Speech at City Club

Today I spoke at City Club of Chicago. Here’s a video:

Daniel X. O’Neil, Executive Director, Smart Chicago Collaborative from City Club of Chicago on Vimeo.

Here’s the slides and complete text:

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Hello. And thank you, Dr. Green, Tweed, and the City Club for the opportunity to speak to you today. I’m going to talk to you about The Need for Investment in the Digital Lives of All.

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I’m going to tell you about the mission, principles, and strategy of our organization, as well as our structure, funding, and the work that we do.

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First, for a minute, I want to talk about “where you from?” It’s one of the best questions you can ask someone. Sometimes, the question can have a parochial take on it, as if you’re just asking what neighborhood they’re from. There’s also a “we don’t want nobody nobody sent” aspect.

But that’s not what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is where you from? Where do you start when you make decisions? Where’s your heart start? Where’s your hearth? Where does your fire come from?

I’m from 313 Elsdon Street in Pittsburgh, PA. This is the Google Streetview of the spot. The house is gone— it burned down a decade or so after we left, killing a Pittsburgh firefighter.

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I don’t want to give you the impression that I had a deprived, poor childhood. I didn’t. We’ve lived in all sorts of neighborhoods, and I’ve loved it all.

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Three of my brothers, Kevin, Michael, and Patrick— are here today, so you can ask them if I’m telling any stories.

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I’m from a place where the ballfields are overgrown with weeds. Where the Catholic elementary school was everything to me, a salvation. A place where service was central.

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Lastly, I come from poetry. I’ve written and published four books of poetry over about a 15-year stretch starting in the late 80s.

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Now that you know where I’m from, let’s get down to what I really want to talk to you about today—the work of the Smart Chicago Collaborative.

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The Smart Chicago Collaborative is a civic organization devoted to improving lives in Chicago through technology. We are a teeny tiny unit run out of a new space— “the garage” in the Chicago Community Trust offices on Michigan Avenue. We have anywhere from 5 – 9 full- and part-time consultants at any given time, helping us do the work I’m going to cover here today.

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We have just three employees— me, Kyla Williams, our director of operations, and Sonja Marziano, our project coordinator. We have a very deliberately light structure, and it works for us. We have dozens of people and organizations we work with, but this is our core. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Christopher Whitaker, who is a very important consultant to us and runs regional work through the Code for America Brigade.

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Pretty much every organization has a set of principles or a mission statement or some other blah blah they put on their website. We actually live by ours. I repeat them at the start of every meeting, and they are a part of every decision we make. Our principles are: Technology, Open, Everyone, Chicago.

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We’re all about technology. Everything we do relates to technology. We are of and about the Internet. Most of all, we believe in the transformative power of the Internet to change lives and build the economy for all. It is a simple matter of equity. Of justice.

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We are open. In the technology industry, the primary manifestation of that is the use of open source code. We have dozens of repositories on Github, for every piece of software we’ve made over the last three years. As some of you know, it’s easy to throw some piece code over the transom and run in the other direction. We support our code for all comers— we get inquiries from all over the country, we respond to all of them.

But being open means more than using a particular license for our software. It means being truly open to others. Having open processes, so that people know what you’re doing, how you’re doing it, and how they can affect it. Open minds, so that we can actually change our entire way of doing things if we discover another way. This is about allowing others “in”, wherever that may be in any particular situation. This room is one of those “in” places. We all need to be allowed. This is the value of listening, and asking, “where you from?”.

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I’m relatively new to philanthropy and the world of nonprofits here in Chicago. I’ve seen that lots of organizations gain strength and efficiency from a laser focus. That can be geographical, or all about age, or a particular activity type. At Smart Chicago, because our work is rooted in technology, our focus is on everyone. We’ve seen that there is great value in the network. The network—the aggregation of human attention— is in fact, the great creator of corporate valuation, if not actual value.

Snapchat, a photo messaging application developed in California, is worth $10 billion. That’s bananas. It makes no sense, except when it is viewed in the context of the network. In order for us to do our work— to create technology that has broad popularity and utility, that improves people’s lives and their relationships with each other and with their governments— we have to focus on everyone.

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Chicago is one of our values. It is our middle name. All of our work is done here. It’s the place we call home, and a place that has a unique and thriving ecosystem for our work. From our base here, we serve as a model for others. And we’ve gotten lots of attention for our model, because the model is working. So we are finding ways to be helpful nationally without letting the attention distract us from our work.

