What is Civic Tech?

What is Civic Tech?

Civic technology |ˈsivik tekˈnäləjē | noun 

: Technology projects involving intentional collaboration between technologists, bureaucrats, entrepreneurs and nonprofit employees to engage the public or solve civic problems. 

: Any technology that intersects public life*  


Civic technology is a new phrase that’s gained recent popularity in the growing – but still nascent – sector of people who work in technology and focus their efforts towards solving challenges facing the public sector.

The problem with new phrases is nobody has a standard definition.  The above definition is mine (which may not be exactly the same as Smart Chicago’s or Code for America’s.) It’s not “government IT” because the work involves and a lot of time is led by non-profits. It’s certainly not the standard way of doing things that involves hiring one of those companies that advertise at airports and costs governments tons of money. Civic technology is not exactly the same thing as civic hacking even though they’re closely related.

It’s also not really the same thing as civic hacking. We get asked about civic hacking more often and it’s probably a more confusing term than civic technology. (Which is why a lot of us stopped using the phrase civic hacking.)  This is partly because hacking is such a loaded term depending on who you’re asking.

The thing about hacking

To most people, hacking either means hitting something with a sharp object over and over again or it means breaking into your computer and stealing your stuff. As somebody who isn’t a native coder – the best way I’ve been able to describe hacking in our space has been “trying different things repeatedly in order to get a desired outcome; sometimes producing a result that was not intended by the original designers.”

If you’ve ever watched a developer at work, you can see this pattern. We need to get the app to do A, but X isn’t working. Let’s try Y. No go? Alright, let’s look on Stack Overflow (or to non-tech people, google it) to see if anyone else has tried to do this. Ok, that worked for her – let’s try Z. Hey, Z worked!

This type of activity isn’t good or bad. I can use a 13 inch knife to do a lot of things, but most of the time I’m using it to cut veggies. Of course, nobody writes a news story about somebody cutting vegetables – using a knife only makes the news when something bad happens. Same principal applies here.

So, yeah… not the best phrase when trying to convince people that they should be taking a radically different approach to how governments and nonprofits use technology. Even though the phrase is perfectly neutral inside the tech world, to outsiders it always seemed a bit…unauthorized – despite a lot of what we do is working with people.

There are a lot of people who spend time working on apps that aren’t authorized by any government or non-profit. However, that’s mostly because a lot of what people are doing is volunteer work. They’re taking government data (a lot of times released by the government hoping that people do stuff with it) and using it in a way that solves a problem. They’ll often try a bunch of different things with the data or to get a result they want that solves (or at least educates about) a civic problem.

In other words, they’re doing civic hacking.

Civic technology differs from this because a lot of the time when people are talking about being civic technologists they’re talking about their profession. There are a great many number of people who work full time in civic technology, but their numbers are growing thanks to civic organizations who understand that the way they were doing technology before just isn’t working and that they need make the investment to hire smart people. (See 18F, USDS, Code for America, City of Chicago’s Department of Innovation and Technology, Smart Chicago, and so on.)

Polymaths, Collaboration, and the knowledge transfer

Another key difference is that civic technology projects are collaborative and intentional right from the very beginning. Civic technologists have to be a little bit of a polymath having to know about two distinct fields. It doesn’t help that both of these fields love their jargon and work in ways that don’t seem obvious to outsiders.

Example: Some developers like to work super late at night so they can focus without being interrupted. Front line government employees have to have prodigious customer service skills because the claimants can sometimes get very hostile and you can’t turn them away.) If you’re one of those fields – you’ve been there.

However, the whole polymath thing only goes so far. Civic technology crosses so many different subjects  – health, web development, social services, UX design, transportation, DevOps, safety and justice –  that people have to spend years learning about it so they can do their jobs effectively. It is incredibly difficult to be an expert on both ends. It requires deep collaboration – build with, not for  and the like – to build something that’s solves a real problem effectively. 

A lot of the activity around civic technology involves the difficult work of building coalitions and partnerships that can result in impactful projects. Largelots.org, an app that helps the city sell vacant lots, doesn’t work because it was well coded. (Even though it was) It works because community organizers got everyone together, worked out a game plan, got everyone to agree on the plan, and then got the funding to hire a civic app shop that he knew could do it. And it. was. awesome.

And this work doesn’t just require consulting with the experts – you have to talk to the problem owners themselves. Not the experts! The people who are waiting on hold for 30 minutes because they’re trying to buy groceries at the store and the card that has the SNAP benefits isn’t going through. They’re the people who have to move out of neighborhoods they’ve lived in for years because of gentrification. Civic technology deals with problem sets that are both difficult to solve and mostly problems that the general public will never experience.  Do you know why everyone picks on the DMV? It’s because everyone has to go to the DMV –  so you know about it. There’s a whole realm of personal knowledge that is vital to understanding how to build things that actually work.

