Panel: Opening Government: From data to action

Today I participated in the closing session of the 2014 Knight Media Learning Seminar. Here’s complete video of the panel, and a summary.  And here’s complete text of my opening remarks:

Remarks at Knight Foundation Media Learning Seminar
Tuesday, February 18, 2014
Opening Government: From data to action

Hello. I’m Dan O’Neil, and I run the Smart Chicago Collaborative, a civic organization devoted to improving lives in Chicago through technology.

Smart Chicago is a project of The Chicago Community Trust, and that’s where I work, under the direction of Terry Mazany. We have two other founding partners: the City of Chicago, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. So with two of the leading philanthropies devoted to Chicago and the municipal government itself guiding our efforts, we can do big things fast.

Our focus is on Access, Skills, and Data. Access to the Internet, skills once you’re on the internet, and data so that there is something meaningful to use on the Internet. These are the necessary components of civic engagement through technology.

The fact that I am employed at the region’s community foundation is key to our work. With their hundred-year view, and their grounding in the place itself, they are the perfect house.

The topic for our lunch discussion here is “opening government: from data to action”. So I want to talk in broad ways about how you might approach this and give you some specific examples of how we don it at Smart Chicago.

In the technology industry, open is critical. It’s not just a word. The network doesn’t work unless it’s open. We have some issues with that currently, because people are trying to make the internet less open. We can’t let them do it. But that’s a topic for another day.

We’ve heard a lot about failing fast and changing course. In order to do that, you have to know if something is actually failing. The way to do that is to be open. Truly open.

We use meetup.com for our convening. I never heard the word “convening” until I started working at a community foundation. Then I realized everybody was just talking about a meetup group. I helped start a meetup group called OpenGovChicago in 2009. Joe Germuska, another hugely effective Knight News Challenge grantee, is the founder of OpenGovChicago. We convene in the open, in public. It makes sense to us.

So now that I’ve been at the Trust, we host monthly meetings there. For those of you who run community foundations, you know what that means— people love showing up at funder offices (the reverse “site visit”).

So now we have 150 open government advocates, government officials, and civic hackers showing up at a Thursday night at The Trust. Convening in the open.

People in the philanthropy world sometimes ask, “how do I get invited to that group?” or “can you send me an email” or “I didn’t get the email on that”

And I tell them— and this is one of my favorite stock phrases— “It’s on the internet”. Very freeing. There is no secret list to be on. It’s on the internet, in the open.

So we’ve formed community on the Internet— there are 1,200 Chicagoans in this group— that meets in person, in a particular city, in the offices of a particular community foundation, to talk about how to open data and how to make use it to remove barriers and create meaningful opportunities for human advancement. To make lives better.

It’s easy to say you’re open. It’s harder to actually be open. We livestream all meetings via Google Hangout, and have live meeting notes to which anyone can contribute with Google Docs. Public platforms like meetup, google docs, and google hangout let you live your principles.

So that’s a specific implementation of something that can be used by everyone here— convening in the open.

You can’t do something that’s really difficult to do unless you actually try to do it. For me, direct engagement with people is where it’s at. And doing it in the context of a broader mission is required. Our mission is focused on access, skills, and data, so we devised a program that allows us to directly engage with people in this context.

The CUTGroup — the Civic User Testing Group— is our deliberate, structured attempt at this. We start by recruiting residents to test civic apps. They fill out a simple profile, and they get a $5 VISA gift card. In a year months, we’ve signed up 782 people from every ward in the city. We work hard for that kind of coverage by recruiting in traditionally under-represented neighborhoods. Going where people are and asking them to join us.

We segment our list to find the most relevant residents to test a particular app. If they do a test, they get a $20 VISA gift card and bus fare. We address all aspects of the civic technology system in this comprehensive model.

For ACCESS: we conduct all of our tests in the open– in libraries, health centers, community rooms. One third of Chicago residents do not have broadband internet access at home. We believe this towering fact should inform our work. We also do remote access testing, but getting in close matters to us.

Our motto is, “if it doesn’t work for you, it doesn’t work”. This way, we’re *all* developing SKILLS. The resident, the developer, me, everyone. Everyone learning from everyone else, in public.

And all of this is about DATA and how the resident will use it. And we’re all focused on the app, a shared interface. Literally and figuratively on the same page. I’ve found that this focus on the screen is freeing— it allows people to talk about difficult things in ways that are constructive.

So this is my second broad concept: the creation of very specific instruments for engagement. To take data into action, you have to apply these principles deliberately.

Last thing is the concept of being driven by the people we serve. In my work, I hear a lot from organizations who say they’re youth-driven, or senior-driven, or community-driven.

The story of Expunge.io is an example of letting others lead. During our #CivicSummer program last year, we met the youth and listened to what they had to say. Our partner Mikva Challenge organizes youth all year long around policy matters like health, education, and juvenile justice.

The site expunge.io, helps start the process of erasing juvenile arrests and court records, is pretty much why Smart Chicago exists. For us, it grew naturally out of work we did over our CivicSummer, interacting with youth on the JJC about what interested them, where their research took them, and what issues mattered most to them.

Then, as summer became autumn, I talked on a regular basis with the Mikva staff about the need for an app that helped sort out the essential but obtuse process of expungement. “I need an app”, “you gotta make me an app”. He never gave up.

We kept at it. We connected him with an awesome developer who wanted to do something that mattered. We gave them free server space and technical support and training on how to make it. We told the Legal Aid Center sign up for a free wufoo account to collect their inquiries.

The data here is clear: 25,000 people are eligible in Cook County for expungement every year. There is meaningful harm in their having a juvenile that need not exist. Only 300 people applied for expungement last year. It’s an inscrutable process that is decidedly not open. Now we have a foothold— a piece of technology— that is designed to help remove a concrete barrier in the way of thousands of Chicagoans.

I didn’t even really know what “expungement” meant a year ago. I have no expertise whatsoever. I couldn’t possibly tell you what information is required to begin the expungement process. I’m am literally not smart enough to make expunge.io.

Everybody else is smarter than you about almost everything. To take data into action, we need everybody else.

So I’m excited about talking with you all about how we can do that.