2. Origins

An immediate impetus

At Smart Chicago, all of our programs grow directly from our work. We think and learn by doing. In the fall and winter of 2012, we worked with our partner, the Illinois Science &  Technology Coalition, on the Illinois Open Technology Challenge. Our mission was 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”.

As part of our work, we did meetups up and down the state. We traveled 900 miles to conduct 8 meetups in 6 locations in 4 cities with 149 people. We worked with 12 government IT professionals to publish 138 new datasets (34 in Champaign, 15 in Rockford, 12 in Belleville, and 77 from the 42 municipalities South Suburban Mayors & Managers Association).

Here’s how we described the work:

This is the time for anyone with an idea to present it to the group in a more complete fashion and make a pitch for people to join them. We will have lots of materials that will help you express yourselves—easels, large Post-Its, markers, etc. You’ll want to talk about what data you’d like to use and what community issues you want to solve. We also ask you two questions when signing up for the Meetup—the more thinking you do before the event, the more you will get out of it.

Do you have an idea for an app that you’d like to submit? Let us know!
Do you have a community issue you’d like to address through data and technology? If so, can you describe?

We tried to communicate the idea that everyone was welcome, whether you had “an idea for an app” (which assumes some fluency with technology) or just a “community issue you’d like to address,” you could join a team and win money.

As you can see from the overall numbers, we had some success in getting people out for the meetings. We met plenty of local developers and were able to introduce them to city officials. Midway through, we realized we had to be more aggressive in outreach to community members, so we sought and received coverage on the nightly news in Rockford and afternoon radio in Champaign. Here’s a snip from the news coverage:

With countless amounts of data, the government is seeking a way for the public to access the information to solve common problems. The City of Rockford Information Technology Department invites the community to take the Illinois Open Technology Challenge. If you develop an app to solve a problem using Rockford data, you could win $15,000. Smart Chicago Collaborative Executive Director Dan O’Neil encourages anyone with an idea to check out illinoisopentech.org. “You can make technology that’s actually in the service of the people. That’s the idea. That we can change Rockford, change your city and change your world with technology.”

But we failed at getting regular residents to show up at these meetings. I realized that with a value proposition that starts with “If you develop an app,” there was no way we were going to get regular people to show up. We were offering $15,000 in prizes in four cities, but our program was too involved:

  • Come to a meeting on a weeknight
  • Develop/present an original idea for an “app”
  • Persuade one or more developers to build the idea
  • Follow the process through to completion
  • Submit the finished site/app
  • Prosper

When we got to Belleville—as far south as one could get in Illinois—we had the mayor, some developers from St. Louis, and zero members of the public. There had to be an easier way.

Some antecedents

By January 2013, I was definitely casting about for an easier way to get regular residents involved in civic tech. At the same time, I was pulling together thoughts around the limitations of civic hacking—the practice of local developers making technology with local data to serve local needs. I put those thoughts down in a blog post called “Turning Civic Hacking into Civic Innovation.” Here’s a snip:

There are lots of reasons why civic hacking works here in Chicago—a rich baseline of data and technology, an engaged developer community, real discussions with government about policy and data, and the support of institutions are all important factors.

But what we’re missing most is sustained engagement with the residents of the city of Chicago. That’s how we can turn mere hacking into real innovation. The magic combination of government, developers, and community members is what we’re after.

A rich baseline of public data projects, an engaged developer community, government that cares, and support from institutions. But we had to appeal to regular residents. I turned to my experience.

  • In the summer of 2003, I taught a course of 15 elementary and high school students in a weeklong “computer camp”
  • In 2004, I did bilingual website training for Spanish speakers in Lincoln Square. I created and led a number of bilingual computer-training sessions for the large (but mostly invisible to the Caucasian population at the Church) Spanish-speaking community at a parish in the North Side. I saw the need, designed tools to fill the need, and conducted the training myself
  • In 2006, I developed a custom 9-hour “Websites for Small Businesses” course taught in three-hour stretches over three days. This was open to the public, and I taught all comers. Almost everyone had very low skills. Many had never had an email account before

These experiences—setting up shop, in public computer centers, for all comers—were formative for me. My experience as a co-founder of EveryBlock was also important. Everyone on the team was expected to answer user emails, which consisted of bug submissions, feature requests, and comments of all manner.

With all of this in mind—our current inability to attract community members and my past experience in working directly with people around technology—I came up with the concept of the CUTGroup.

Our motto: “If it doesn’t work for you, it doesn’t work”.


Spanish language version of church bulletin.

ORIGINS belleville-city-hall

Belleville City Hall


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