Writing: Toward Sustainable Community Tech Organizing

Today I published an article in Civicist that lays out the enormous investments made at Smart Chicago in civic tech and questions whether those were the right models. It lays the foundation for a more serious discussion of community technology organizing models we’ve pioneered at Smart Chicago. Here’s a snip:

Smart Chicago’s focus is on the unmet technology organizing needs in neighborhoods all over the city.

Sustainability of civic tech organizing is basically resolved in Chicago. What remains is a city of 2.7 people million with precious few invitations to range beyond their own block, very few jobs in tech for people with low to medium digital skills, and very few ways to listen and hear the needs of the people.

That’s what we need to build.


New story: Chicago seeking ‘smart-city’ tech solutions to improve city life

Today I was quoted in an article on smart cities:  “Chicago seeking ‘smart-city’ tech solutions to improve city life“. (Here’s the complete text). I am currently a skeptic when it comes to believing that smart cities is a path to freedom:

“How do we connect these abstract, big-picture, big-data initiatives to the needs of the residents of Chicago who are struggling under a failure to fund education and under a police force that thwarts the will of the people?” asked Daniel X. O’Neil, executive director of Smart Chicago Collaborative, a civic group that aims to improve residents’ lives through technology.

Here’s a blog post I wrote to expound on that: Smart Cities Have to Serve People and Be Responsive to their Needs.

Here’s the closing of today’s article in the Tribune:

Those lessons likely will apply to Chicago as well as it pursues its smart-city strategies. O’Neil, of the Smart Chicago Collaborative, suggests the city and its partners keep their eyes on one overarching goal.

“I find immense value in what they are doing (but) I continue to drive them, and drive all of us and anyone in the smart-cities movement, to work harder at finding out how we can make lives better,” he said. “I continue to have consternation at how all this fits together.”


Report: Chicago Police Accountability Task Force

PATF_Final_Report_Executive_Summary_4_13_16Today marks the publication of the  Chicago Police Accountability Task Force, “Recommendations for Reform: Restoring Trust between the Chicago Police and the Communities they Serve“.

I served on the Early Intervention & Personnel Concerns working group, and helped develop this recommendation:

publish, on a monthly basis, aggregate data on the following: new and pending complaints by unit, disciplinary actions, missed court dates, new civil legal proceedings against officers, new criminal legal proceedings against officers, vehicle pursuits, vehicle collisions, uses of force, employee commendations, use of firearms, injuries to persons in custody, judicial proceedings where an officer is the subjective of a protective or restraining order, adverse judicial credibility determinations against an officer, or disciplinary actions.

Here’s a snip from a blog post I wrote, covering the significance of this recommendation and how it might be helpful in creating communion betweens residents and police: “A Radical Approach to Open Police Data

In the civic tech world, “crime data” has always been understood to be about crime reports. I myself have helped make websites, like EveryBlock, that use “crime data” of this kind.

I’ve come to believe, however, that this focus has led to a deeply skewed vision of “crime” and a dangerously incomplete view of how people can work together to improve communities around public safety data.


But this information referenced by the Task Force is a new idea altogether. The idea is that in order to have a view of safety in a community, one has to have a view of data on how the police treat residents.

Even in aggregate format, having the police report on how many times a gun was used by an officer, or a judge ruled that an officer lied in court, or the number of times a police car was involved in a crash, can be a breakthrough in getting us to see things differently.

It’s a start in thinking that we’re all in this together— victims, police, offenders, family. That we have to measure and care about and report on all aspects of safety— not just the crime reports that officers decide to create.


Writing: OpenGov Voices: The Smart Chicago model for community in civic tech

Today I wrote about our unique, comprehensive approach to civic tech. Here’s a snip:

What we’ve learned at Smart Chicago is that direct service to regular residents beats any technology that any single developer can make by slogging along alone. We’ve learned that direct action — being in rooms with real people, working together, sharing our money and our food and our love — works.

