Civic tech is a growing subsector of the technology industry, and as the movement goes forward, there’s a continued imperative to include more people. At the Smart Chicago Collaborative, a civic organization devoted to improving lives in Chicago, we think we have the right structure, principles and programs to serve as a model for other cities.
When I first got to Smart Chicago, our baseline focus — access to the Internet, digital skills once you’re on the Internet, and data, which we construe as meaningful things to look at once you have access and skills — had already been set. We were created out of a citywide planning process that culminated in the May 2007 report titled, “The City that NetWorks: Transforming Society and Economy Through Digital Excellence.”
It was also set by the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) under a grant agreement with the Chicago Department of Innovation and Technology, completing work under No. 17-43-B10507 (Sustainable Broadband Adoption) and No. 17-42-B10553 (Public Computer Centers), a portion of the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program. The programs, funded at over $17 million, embedded in our founding deep relationships with subrecipients such as the Chicago Public Library, Department of Family and Support Services, the Chicago Housing Authority and City Colleges of Chicago — the places where thousands of people are already being served, rooted in the institutions and organizations that touch so many lives.
You could say Smart Chicago is not your typical civic tech outfit.
Having said that, Smart Chicago still manages to produce an immense output of technology. We run a portal of early childhood learning locations for the Mayor’s Office; a site that serves as the only place you can see the wealth of health data published by the Chicago Department of Health; a simple app that polls Twitter to help stimulate reports of food poisoning; and a service delivery analysis tool, which is built on the largest Open 311 system in the country (which we funded and helped create through a Code for America fellowship). Add that to the Developer Resources program, where we’ve supported the launch and maintenance of a couple dozen civic apps.
We think we’ve earned our way in civic tech.
But nearly all of this work is centered on the technology and the technologist. This centering, in its grossest expression, relies on the glorification of the developer, an abiding belief in technical solutions and token (if any) attention paid to the will or the needs of the people.
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 to share 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.
A note about Jake Brewer: Over the weekend, the civic tech movement lost a leader and a worker. Jake Brewer, senior policy adviser in the the Office of the Chief Technology Officer, died in a cycling collision on Saturday. I worked with him in many of the positions he’s held in our community, including sponsoring a U.S. Ignite event in Chicago. He will be missed in many ways. He was a grinder. He never stopped. Let’s not either.
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