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OK. So it’s nice to have some guiding principles. Let’s talk about what we actually do.

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Smart Chicago is a civic organization devoted to improving lives in Chicago through technology. We work on increasing access to the Internet, improving skills for using Internet, and developing meaningful products from data that measurably contribute to the quality of life of residents in our region and beyond.

We have three key areas of work: Access, Skills, and Data. Let’s break each one of them down.

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Access. If you’re not connected to the Internet, it is difficult for technology to be of much use to you. It’s not impossible, because we know there are lots of examples where proxies— whether it be a family member or a care provider or some other person who cares about someone who is not connected— are able to use technology to help lives. But we start with the idea of access, which sets us apart in the civic hacker space and I think is indicative of our relationship with the work of the City of Chicago. Mind you, we have very few levers we can use to work on Internet access, as you can imagine, with three people and no fiber, but we have to care about this. It has to be at our base.

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Skills. If you can’t use the Internet, being connected isn’t going to be all that meaningful. So if you have access to the Internet, but you’re afraid of using it, or can’t figure out how to get an email account, it can’t be of much use. And this is up and down the spectrum. In skills, we care about everyone’s on-ramp, whether you’re starting with nothing or you’re a mid-career professional looking to do a tech startup. It’s all about the on-ramps.

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And Data. We construe data as content. Because there has to be something meaningful to look at once you’re connected and skilled. If you’re connected to the Internet, and you know how to use it, and you’re doing nothing to improve your life, or the life of others, then we really haven’t gotten very far.

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Let’s take a look at the structure of our organization. We were founded and are guided by three organizations: The MacArthur Foundation, the Chicago Community Trust, and the City of Chicago. I report to a board that consists of leaders from each of these organizations.

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The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, led by Julia Stasch, who is on our Advisory Committee, is a conceptual leader as well as a major funder. Julia’s 2007 report, “The City that NETWorks”, had the seeds of the organization. It’s one of those big thick, high-MB PDFs that we see flying around on the Internet from time to time. We click, it appears in our downloads folder, maybe we read it, maybe we don’t. This one stuck.

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The Chicago Community Trust is also a founder. They provides housing— it’s where I go to work every day, as I mentioned, in a space designed by CIO Tom Irvine, who’s on our Advisory Committee. As many of you know, having worked with The Trust, you know they are the best fiscal managers around, and Frank Soo Hoo and Mark Finke are important to that operation. We’re working with Suzy Connor on a jump drive for youth affected by incarceration, for instance. The Trust makes everything easy for us. Terry Mazany, who runs The Trust, is on our Advisory Committee and oversees all of our action.

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Then there’s the City of Chicago. With all due respect to my colleagues in other units of government, they are the most important policy lever in the region and they are a critical partner for having impact and getting things done. I’ve learned that when our technology directly engages with City services and operations, that’s when we have the most impact. Brenna Berman, CIO and Commissioner of the Department of Innovation and Technology, is on our Advisory Committee. I know we’re going to be hearing from Brenna soon, later this month, and I look forward to that. It’s worth noting that Brenna is carrying on the great work of two men— John Tolva, who’s here at this table, and Brett Goldstein. It takes a special person to roll up three C-titles up under her office. And Tom Schenk, doing the work of Chief Data Officer, is in DoIT as well. And all of this without even having a Twitter account! Amazing.

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Let’s talk about money.

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Our primary sources of funding to date have been from philanthropy. MacArthur is a primary, essential funder, giving us what we needed to get going. The Trust has been critical in back-office support, and as well as with grants, and that is accelerating now as our work becomes more closely aligned. The Otho S.A. Sprague Memorial Institute, represented here by Jim Alexander, has been the primary architect and funder for our health programs. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation is an essential, growing partner focused on civic engagement. We’ve been funded for years by them through the Chicago Community Trust, which is a longtime partner of Knight is community information work. I have personally been a part of the Knight family since 2007, when they funded my colleague, Adrian Holovaty, for the EveryBlock project. We also have a relationship with Cook County to do open data work— we have a contract whereby we both provide capital to fund the work, and we are able to help a high-quality developer, Josh Kalov, to start his own consulting business. These relatively small-dollar efforts lead to big results, and sparks creativity through data.

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So, as you can see, we kind of function as a tech development outfit. What I’ve discovered in life is that people value technology. So that is basically our “fundraising strategy”— do things people value for a fair price and in a way that allows you to keep the lights on. It’s been working.

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Let’s talk about the work.

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Before we talk about any specific projects, I want to talk about the more foundational things we do.