So while you can’t be a total expert in everything, there is a certain level of knowledge you have to have to do civic technology work. That’s why another big component of the work is the knowledge transfer – writing everything down so that other people can learn what we’re doing and how to do it. The problems civic technologists are trying to solve are massive in scope. Healthcare.gov may have been the most prolific government tech failure, but it’s certainly not the only one. People just noticed it more. The only way to make a dent in the problem is to activate more professional civic technologists. (That’s people working full time at this – and not just volunteering.) When we get people interested in our space, we have to ensure they get trained up. The movement has been around more than a few years now and there’s definitely some lessons we’ve learned. Without providing training, it becomes harder for people to enter the space. Eventually, this might be done by universities but the process of adjusting curriculum is a slow process. We need people in the civic part of the technology sector immediately.

That’s also a large part about what makes weekly hack nights so valuable. You’re putting people in rooms that wouldn’t normally interact. What happens when you get a social worker and a UX designer together? Or data scientists and somebody from legal aid? Or a community organizer and an app developer? The civic people get more tech savvy and the tech people become more civic savvy. That’s a positive outcome in-and-of-itself, but also empower people to be able to work on a civic technology project when the opportunities arrive.

Going pro and designing things to work from the very start

The fantastic advantage about having people working on this full time working either in or right next to civic organizations is that they can then start from scratch and be super intentional about their work.

Take the City of Chicago’s Department of Innovation and Technology (DoIT).

  1. Hire Chief Data Officer
  2. Establish open data policy
  3. Develop software to seamlessly feed data from business systems to portal
  4. Hire more people
  5. Build thing with data feeds to help city make sense of what it knows about a location
  6. Hire more people
  7. Open source data dictionary (thing that helps city manage its data)
  8. Hire more people
  9. Open source OpenETL toolkit (thing that feeds data into portal)
  10. Hire more people
  11. Open source thing that turns data feeds into predictions about critical food violations
  12. ???

When it’s laid out like this, you can see the pattern. The city’s been investing (read; hired smart people) and are working towards building a platform that makes the city smarter. Open sourcing their software helps them grow their team, interact with other people in the space, and helps them to respond to the public needs.  Because the releases are years apart, this may be mistaken for the City building different things. However, it’s all coordinated. (Nor is it a secret as a lot of this is in the city’s tech plan.)

18F and USDS, the federal government’s civic technology teams, are also getting the advantage of being very deliberate with their projects. While they still have to deal with decades old legacy systems, they’re clearly in the driver’s seat. And that’s important because while this is feels like new branch of the technology center – it’s not.

About that asterisk

Get ten civic technologists in a room and hand them a list of companies and ask them if they’re civic technology companies.

  • Accela
  • Uber
  • Textizen
  • Accenture
  • DataMade

You’re going to get ten different answers. For me, any technology project that intersects with the civic sector is civic technology. This is my definition – not everyone agrees with me on this point. The original healthcare.gov was civic technology. It deals with the delivery of health insurance and attempts to support efforts to ensure everybody has health insurance.

It was a terrible piece of civic technology. It was expensive and it didn’t work.

Still counts.

Uber is a company that tries to solve transportation problems in cities despite their bullcrap about not being a transportation company. It’s the Justin Beiber of the tech world. It’s extremely popular, but kind of an asshole.  With the do-good focus of the civic technology space, having Uber in the mix is like pouring oil in water.

Still counts.

Not only does Uber count, but it’s had a large impact on policy. Uber, AirBnB, and other ‘sharing economy’ type companies had forced cities to pass additional regulations to deal with the impact of the sharing economy. Right now there’s a huge fight about if Uber drivers are employees – something to keep in mind when you see those #fightfor15 tweets.

A lot of the policy discussion that you see from the civic technologists regards government procurement. Government procurement is part of the reason that government IT failures like healthcare.gov are allowed to happen. (For more on why this is, listen to what Clay Johnson has said on the topic.)

The short version is that the government procurement process often makes it extremely difficult for government agencies to get great software. With the aftermath of the recession, government agencies at all levels realized that this was a huge problem and that they could no longer afford to be doing things the same way that they were. This has opened the door for a lot of activity regarding trying to get the process fixed so that the small company with great ideas has a fair shot against the multinational company with an army of corporate lawyers at its command. It may not always be in the brochure, but this fight is one of the big underpinnings of the movement.

Because CGI Federal is a civic technology company even though a lot of us really don’t like them. Companies like them don’t refer to themselves as civic technologists either – they’re management consultant companies.

There’s no such thing as magic

Technology can have this infectious wonder associated with it. I can pull a small glass brick from my pocket and access the whole of human knowledge and then comment on it through a medium that can be accessed worldwide instantaneously. Through this glass brick I can ask for a ride, have somebody do my laundry, all while binge watching my favorite show.  There are times when this can seem like magic.

It’s not of course – but it there is significant power in technology. One of the overarching themes for those who identify as civic technology movement is that all this power should be leveraged to benefit the public. That if I can summon ramen to my door, then the people trying to feed the poor should have software that actually helps them accomplish that.  That if I can summon somebody to do my laundry for me, then the people trying to protect children from abuse shouldn’t be stuck using a software system that constantly fails them.

