Neighborhoods apply ‘civic tech’ for local gains

(Flickr/ sleepinyourhat)

(Flickr/ sleepinyourhat)

It’s a running joke among some folks that if you need help with a technical matter, you’d best find a teenager. But as digital tools and web services become the norm, community development organizations are ramping up their tech skills and helping neighborhood residents and businesses do the same.

Tech efforts are popping up all across LISC’s neighborhood network – and within LISC Chicago itself. Most prominent are the basic building blocks – how to use databases, helping small businesses get online, and training neighborhood residents in web and office tools. But there’s also a cadre of “power users” pushing into new territory:

  • Greater Southwest Development Corp. has built a mile-long wireless corridor along 63rd Street, bringing free internet service to businesses and residents via 17 rooftop access points.
  • The Chinatown Chamber of Commerce is experimenting with texting tools that send coupons or other incentives that support businesses and events.
  • The Resurrection Project is working with tech-curious residents to advance use of the crowd-sourced neighborhood website, the Pilsen Portal, and to introduce “open government” tools and datasets.
  • LISC Chicago is using a cloud database called Wufoo to track thousands of interactions by Obamacare health-insurance navigators in 24 neighborhoods.

Civic tech

It’s all part of what the Knight Foundation calls “civic tech,” the use of web apps and other digital tools to improve communities. Knight’s December 2013 report identifies more than $430 million recently invested in areas such as community organizing, peer-to-peer sharing, neighborhood forums and information crowdsourcing.

But while the Knight database includes more than 100 bigger tech enterprises, the community-based efforts in Chicago are typically small and put together on shoestring budgets. They take place not in the well-educated hipster districts or the big tech centers downtown, but in neighborhoods where incomes, education levels and internet usage tend to be low. And thus they represent small but real steps by less-connected neighborhoods to build bridges into the high-tech world.

“Our neighborhood is basically not online and not engaged with the internet,” said Tina James of the Greater Southwest Development Corp. (GSDC) at a LISC-sponsored Commercial Roundtable Lunch in Chinatown. “Many of our business owners don’t know a lot about computers, are scared of technology, and don’t have access to the internet.”

That’s why GSDC built its wireless corridor, using funds from a LISC seed grant and the 63rd Street Special Service Area taxing district, and why it sponsored a five-week series of tech workshops for small businesses last May and June. About 60 businesses participated and a few have made the jump to computer bookkeeping, internet use or online credit-card processing. “To me,” said James, “that is a big tech win.”

Peer sharing

Much of the learning among neighborhoods comes from peer-to-peer sharing about challenges and the tech tools that might address them. At the lunch in Chinatown, the executive director of the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, Yin Kean, opened the session with a simple yet powerful demonstration of text messaging.

“In our neighborhood, the mobile phone is often the best way to reach people,” she said. So to share her contact info, she asked participants to text YinKean (no space) to a five-digit number (28748); within seconds, her contact info was texted back. (Go ahead, try it.) Using the same technology, called “permission marketing,” the chamber offered prizes and restaurant coupons at events, and began building a database of phone numbers for future outreach.

Two others talked about their own wireless networks, each built to serve a particular need. Roger Sosa of the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council said the Stockyards Industrial Park isn’t wired for high-speed internet, and that it can cost $50,000 to bring the service in from nearby arterial streets. So his group hired a contractor to beam wireless service into the park, and signed up customers including Testa Produce, which employs more than 200 at a $24 million facility and Calvetti Meats, a purveyor of high quality meats to the restaurant business. James Ratleff, CEO of AR Designs, Inc., was hired by a development firm, The Community Builders, Inc., to install a private wireless network that provides low-cost service to residents of the Oakwood Shores mixed-income development in Bronzeville.

Peer sharing is also central to the informal trainings at LISC called Data Fridays, which attract 20 or more community-development professionals each month with topics that range from data visualizations to the use of macros in Excel. The group typically includes both advanced and beginning users who openly share their victories as well as their frustrations with the tech learning curve.

Gaining data skills

It’s not an easy road, nor a quick one. A 2011 assessment of the data and technical capacities of LISC Chicago’s neighborhood partners found that while most groups “generally value data,” they lacked the time, expertise and resources to use the information in meaningful ways. Many groups had antiquated hardware and software, lacked staff members with technical or data skills, and didn’t have the funding to build capacity.

“Many community-based organizations have not traditionally felt invested in their own data,” said Taryn Roch, who conducted the 2011 analysis for the Metro Chicago Information Center, and who now is LISC Chicago’s program officer for evaluation and impact. “They’ve always shared data with funders, but weren’t in the practice of asking questions of the data or analyzing it for their own benefit.”

Over the last few years, LISC and partners have been methodically improving their capacity through large, multi-community projects. LISC’s network of 13 Centers for Working Families routinely captures detailed data about participants and is in the midst of a major upgrade of its Efforts to Outcomes database. Partners in the five-neighborhood Smart Communities demonstration program have taught thousands of residents how to use the web and are now introducing use of public data sets thanks to a Knight Foundation grant for Open Gov for the Rest of Us. The Elev8 program in five middle schools tracks student attendance and disciplinary actions to keep students “on track” for ninth-grade success.

The latest? LISC and 21 neighborhood partners are using the cloud database Wufoo to track individuals reached by Obamacare health navigators. The tool was configured for LISC by the city’s leading civic-tech organization, the Smart Chicago Collaborative, making it easy for navigators to input data from mobile devices or desktop computers. By early December, they had logged 9,300 interactions with enough detail to know that 30 percent of participants preferred to be contacted by text messages, that more than half who gave age information were in the critical “young invincibles” range of 19 to 34 years old, and that 43 percent of the interactions involved the Spanish language. Ninety had completed their applications for health insurance.

“In Chicago, we’ve got the best minds and hearts in community development,” said LISC Executive Director Susana Vasquez, “and we’ve got the best minds and hearts in the civic tech arena, too. When you put those two together, that’s where real innovation happens.”

For more information: Dionne Baux, LISC Chicago program officer, dbaux@lisc.org, 312-422-9564.