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.

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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Thoughts on the Gigabit City Summit

Last week, I traveled with Kyla Williams, Sonja Marziano, and Christopher Whitaker to Kansas City, MO for the Gigabit City Summit – A three-day learning and networking opportunity exclusively designed for leaders in current and emerging Gigabit Cities.

Gigabit CIty Summit

Gigabit City Summit

The host city of Kansas City was chosen to be the first city with Google Fiber. Gigabit cities have internet download speeds of up to one gigabit of data per second. To compare, Chicago has an average internet download speed of 23 mbs/s. Clearly, this gives Kansas City a significant advantage.

There are many technology solutions that are limited by the bandwidth currently available in most homes and businesses. Gigabit speeds allow developers to use much more data and information to power their apps. It’s not just making Netflix load faster – there are several examples of applications that only work with gigabit speeds. This line of technological development would have huge impact into economic development as gigabit speeds would attract high tech companies.

At the other end of the spectrum, are advocates in cities who see gigabit internet as a way to close the digital divide. Gigabit internet requires substantial investment in infrastructure and the process of adding the necessary fiber lines can be a boon for digital access. This can be used for the delivery of regular Internet connections via wifi and other less speedy but still critical modes.

At Smart Chicago we care about digital access and digital skills, so we care about the city-based networks that are necessary to support people. That’s why we sent a whole delegation to Kansas City— so that we can share our model with others who toil in these fields.

We’ve got a pretty good history of this, including co-hosting a US Ignite conference in June 2013. This long-form attention is critical to our work— we don’t give up.

I was impressed with at the conference was the effort that Kansas City took to ensure they used the project to both connect every neighborhood with fiber and make serious investments into digital literacy.

Mayor Sly James of Kansas City, MO delivering the welcome at the Gigabit City Summit

Mayor Sly James of Kansas City, MO delivering the welcome at the Gigabit City Summit

In 2012, the Mayors’ Bistate Innovation Team published the playbook “Playing to win in America’s Digital Crossroads.” The team, made up of experts from both Kansas City, MO and Kansas City, KC, had begun to work on the playbook after the announcement that Kansas City would be the first metro area with Google Fiber.

Right from the beginning the playbook made digital inclusion a priority stating, “high-speed fiber can not reach it’s potential if large segments of society are excluded from it’s benefits.”

One of the ways that Kansas City is working to ensure digital inclusion is the Digital Inclusion Fund.  It is housed at the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation and made possible by Google Fiber, the Sprint Foundation, The Illig Family Foundation, Polsinelli, Global Prairie and JE Dunn. In 2013, they spent $311,600 on digital literacy programs in Kansas City.

Kansas City also has programs that provide refurbished computers to low-income residents thanks to the work being done by Connecting for Good.

This one-two punch goes a long way to bridging the digital divide in Kansas City.

The story of how gigabit internet impacts education 

The Gigabit City Summit also featured an education track to discuss education’s role in building a smart connected city.

For this track, the conference organizers invited teachers from the area to participate in the Summit. The group discussed STEM education, job skills, and next generation learning.

There are several apps that take advantage of gigabit speeds to help in the classroom. One of our favorite examples is the software lending library that allows Kansas City residents to use their gigabit connections to go onto the library’s servers and use commercial software like Photoshop and Microsoft Office from their home computers.

President Obama’s big push for gigabit internet 

One of the big challenges with generating greater speeds and access is lack of competition among internet providers. Communities like Burlington, Vermont decided to tackle this issue by just building their own network. The city provides gigabit broadband in the same way that they provide water to residents.

Larger cable and internet companies have pushed to have laws passed in states to forbid the practice.

Last week, during the conference, the White House released a report about the benefits of community broadband solutions  and the President came out in full support of net neutrality, gigabit internet, and community-based broadband solutions. President Obama also announced several federal initiatives help cities get gigabit internet including expanding grants and loans to help expand broadband internet to rural communities.Here’s the President on the issue:

Susan Crawford’s passionate call for equal access to high speed internet

The Summit’s keynote was author Susan Crawford. Crawford spoke about how access to reliable high speed internet is a social justice issue. She linked the current struggle for high speed internet for all with the electrification debates in the 1920’s and how it took federal intervention ensure that all homes were provided with electricity.

Crawford praised the President’s plan to knock down the federal regulations that make it more difficult for cities to build their own gigabit networks. She called the speech “Obama’s FDR moment” and spoke about how there is no better time to be building fiber in America.

It’s hard to capsulize Susan’s Crawford into a single blog post – so we definitely recommend checking out her book Captive Audience.

There’s more work to do

There’s a lot more work do to when it comes to ensuring every resident of Chicago has the access and skills needed to take full advantage of the power of the internet. In 2015, we’re going to be going to be launching additional initiatives to help bridge the digital divide here in Chicago. Join us!