The movement’s gaining momentum, but we still need people in the game and we still need the things we make to become popular.

Building the Civic Innovation Ecosystem – Notes from the Civic Tech Forum


Today, I’ll be speaking at the Civic Tech Forum 2015 in Tokyo, Japan about Chicago’s Civic Innovation Ecosystem. I’m very proud to represent Chicago at today’s event and super grateful to Civic Tech Forum Committee for the invitation.

I’ve posted by slides below as well as my speakers notes. They’ve been translated into Japanese by Code for Japan‘s Shigeomi Shibata.

I’m looking forward to the conversation!

このドキュメントは2015年3月29日に東京、科学技術館で行われるCivic Tech Forumにおける基調講演、クリストファー・ウィテカー氏のプレゼンテーションのノート部分を仮訳した物です。
訳 Code for Ibaraki, Code for Japan 柴田重臣
Konichiwa, Watashi-no-na-mae-ha Christopher Whitaker to wa-tashi wa Shikago kara shimin no gijutsu kon-sar-u-tanto desu. (Good afternoon, my name is Christopher Whitaker and I am a civic technology consultant from Chicago.) Kyō wa anata ni hanasu koto wa meiyodearu.
(It is an honor to speak with you today. )


So first, a little about my hometown. Chicago is the third largest city in the United States and we’re known for a few things. The first is that we’re one of the coldest cities in the country – last winter we had 658 mm of snow. We’re also known for the Chicago Cubs with their 100 year losing streak. We also are the home to deep dish pizza…. which comes to about 50mm of cheese, sauce and sausage. Our skyline sits on the shores of Lake Michigan, which showcases some of the best architecture in the county.


We’re also known for being a civic innovation powerhouse. Our city has one of the biggest repositories of open data in the nation, we have one of the biggest weekly gathering of civic hackers worldwide, and we are one of the most productive cities when it comes to projects that leverage the power of technology in the service of the public good.

We can do this because we’ve built an ecosystem design to power civic innovation. I’d like to tell you a little about my story and the story of our civic innovation ecosystem.


When I give my talks, I always like to ask how many developers are in the room. People who code, know Ruby, have GitHub Accounts. (Pause) – Ok, so this is the part where I give out my deepest darkest secret (Pause) that I am not a coder. I don’t know Python, I don’t know R and if you let me into your production branch on Github – I will destroy everything.


I came into civic technology from the opposite direction from a lot of my peers.

It was early 2009 and the American economy was in the worst recession in decades. Wall Street was crashing, houses were being foreclosed, and unemployment was skyrocketing. As part of the government’s response, the federal government gave money to state governments to hire more bureaucrats to help process unemployment claims. I was hired by the State of Illinois in 2009 to work in a field office.

So, my first day of work I arrive 30 minutes early. It’s early March and so it’s still pretty cold in Chicago – and there is still a line of about 20 people out the door. I get to my desk and boot up my computer – and I wait about five minutes because the computer is from 1995 – It’s got a big box monitor bigger than my head. I finally pull up the system that I would be using to help my friends and neighbors with their unemployment insurance…and I am greeted by a DOS screen. (pause)


出勤初日、職場に30分早く到着しました。3月初旬でシカゴはまだ寒かったのですが、それでもすでに約20人もの人が外に列を作っていました。早速デスクに座り、コンピューターを立ち上げました。しかし、立ち上がるまで5分もかかったのです。なぜならそれは1995年から14年間も使い続けられてきた骨董品だったからです。私の頭よりも大きなブラウン管モニターがついていました。どうにかシステムが立ち上がり、雇用保険を申し込む知り合いや地域の人々にサービスを提供できると思ったとき、・・・ 私が見たのは黒井画面に緑の文字のDOS(ドス)の画面でした。

It’s got a green text, it sorta blinks at me. And I’m floored. Turns out this system was from 1975. The system wasn’t a real time system. So, when I did anything (enter in somebody’s claim for unemployment insurance, made sure the system sent them a check) – it didn’t actually happen until it ran through an overnight process. The only way for me to know for certain if something I did worked was to come in the next morning and print a ream of paper about this thick (hand motion) – then go through line…by line…by line… to make sure that nothing rejected. Because if it rejected and nobody fixed it, the claimant would come in 3 days later asking us “Hey! You told me you fixed it! There’s no money in my account – now I can’t pay rent!”

At the same time, I’m carrying around one of these in my pocket. (show iPhone)



Something 10 times more powerful that the system that I had to use to help my neighbors with their unemployment and I’m using this (iphone) to watch cat videos on my way home.. It was incredibly frustrating because to me it should be the opposite. As a front line public servant, I should have the best tools possible to help residents. So, I started getting more into technology as a way to try to find ways to do my job better. I started going to technology events, to hackathons, and looking for ways to get involved.


