Denise Linn Riedl Named Benton Fellow

This week, Smart Chicago’s Denise Linn Riedl was announced as a new Benton Fellow. Benton Fellows are expert researchers, writers, and practitioners selected to speak and write about technology, communications systems, and the public interest. With a background in policy and a portfolio of work at the intersection of civic engagement, equity, and emerging technology, Denise is primed to take on this role!

Adrianne Furniss, Executive Director of the Benton Foundation wrote a blog post introducing Denise and Jon Sallet as the new Benton Fellows:

Benton believes that we can improve everyone’s life, if we can connect and engage them in addressing our common problems. Denise and Jon will help ensure that more people will participate in the network revolution that is transforming society – and that traditional American values like access, diversity, and equity are upheld in the Digital Age.

Congratulations, Denise! We’re looking forward to seeing what you do!



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.

Announcing the October 18th Array of Things Public Meeting at Association House

Continuing the Array of Things Civic Engagement Work from 2016, we’re pleased to announce a new public meeting on Wednesday, October 18, 2017:

Event: Array of Things Public Meeting

Date: Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Time: 5:30pm – 7:30pm

Location: 1116 N Kedzie Ave –Association House. Note that the meeting will take place in the 1st floor cafeteria.

RSVP: Learn more and confirm your attendance at

This is an open meeting. Everyone is invited and no knowledge of technology or sensors is required to be a welcome, meaningful addition to the event. Though we’re collecting RSVPs online, not that walk-ins are very welcome — we’re just asking for RSVPs to assist us with estimating food.

This meeting is hosted by the Association House, a vital community anchor institution and local leader providing essential educational and workforce development services everyday. According to their website:

Since 1899, Association House has worked with Chicagoans who seek tools to lead more productive lives. It is one of the oldest “settlement houses” in Chicago originally designed to provide relief and guidance to new immigrants. Today, Association House is a vital resource to under-served, multicultural communities, providing collaborative programs in English and Spanish. We promote health and wellness, educational advancement, and economic empowerment. With a staff of over 200 professionals, Association House impacts the lives of nearly 20,000 children, individuals and families each year in the neighborhoods of Humboldt Park, West Town, Logan Square, Avondale, Hermosa, and beyond.

Given Association House’s leadership and history, we’re so pleased that they are hosting this important civic conversation about how new technologies can be informed by residents and advance local goals and quality of life. The Array of Things project is a collection of multi-purpose sensors that will collect data about the livability factors in our city like air quality, noise pollution, and flooding. These data will fuel new research about Chicago neighborhoods.

Here is the flyer for this meeting:

The purpose of the 2017 Array of Things Public Meetings is educate the public on the Array of Things project and host neighborhood level conversations about hyperlocal research priorities and partnerships. This engagement work began in 2016 with resident-driven conversations about how smart city technologies can be governed and leveraged to improve our communities. You can read more about our goals and model for this civic engagement work here.

If you are interested in attending the Array of Things Public Meetings or would like to receive updates about the projects as well as information about future events or trainings, please fill out this form:

Fill out my online form.

The Array of Things Project is also soliciting community suggestions and ideas about sensor placement. If you would like to submit your idea, make sure to fill out this form on the Array of Things website.

Photo from the 2016 Array of Things Public Meeting at the Lozano Public Library

Announcing the June Connect Chicago Meetup: Empowering Girls Through Technology

At the next Connect Chicago Meetup, we’ll have a roundtable discussion led by a panel of trainers and nonprofit representatives that work every day to leverage tech training to improve the lives of girls and young women across Chicago.

Special guests that will share their work and help us discuss this topic:

• David Lane, YWCA Chicago

• Asia Roberson, Digital Youth Divas

Here’s the event information:

Event: Roundtable Discussion: Empowering Girls Through Technology

Where: The Literacenter — 641 West Lake St. (read more about Literacenter here)

When: Friday, June 9th from 11am to 1pm

RSVP here.

Come join the conversation and help fuel an equitable tech ecosystem in Chicago. Meet and network with computer trainers, nonprofit professionals, technologists, community advocates, and fellow residents who care about digital inclusion in Chicago. Please RSVP on Meetup so we can get an accurate count for lunch. Thank you!

The Connect Chicago Meetup is a monthly gathering of computer trainers, nonprofit professionals, and fellow residents who care about the digital lives of Chicagoans. In 2017, Meetups will be held downtown and some events (called Community Technology Forums) will be held at community learning & nonprofit sites across the city. Email me at with any questions, concerns or ideas for future Connect Chicago Meetups.


