Launch: OpenGrid at the UIC Electronic Visualization Laboratory

Today I helped launch OpenGrid— a free, browser-based, open source mapping platform displaying Chicago’s robust collection of open datasets.

Daniel X. O'Neil at UIC EVL. Photo by Lance Long, UIC/EVL

Here’s a set of photos I took:

My role was to take part in the conceptual model of OpenGrid, working with City technology officials to plan the work, and help manage the work of the Smart Chicago tech consultant, Uturn Data Solutions.

Here’s a snip from the launch coverage in the Harvard Data-Smart City Solutions piece on the launch:

“A collaborative union between developers, residents, and government – that’s what Smart Chicago is about, and that’s what OpenGrid is about too,” O’Neil noted at the application’s launch. “This is why we’re on it.”  To build the service layer, Smart Chicago commissioned UTurn Data Solutions, a local IT consultancy focused data storage and Cloud computing projects.

Presentation: The Inefficacy of Dots on Maps at Chi Hack Night

Tonight I gave a few remarks at Chi Hack Night #188: Introducing Open Grid. Take a look at the original source video or see the snip below.

Here’s how Chris Hagan of WBEZ covered these remarks in his article, “Chicago launches OpenGrid, latest step in making open data more accessible“:

Dan O’Neil, executive director of the Smart Chicago Collaborative, which assisted on the project, reminded developers that tools such as OpenGrid are a first step. He pointed out that despite Chicago’s advances in open data, problems such as police misconduct have arguably gotten worse.

“There are no dots on a map that stopped that from happening,” O’Neil said. “There is no set of crime statistics that stopped that from happening. We have to find ways to have communion with people who are not here.”

Communion is what matters.

Writing: Toward a Market Approach for Civic Innovation section of Technology and the Resilience of Metropolitan Regions

technology-and-resilienceToday marks the publication of “Technology and the Resilience of Metropolitan Regions; Digital technologies and the future of cities”. Here’s the book blurb:

Can today’s city govern well if its citizens lack modern technology? How important is access to computers for lowering unemployment? What infrastructure does a city have to build in order to attract new business? Michael A. Pagano curates engagement with such questions by public intellectuals, academics, policy analysts, and citizens. Each essay explores the impact and opportunities technology provides in government and citizenship, health care, workforce development, service delivery to citizens, and metropolitan growth. As the authors show, rapidly emerging technologies and access to such technologies shape the ways people and institutions interact in the public sphere and private marketplace. The direction of metropolitan growth and development, in turn, depends on access to appropriate technology scaled and informed by the individual, household, and community needs of the region.

I wrote a chapter for this book titled, “Toward a Market Approach for Civic Innovation”. Here’s an extended excerpt:

In my work at the Smart Chicago Collaborative, I helped create the Open311 system for the municipal government of the City of Chicago. This has led to the publication of millions of rows of public data and simple methods for developers and nascent companies to read and write directly to the enterprise service request system at the City—the technology backbone for the delivery of services in the third largest city in the United States. This is the largest implementation of Open311 anywhere.

The existence of Open311 in Chicago, however, has not led to the creation of many new tools. Only a handful of services connect to this system, and none have any traction in the public. Even though it was widely requested by the developer community and touted as a major opportunity for economic growth, there are no widely used resident-focused websites or systems that use Open311.

The current state of the market

The question is why, and I believe the answer is that there is no cohesive market for the civic innovation sector of the technology industry. In fact, very few of the actors in the market even understand themselves to be a part of the technology industry. A dominant frame of the civic hacker movement is the quick creation of tools, dashed off in hackathons or over feverish nights. The idea of being a part of the trillion-dollar industry is anathema to this frame.

The natural end result of these efforts are interesting tools with good intentions that are of limited use to the masses in cities. The current status of the civic innovation sector of the technology industry can analyzed as follows:

  • There is good movement in the provision of data (raw materials)
  • There is an abundance of energy around the making of things (labor)
  • There is a paucity of thought around the why we make things or what the best thing is to make (market research, user testing, continuous improvement)
  • There is even less thought around the relationship between the things we make and the universe of other things within which it fits (market analysis)
  • Lastly, all of our things exist in an environment where their popularity is puny next to the opportunity (market penetration)

This state of affairs was evident in Professor Fountain’s paper, which had a review of a wide range of existing projects, tools, and companies. Included were municipal-driven projects like Citizens Connect, Commonwealth Connect, and the work in San Francisco as well as companies like SeeClickFix, CitySourced, and Granicus. She covered nonprofit projects like FixMyStreet and Electorate.Me.

This was a great scan that covered the field well, but it is illustrative of the jumble that defines the current state of the civic innovation sector of the technology industry—it completely lacks a frame for understanding. And without a frame, it is difficult to grow.

Here’s the complete chapter: Technology and the Resilience of Metropolitan Regions – DXO Chapter

Purchase here at the publisher website or on Amazon.

