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.

Design Thinking Raises Patients’ Profile to Rehab Health Care Access

At BarnRaise 2015, Mark King collaborates with the Thresholds mental-health agency on outreach to teens.

At BarnRaise 2015, Mark King collaborates with the Thresholds agency on outreach to teens.

When Chicago technologists diagnose health issues, they turn their attention to how patients and practitioners make decisions.

“It’s always important to understand the domain,” says ThoughtWorks user experience designer Bridget Sheerin. “The classic example is, you try not to build something for which there isn’t a problem.” A less obvious trap, she says, is building great technology that can’t or won’t get used in the field.

The Illinois Institute of Technology’s design institute focused health and tech teams on patient interactions in two days of brainstorming Oct. 13 and 14 at its BarnRaise 2015 “maker-conference.” Teams presented their solutions to a health technology crowd at Matter, the Merchandise Mart health-care incubator.

“I was amazed at how effective the conference was at bringing people up to speed about something they knew nothing about,” said Ronald Grais, director of the Thresholds mental health agency. Consultant Mark King of Toad & Tadpole suggested ways Thresholds could encourage peer interventions for troubled teens. Grais plans to test them immediately in schools and community programs.

The 13 teams addressed process and strategy issues as well. Smart Chicago Collaborative anchored one team, working with the Design Concepts agency to build patients’ health and computer literacy.

BarnRaise 2015 partners present their work at the Matter health-care incubator.

BarnRaise 2015 partners present their work at the Matter health-care incubator.

IIT matched software developer ThoughtWorks with Janus Choice and its Virtual Liaison app, which refers hospital patients to long-term care providers. Janus chief technology officer Daryl Palmer says ThoughtWorks brought experience in coaching technologies that complemented Janus’ development talent.

“We wanted to make sure we were looking at the social and cultural mindsets of users at final discharge,” Palmer says. “Patients can’t go home, they have to go to a skilled nursing facility, and we have to explain where they are in the process.”

Janus wanted a better handoff for accident victims, for whom the diagnosis is still sinking in. “We tried through a design process to understand what that experience is like for a patient and a nurse,” says Sheerin. “It’s not about building a prettier interface but understanding the entire journey they go through.”

The team interviewed nurses on how they used the iPad app to locate intensive rehab or continuous care resources. “The nurses are under extreme time pressure to get patients out of the hospital. They need patients to comfortable with the choices they’re making. The device makes the narrowing-down process a lot faster for the patients, which cuts cuts down on the time pressure on the nurses.”

More often it’s nurses or family members using the tablet app to find follow-up care, not the patients themselves. The result has to please all parties, including the hospitals paying for the app. They expect a payoff in better use of their own beds and lower readmission rates.

ThoughtWorks suggested video and other tools to connect nurse recommendations with doctors’ orders, and updates on patients’ rehab progress to keep nurses engaged.

The YMCA of the USA approached rehab from a different angle. It worked with Rêve Consulting to structure pilot programs bringing joint replacement patients into local gyms and swimming pools to shape up before surgery, as well as to recuperate afterward.

Chicago health providers facing widespread issues used BarnRaise partners to plan a local response. The American Medical Women’s Association and the Mad*Pow agency worked to spread stroke awareness.

The BarnRaise collaborators decided they must spread the word about about stroke symptoms to a younger audience, who could act quickly if a family member is stricken.

“Trust is an issue,” says Heather Beckstrom, stroke program coordinator for Mount Sinai Hospital Medical Center. Immigrants fear deportation, while minorities expect a struggle to get the immediate care that can save stroke victims’ lives. “How do you get into a community where there is distrust?”

The solution was to build on relationships with community activists and organizations like the Chicago Housing Authority. “It gives us a different strategy and outlets to tap into,” Beckstrom says.

New Book: Technology and the Resilience of Metropolitan Regions

Today the University of Illinois Press published, “Technology and the Resilience of Metropolitan Regions; Digital technologies and the future of cities”.

In mArch 2014 I wrote a section of this book titled, “Toward a Market Approach for Civic Innovation”. Here’s a draft of that section, reprinted below:

Toward a Market Approach for Civic Innovation

Jane Fountain wrote a paper for the 2013 UIC Urban Forum “Technology and the Resilience of Metropolitan Regions” panel called “Connecting technologies to citizenship”. In it, she writes of many trends and practices that are just emerging around the practice of civic innovation. It’s trendy

She writes of the persistence of the digital divide and the threat of a widening democratic divide, where residents do not get the benefits of representation where technology is absent from a community. She also writes of the opportunities present in high population density, the rise of smart phones and other mobile devices and the potential of “big data” to inform government services.

