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.

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.

Meet people where they are: new analysis on the top best practices in #civictech, according to the people who do the work

“Democracy is a conversation, not a monologue!” — US Department of Arts & Culture

Last month, I posted an open call to hear from practitioners who build tech for public good with their communities (not “for” them) how they do their work, in their own words. This framework is important: to understand the most effective approaches for creating community-led tech, we have to practice what we preach. Although, through the Experimental Modes initiative, I’ve researched and analysed best field practices “civic engagement in civic tech”, I wanted to understand if the models I found resonated with real world practice—and if not, what models did.

To this end, at the Experimental Modes convening on April 4, 2015 in Chicago, we launched a case study collection project (the “case study sprint”) on-site and published it online soon after.

Today, we share an in-depth analysis of the case studies we received. From radio activism in Mulukuku, Nicaragua to community journalism in East Palo Alto, California, question campaigns about Boston’s metro transit future to a “People’s State of the Union” held by creatives USA-wide, the case studies we assembled represent a diversity of geographies, communities, conditions, and technologies. Though they may differ from each other in many ways, and certainly from our mainstream understanding of “civic tech”, what they have in common is their approach.

Go where people are and work together

By and large, the projects documented in this case study invest energy in in-person outreach and build close relationships with individuals as well as communities in spaces they share, often by playing with, discussing, and teaching each other how to get creative with the technology that’s already there.

“Take leadership from the most impacted”

Commonly identified approaches that intersected with and went beyond the 5 Modes of Civic Engagement in Civic Tech included

  • student-led teaching (with several specific citations of the Frierian model)
  • establishing community ownership by “building with, not for”
  • embedding engagement and technical work inside demographic and communally relevant events, and
  • investing concentrated time in relationship-building before moving on to technical development

As you’ll see after reviewing our findings in full below, this study is just a start, but what it reveals about existing community technology practice is vital to consider. Putting people before tool production when it comes to civic projects isn’t just a throwaway cocktail line. It’s a series of real practices, work evident in communities across the country and the globe who make the democratizing and empowering potential of technologies real by ensuring the work they do is democratized and shares power. Whether or not these projects identify as “civic” and whether or not the tech involved meets the mainstream standard doesn’t impact whether the work is solid, genuinely collaborative, and co-created with those it seeks to help.

There’s more work to do and more we’ll learn about how to do it if we ourselves collaborate. We’re leaving the case study form open for further contribution and analysis. Share your story with us here.

Tools, Not Tech

The textbook definition of “technology” is all about “tools”. Not computers, not command lines, but, to quote  Wikipedia: “the collection of techniques, methods or processes used in the production of goods or services or in the accomplishment of objectives, such as scientific investigation.”

“Civic technologies” are the tools we create to improve public life. To help each other. To make our governments and our communities safe, joyful, equitable places to live out our lives.

Over the course of the Experimental Modes project, I’ve been exploring how different people create civic technology with their communities—the social strategies and tactics wielded to build tech at the speed of inclusion and make sure the civic problem-solving process is truly collaborative. But what nuts and bolts go into making this work…work?

At our convening of practitioners earlier this month, as part of a larger discussion of “civic tech”, we went around the room and shared two types of technologies (tools!) we use to do what we do.

Shifting our understanding of “tech” helps us focus on people. When we stop trying to force specific types of tech solutions and start listening to people for opportunities to take action, we put ourselves in a stronger position for problem-solving. We open up creativity, both in terms of who gets to be creative and how we see what tools are available to us. Some of the best civic tools are the ones we already have in hand, and their “civic” utility is unlocked just by wielding them differently.

As you read through the tool round-up below, ask yourself: what tech do you take for granted that’s a part of your civic work?

(What follows are a slightly cleaned up version of the live notes taken during our conversations. You can read the original, unedited documentation of this conversation here.)

Experimental Modes convening attendees using laptops, pens, food, and phones for their work. Photo by Daniel O'Neil.

Experimental Modes convening attendees using laptops, pens, food, and phones for their work. Photo by Daniel O’Neil.

Two technologies we use in our work

Name Tech 1 Tech 2
Laurenellen Email Cell phone
Maritza Email Laptop
Sonja Cell phones Video Camera
Whitney Headphones Websites
Sanjay Radio Google Docs
Allan Drills Email
Danielle Laptop Phone
Demond Google docs Phone
Jennifer Post-it Notes Whiteboard
Laura SMS Community feedback boxes
Tiana Blogger Slack
Jeremy Whiteboards Pizza
Stefanie Social media Email
Greta Google Hangouts (love+hate) Routers
Geoff Group chat Collaborative source code wrangling system
Asiaha SMS Emails
Marisa Pen + paper Adobe Illustrator
Meagan Flip charts Markers
Diana Zines/printing press White boards
Adam Story circles IM
DXO Slack Google chat

Where does community organizing end and civic tech begin?