Boards: Joining the Sunlight Foundation Board of Directors

SunlightFoundation-logoToday I joined the board of directors of the Sunlight Foundation, a national, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that uses the tools of civic tech, open data, policy analysisand journalism to make our government and politics more accountable and transparent to all.


Daniel X. O’Neil is an open data and open government advocate and the executive director of Smart Chicago Collaborative, a civic organization devoted to improving lives in Chicago through technology. He’s also the cofounder of EveryBlock.

“We’re pleased to welcome these new members to Sunlight’s board of directors,” said Sunlight Co-Founder and Board Chair Mike Klein. “We have great faith that their contributions will strengthen Sunlight’s reach and connect its work to broader audiences.”

City Council Resolution: Recognition extended to Smart Chicago for efforts to promote digital democracy

Today in City Council, Chicago City Clerk Susana A. Mendoza sponsored a resolution that was moved by Edward M. Burke, seconded by John Pope, and passed by the full City Council which resolved that “the Mayor and members of the City Council of the City of Chicago gathered here this tenth day of September 2014, do hereby recognize and congratulate Smart Chicago for all of its valued efforts in the move towards a digital democracy”.

Here’s the full version:

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 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 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, 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

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.

Panel: Fellows Seminars | Robin Carnahan: “Democracy 2.0: How the Next Generation of Leaders Can Save a System in Crisis”

This evening I spoke at this event:

Oct. 28 at 4:30 p.m: Technology and Governing: How New Technologies,Civic Entrepreneurs, and Start-ups Are Impacting How Citizens View Government

How can tools like crowd sourcing and e-volunteers be used effectively in the public sector? How might individuals interested in creating innovative ways for government to provide services to citizens to launch civic start-ups of their own? SPECIAL GUESTS: Peter Levin, former Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of the U.S. Veterans Administration (VA), Daniel O’Neil, Executive Director of the Smart Chicago Collaborative, a civic organization devoted to making lives better in Chicago through technology. New attendees welcome; free & open to the public.
Great program. Listening to Peter Levin was awesome.

Speaking: Testimony to Cook County Finance Committee

Today I spoke on behalf of the technology portion of the FY 2014 Cook County Budget. Here’s the full text:

Remarks to the Cook County Finance Committee in Support of the Cook County Bureau of Technology FY2014 Budget

Good morning Mr. Chairman and Commissioners. My name is Daniel X. O’Neil, and I am the Executive Director of the Smart Chicago Collaborative, a civic organization devoted to improved lives in Chicago through technology. Our founding partners are the City of Chicago, the MacArthur Foundation, and The Chicago Community Trust.

We also work very closely with the State of Illinois and the great County of Cook in order to do our work. I’ve interacted with a number of the members of this body in the course of my service at Smart Chicago and in my efforts in the open data movement. I very much appreciate the time I’ve spent with some of you, and I’d like to work with each of you on these matters.

I also serve, along with my friend and colleague Blagica Bottigliero, as co-chair of President Preckwinkle’s New Media Council, where we are charged helping the County develop a digital strategy to better engage, serve, and connect with the public.

In that capacity, I’ve come to greatly value the leadership of Cook County Chief Information Officer Lydia Murray. She is a clear thinker with a practical approach to solving the long-festering technology issues facing County government.

I appreciate the focus on reducing waste to save taxpayers’ money, the spirit of collaboration with the City of Chicago, the sound investments in improving Internet connectivity, and the attention paid in this budget to the baseline applications that make core County functions run.

I’m excited about the public website redesign project. The planned features of responsive design and a focus on the mobile experience can allow the County to make a giant leap in communication with the public.

The investments in core systems like the Criminal Justice Data Sharing System, revenue collection, and case management will lead to better service for the public.

I am especially looking forward to the planned improvements in the transparency, efficiency and accessibility of the County’s property tax system. That is sorely needed and long delayed.

I strongly urge you to support the Fiscal Year 2014 Budget of the Cook County Bureau of Technology. Thank you for your time.

Here’s a pic from the back of the room:

Cook County Finance Committee Meeting, John Daley, Chairman, with Veteran

New Story: Emanuel to nominate Brenna Berman to be city’s chief information officer

Today Smart Chicago was reffed in this article about Mayor Emanuel’s appointment of Brenna Berman to be CIO for the City of Chicago. Snip:

DoIT is working with groups such as the Smart Chicago Collaborative, a tech-focused civic backed by the city, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and The Chicago Community Trust. The Smart Chicago Collaborative is sponsoring a program that will help developers continue building ideas developed during hackathons over a three- to four-month period. One group that will go through this process is the winning team from a public safety-themed hackathon held in May: CAPStagram, a mobile application that allows residents to attach a photo to a community concern report sent to their local Community Alternative Policing Strategy district.

“Brenna is a great thinker and a great partner in trying to bring those apps that can actually serve people and lead economic development in this city,” said Daniel X. O’Neil, executive director of the Smart Chicago Collaborative, who worked closely with Berman while she was deputy.

Emanuel to tap Brenna Berman as Chief Information Officer