What I’d like to focus on in this response, however, is her focus on the question, How Civic are “Civic Technologies”?  In my world, I frame that question in terms of popularity with regular residents. “Civic” means that it is in the mix when it comes to the public—that it has broad utility, broad acceptance, and is widely recognized as being a part of the fabric of civic life. This is the frame that we should bring to technology that seeks to serve residents in dense cities.

In my work at the Smart Chicago Collaborative, I helped create the Open311 system for the municipal government of the City of Chicago. This has led to the publication of millions of rows of public data and simple methods for developers and nascent companies to read and write directly to the enterprise service request system at the City—the technology backbone for the delivery of services in the third largest city in the United States. This is the largest implementation of Open311 anywhere.

The existence of Open311 in Chicago, however, has not led to the creation of many new tools. Only a handful of services connect to this system, and none have any traction in the public. Even though it was widely requested by the developer community and touted as a major opportunity for economic growth, there are no widely used resident-focused websites or systems that use Open311.

The current state of the market

The question is why, and I believe the answer is that there is no cohesive market for the civic innovation sector of the technology industry. In fact, very few of the actors in the market even understand themselves to be a part of the technology industry. A dominant frame of the civic hacker movement is the quick creation of tools, dashed off in hackathons or over feverish nights. The idea of being a part of the trillion-dollar industry is anathema to this frame.

The natural end result of these efforts are interesting tools with good intentions that are of limited use to the masses in cities. The current status of the civic innovation sector of the technology industry can analyzed as follows:

  • There is good movement in the provision of data (raw materials)
  • There is an abundance of energy around the making of things (labor)
  • There is a paucity of thought around the why we make things or what the best thing is to make (market research, user testing, continuous improvement)
  • There is even less thought around the relationship between the things we make and the universe of other things within which it fits (market analysis)
  • Lastly, all of our things exist in an environment where their popularity is puny next to the opportunity (market penetration)

This state of affairs was evident in Professor Fountain’s paper, which had a review of a wide range of existing projects, tools, and companies. Included were municipal-driven projects like Citizens Connect, Commonwealth Connect, and the work in San Francisco as well as companies like SeeClickFix, CitySourced, and Granicus. She covered nonprofit projects like FixMyStreet and Electorate.Me.

This was a great scan that covered the field well, but it is illustrative of the jumble that defines the current state of the civic innovation sector of the technology industry—it completely lacks a frame for understanding. And without a frame, it is difficult to grow.

Framing the opportunity

When we view this milieu— this robust and creative mix of people doing work to improve lives in cities through technology—a natural frame emerges.

First off, civic innovation is a sector of the technology industry. This expansive language embraces a neighborhood blogger who measures cars with a homemade traffic counter as well as people who work at large startups looking to change municipal laws to support their business models.

There is a job called “Senior Counsel of Product” at Airbnb—the community marketplace for people to list, discover, and book unique accommodations around the world—whose job it is “advise our product and engineering teams to manage legal risk and ensure regulatory compliance on a broad range of legal issues”. That is a job generated by the civic innovation industry—it is explicitly designed to interact with the municipal structure. Yet my guess is that no one at Airbnb feels they are a part of the civic innovation sector—they just think they are a part of a startup.

However, all of the graphic designers at Airbnb see themselves as a part of a broader set of design professionals linked across companies, industries, and organizations. This frame is well-established in universities and other formal career development venues. Engineers segregate themselves into language-specific conferences like Pycon in order to deep-dive into their specialties. Civic innovation practitioners meet at hackathons and hack nights, but it’s most often something on the side, something other than their professional life.

Standards are emerging—they need to be supported

Just like any other economic sector, the civic innovation sector requires certain macro conditions under which it can thrive. These conditions are often wrought through formal regulatory & lobbying activities as well as the creation of standards. In this case, that revolves around data fluidity, format standards, ethical conduct, propagation of open source software, and adherence to principles of open government.

Open311 is one such standard—it refers to a “standardized protocol for location-based collaborative issue-tracking”. As Open311 is adopted in more cities, companies that work in this space could scale faster.