After graduating with a Master’s of Public Administration from DePaul University, I became a consultant for the Smart Chicago Collaborative. Around the same time, I became one of Code for America’s first Brigade Captains – and later became the Brigade coordinator for the Midwest region. I also help to co-host the OpenGov Hack Night in Chicago – the largest weekly gathering of civic technologists in the United States. I’m extremely privileged to be able be involved in so many of these efforts and to be part of this community. Specifically, I’m proud to represent Chicago’s civic innovation community.

デポール大学の行政学修士を納めた後、私はスマートシカゴコラボラティブのコンサルタントになりました。同時に、Code for Americaの最初のブリゲイド・キャプテンにもなったのです。後に、米国中西部のブリゲイド・コーディネーターも勤めるようになりました。また、シカゴではオープン・ガバメント・ハクナイトを協同で運営しています。これは全米最大のシヴィックハッカーの毎週のつどいです。このような運動に参加し、コミュニティの一部となれることはこのうえなく栄誉なことだと思っています。特にシカゴのシヴィック・イノヴェーション・コミュニティを代表としてうれしく思います。

In the past few years, we’ve been able to accomplish quite a bit.


Some examples of our recent wins include a site called Largelots.org. Because of the recession, Chicago has had a lot of abandoned buildings. The City tears the buildings down then takes ownership of the lot – which the city doesn’t like to do because it’s just sitting there. Teamwork Englewood, a community organization on Chicago’s south side, worked with the city and a local civic technology company called DataMade to build a site that let’s people buy these vacant lots for one dollar.


For another project, Smart Chicago worked with a local youth organization called Mikva Challenge to build an app (Expunge.io) to make it easier for people to get their juvenile records erased so that it’s easier for people to find jobs and apply to university.


Smart Chicago also worked with our city health department to build an app that listens to Twitter for reports of food poisoning. So, if I eat somewhere and tweet that I’m sick, the Health Department will tweet me back asking for more information. That becomes a city service request and the city will send a restaurant inspector to that restaurant. We’ve done quite a bit of work – and we expect that work to continue as the community aims to take on bigger and more complex projects.


A big part of why we’re able to have as much impact as we do is because we have built a civic innovation ecosystem. This ecosystem acts as an engine that helps power civic innovation and produce not only civic applications – but a more transparent government, non-profit community organizations are a more technologically savvy, more civic technology companies, and much more connected network of people who understand the dual challenges of both technology and government.

Each of these different parts complement the other. The City of Chicago provides the data that powers the engine. The OpenGov Hack Night provides the place for talent and collaboration. The Smart Chicago Collaborative provides institutional support.



And then, all of Chicago’s efforts then get shared with the Code for America Brigade Network – which helps us collaborate on a global scale. I’d like to explain a little bit about each part in more detail.

さらに、シカゴでの挑戦はCode for Americaが持つボランティアのブリゲイド・ネットワークで共有されます。これによりグローバルな協働が可能になるのです。では、これから各部分についてもう少し詳しくご説明いたしましょう。

First up, The City of Chicago likes to focus on the data. They view data as fuel: fuel for transparency, fuel for innovation, and fuel for businesses.

To help facilitate this, the city has undergone the process of linking all of their business system’s directly to the city’s data portal. So, when the city fills a pothole – the information is automatically uploaded to the data portal where it can be used by civic technologists. On the city employee side, they aren’t doing anything different – there’s no additional step they have to take. The OpenETL toolkit does the work automatically. The city has open sourced the OpenETL toolkit on GitHub – so other municipalities can do the same thing.



But,the most important thing the city does to help the ecosystem is their participation in the community. This (points to Tom) is Chicago’s Chief Data Officer Tom Schenk Jr at one of our OpenGov Hack Nights. Schenk is a regular attendee at the hack night and so when the community has questions about city data or needs a particular data set, we can simply ask him directly. The Chief Data Officer is also on Twitter at @ChicagoCDO – so anyone can reach out to him and ask questions. This community involvement is a necessity – it allows the city to respond to the the community’s data needs.

しかし、この生態系を作り上げるために市が行ったなかで最も重要な事は、このコミュニティに市が参加したということです。この人(画面上、トムを指差す)がシカゴ市のチーフ・データ・オフィサー、最高データ責任者、トム・シェンク・ジュニアさんで、彼がオープン・ガバメント・ハックナイトに参加したときのものです。シェンクはハックナイトの常連なので、市のデータに何か疑問が生じたときや特定のデータセットが必要となったとき、我々は単に直接聞けばよいのです。チーフ・データ・オフィサーはまたツイッターアカウント アットマーク・シカゴCDOを持っていますので、誰でも彼にコンタクトを取ることができるし、質問することも可能です。このコミュニティへの参加が必要なのです。このことがコミュニティへの対応を市が行えることになります。

The next part of the civic innovation ecosystem that I want to talk about it people. None of these efforts that I’ve talked about work without people to come up with ideas, to build them, and to help implement them. And I’m not just talking about web developers – I’m also talking about city employees, designers, non-profit employees, data scientists, journalists – they’re all needed to make our civic apps the best they can be.