Designing Meaningful Civic Interactions with Data

This blog post is by Mark Díaz, the Smart Chicago Collaborative’s graduate fellow from Northwestern University’s Technology & Social Behavior PhD program. Mark is assisting with Smart Chicago’s collaborative data work, supporting efforts in data-driven journalism and advocacy.

Many tools aim to synthesize large amounts of data into engaging and digestible forms. Flashy infographics and interactive data tools can be found in advertisements, in news, and in educational settings. They bring to life static visualizations by letting users manipulate what they see— from zoomable geographic maps showing detailed landscapes and terrain to bubble charts summarizing data breaches, users can discover more information and rich stories  in a single, interactive data tool.

Introducing interactive elements to a data tool, however, risks potential information overload. With more data to digest, highlighting the most important components and allowing the user to step through information at a comfortable pace becomes a challenge. Because interactive visualizations can take many forms, there is no single way to design an elegant user experience. One way to counteract information overload is to construct a narrative within an interactive data tool. These engaging tools are designed for specific users and designed for those users to leave with specific takeaways in mind.

Given my background in design and my emerging interest in civic tech and data engagement, I wanted to highlight a crop of tools that I think offer engaging experiences driven by both interactivity and narrative flow.

Tools that check our assumptions

The New York Times regularly puts out interesting charts and infographics on a variety of topics. In particular, their You Draw It series features interactive graphs depicting various trends, including the effect of Obama’s domestic policies and the relationship between family income and children’s college prospects.

What sets these interactive data tools apart from others is the fact that the user has to complete unfinished graphs with their own guess before they can see the real data. The tools do a great job of forcing the user to take a few seconds to think about their perception of the world and, in doing so, check their understanding. The graphs then present the real data in comparison with user’s guesses.

Some of the You Draw It graphs will even tell you how your guesses compared to other people’s guesses. It might be tempting to give the facts of an often misunderstood story upfront, but hooking users by leveraging their own perspective can help them think carefully about the data they are seeing.

Tools that address the “so what?”

A lot of data tools and visualizations out there are interesting and fun because of unexpected or funny data. Maps showing regional slang terms or the richest person in each state can offer some fun surprises, but, not all data will seem equally personal or relevant to all people. More importantly, sometimes it can be difficult to connect the data in a visualization to what it means for an individual and their community. The Use of Force Project features extensive information about use of force policies in different police departments along with a 12-page report on the relationship between these policies and police violence. Before getting to the data tool, the site presents the user with a thesis statement and concise bullet points framing why use of force policies deserve attention.

The website has a plethora of information, yet it’s easy to walk away with the main idea and argument. Online, the most valuable currency is attention and a compelling “so what” can hold attention a little longer.

Tools that address the “what now?”

Our States is a nifty site created by StayWoke, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting data, design, and policy-related projects pursuing equity and justice. The OurStates website leads with a mission of challenging policies endorsed by the Drumpf administration. When first landing on the page, the user is met with why the tool exists and is presented with an expansive interactive map. The map is rich with information about policies both in harmony with and opposed to President Drumpf’s political platform.

The tool foregrounds civic engagement and gives information on specific action that users can take to support or challenge legislation. The tool gives an overview of legislation across the country while simultaneously allowing users to home in on their own state. A downloadable guide sits just below the map and complements newly learned political knowledge with political action. The site makes it straightforward for the curious user to take next steps toward channeling energy into civic response.

The tool foregrounds civic engagement and gives information on specific action that users can take to support or challenge legislation. The tool gives an overview of legislation across the country while simultaneously allowing users to home in on their own state. A downloadable guide sits just below the map and complements newly learned political knowledge with political action. The site makes it straightforward for the curious user to take next steps toward channeling energy into civic response.

Designing with a narrative in mind

Ultimately, each of the data tools above communicates clearly to the user. These aren’t just standalone tools. They are imbued with different perspectives and, just as an essay helps you think through arguments and ideas, so do compelling data tools. Rather than simply display new information to the user, they compel the user to learn, reflect, and sometimes act. When thinking about advocacy and civic engagement, strategic design starts with a few simple questions: Who do I want to use this? Why do I want them to use this? What do I want to happen when they use this? What do I want to happen after they use this? Great data tools will, in one way or another, supply users with the answers to these questions. Data tools offer an informal space for civically engaging users and helping them become better social critics.