaborative storytelling of our own work and we want to identify ways to best approach telling our story and impact in an authentic way.

These design thinking exercise gave us an opportunity for candid conversations that allow us to discover new ideas and approach our problems in a new way and often find unexpected solutions. I am excited that the Knight Foundation has decided to continue this program with a new cohort of foundations and I look forward to seeing how design thinking will impact those foundations’ work in creating new human-centered projects.

The news and media ecosystem is ever changing. We faced great disruption in 2008, and those forces are continuing to fundamentally reshape how we receive – or don’t receive – local news and information, how informed we are or aren’t. We look forward to launching this new initiative and seeing new ideas come forth as to how we can respond to the very real information gaps in our communities.

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!


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

Connect Chicago Digital Skills Road Map Working Group #1

On September 9th, Smart Chicago hosted the first meeting of Connect Chicago’s Digital Skills Road Map Working Group. Its purpose: to define and inventory “digital skills”, understand the taxonomy and ordering of these skills, and ultimately prescribe those skills to personal goals.

By design, this working group was about understanding skills leading to goals, rather than tools or programs. We loosely envision the result of our work as a “road map” or “framework” — something all programs and trainers in Chicago can eventually use to help create personalized learning pathways for those they serve.


Here is the presentation and activities that we used to frame our initial conversation:


The idea to form a working group stemmed out of conversations at the Connect Chicago Meetupa monthly convening of digital inclusion professionals and advocates. The Meetup and the Working Group benefit from a diverse collection of institutional perspectives: Chicago Public Library, Chicago Public Schools, Adler Planetarium, Microsoft Chicago, Columbia College, Literary Works, and Digital Youth Network, just to name a few. 

As working group members introduced ourselves to one another and shared our motivations for being in the room, several themes arose:

  1. Even before imparting skills and training, we need to work together to combat the relevancy barrier to broadband adoption — we should work to articulate the value of skills for education, workforce development, and employment
  2. In the continuum of digital skills, we can’t ignore literacy, hardware use, and basic typing
  3. It’s not just about the skills of individuals. Businesses need skill development and training  as well

We also recognized the great work that has laid a foundation for our understanding of digital skills in Chicago. We took inspiration from Mozilla Web Literacy — a useful framework for web literacy, or the skills needed to utilize the power of connectivity. We ultimately interpreted our set of skills to be broader that those in the Web Literacy framework, including offline computer tasks as well. We also sought to organize skills and learning paths by common goals, rather than just skill categories or levels of difficulty.

Another resource that played into our conversation were the results from CUTGroup #21 — focus groups on digital learning opportunities in Chicago conducted at the end of 2015. One of the biggest takeaways from those focus groups was that curricula, programs, and classes should be framed in terms of learners’ motivations — their economic, professions, civic, personal goals driving them to learn more about technology.

Defining “Digital Skills”

During the first session of the Working Group focused on “Activity #1: Defining Digital Skills.” We saw this as a crucial, foundation task — a way for all of us to check our assumptions, get on the same page about what we are “mapping,” and standardize language across our organizations.



We broke out into groups to tackle these questions. Below are the notes from those breakout groups:


Notes from Breakout Group 1. They took an excellent inventory of foundational skills.


Notes from Breakout Group 2. Note the “four pillars” of digital skills that they used to frame their conversation.


Notes from Breakout Group 3. This group checked assumptions, debating the appropriate language to describe the skills and “literacy” the working group was grappling with.

Here are several memorable takeaways from Activity 1:

  • Our target “starting point” for digital skills is many steps before opening a browser — knowing about hardware, parts of a device, which devices are best, and conceptually what technology and connectivity can do to improve your life, were all mentioned as foundational steps
  • “Digital Literacy” was discussed as a benchmark (vs. “digital skills” which is a spectrum). As a benchmark, digital literacy seemed to represent the point where a learner was (1) interested or invested in learning (2) confident to take next steps in learning (3) knew what there was to learn and (4) was familiar with the basic language of technology. In this way, “digital literacy” mirrored the idea of traditional literacy, where, at a certain level of skill a reader was literate enough to read and learn how to read better or even teach themselves how to read better.
  • Our target “ending point” is creation/design — when a learner not only is competent in consuming information through technology, but is also building new (and relevant/useful) things with images, code, video, etc.
  • There are still issues with common language in our field. We discussed and debated the merits of terms: digital skills vs. computer skills vs. technology skills. None seemed to accurately capture the 21st Century collection of skills we were attempting to map. This will certainly be a topic we revisit.

At later meetings we will build on this conversation, categorizing skills, and assigning skills to commons learners’ goals. Attaching goals to skills will be a key step of the work. See Activities 2-4 on the Working Group’s slides for more information. Here is a link to the notes from the first meeting of the Working Group. 

The Digital Skills Road Map Working Group is just one dynamic piece of Connect Chicago — a cross-sector, civic leadership initiative that seeks to make Chicago the most digitally skilled, connected, and dynamic city in America. You can read about the launch of Connect Chicago in this blog post, a learn more about our progress in 2016 in this post and in this post

Thank you to all of the people and institutions that made this first convening so fruitful! We look forward to co-building more ecosystem solutions with members of the Connect Chicago community. If you would like to get involved or if you have an idea for another working group, email me at