Smart Chicago,, and Ecosystem

This is one in a series of posts that help us at Smart Chicago to develop a cohesive product strategy that helps us deliver on the promise of access, skills, and data. As we’ve grown, more and more cities have an interest in how Smart Chicago works and how the model can be used near them. These detailed posts, showing all of the steps we take, are a way to keep us in check locally while be of service nationally. Here’s more information on our model. is a youth-led project.

That is a simple statement, but there’s a lot to it. Let’s take a look at the steps that Smart Chicago— just one of the many entities and people who make happen— took to get to that:

  • Begin, in October 2012, a planning process to find out what areas or work that we’re not currently in but where we think we might be of use. Decide, with our founding partners,  on an idea for a program around youth
  • Hire a consultant to review the nonprofit youth work sphere in Chicago, and identify one or more suitable partners
  • Settle on Mikva Challenge and Free Spirit Media, two great groups. Spend a couple months working with them to design a 6-week, five-day-per-week summer program for 140 youth
  • Fund the program (#CivicSummer!) with funds from the MacArthur Foundation
  • Execute on the program with our partners— Smart Chicago was responsible for 4 hours of programming every Friday. A huge part of this was convincing tech writer and editor Jaqcui Cheng to spend a huge chunk of her summer writing and delivering the training. We are not just funders, we are workers
  • Invite tech people we know to participate in the program, including awesome developer Cathy Deng. She hung out for the whole afternoon and met people
  • After the summer, keep working with Mikva Challenge, especially Juvenile Justice Council Director Chris Rudd, about the desire of the youth in his program to have “an app” focused on expungement
  • Advise Chris on how to make the website, architect the solution (including Wufoo), name the product, purchase URL, stuff like that. Make certain that all of this conforms with our software philosophy
  • Help Cathy Deng in setting up a server, optimizing page speed, etc. Smart Chicago consultant Scott Robbin was essential in this
  • Spend time working with the key players in the actual expungement process
  • Do more research, this time with consultant Cleo Aquino, who we hired to look deeper into the institutional needs
  • Create a larger proposal to support the work, this time to the Chicago Community Trust

That’s two years of work. Again,  just from our perspective. It took dozens of professionals in a half-dozen organizations to pull all this off.

One of the things that I love about my job, and am proud of here at Smart Chicago, is that we have the luxury of continuing the thread. In the still-nascent world of civic tech, it’s tough to find the time it takes to really keep things going past a meetup or a hack night or a launch.

But we were made for that.

Back to the simple statement: is a youth-led project. It’s easy— very, very easy— to look at this river of bulleted work listed above and think that this is a project that’s all about the organizations represented there.

But we can’t do that, and we don’t. Instead, we conducted a CUTGroup test (supported by a Knight Foundation prototype grant to Chris Rudd at Mikva Challenge) to go back to youth and see the site in real time, in a real surrounding.

We learned, for instance, that two URLs we use— and—  are blocked by parental controls because they have language that includes the word “adult.”

Then we did another CUTGroup test, this time at Fenger High School in the Roseland neighborhood. This work is done under a grant received by Chris Rudd and Mikva Challenge from the Knight Foundation to make better.

This is one of our favorite parts of building ecosystem— talking to regular people, in their places, about software made for them.

CUTGroup #11: - Kyla Williams

Kyla Williams setting up a CUTGroup session at Mikva Challenge.

For us, the story of is an example of letting others lead. For us, grew naturally out of work we did over our CivicSummer, and with our partners thereafter. Our job now is to deliver on the promise of a youth-led site, create a more expansive product strategy for, and draw all of this into a cohesive overall product strategy for Smart Chicago.

Stay tuned!