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.

Human-Centered Design Are We Really Listening? Reflections from the 2017 Knight Media Learning Seminar

On Sunday, February 12th I embraced the opportunity to leave a cold, dreary Chicago behind and engage with some pretty amazing folks in Miami, Florida at the 10th Annual Knight Foundation’s Media Learning Seminar. As a first time visitor to the Knight MLS I was excited to take in all that was ahead of me for the next day and a half.

As I sat in plenaries, break-out sessions, networking events and just plain hanging in the lobby a constant and recurring theme was emerging. Listen.

I don’t think the concept of listening is new to mainstream and new school media, I believe it has become a fading art as we become a “Nowist” (Amy Webb) society. We want information now. Sometimes at the cost of truth, yet we consume it wholly in whatever form it arrives as truth, particularly in the social media realm.

The Smart Chicago Collaborative is  frequently engaged with the media community at large in various aspects of our work and all of our work requires us to Listen. We listen to the voices of our communities as we work to continue to safeguard open data, and provide opportunities for skills and access to Chicagoans around technology. During the Knight Media Learning Seminar of the break-out sessions that stood out as it relates to how we listen was “Human Centered Design”.

A Novel Approach to Listening: Human-Centered Design

Judy Lee Haworth, human-centered design strategist discussed how this strategy can help us listen for our communities needs.

Human-centered design is a practical, repeatable approach to arriving at innovative solutions. Think of these Methods as a step-by-step guide to unleashing your creativity, putting the people you serve at the center of your design process to come up with new answers to difficult problems. Human-centered design consists of three phases. In the Inspiration Phase you learn directly from the people you’re designing for as you immerse yourself in their lives and come to deeply understand their needs. In the Ideation Phase you make sense of what you learned, identify opportunities for design, and prototype possible solutions. And in the Implementation Phase you bring your solution to life, and eventually, to market. –

Judy shared how open ended conversations can lead to unexpected insights. Invariably when we are conversational with one another we discover things that would not ordinarily be uncovered or discovered through survey or other means of non-interactional information gathering. She also addressed the fact that we have to be “comfortable with ambiguity” in the initial information gathering stage and let it lead to inspiration. As I sat in this break-out I drew comparisons between Human Centered Design and the Chicago Community Trusts’ Social Lab, The Grove 3547

Social Labs As Model for Human Centered Work

Social Labs are intensive, experimental interventions. They bring together people from across the system to seek root causes behind their problems and then collaborate on devising and testing solutions aimed at key leverage points. This change work continues in the “lab” of the real world—over time and in context.

The idea for The Grove 3547 Social Lab came out of an initiative called “On the Table”an annual forum designed to elevate civic conversation, foster new relationships and inspire collaborative action, run by the Chicago Community Trust.  Some social labs last for years. The team repeatedly convenes to refine their ideas based on what they are learning, and then heads out again into their field of work for more learning, testing, and acting.

How They Work

Social labs are, first, social.

They require a team that reflects the diversity of people affected by and involved in the problem at hand, and the full multi-layered reality of the system. What does this social aspect accomplish? Among other things, you enable more creativity and avoid the tendency to impose top-down solutions, which rarely take advantage of the full range of knowledge—including local and informal knowledge—that can be brought to bear on the problem. Detailed knowledge of a system comes from living in it.

Social labs run experiments.

Complex problems are not amenable to monolithic, planned “solutions.” Social lab teams devise prototypal solutions and try them out in a cycle of consultation, experimentation, assessment, and revision. This agile process allows a portfolio of promising ideas to be tested and developed before too much time and money is spent on them. When, by trial and error, you have discovered what works, you can then grow it with confidence.

Social labs focus on causes.

What most of us refer to as “problems” are typically symptoms. When we focus on symptoms, we produce at best a temporary improvement. At worst, we inadvertently reinforce the dynamics that are the cause of the problem. Through the active participation of people from every level of the system, social labs identify and act on causes—thereby opening the door to real progress.

Social labs invite dissent.

Dissent can be uncomfortable, but we embrace it as an antidote to groupthink and inertia. The friction of argument and diverse positions unleashes tremendous energy. When skilfully managed, that energy is creative and productive. In addition, the free expression of competing and contested claims in the structured environment of the lab reduces the likelihood of confrontation outside it.

Community Input Is Essential

Processes like Human Centered Design and Social Labs are our opportunity to keep at the forefront the tenets that we espouse; inclusion and equity. If we are to truly impact the social issues that plague our communities is will be essential to continually have  discussion with those who are impacted daily. Here is where we will find ideas to implement, strategies to try and even answers  to  the problems we are facing. This  is how  we will embody of  theory of build with, not for. Listening, when we use this simple concept properly, the impact will be measured by “who” we  listened to.

For more information about The Grove 3547 contact Cheryl Hughes at or “On The Table” contact Jean Westrick at or visit




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

Code for Miami is a Knight Cities Challenge winner for CUTGroup

Today, Code for Miami, a Code for America brigade, was announced as a Knight Cities Challenge winner for their Miami Civic User Testing Group. The goal of the Miami Civic User Testing Group is “Ensuring that people building local government technology use real-world feedback throughout the development process by creating a user testing group that will identify user experience issues more quickly, while making websites and apps more accessible.”

As a flagship Smart Chicago program, the Civic User Testing Group (CUTGroup) has helped to establish sustained, meaningful collaboration with residents around data and technology. Code for Miami plans to implement the CUTGroup processes and methodologies laid out in our documentation, and we will be working with Code for Miami to help with the process of building a CUTGroup through the CUTGroup Collective.

We recently launched the CUTGroup Collective as a way to convene organizations and institutions to help establish new CUTGroups in other cities and create a new community to share and learn from one another. Smart Chicago’s CUTGroup and CUTGroup Collective have also been supported by the Knight Foundation through the Community Information Challenge Grant that was awarded last year to “continue to design, build and demonstrate the power of digital tools to the community and empower residents to use news and information to improve their quality of life.”

We look forward to work with and learning lessons from Code for Miami’s experience of building a CUTGroup and helping other cities also learn from those experiences.

Congratulations to the Code for Miami team – Rebekah Monson, Ernie Hsiung, and Cristina Solana!