The way we recruit people into our civic innovation space is through the OpenGov Hack Night. The OpenGov Hack Night was spun out of the OpenGov Chicago monthly meetup. The OpenGov Chicago Meetup was started in 2009 as a way to promote transparency in government. Once the City of Chicago began opening up their data, the challenge became “OK… so what do we do with all of this data?” The OpenGov Chicago meetups were a great place for talk – but not a great place to get things done. The city had started to host a series of hackathons, but we quickly discovered that hackathons were great for meeting other civic hackers but we really couldn’t produce anything of quality at the hackathons.



So, Derek Eder started the OpenGov Hack Night – a weekly event for everyone to get together and work on civic apps and I started co-hosting a few months later. We’ve been doing the event for three years and it’s become the place to talk about projects, challenges, and to meet like-minded people. We average about 80 people a week and have had up to 120 people at an event. If you want to learn about the civic technology space in Chicago – this is where you go. The most important part about building this community is making sure that everyone feels welcome and invited – not just the technologists – but community activists as well. Part of what I do at hack night is teach the Civic Hacking 101 class so that it helps lower the barrier to entry. Nobody should feel intimidated when they come to join our community.


And it’s very important to get everyone – all types of people – into the community. All of these wins that I spoke about earlier – only exist because we had a partnership form between the technologists and the people who are working in front-line organizations to help try to solve civic problems. The largelots.org project was spearheaded not by the coder – but rather the community organzation that wanted to solve the problem of vacent lots inside their neighborhood. Expunge.io came about from a partnership between the legal aid foundation and a non-profit youth organization. There’s an entire community organizing aspect to our work that provides tremendous value to what we do.

そして、どんな人でも、つまりあらゆるタイプの人々がコミュニティに参加できることはとても重要なことなのです。これまでにお話してきた成功事例は全て、技術を持つ人々と行政の最前線で働く人たち、その間に居る全ての人々で市民の問題を解決しようと努力している人たちと一緒だったから出来たことなのです。largelots.org (ラージロッツ・オルグ)プロジェクトは技術者によって始まったものではありません。むしろ、地域にある空き地の問題を解決したいと考えた地域コミュニティ組織によってなのです。Expunge.io(エクスパンジ・アイオー、消去)は法律扶助組織と青年向け活動のNPOとの協働から実現したものです。地域にあるコミュニティ全体の貢献が我々の実績にとてつもない価値を与えているのです。

But that’s a hard thing to do on a volunteer basis. There are only so many hours in a day to do this work if you’re also working a full-time job. With a team of volunteers, it’s easy to get small wins. For example, creating a searchable map of all the places where you can get a flu shot online. However, to do something more complicated and more complex – it requires people working full time. Being able to do that requires considerable funding.

In 2007, the MacArthur Foundation, the Chicago Community Trust, and the City of Chicago put together a report called the “City that Networks” The leadership of these organizations recognized that the digital revolution was poised to change the way that cities functioned. The leadership came together to find a way to set Chicago up for success. To do this, they decided that Chicago needed a center of gravity of civic innovation. That organization became the Smart Chicago Collaborative. The three organizations sit on it’s leadership board with the organization itself being houses as an initiative of the Chicago Community Trust. We receive funding from the MacArthur Foundation, and the City of Chicago sits on our board.



Because we have funding, the Smart Chicago Collaborative is able to hire consultants to build civic apps, meet with partners, and provide advice to other community organizations.


We’re also able to add capacity to the ecosystem. Anyone who builds a civic app in Chicago can have it hosted by the Smart Chicago Collaborative for free. We also provide free user testing and access to developer tools like Twilio and Mapbox.


We’ve even been able to add capacity to our county government. Cook County wanted to hire a staff member to help open up their data. However, because of budget restraints they could not afford to hire somebody of adequate talent. So, Smart Chicago and Cook County split the difference enabling Kalov Strategies to start opening up Cook County data.

We have also been able to team up with World Business Chicago and neighborhood community organizations to help close the digital divide in Chicago through our Connect Chicago Challenge program.

This is only possible because we have the institutional support to help fund our efforts.




The other major activity that we do is write about our work and to tell our story. Every week, I livestream the OpenGov Hack Night and blog about the presentations. I also write how-to guides and lessons learned to help newer civic innovators in the space. In the three years that I’ve been doing this for Smart Chicago, we’ve put together over 400 blog posts about civic innovation and have over 300 videos on YouTube. We’ve also written books about our work.

We do this because when other cities ask us how we did something, we want to be able to tell the story and to be helpful. As much work as we’ve done in this space, civic technology is still a fairly new field. None of this existed ten years ago. It’s something that none of us went to school for. We’ve had to learn all of this through experience and doing the work. So, it’s very important for us to write down what worked, what didn’t, and what we were thinking at the time so that when others try and start their own projects they can learn from us.



