Smart Chicago Collaborative helps community connect with civic data

by: Sally Duros |

Smart Chicago Collaborative is a new institution charged with bringing the one partner to the civic innovation table that truly matters – community.

Established by the City of Chicago, the MacArthur Foundation and The Chicago Community Trust, Smart Chicago Collaborative connects the dots between technology and community to improve lives in Chicago through technology.

“The idea was to create a sort of  center of gravity where you would have  staff and founders and others  thinking about how you can actually transform the climate in the city so it is taking advantage of technology and access,” says Julia Stasch, Vice President of U.S. Programs for the MacArthur Foundation.

#CivicSummer Profile Pics

#CivicSummer Profile Pics

Community is the only partner that matters in a civic information ecosystem, because without it, hackers, coders and government activists are operating with incomplete knowledge of real problems that need to be solved.

With an agile touch, Smart Chicago leverages deep local knowledge and expertise so grant funds can be used strategically to achieve maximum impact.

“We seek to be useful in the smallest possible way for the greatest possible gain,” says Dan X. O’Neil, executive director of Smart Chicago Collaborative and former people person for open data pioneer Everyblock. “I see value in building the civic innovation infrastructure, to help underserved people live better lives in their areas. And improve lives in Chicago through technology.”

Initially financed by federal broadband money, Smart Chicago Collaborative is a pivot from creating a citywide wifi network to instead creating an agency that could engender a climate of digital inclusion and innovation in Chicago to bridge the digital divide.

“We think of Smart Chicago Collaborative as civic infrastructure,” says Alaina Harkness, Program Officer, Community and  Economic Development for the MacArthur Foundation.

“In response to a competition for federal dollars for broadband projects, the City of Chicago and LISC/Chicago built a really smart set of programs for reaching deeply into neighborhoods that did not have great access to the internet,” says Harkness. “They leveraged existing training programs and organizations with strong connections to community, and built on the city’s existing network of places where people have access to public computers, from libraries to City Colleges.”

“The Collaborative was able to help bring all that together,” she says. Upon evaluation, Internet access increased between 11% and 19% in those low-income neighborhoods that had access to this program and this will likely mean a further commitment of matching funds to the program by Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, she says.

Why community?

An important way to better understand the work of Smart Chicago Collaborative is to look at its Knight-funded Civic Works Projects.

Youth at #CivicSummer @ 1871

Youth at #CivicSummer @ 1871

In a recent project on the Southwest side of Chicago, staff and leaders of the Southwest Organizing Project are walking the streets of a three mile area, block by block, recording the locations of abandoned buildings and other blight. What’s different about SWOP’s work is that instead of clipboards and pencils, neighbors are armed with a mobile app — LocalData — that allows them to collect information about vacant buildings with lightning fast speed and real time accuracy. (Learn more.)

By connecting community organizers and community development consultants with new technology, and adding some funding, Smart Chicago Collaborative was able to help the community address a vexing problem.

The SWOP project is one of six Civic Works projects run as part of a Knight Community Information Challenge grant awarded to the Collaborative and the Chicago Community Trust. These six projects are just a few of dozens under way in Chicago creating what O’Neil calls “a civic innovation infrastructure.”

“I was able to — in an extremely light way — do my job, to take other funding from Knight, to take decade long leaders in this space and in this city and take this new energy with civic hacking and put it all together,” says O’Neil. “This is a far more strategic, far more organized and specialized effort. They had conditions at SWOP that were ripe for engagement.”

Role in Open Government

Smart Chicago Collaborative is also highly visible in Chicago’s open government movement. O’Neil was a co-founder of Chicago’s OpenGovmeetup before he joined Smart Chicago Collaborative. He continues his leadership role in it today and there is considerable overlap.

If data is the lifeblood of bureaucracy, it is also the lifeblood of making government work for people. Data collected by a local government is used internally to record, benchmark and evaluate delivery of public programs and services and to record and report legislative actions. More important, it is also extremely useful for the public when quantifying problems and identifying solutions.

Full House at the Chicago Community Trust for the OpenGovChicago Meetup, June 2013

Full House at the Chicago Community Trust for the OpenGovChicago Meetup, June 2013

Arguably, government data does not become useful information until the public starts using the data to solve a problem.  For that to happen, the community has to more closely participate in the process of identifying problems to be solved.

To date, this realm of problem solving has largely been occupied by foundations and small groups of activists and coders. For instance, the Pew Center on States has been working with Google and other partners to solve problems with antiquated election systems and make it easier for voters to find their polling places and ballots. In Chicago last spring, activists created a tool to help communities understand school cuts proposed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

One could view civic information as the product of a shift in understanding that takes OpenGov from “data” driven to  “knowledge” driven.  The people who live in the place – the community — are holders of the knowledge and can identify the problems of a place that can benefit from government attention.

As part of  fostering an open and welcoming environment to community, Smart Chicago Collaborative often hosts meet-ups of Chicago’s Open Government world at The Chicago Community Trust, where it is housed. In attendance are hackers, government activists, researchers, academics and community members all trying to understand current events and determine next steps. Action may be taken collectively, but most of the time work groups form and head off on their own to devise solutions.

“We are trying to foster a culture of shared learning that is more open and more effective for residents,” O’Neil says.

In service of that, O’Neil develops programing, bringing in speakers on special topics. Smart Chicago Collaborative staff serve as a newsroom, broadcasting events, and reporting out using the tools of the social Web. O’Neil takes photos and encourages conversation in person and online about everything that is going on. If it’s a Smart Chicago Collaborative meeting look for photos, blogs, twitter feeds, live streams and conversation. A partnership with local public radio station WBEZ reports regularly on developments in Chicago’s Open Data world.

“I give all credit to Dan for putting a human face on all these Smart Chicago Collaborative inititives,” say MacArthur’s Harkness.

National Day of Civic Hacking

National Day of Civic Hacking

At a Smart Chicago Collaborative event, what happens is the data and it is full of information that can be processed and distributed. Everyone is welcome and nothing is wasted. Including the food. There’s always lots of it, with O’Neil encouraging everyone to take home leftovers.

“Smart Chicago Collaborative has promise to do leading edge work for at least the next decade,” says Terry Mazany, President and CEO of the Chicago Community Trust. “Our entire modus operandi is to do all of this with an eye toward creating availability – not that Smart Chicago is replicable, rather, that the products of it is. Its products are the approaches to accessibility, to skills training —  then,  to leveraging that to increase information access and opening up civic data for everyday uses.”

Published by


Sally Duros believes good writing is a superpower. You can connect with Sally on , and on Twitter.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.