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Uniting technologists and community leaders to help solve civic problems in Chicago

Christopher Whitaker is being honored as a Champion of Change for applying his tech skills for civic good.

Christopher Whitaker

Christopher Whitaker is being honored as a Champion of Change for applying his tech skills for civic good.

In early 2009, I joined the Illinois Department of Employment Security as a program representative at a field office in Chicago. The bottom had dropped out in the economy and our office was packed to the brim with people who - through no fault of their own - had been laid off from their jobs.

 So, on my first day of work I showed up, went to my desk, and booted up a system that was built in 1973. It was a DOS-based system that didn’t process anything that I entered in until evening. In order to learn if what you did the previous day worked, you had to go line by line through a report that printed out on a ream of paper every morning. Given the vast scope of the economic crisis and its impact on everyday residents, I was expecting to have the tools needed to help unemployed residents.

 There’s a glaring gap in technology between the private and civic sectors. This is exceedingly frustrating as government and community non-profit organizations are tasked with solving big problems that affect residents on a daily basis. I’ve been fortunate to be a part of a movement to help fix these problems in my role as both the Code for America Brigade Captain for Chicago and as a project manager for the Smart Chicago Collaborative.

 There is a lot of work being done in Chicago to advance civic innovation. When Mayor Emanuel came into office in 2011, he hired John Tolva and Brett Goldstein to help release city data and to advance the city’s digital infrastructure. With the wealth of data now being released by the city, civic technologists are able to turn this data into civic apps like, Chicago Councilmatic, and Clearstreets. Many of these apps are built at the weekly OpenGov Hack Nights hosted every Tuesday night by Derek Eder and Juan Pablo-Valez inside Chicago’s 1871 coworking space. Tom Schenk Jr, Director of Analytics at the City of Chicago, is a constant presence at the hack nights, helping civic developers with questions they have about city data. In the past few years, we’ve made tremendous progress at using open data to help our communities.. We’re taking the lessons that we’ve learned during these hack nights and spreading them to other cities through the Code for America Brigade program.

 At Smart Chicago Collaborative, we’re accelerating this effort by collaborating with civic developers, government departments, and community organizations to produce more complex civic apps that will have a larger impact. The Smart Chicago Collaborative works to use the transformative power of technology to spur civic innovation in Chicago. These efforts include supporting apps like Foodborne Chicago, which listens to Twitter for cases of food poisoning in Chicago. We use those interactions to then submit a 311 request to the Chicago Health Department so that restaurant gets inspected - resulting in a healthier Chicago. We’re also testing these apps through our Civic User Testing group. The Civic User Testing Group has recruited testers all over the city to help ensure the civic apps developed here are both user-friendly and actually solving problems.

 Civic problems are complex in nature. Given the drastic cuts to social services in the last few years, it will take more than a few cool apps to help solve these issues. However, by fostering collaborative partnerships between technologists and the civic sector, we can make a big impact in our communities.

Christopher Whitaker is a Project Management Consultant at the Smart Chicago Collaborative