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First is our Amazon Web Services account. We host dozens of apps for civic hackers, at a moment’s notice & for as long as they want. All they have to do is fill out a simple form showing that they use civic data and that there is some plan to benefit residents. Take a look at the bottom of a cool civic app, and very likely you’ll see the phrase, “hosted by the Smart Chicago Collaborative”. This allows us to be helpful at the moment of inspiration, eliminating stoppers, encouraging innovation. It’s been a very successful program for us, based on the fact that the monthly bill keeps going up.

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We also provide project work and office space for developers, designers, writers, and project managers who toil in the fields we care about. Remember I mentioned the three of us—that is a deliberate strategy. Rather than adding staff and increasing our own needs, I prefer spreading revenue, power, and growth across the ecosystem. This way they compete in the marketplace and we serve as catalysts. We are founding tenants of 1871, going back to May 2012. We’ve helped jumpstart a half dozen companies there, and have places lots of creative people into that fecund mix. If you’ve ever attended and OpenGov Hack Night there on a Tuesday, you’ve received the benefit of that relationship. This is our role—to be helpful; provide infrastructure.

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OK I want to tell you about the CUTGroup, the Civic User Testing Group. It’s as a new model for User Experience testing, digital skills development, and community engagement in civic tech. We’ve paid more than 800 Chicago residents $5 just for signing up and telling us some simple facts like how they connect to the Internet and what devices they use. When they participate in a test, they get a $20 gift card. We help the developers design and implement UX testing and it allows us to be deeply engaged with communities while improving digital skills.

This is an absolutely foundational program. Once you’re done buying all my books on Amazon, I need you to sign up for the CUTGroup. How many of you here are already members? Our motto is, “if it doesn’t work for you, it doesn’t work”. We listen to people, not just throw technology at them. We ask them “where you from?”— and they tell us. Everyone loves the CUTGroup.

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Here’s something that’s not a program of Smart Chicago, but I think it’s illustrative of the kind of space that we occupy. The Eliminate The Digital Divide Grant Program of the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity is a critical lifeline for community technology centers in Chicago and across the state. Community Technology Centers in Chicago were awarded more than $14 million in this program from 2007 – 2012. It’s critical that we align those funds with the other great things going on in the realm of digital skills and development. This is something that Danielle DuMerer of Brenna’s department has been working on for years— she has been tireless in her efforts to get robust policy aligned with all funding sources. We’re getting there. We have to think about this in a strategic, focused fashion. We’re getting there, and we need your help.

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Another infrastructural project is the Cook County Open Data Work I spoke of earlier. We work directly with CIO Simona Rollinson on this, and we all rely on the leadership of President Preckwinkle. Let me put a fine point on this— with very little money, we are able to seed the tech industry with new actors working with emerging tools that allow for the greatest fluidity of data throughout the ecosystem. This is a huge benefit.

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So that’s a view into some of the infrastructural projects that we do. We do a lot of project work as well, but we also consider those to be infrastructural, because they always tie in to larger systems. We have a software philosophy at Smart Chicago.

We believe in making the smallest amount of software to be useful to the largest amount of people in connecting residents to their government, their institutions, and each other.

This is a big deal. Lots of well-meaning organizations can easily lose their way somewhere along that continuum. So let’s take a look at a few projects.

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Foodborne Chicago. We work with Dr. Choucair and his staff at the Chicago Department of Public Health to trawl Twitter for instances of the phrase “food poisoning” in Chicago. I saw “we”, but it’s really Cory Nissen and Joe Olson, two developers I met through a working group that Brett Goldstein started when he was at the City. Scott Robbin developed the admin tool for this, which is used by Raed Mansour to @reply back to people with a link back to our site, hoping to generate legitimate service requests. Again, partnerships help us be effective.

The site itself uses the Open311 system created by the City, with help from Smart Chicago and Code for America, to allow any authorized system to read or write directly to the service request system. This is infrastructure, but as you can see, it is also immensely intimate, reaching people right in their Twitter accounts.

Based on a grant from the Knight Foundation, we’ve done some work to determine why people on the South Side were less likely to file a service request than people from the North Side. We did a CUTGroup test, among other research, and found that people really consider Twitter to be a private network, one into which we were intruding. We listened to them, made some changes to the site, focused around making sure people understand that the City will take action. It’s lead to a marked increase in submissions. We’ll publish the results soon. Asking people where they’re from works.