And that brings me to the fourth part of the ecosystem – the network. While I serve as the Code for America Brigade Captain for the City of Chicago – I’m just one of many civic innovators in a global network. The network allows me to share stories about the work we’ve done with thousands of civic innovators across the globe.

そして、次にエコシステム4つ目の要素、ネットワークについてお話します。Code for Americaのシカゴ市ブリゲイドキャプテンとして活動をするとき、私はグローバルにネットワークが広がるシヴィック・イノヴェーターのひとりとなります。このネットワークにおいて、世界中に居る数千のシヴィック・イノヴェイターと自分達が成し遂げた活動についてのストーリーを共有することが可能なのです。

The real power of this network is it allows us to collaborate and exponentially expand our knowledge base. This is particularly useful for small or newer communities that are just starting out. Instead of having to do things on their own, they can literally go online and ask hundreds of civic innovators a question and get replies within minutes. Because odds are out of the 157 brigades, you are not the only one to have encountered a specific problem. We learn from the network and they learn from us.

This has also helped to scale the civic innovation movement in a very short amount of time. Each new city starts out with the lessons learned from 150 other cities including Code for Japan based right here in Tokyo.


このことはまたシヴィック・イノヴェーションのムーブメントをきわめて短時間で大きくすることを可能にしています。Code for Japanの存在するここ東京も含まれる150以上の都市から学んだことを基礎に新しく始めることができるのです。

So, I’ve given you an overview of how we built the civic innovation ecosystem in Chicago. Now, I want to show you what that allows us to do with an example of a civic startup that has come out of Chicago. This here is Rose Arfyie, the founder of mRelief. mRelief is a website that allows users to find out what social services they’re eligible for.

Social services in Chicago can be difficult to navigate because the social safety net is so complex. Social services are administered by multiple governmental and non-profit organizations each with their own set of qualifications. There’s no one stop shop for social services – you have to apply at each agency separately which can take a lot of time. It’s a big problem.



The start of this effort was when the Mayor’s office came to OpenGov Hack Night to talk about the problem set. There representatives from the Mayor’s office met with Rose. Rose and other participants came up with the idea for mReleif.


With the funding, Rose was able to go full time and hire two additional team members. mRelief used Smart Chicago’s Twillio account to enable texting for the app and then went through user testing to ensure the app was working as designed.


Because Smart Chicago works so closely with Code for America, one of the first things that we did was to introduce mRelief to Code for America’s health team. Code for America’s health focus team has worked extensively with social service issues and with creating apps that text – much like what mRelief is trying to do. This consultation helped to improve mRelief.

Once mRelief launched, they presented their work at OpenGov Hack Night – which Smart Chicago live streamed and blogged about it – helping to share their work nationally.

Later, when Code for America wanted to focus on food stamps for one of their Code Across Challenges – they reached out to mRelief to help run the challenge.

As you can see, the network allowed mRelief to amplify their efforts – and in return, Code for America’s health team and Brigade network were able learn from their experience.

mRelief has been a big success in Chicago and Smart Chicago is proud to be awarding them another $15,000 in funding to support their work.

スマート・シカゴはCode for Americaと密接に協業しているので、最初にわれわれがしたことは、このアプリをCode for Americaのヘルスケアチームに紹介することでした。Code for Americaのヘルスケアチームは福祉サービスの問題に特に集中して活動しており、携帯宛にメッセージを送信できるアプリを作成していました。これはまさにエム・リリーフが解決しようとしているものでした。この協業はエム・リリーフの改善に役立ちました。


後にCode for Americaがコード・アクロス・チャレンジというイベントで生活保護の問題に光を当てようとした際には、エム・リリーフのチームにサポートを依頼しました。

皆さんもおわかりのように、このネットワークがエム・リリーフの成果を強調することを可能にしました。同時にCode for Americaのヘルスケアチームおよびブリゲイドのネットワークはチームの経験を学ぶことが出来たのです。


As you can see, the ecosystem helps accelerate projects like mRelief and the network helps to amplify our work.


Later on, you’ll hear from Harayuki Seki-San with Code for Japan to talk more about how you can get involved in local efforts.



CivicWhitaker joins The Bunker – An incubator for veteran owned businesses

Tonight, the President of the United States voiced strong support of hiring veterans. The exact quote was “To every CEO.. if you want someone to hire who will get the job done right, hire a veteran.”

I’m in the odd position of being my own CEO. Technically speaking, I’m the only employee of my company. Scaling a consulting company isn’t easy, and so I’m super pumped to announce the following:

CivicWhitaker, Inc is joining The Bunker as one of their first Ramp Up companies. The Bunker is a non-profit business incubator that targets existing veteran owned tech startups and aspiring entrepreneurs to come, create, and conquer the business world through their ideas, hard work, and strategy.


I’m honored to become a part of The Bunker and I’m very excited about starting this new chapter for a number of reasons.

