An Education in Community Technology
An exit interview with Daniel O'Neil upon leaving Smart Chicago.
On Friday, Daniel O’Neil announced that he was leaving Smart Chicago after five years to join Ad Hoc LLC, the company recently hired to build vets.gov, where he will work on product development and business strategy. Civicist reached out to discuss Daniel’s departure, the lessons he has learned over the years, and where he sees civic technology going.
We’re also thrilled to announce that as of today Daniel will be joining Civicist’s roster of contributing editors. We look forward to sharing his work more frequently!
Civicist: How did your work at Smart Chicago change over your five years as executive director?
Daniel O’Neil: The main shift that I can describe is one from ‘civic tech’ to ‘community technology.’ When we first started, I had just left EveryBlock, where we pioneered open data and were deeply enmeshed in the new civic tech movement. At Smart Chicago, some of the first things we did were hosting hackathons, writing open data policies for municipalities, and starting projects with Code for America.
There was a lot of hope that civic tech would lead to new businesses and create new ways for people to interact with their government. Smart Chicago was at the center of all of that nationally. As time went by, however, we found that the people we were working with were all high-capacity, highly educated technologists. They were all very nice people and they had perfectly good ideas, but they weren’t the core people we were built to work with.
And after some time, we saw that we weren’t creating that much technology that actually helps people. This was around the time that there was a lot of questioning of the model of hackathons, when we decided/convinced ourselves that “building community” in this space was a goal—that having hackathons was less about the tech and more about the community.
The funny thing is that all of this was already built into our organization before I got here. We were charged with spending tens of millions of dollars in BTOP money. This was money for innovative community strategies, digital skills initiatives, new hardware in libraries, and public housing—things of that kind. I had a background in community technology, but I think I had an arrogance about tech.
A lot of it was an education—and sometimes not a very pleasant one. I was a believer in open data, a believer in the power of technology to help people, a believer in the founding idea that technologists could solve problems if they just coded the right things. I came to see the limits of these tools and the value of bringing technologists together without a community context.
What’s wrong with building community?
When you build a “community,” as it is currently defined in civic tech, you are by definition ignoring the existence of the other people who live near you and you supposedly seek to serve.
When you seek to have a hack night or a hackathon or some other tech-focused event, an enormous amount of the time is spent on explaining the frame—of telling people what you care about (civic tech), of your skills (coding, UX, whatever), of your interests (the common good).
It wastes time.
There are so many meetings, so many places where people gather to discuss their common interests and goals. Go to them!
You mean existing meetings? Is the main problem that these community-building groups are actually being created as separate and apart from existing community groups?
And then we create our own clumsy structures which are designed to (supposedly) circle back to community need.
By “meeting” I mean any place where regular residents gather to talk about our shared lives. In almost all instances, there are parts of those meetings that relate to technical needs. The problem is that when we invite people to civic tech meetings, we are necessarily leading with our framework (“we love civic tech and we think we can use it to solve your problems!”) rather than simply being present with them.
We try to foster that with our Smart Chicago Documenters program, where we pay people to attend public meetings.
Our Smart Health Centers program is another example. We designed it around human needs around health-care tech like patient portals and health-oriented content on the web. Youth-Led Tech, where we meet the needs of youth and employ young people who are starting tech careers.
At a recent meeting of the Chicago Police Accountability Task Force at a local high school, residents were able to speak about their concerns, their specific needs, hopes, and dreams. They were deeply engaged with government, all night. It was then taken over by protesters. Smart Chicago was there to document the whole thing—to hear their voices, to listen to and record what they had to say. It was not theoretical.
So what exactly are you doing differently, to meet people where they are? These are still Smart Chicago-created programs, right?
Yes, they are all programs invented at and run by Smart Chicago.
But we left 1871, the downtown incubator we had worked out of for years. We stopped doing event programming with civic tech people altogether. We hired fewer Rails and Django programmers at $125/hour and hired more instructors to teach kids how to make WordPress websites at $15-20/hour.
And we literally do meet people where they are. We’ve conducted CUTGroup tests in about 20 libraries, all over the county. Smart Chicago is teaching 30 youth in the juvenile detention center, talking about the Internet of Things in neighborhoods. We do the work.
The turning point for us was in February 2013 when we launched the Civic User Testing Group. As I wrote in the Origins chapter of The CUTGroup Book, we failed at getting regular residents to show up to our programs:
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
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.
So I invented a specific, detailed methodology to engage residents around technology. That was where things changed for us.
What would you have done differently from the beginning, knowing what you know now?
I would have immediately built jobs programs for regular people in technology. Things like Smart Health Centers and Youth-Led Tech. I never would have created programs that focused on high-tech solutions built by high-tech people.
What’s next for Smart Chicago? What would you like to see the organization accomplish after you’ve left? If you were staying for another five years, what programs would you start, continue, or end?
The Chicago Community Trust, along with The MacArthur Foundation, will lead the search for a new executive director. They’re looking for a national leader who will be based in Chicago and who can continue to lead the way in community-based technology work.
In the meantime, Kyla Williams, who has been at Smart Chicago nearly from the start, is the interim executive director. She is an inventive, creative leader who has been at the heart of things and she will continue the work.
If I were staying another five years, I would want to go way harder at community engagement—find more ways to allow people to speak with each other, make joint decisions, plan our shared lives. We have very few methods for this. There is enormous segregation in this city. People are rarely invited outside of their own neighborhoods to share discussion. It needs a lot of work.
What’s the one thing the civic tech movement needs more than anything else? Or should the movement be shelved entirely in favor of community tech?
Yes, the civic tech movement should be shelved. It has run its course. The models of hack nights and civic apps and techno-determinist solutions have proven ineffective.
The dominant social movements of the last five years have next to nothing to do with civic tech. Black Lives Matter, the rise of racist Trumpian political ideas, marriage equity—they owe nothing to civic tech.
These forces used consumer-grade technology like Twitter and Facebook to drive their agendas while civic tech people are checking in code to Github.
Although you are describing a fairly common understanding of civic tech, Civic Hall co-founders Micah Sifry and Andrew Rasiej have proposed a “big tent” definition of the term, which I think is broad enough to include Smart Chicago’s community technology organizing, the kind of government technology work that Ad Hoc LLC does, as well as the apps and tools produced by the civic tech and open data organizers you describe above.
Yes, I have seen that—starting with last year’s PDF. I was stunned and pleased to see the focus on worker movements and the needs of regular people on stage. I put a lot of stock in what Civic Hall is doing, and I believe they’ve got their heads on straight.
What does this bigger, broader movement need?
It needs a general agreement by its partisans on the way forward.
We need a general agreement that we have to move from placing the alpha-geek at the center of our movement. We have to stop paying lip service to “build with, not for” and actually start implementing those principles into our work. We have to build on the methods we invented at Smart Chicago and make them better and more effective at discerning community need.
Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with Civicist! Anything else you’d like to add?
In five years, our team at Smart Chicago has rarely been more than three people. By keeping our heads down and working with regular Chicagoans, we’ve built a case for the right conceptual model for an organization that uses technology to make lives better. We need more organizations to adopt this model.