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Chicago Early Learing is a great example of a site that we run/ own/ operate but is super-helpful to the real agencies that do the work—the Chicago Public Schools and Department of Family and Support Services. Mayor Emmanuel has been a driving force in this website, a he is dedicated to providing a one stop shop for parents to be informed.

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Chicago Works For You is a Citywide dashboard with ward-by-ward views of service delivery in Chicago. It allows you to slice, dice, view, review all sorts of data in ways that are meaningful to you.

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With the Chicago Health Atlas, you can view citywide information about health trends and take action near you to improve your own health. All of our health programs are run by Kyla Williams and have been funded—and really conceived by—Sprague. She also runs our Smart Health Center program, which places trained health information specialists in low-income clinics to assist patients in connecting to their own medical records and find reliable information about their own conditions. It’s in 20 locations, and growing, all through partnerships. Again, three people.

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Speaking of people. You can see there are common threads in all of the projects we do—they are designed for people. They are focused on people. We constantly work with data. But we are super-careful to remember people. As a poet, I was greatly influenced by Rod Serling. Twilight Zone was my favorite, but people forget Night Gallery. Good stuff. There was a famous episode with Burgess Meredith. He’s a librarian who hates people. Wishes they were all gone, so he could read his books. Then a neutron bomb goes off (of course it does, it’s the Twilight Zone, the bomb is in half the episodes). He was in the basement, so he lived. As you can see, he was super-stoked. He had all the books and no people to bother him.

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Big data can often be like that. A bunch of beeping machines with no people.

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Problem is, people can be useful. When Burgess Meredith bent down to pick up his first book to read, he dropped his glasses and they broke. And there was no one to read to him. We have to remember the people.

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All right I just want to talk about two more things: the Chicago School of Data and the need for investment in the digital lives of all.

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The Chicago School of Data— or, simply, “the ecosystem project” was born out of the MacArthur Foundation’s great work in funding and shepherding data intermediaries for Chicago nonprofits over the last few decades. In fact, it is Alaina Harkness who has really carried the torch on this and shown great leadership.

The discipline of using data to make lives better in Chicago goes back to at least as far as Jane Addams, and her work in mapping tuberculosis outbreaks. There has been an increase in the number and sophistication of players in the space.

So we’ve We’ve assembled a core working group consisting of the City of Chicago, MacArthur Foundation, Cook County, and LISC Chicago—their leader, Susana Vasquez, has been critical to the project to advise us and guide our work. Lots of our thinking on this has come out of discussions with Cook County Commissioner Bridget Gainer over the last year or so, especially in the context of the Cook County Land Bank.

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We’ve done an enormous amount of outreach and investigation about the state of the ecosystem. We’ve collected data from almost 200 organizations, had deep conversations with more than 70 of them, and we’re having a conference with more than 300 people to discuss what we’ve heard. Come to this. Get involved. If you have any inkling that we’re talking to you, we are. All of this will end up in a book in early 2015.

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Last thing. We have a chance to make Chicago the most dynamic digital city in the world. The work that we do at Smart Chicago, the amazing work of the Chicago Public Library, where the provide public computing to all and run the innovative CyberNavigators program. The proven model of LISC Chicago’s Smart Communities program that lead to marked increase in broadband adoption in Chicago neighborhoods, the immense work of DFSS, City Colleges, the Chicago-Cook Workforce Partnership, of hundreds of people toiling in community technology centers. We have an enormous base of investment here. We are the envy of the nation when it comes to these things.

But we need more. We need to invest in startups and incubators— as you saw today, I come this world, and inhabit it easily now. We have to care about those at all the other on-ramps. We have to care as much about people getting an email account as we do about those who are trying to start email-based business. We have to invest in the digital skills of seniors at the same time we’re recruiting seniors out of computer science programs at universities. No matter where you are, you matter in this city. Your digital life matters. We need the power of the entire network— the entire city— the entire region— the entire state— the entire Internet to have the power of technology meaningfully affect the lives of residents.

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When I was a poet, and I toured around the country, doing performances and selling books, I had a schtick that I used. I’d show people my latest book, and acknowledge that there are lots of perfectly good reasons why they wouldn’t buy one from me as soon as I got off the stage. And I was certainly OK with that, but I just would ask them to give me the courtesy of telling me * to my face * that they weren’t going to buy a book. It was a fun thing to say. It always got a laugh, and I’d end up having great conversations with people who told me to my face that they weren’t going to buy my book.

So all I ask, when I leave this dais, is that you tell me, “where you from?” and we’ll go from there.

Thank you.