Kyla Williams Co-Presents Today at Philanthropy Ohio’s Annual Conference

Today, Leon Wilson, CIO of the Cleveland Foundation, and I will co-present at the Philanthropy Ohio’s annual conference with a theme this year of “Philanthropy Forward” and a concentrated discussion on Digital Civic Engagement & Community-Centered Design. Philanthropy Forward ’17 is set to inform practices, strategies and goals and connect peers in the field of philanthropy. The conference will also focus on the future of philanthropy with insight into the current state of the sector – fueled by recent research – addressing transitions, change and the leadership pipeline. With several networking and roundtable discussions, attendees will discover how to shift failures to successes, effectively fund advocacy and civic engagement and hear from  exceptional leaders across the state and country.

Leon and I also presented in April 2017 at the Council on Foundations Annual Conference “Leading Together” as part of a panel discussion with: Aaron Deacon, Managing Director, Kansas City Digital Drive; Elizabeth Reynoso, Assistant Director of Public Sector Innovation, Living Cities; and Lilly Weinberg, Program Director/Community Foundations, John S. & James L. Knight Foundation on “Supporting Civic Engagement through Technology and Community-Centered Design”. After finishing that presentation we decided more collaborative sharing between cities was necessary and lead to this opportunity at Philanthropy Ohio.

Community building in the digital era requires providing a space for the public sector and local communities to interact. Building solutions with peoplenot just for them – by using community-centered design can have profound social impact. This has been central to Smart Chicago’s work and has lead to the building of processes, products, services, and other lightweight tech solutions that have been helpful.

Our presentation today has the learning objectives:

  • To introduce different models developed in communities to address civic engagement digitally
  • To encourage the consideration of embedding support for digital civic engagement into existing grantmaking & advancement efforts

You can follow the happenings of the conference on Twitter @PhilanthropyOH and @SmartChgoKyla or by using the hashtag #PhilFWD17.


Good News!!! The Smart Chicago team is moving and now will be co-located with the City Digital Team at UI Labs. As such, our individual emails will be changing to:

Kyla Williams 

Sonja Marziano

Denise Linn     

Leslie Durr       

Our new mailing address is 1415 N. Cherry Avenue Chicago, IL 60642 and general phone number is 312.281.6900.

Please check our website at or follow us on twitter @smartchicago for more updates.

We appreciate your patience during this time of transition.

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.

The Launch of Task Force Tracker

Today marks the launch of a new project, Task Force Tracker:  “an annotated, updated and independent hub for public use that will measure the ~200 individual recommendations against existing contracts, policies, potential conflicts and public discourse; such as the Fraternal Order of Police contract, local legislation and media reports.”

This is a joint project of Smart Chicago, City Bureau, and Invisible Institute. From the Smart Chicago side, it is done through our Documenters program, which is run by Kyla Williams.

It continues the work in our justice program, where we documented the community forums held by the Chicago Police Accountability Task Force. Our basic idea was to come up with a way to number, explain, and track every recommendation from their report. “Recommendations for Reform: Restoring Trust between the Chicago Police and the Communities they Serve“. To provide context around previous attempts at change and index the barriers to implementation. To provide a space where others can contribute and we create a living corpus of knowledge about the work we share as a city.

The result, a little more than a week later, is this independent project by two of the most principled journalism outfits in the country, working to bring community voice to bear on some of the most important issues we face in this city.

One of the first speakers of the first community forums that we documented held by the Chicago Police Accountability Task Force said something that has stuck with me:

“I’m going to put it where the goats can get it — at the heart of this is racism and racist officers and their behavior.”

It stuck with me because it is such a good approach— if you want someone to hear your message, you have to put it where they are and make it easy to consume. It also stuck with me because what this resident said maps the thrust of the actual task force report, which wrote, “We arrived at this point in part because of racism.”

When there is communion— when we are all working from the same foundation, when we’re all talking, with specificity, about the same ideas and approaches— we win, together. This project, in my view, helps bring that communion.

This work was done in the context of our KCIC Deep Dive, where we are part of a Knight Foundation cohort representing a diverse set of approaches to expanding community information and increasing community engagement. 

Crowd at Chicago Police Accountability Task Force Community Meeting #2

mRelief Launches at Y-Combinator Demo Day

Smart Chicago partner mRelief launched a new tool to make public assistance more accessible. See more here on Tech Crunch. Here’s a rundown of the support we’ve provided mReleif over the years:

In November 2014, Smart Chicago provided $15,000 through our CivicWorks Project, which is funded by the Knight Foundation. Here’s a blog post about that and other investments. mRelief has gone on to receive a Knight prototype grantand a Knight News Challenge grant on their own.

Also since November 2014, we’ve hosted text-messaging for three of their programs: Early Learning, RTA Ride Free, andMedicaid, under our Developer Resources program.

In January 2015, we conducted a CUTGroup test for mRelief— see the results here. Rose Afriye of mRelief wrote a guest blog post about the experience: The Civic User Testing Group and Other Listening Strategies.

Smart Chicago partner Purple Binder created their first API in July 2013. Smart Chicago funded this work in order to serve our Smart Health Centers project.  In January 2015, mRelief integrated with this API, which implements the Open Referral standard.

In August 2015, we worked with mRelief to add the Chicago Early Learning Finder into their service and integrate it with our Chicago Early Learning Portal project.

mrelief home page


Launch: Experimental Modes of Civic Engagement in Civic Tech: Meeting people where they are.

experimental-modes-coverToday marks the publication of  a new book by Laurenellen McCann: Experimental Modes of Civic Engagement in Civic Tech: Meeting people where they are. Here’s my preface:

Experimental Modes of Civic Engagement in Civic Tech is an investigation into what it means to build civic tech with, not for. It answers the question, “What’s the difference between sentiment and action?”

The project was led by Laurenellen McCann, and it deepens her work in needs-responsive, community-driven processes for creating technology with real people and real communities for public good.

This project falls under Smart Chicago’s work on the Knight Community Information Challenge grant awarded under their Engaged Communities strategy to the Chicago Community Trust “as it builds on its successful Smart Chicago Project, which is taking open government resources directly into neighborhoods through a variety of civic-minded apps.”

This book is a compendium of writing by Laurenellen, originally published on the Smart Chicago blog. I’m excited about this project because it supports so many important nodes for Smart Chicago:

  • Keeping the focus on people and communities rather than technology. We are leading creators of civic tech, and we publish a lot of software. It’s people and impact we care about.
  • Driving toward a shared language around the work. There is a lot of enthusiasm for “people” in our space right now. This project sharpens pencils and will put definition to the work.
  • Highlighting the workers: communities are doing this work and doing it right. We seek to lift them up and spread their methods.

Smart Chicago is utterly devoted to being of impact here in Chicago. As our work progresses, we see the opportunity to have influence all over. This project, rooted in the Chicago Community Trust, funded by The Trust and the Knight Foundation, executed by a leading thinker in the field, is one way we’re doing just that.

From sentiment to action. Let’s goDownload the PDF or read it below.