More standards are needed. Yelp supports the Local Inspector Value-Entry Specification (LIVES), but it has had very little uptake by cities. Currently just San Francisco and Louisville are complying with the standard, which allows restaurant inspection data to be included on Yelp. Adjusting specific and custom municipal processes to a generic data standard is hard work and requires staff that often doesn’t exist in city government.

There are a number of accepted modes of operation that help the sector grow. Github, a web-based hosting service for software development projects, is the dominant method of collaborating on code. There’s a whole set of values inherent in Github—sharing, openness, and humility—that inform the sector. There’s an opportunity to build on these values to create real businesses.

There set of rapidly maturing institutions and organizations that support the creation of standards and sharing of work, including Smart Chicago, Code for America, and the Sunlight Foundation. All of this is the infrastructure for an industry we want to see.

Deeper partnerships, merger + acquisition, and corporate growth

The Homebrew Computer Club was an early computer hobbyist group in Silicon Valley starting in the mid 1970s. Members of this group went on to launch the personal computer revolution, but not without a lot of ambition, capital, and planning.

There is often a disconnect between the skills inside the nascent civic hacker movement and the needs of the market for civic technology. Often developers “solve” problems that didn’t exist just because there was a dataset available that address the issue. There’s very little attention to the needs of regular residents during the brainstorm phase. They scratch their own itch and never ask what’s itching their neighbor.

Another issue is a skills gap. Older software companies—usually using older technologies—dominate the market for municipal software. Cities are naturally wary of making wholesale changes to existing systems that (ugly as the may be) actually work. Enterprising startups should seek to engage existing vendors to gradually improve their offerings through better design, added features, more fluid data-sharing—all of the values of sector.

An example is the municipal legislation management sub sector of the civic innovation sector of the technology industry. It is dominated by Granicus, a vendor referenced in Professor Fountain’s paper. The main purpose of their product is to help their municipal legislator customers manage complex legislative processes, and they seem to serve that purpose well.

The public-facing websites generated by the Granicus system is less successful, by modern Web standards. This has led to the opportunity for an open source system, Councilmatic, developed at first by Code for America fellows, and published for free on Github. Councilmatic could not exist without the legislative data published by a Granicus system—it absolutely relies on it. There’s no reason why Granicus shouldn’t “acquire” the talent behind Councilmatic and embed it into their product, making it better. It hasn’t happened yet.

As the civic innovation sector of the technology industry matures, these types of pairings will become natural, and provide benefits to people in cities all over the world. It’s time for the period of great creativity and bursts of brilliance to meld into a period of focused value and sustained growth.

Daniel X. O’Neil
March 2014

And here’s a picture of a marsh:

Lincoln Marsh in Winter

Lunch event with Ron Bouganim of the Govtech Fund

Ron Bouganim, managing partner at the Govtech Fund, will be in Chicago December 8th and will stop by Impact Engine for a lunch event at 12:30pm. Bouganim will talk about the Govtech fund and take part in a Q&A session moderated Christopher Whitaker.


The $23M Govtech Fund is the first-ever venture fund dedicated to government technology startups. The Govtech Fund harnesses the power of transformers, technology, and capital to help government become more efficient, responsive, and better able to serve society.

You might be familiar with at least one of the companies that the Govtech fund has invested in. MindMixer is an engagement platform being used by the City of Chicago and the Chicago Park District.

You can register for the event here. 

mRelief: Mobilizing social service relief in Chicago

Last week marked the launch of mRelief,  a site that simplifies the social service qualifying process with an easy-to-use form that can be accessed online and through SMS. Residents can check to see if they’re eligible for a variety of programs including food stamps, medicaid, WIC, and more. Here’s the press release by mRelief creators on day of launch.

mRelief is made by an all-woman team hailing from different backgrounds and walks of life dedicated to making an impact with technology. Smart Chicago has supported mRelief under our CivicWorks Project funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.


mRelief is already deployed at the Martin Luther King Jr Community Services Center. The Community Service Centers are run by the City of Chicago’s Department of Family and Support Services.  DFSS Community Service Centers help individuals and families in need access a wide range of resources from shelter, food and clothing to domestic violence assistance, job training/placement and services for the formerly incarcerated. Staff members are using mRelief to help streamline the process of evaluating their eligibility. The mRelief team has also partnered with Purple Binder to refer residents to other useful local resources if they are ineligible for public assistance.

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