The first of which is that this is going to be very good for CivicWhitaker as a company. The company operates in a pretty unique and wonderful space. CivicWhitaker specializes in knowledge transfer and community organizing around leveraging the power of technology to help civic organizations.

CivicWhitaker doesn’t build products, we help build relationships. We’re less interested in having 1 million customers and more interested in helping a smaller number of organizations have a deep impact in their communities. I’ve been fortunate to work two leading organizations in the space. Smart Chicago and Code for America. Between these two organizations, I’ve been able to be involved in a lot of projects that have had tremendous impact in cities.

The space has been growing at a ridiculously fast pace. Despite that, there’s still a huge amount of work to do. So much, that in order to achieve our mission we have to grow. Currently, my company is just one person. The amount of work we’d like to be doing is beyond the work that can realistically done by one person. We have to grow.

It’s much harder to scale a consultancy than it is a startup. A startup simply needs to get more users. A consultancy has to have enough revenue to enable the hiring of additional staff. Getting that new revenue means taking on more work before you actually have the staff to do more work. It’s one of the tough business problems that can be tricky for first time entrepreneurs.

Being part of the Bunker means that I am going to be getting help with that. Having access to the Bunker’s network of mentors and professional development is going to be key to helping my company grow. In particular, it’s going to be tremendously useful to have contacts and mentors that are outside my field and can give our operations a fresh look.

Governor Quinn at Bunker Ribbon cutting

I’m also a big believer in the Bunker’s mission.

One of the things that’s frustrated me about veterans employment effort is that there’s a bit of a skill mismatch in some of the more prominent campaigns from Uber and Walmart.

So, you’ve just got back from fixing million dollar machines/disarming bombs/leading troops/patching people up on the battlefield and the job offer is driving a car around? Or bagging groceries? I mean -sure- I appreciate what these companies are doing. As somebody who used to work on the front lines at the unemployment office, I always like to see people getting hired. (Or in Uber’s case contracted since they don’t actually make direct hires.) However, it seems like a waste of talent to bring somebody whose tackled some of the toughest problem sets around and ask them to be drivers.

When I attended the ribbon cutting for The Bunker, I was struck by Bunker CEO Todd Connor’s remarks:

“Great startup businesses need great leaders who know how to ‘get it done’ amidst uncertain and challenging circumstances. This is what veterans bring. This represents a truly different model for the veteran community that is not about defining the veteran population as a group that needs help, but rather capitalizing on the talent pool of some of the highest performing veterans.”

The Bunker will provide veterans with opportunities to take those same leadership and problem solving skills to create new companies (that will hire more people) and become part of Chicago’s growing and thriving technology scene.

I’m super excited to be part of this effort. You can follow updates on The Bunker on their website and on Twitter.

Joining the Board at Institute for Justice Journalism

I’m happy to announce that I’ve joined the Board of Directors at the Institute for Justice Journalism. The Institute for Justice and Journalism is dedicated to strengthening journalism about social justice issues by providing trainings, and funding story projects. I first came in contact with IJJ through their Migrahack event held as part of Chicago’s National Day of Civic Hacking in 2013.

5G5A4776 copy

Since their event in Chicago, they’ve done Migrahack events in several other cities including events in Mexico City. Here’s a more in-depth look at their work.

You can find out more about IJJ on their website.

Switchboarding: How I do Introductions

One of the things I do most often is introductions. I’m fortunate enough to be affiliated with a number of organizations including the Smart Chicago Collaborative, Code for America, and Chicago’s OpenGov Hack Night. As the Midwest Coordinator for the Brigade Program, I end up spending a lot of my time switchboarding.

Switchboarding? What’s that?

Well, legend has it that telephones used to have ‘switchboards’ and required operators to function. You couldn’t just dial a number to call somebody up. You called the operator and tell them who you wanted to be connected to. The operator would literally take a wire from your phone line and connect it to the person you wanted to be connected too.

I do a very similar function when I make an introduction. One person has a specific problem set. Another person has a potential solution. Make the connection. Connections lead to collaborations. Collaborations leads to wins. I call it switchboarding because it’s not always as simple as somebody coming up to me and going “Can you introduce me to Jessica Fletcher?” – but rather somebody saying what they’re about and me thinking through my contact list and going “OH! You should totally talk to that person!”

I’ll end up doing two styles of introductions. The first is when I know both parties well enough just to write a short note and send it off. I also do this when I’ve already made the introduction in person – and just want to have the intro be made digitally. However, most of the time what I’ll do what’s called a forwarding introduction. This isn’t my concept, it’s one I borrowed from @Roybarhat. The first step is me asking you to send me a short paragraph about who you are, what you’re about, and what you want.

Wait? Don’t you already know all that stuff? 

A majority of the time, I do already know who you are and what you’re doing. However, when you send me that paragraph I’ll email the person I’m introducing you to and say, “Hey, here’s this person. They are awesome. They’re doing good work. Ya’ll should talk. Is it ok to introduce you?”

Having the paragraph be in your own words is useful because I might get it wrong. This also means that when I do introduce you, they already have all the background.