We’re more proud of our Americorps health navigators who teach people how to connect to their own medical records and find reliable information about their own conditions. We love working with the people in the more than 300 nonprofits and community groups who care about how to use data more effectively in their jobs. We dig meeting periodically with people in libraries to test existing apps and websites that help us live together in our region. We’re excited when we gather dozens of teachers toshare how to teach financial literacy online. We’re ecstatic about our youth-led tech program, where we hired 16 instructors — many of whom had never been in tech — to teach 150 youths how to use WordPress. Our motto? “We love you, and we’re never going to let you go.”

Smart Chicago is a civic tech outfit. But we are rare — and we shouldn’t be. The reasons we’re able to do this work are structural, not incidental. We were made this way. Planned and prepared for, not just out and about.

I implore you to care about the masses, to actually include them in your work and share their methods. Talk to poor people. Go to public meetings. Look up other people’s lingo. Drive to and walk through other neighborhoods than your own. Teach someone how to copy/paste, or back up their photos automatically to Facebook or turn them on to Chrome. Read a help file, make a tutorial. Teach someone how to use Socrata.

In short: more community, less tech.


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.

Guest Blog Post: Smart Chicago Collaborative helps launch three civic innovation projects

x-knightlogoToday I wrote a blog post for the Knight Foundation about the Civic Works project, which is funded by the Knight Foundation and matching funds from The Chicago Community Trust. Here’s a snip:

Over the past few months, the Smart Chicago Collaborative has launched (or helped others launch) three new projects as part of our CivicWorks Project. The CivicWorks Project is funded by Knight Foundation and the Chicago Community Trust to spur and support civic innovation in Chicago. Our goal is to create 200 pieces of content that explain civic data to regular people, five apps that solve government problems and five apps that solve community problems.

We are far surpassing these project goals, in large part because of the hard work and dedication of people who care about these issues already doing great work.

Writing: “Author at the Table” for the Carl Sandburg Literary Awards Dinner

Tonight I was honored to be an “Author at the Table”—  a local author chosen to sit with guests at the annual Carl Sandburg Literary Awards Dinner for the Chicago Public Library Foundation.

Here’s some pics:




And here’s a video of the scene before hitting the stage:

Here’s the complete bios of all the authors:

Writing: Seeing open government & civic innovation as drivers of economic development

Today I wrote an article for the Illinois Science & Technology Coalition’s Catalyst publication. Seeing open government & civic innovation as drivers of economic development. Snip:

Yesterday was a big day in Illinois for open government and innovation. The Illinois Innovation Network website was launched, the second quarterly Illinois Innovation Index revealed new data on STEM education and employment, and Gov. Pat Quinn announced the four winning entries of the Illinois Open Technology Challenge. The Smart Chicago Collaborative has worked over the last few months with the Illinois Science and Technology Coalition to run the Illinois Open Technology Challenge in order to bring governments, developers, and communities together in a common mission to use public data and create digital tools that will serve today’s civic needs and promote economic development.

There has been a lot of action in the open data space in the Chicago area, going back at least to the Apps For Metro Chicago competition where the State, County, and City governments collaborated to publish data and award prizes for apps.

But before we launched this project, there was no sustained effort to encourage this work in the rest of the great state of Illinois.

In many cases, like the South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association, there was already a wealth of published data. In others like Belleville, we were doing greenfields open data work with great city employees who were eager to get involved. We met tech people in Rockford who were already doing great things around civic apps and connected with the robust incubator community at the Research Park in Champaign.

We spent months traveling around the state, organizing events and connecting people. The common thread, everywhere we went, was a thirst to use technology to make lives better inside communities.

We tried to direct that energy into apps and websites that could support the formation of businesses and stimulate the state economy. The civic technology sector of the technology industry is a burgeoning field, and we have the talent, focus, and policies for it to continue to be centered here in Illinois.