Earlier this month, we gathered 30 community technology practitioners from around the country together for a convening about the Experimental Modes of Civic Engagement in Civic Tech. Over the course of a day, we dug into big questions about civic tech conceptually (and whether and how and when it actually fits the work that we do), how to document our work for ourselves and others, and the strategies we use to do what we do.

You can see full documentation of our meeting and conversation here.

At the end of the day, we took time to reflect on our discussion. Below, I’ve rounded up excerpts from the group’s final thoughts and organized them by theme.

Major Takeaways


The words that we use to describe our work. “Civic tech” is a new term that, while literally descriptive of the work of the practitioners we brought together, doesn’t always resonate with these practitioners or the communities they work with. (See more here.) We talked in detail about how the interest in this new idea was destructive…as well as how it could provide opportunity.

Greta Byrum: “Think about words like “disruption”: it captures the interest in short term impact, but it has this problem of not speaking to the long term of real social change and transformation, and it changes our understanding of what work does.

Civic tech is the hot new thing. Can we use it in a way that’s useful? Can we use it to fuel the work we do? Or will this term undermine the work that we do?”


Storytelling. Much of our afternoon was focused on questions about documentation: where and how we collect our work and share our models.

Dan O’Neil: “We’re in a sliver of a sliver in the tech space. We need to move from glorifying the anecdotes, the stories we tell to get funding, to sharing the modes and methods and the ways that we do that. That’s how revolutions happen, when people share their understandings, when people come together and share with each other the exact ways that we do things.”

Adam Horowitz“Where are the stories about the innovations I’ve heard about today told and how they can be told bigger? We read about Uber in the paper, not about community tech. What’s the role of storytellers in making this work more noticeable?”

Maegan Ortiz:“I’m thinking about how this tech space was created: who was in the mind of the folks who created it and who wasn’t, and how, by using community organizing models, we can either replicate that or we can use it and imagine it and push it to be something different that may even disrupt, interrupt the original vision.”

Community Organizing

More than their use and creation of community technologies, what united the people in the room was their focus on community organizing. What is a collaborative process to make tech if not the collective, organized effort of a group of people looking to make their lives better?

Demond Drummer: “I’m a tech organizer. I’ve always had a problem with the distinction between organizing and tech. But from this conversation today, particularly with Maegan (Ortiz), I’ve come to own and better understand the deliberate, conscious, purposeful use of the “tech organizer” as a tool and a field of play where power itself is contested.”

Diana Nucera“It’s clear from this gathering of community organizers that we’re in a time where community organizing extremely important in government. So the question is, how do we get government to adopt community organizing? It’s always been clear that government should adopt community organizing, but it’s now clear there’s a need for it. The use of technology has revealed that need. As we go forward from here, I hope we stay true to community organizing practices.”

Earlier in the day, we talked “ingredients for engagement”: what qualities an organizer instills to not only get people in the door, when it comes time to work together, but to keep them there, make them feel comfortable, and enable an environment where people as individuals and together as a collective can share power and take action. The practices and ideas that came up over and over included  “invitation”, “permission”, “comfort”, and “active listening”.

On comfort:

Sabrina Raaf: “I keep thinking about how Chicago has this interesting history in the art world of walk-ups and basement galleries traditionally called ‘uncomfortable spaces’. I’m struck by the conversations we had today about ‘comfort,’ and hoping hoping for new tradition of ‘comfortable spaces’.”

On tension:

Allan Gomez“It’s important to remember the default settings. The status quo. The default ends up being such an inertia-creating force, it’s difficult to change. So I want to semantically challenge the idea of “comfort” because tension needs to be created to change the default. If we’re looking for real innovation, we need to look for examples grounded in people’s lives from all over the world. Language of reclamation. And we need to reflect on how we want to use this tech versus how this tech forces us to behave.”

Bringing the focus into the immediate presence, Tiana Epps-Johnson reflect that even our work in the room that day was an impression of the comfort/tension dynamic:

Tiana Epps-Johnson: “Comfort in spaces has a lot to do with the people in the room. It’s refreshing that a conversation about civic tech is not dominated by white men, and it’s not a coincidence that the people who think about community reflect that.”

Experimental Modes convening attendees looking serious. Photo by DXO.

Experimental Modes convening attendees looking serious. Photo by DXO.