What else do you do?

The other thing I do is I include lots of links. If you’ve referenced your company or your website or your organization – I’ll provide a link to it. If the other party is interested, they’ll click the link and learn your background.

I also change the subject line, usually to something like ‘Awesome McAwesomepants, TotallyRad Inc <-> Baddie McBadAss, BigSoftie.org’. For this sort of thing, email works great. However, currently email gets used for all sorts of things and it makes the email inbox a mess. Creating a subject line like that tells somebody instantly what the email is and makes it easier to search for.

I’ll also include links to your Twitter and your LinkedIn Profile.

Wait? LinkedIn? Isn’t that site the devil? 

LinkedIn is a necessary evil. Nothing else really summarizes your professional career better than LinkedIn. And it’s something that most people already have. Now, there are some things LinkedIn could do to make it easier for me to do this. For example, to change their user interface back to where it defaulted to the custom message invite. Despite it’s flaws, LinkedIn is still the easiest thing for me link to when somebody wants to know who you are and what you’ve done professionally.

The exception to this is if both parties are prolific tweeters. Twitter is tremendously useful tool for getting to know somebody. I can scroll through somebody’s timeline and get a pretty good glimpse of what they care about. If both parties use Twitter often, this makes sense. If one or the other isn’t on Twitter – then linking to Twitter is useless.

(This also works in reverse – if I see you’re a giant a-hole to people on Twitter – I will tell people not to talk to you.)

I get Twitter, but I thought LinkedIn was just for people trying to find jobs? 

Sure, that may be true. However, having an updated LinkedIn profile or something I can point people to is helpful. When I’m making an introduction, there is a bit of storytelling involved. Having an updated profile helps me to tell that story.

If you’re lost as to what your LinkedIn profile should look like – just concentrate on the summary. At a minimum, your summary should say what you’re currently doing and what your mission is.

Mission? I don’t have a mission? 

Sure you do. Why do you do what you do? What makes you get up in the morning? What makes you the bad ass that you are? If you’re not doing what you want to be doing – write the summary to describe what you’d like to be doing. You may not be in the position you want to be yet – but the operative word there is yet. I’m a big believer that people are in constant motion.  People change jobs all the time. However, people who have a *mission* can carry that through multiple positions.

Ok, I get that – but why am I sending you the ask? Shouldn’t I get a chance to sell it first?

There’s an expression in the Army: “Setting you up for failure.” This is very bad. I don’t want to do that! I want you to include the ask because I want to give the other party to say, “Hey, this is great – but I can’t help you / don’t have time to do this / or (worse case) I think this is stupid.” If that’s the response I get, I don’t want to waste any more time trying to make a connection that isn’t going to happen.

(Sometimes, People will still want to talk even when they don’t think this is a good idea. They’ll want to talk because they *want* to help the idea get better. These people are awesome.)

Why is your intro email so long?

Because I want to deal with all the background stuff on the front end. Ideally, the only thing left to do after the intro email is to set up a phone call/in-person meeting/or simply execute on the action item. If you and the other party have to email back and forth to figure out what’s going on, I haven’t done my job well. Ideally, the response to my email should go like this.

Thanks Christopher! (Moving you to BCC)

Hi Awesome,

Great to meet you. Your idea sounds great. Would you have time for a phone call on Monday at 10:00am?



An email like this means that both parties understand what the other is trying to do and my presence is no longer needed. The “moving you to BCC” also helps because A) I know you responded and B) you’re not going to flood my inbox with logistical things that don’t impact me.

So…. you mentioned that you could make some introductions for me… 

Sure, just fill out the “Contact” page in the title bar.

Midwest Selected for Code for America Brigade Regional Pilot

I’m excited to announce that the Midwest has been selected for the first Code for America Brigade region. The Midwest Regional Brigade program will support existing Code for America brigade cities as well as work to expand the number of Brigade cities in the region. I’m also excited to announce that Code for America has signed with CivicWhitaker to help manage the new program.

Code for America Brigade

Continue reading “Midwest Selected for Code for America Brigade Regional Pilot”

I’m excited to announce that I’ll be working with the Data Science for Social Good fellowship to help tell the story of this great program. Here’s an expert from their website about the program.

The Eric & Wendy Schmidt Data Science for Social Good fellowship is a University of Chicago summer program for aspiring data scientists to work on data mining, machine learning, big data, and data science projects with social impact.

Working closely with governments and nonprofits, fellows take on real-world problems in education, health, energy, transportation, and more.

For three months in Chicago they apply their coding and analytics skills, collaborate in a fast-paced atmosphere, and learn from mentors coming from industry, academia, and the Obama campaign.

The 2014 program will bring 48 aspiring data scientists from across the country to Chicago. They are graduate and undergraduate students from quantitative and computational fields – from computer science to machine learning to statistics to public policy.

Data Science for Social Good

Keep an eye out on the DSSG blog to keep up with the fellows progress for the next few months.