How Smart Chicago gets everyday people to guide future of civic tech

Developer Fernando Diaz (at laptop) tests his food inspection site with three residents attending a CUTGroup meeting at a Chicago branch library in 2013. Photo by Flickr user Daniel X. O’Neil.

This post is one in a series on what four community and place-based foundations are learning by funding media projects that help to meet their local information needs. All are funded through the Knight Community Information Challenge.

Civic tech is growing quickly in the U.S., as a recent Knight report showed, and publicly accessible civic data is expanding in breadth and quantity across American cities. It’s clear that open data and increasingly sophisticated civic websites and apps are the future. Alas, as author William Gibson famously stated, “The future is here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.” RELATED LINKS

Foundations take on projects to improve local news and information” by Steve Outing on Knight blog, 10/30/14

A foundation eager to act learns to listen first” by Steve Outing on Knight blog, 12/17/14

In Wisconsin, a vacant newspaper building takes new life” by Steve Outing on Knight blog, 01/21/15

Numerous open civic datasets are available for New York and San Francisco, where governments provide building code enforcement violations, lobbyist activity, restaurant inspections, service requests by city residents, and more. Those cities top the list in the US City Open Data Census. In many other cities, such as Boulder, Colorado, where I live, that data is not yet easily available to the public.

Of course, for a city to rank high on the data census, local public agencies need to provide access to their datasets. Which brings us to Chicago, where not only is the city doing well on open data (it ranks No. 7 in the Open Data Census), but the local tech community and philanthropic sector are on top of their games when it comes to creating and funding civic-tech projects to inform and engage Chicago-area citizens.

Chicagoans, for example, can use a website to report food-poisoning incidents to city health inspectors; access their own juvenile arrest records and apply to have them expunged online; and for those using wheelchairs, find a safe and accessible transit route between any points in the city with a mobile app. Those and more exist largely because of the Smart Chicago Collaborative, which is funded by the Chicago Community Trust and Knight’s Community Information Challenge, and is a partner with the City of Chicago. Smart Chicago’s executive director is Daniel X. O’Neil, a technologist well known as a co-founder of Chicago local data and news website Everyblock.

The collaborative’s mission is to “improve lives in Chicago through technology,” and it continues its run of developing useful civic apps by partnering with and supporting local developers. (Check out some of the creations here and here.) O’Neil and his team work hard to attract local web and app developers to sign on for projects, but it’s just as important to get Chicagoans who have no or little experience with technology involved — both to get the perspective of everyday end users of a civic app, and to make civic apps and websites known to “real people” outside of the core Chicago civic hacking community.

The key element to achieve that goal has been the CUTGroup (a.k.a., Civic User Testing Group), currently comprised of about 840 local residents who have signed up to be testers for civic apps under development. (New CUTGroup members receive a $5 VISA gift card, which has been a successful recruitment tool. Then, when a member actually participates in an in-person or remote user test, he/she gets a $20 gift card.)

Smart Chicago recently published The CUTGroup Book, a practical, no-nonsense guide to creating a similar user-testing program in your community. It’s free online, or you can order a paperback edition on Definitely read this book. Here too are a few of the important lessons that O’Neil shares from running CUTGroups:

  • For civic tech that will serve the entire community (example), it’s important for testers to be pulled from every neighborhood and area of a city, with a goal of group diversity in both demographics and levels of digital literacy.
  • Be prepared for working with people who are not comfortable with technology. O’Neil recalls a recent CUTGroup testing of the website to request expungement of juvenile criminal records, with high school students. Some of them were new to the concept of filling out a form on a website; others had trouble using an iPad for the first time. “It’s been incredibly humbling for me to meet people where they are” technologically, O’Neil said.
  • For in-person testing, use public facilities such as library meeting rooms, and vary the locations around the city. 
  • Don’t count on public wi-fi to be adequate. If a library’s wi-fi network is overcrowded, it might degrade the testing. It’s smart to bring your own portable wi-fi connection. (Smart Chicago uses Mobile Citizen, which costs $10 a month.)
  • For testing mobile apps, some participants will bring their own devices (smartphones, tablets). Bring extra devices, for those who don’t bring their own, and for people who bring devices that have problems like lack of memory, incompatibility issues, etc.
  • Know the expiration dates of Visa gift cards. O’Neil usually buys them in bulk, but has to plan well so that there aren’t leftovers that may expire or lose value before the next testing session.
  • Have plenty of free candy for testers, and make the sessions fun!

Often, the non-techies in the room have spotted significant problems with civic apps, and offered ideas that were new to the developers.

During the CUTGroup testing of the juvenile-records website, for example, its developer learned that links needed to be changed to have youth-friendly language. It turned out the word “adult” — as in, a contextually common phrase like “your adult records” — when used on the site sometimes triggered parental controls and restricted access.

O’Neill would like for the CUTGroup testers to think beyond the testing task at hand and advise him and his team on other needs that civic data and civic apps and websites might meet for them. “My dream is to get the technology-inexperienced people to come with ideas” for civic apps that would be useful for them. “But it hasn’t happened yet.”

Steve Outing is a writer and digital media consultant.