Expanding on this idea, we discussed that much of our conversation from the day would have been the same if we called it a “community organizers” convening instead of a “community tech” convening, but the people who chose to come (and opt out) would have changed.

Marisa Jahn: “One of the things that struck me about the different people in the room today is that everyone identifies as a something and something else. Multiple identities. I also have a varied background between advocacy and tech and arts stuff. It’s always seemed ad hoc: I used to do things because they interested me or because I wanted to learn or to help people.

Now I’m thinking about how the way people arrive at tech is through relationships, through connections that validating all the ampersands, all the hats that people wear, all the paths taken.”

Many of the Experimental Modes are focused on relationships. Relationships are community fuel and sinew. They are the foundation upon which all community collaboration — tech related or not — is built. Without understanding how social ties work and without investing energy in creating strong, genuine social ties, truly collaborative projects are impossible.

Whitney May, exploring this idea in her own work with local election officials, came up with a formula based on the “ingredients for engagement” discussion earlier in the day:

Information + Invitation = Participation.

Whitney May“Local government really struggles with reaching out to people, with invitation. And so do we. Our project focuses so much on information, but we need to do more inviting.

Technology as its best is a way that expands_____. Insert what you will here. For tech to expand community organizing and access to civic information, for me, if I distill that down, it’s actually just participation. So how can we use tech to expand participation?”

We do more inviting.

Jenn Brandel: “Information + Invitation = Participation. Thinking about this at a metal level, before I was invited into this conversation about civic tech, I didn’t realized I belonged here — or in community organizing. Now I feel like I’m part of something far bigger than I realized.”

Real-world Civic Tech Strategies

At the Experimental Modes convening, practitioners from all over civic tech to came together to discuss, in their own words, how they do what they do. You can see our full meeting notes here. We tore into this subject, looking at how we relate to civic tech explicitly, the general tools we use in our work, and the strategies & tactics we wield.

The case study sprint, a documentation project inspired by booksprints, is one way we’re continuing to capture this information and open the door to people who couldn’t be in the room with us. On site, we also conducted an active listening exercise to bust the language barriers of our professional and personal backgrounds and explore ways to explain our work to new audiences.

As part of this exercise, which you can try for yourself here, we reviewed the 5 Modes of Civic Engagement in Civic Tech, which I created based on my own analysis of these and other practitioners’ work, and dug into the similarities and differences in the strategies we use.

Below is results of our share-out, taken from our meeting notes. Each pair reflected back to the group on what techniques were present in both their projects or what made finding commonalities difficult.  Taken together, this forms a picture of the lack of one-size-fits-all in civic tech.

The comments have been slightly edited for formatting and clarity and annotated, when appropriate, with corresponding Modes of Civic Engagement in Civic Tech for further reading. You can read the raw meeting notes of the share-out here.

Stef Milovic of the Hidden Valley Nature Lab and Naheem Morris of the Red Hook Digital Stewards program discuss strategy at the Experimental Modes Convening. April 4, 2105. Photo by Dan O'Neil.

Stef Milovic of the Hidden Valley Nature Lab and Naheem Morris of the Red Hook Digital Stewards program discuss strategy at the Experimental Modes Convening. April 4, 2105. Photo by Daniel X. O’Neil.

Strategy Share-out

Marisa Jahn (of the The NannyVan App) and Tiana Epps-Johnson (of ELECTricity)

Anca Matioc (of AbreLatAm) and Josh Kalov (of Smart Chicago Collaborative)

Laura Walker McDonald (of SIMLab) and Geoff Hing (of Chicago Tribune)

  • Didn’t have commonalities. Work is done at very different orientations. Geoff’s work as a code writer VS Laura’s work coordinating stakeholders around technology
  • Geoff drew images to show the tangle of networks each works in (see below), and they both found the people left out of that tangle tend to be the community (the people you’re serving): they are not necessarily the people who are raising the funds and having to produce “outcomes” or the bottom line

Robert Smith (of Red Hook Digital Stewards) and Sanjay Jolly (of The Prometheus Radio Project)

Jennifer Brandel (of Curious Nation) and Danielle Coates-Connor (of GoBoston2030)

Demond Drummer (of Large Lots Program) and Maegan Ortiz (of Mobile Voices)

Asiaha Butler (of Large Lots Program) and Allan Gomez (of The Prometheus Radio Project)

Sabrina Raaf (of University of Illinois at Chicago) and Sonja Marziano (of CUTGroup/Smart Chicago Collaborative)

Maritza Bandera (of On The Table)  / Whitney May (of ELECTricity)

Adam Horowitz (of US Department of Arts & Culture) and Diana Nucera (of Allied Media Projects)