Microsoft’s Soren Spicknall joins PRC to discuss civic tech and its role in shaping public policy
Soren Spicknall, one of 20 Microsoft Civic Tech Fellows nationwide and the first from Illinois Institute of Technology, joined the Policy Research Collaborative as part of our new Speaker Series initiative.
For Spicknall, civic tech sits at the intersection of technology and community, improving lives by applying technical solutions to important civic challenges. “Collaboration is at the core of the movement in which public projects are built directly with the people they impact,” he says. Civic technology enables the public to participate in government mainly through information technology. This distinction is not one of substance, but of use: an intentional purpose for a specific audience.
Beyond defining and distinguishing civic tech, Spicknall focused on ways that civic technologists take advantage of the City of Chicago’s Data Portal to create tools that make it readily available, intelligible and usable to a broad public with access to internet.
Locally, Spicknall demonstrated ways that civic technologists go beyond mere programming and web applications or coding, to collaboratively enhance advocacy for civil rights work. Chicago’s Million Dollar Blocks, for example, makes obscure government data readily accessible and available to the public. This website shows an interactive map of the city of Chicago’s neighborhoods whose inhabitants are disproportionately targeted by the police and incarcerated. Despite a city-wide decrease in crime rates, Chicagoans who live in low-income areas of the city often receive lengthy and harsh sentences for low-level crimes. Highlighting this discrepancy, the tool identifies city blocks where the total cost of incarcerating residents exceeds $1 million.
These innovative tools pose challenging questions about whether these funds could be used more productively and effectively towards reducing crime by funding initiatives that increase equity through investment in jobs, housing, health and education, and provide transparency on the city’s spending.
Another example, mRelief, articulates the role of civic tech in strengthening public services. Originally conceived at Chi Hack Night, mRelief works with governments to provide an easy-to-use platform for the public to verify if they qualify for different types of social services simultaneously, via web- and SMS-based platforms. This saves many individuals time as they can fill out the application online and get an answer immediately. By improving government efficacy, mRelief offers direct solutions that improve lives by co-locating multiple data sources in a single application, augmenting access to information about public services.
Beyond Chicago, Grade.DC.gov uses social media sentiment analysis to evaluate city services. Individuals can submit comments about Washington, D.C. agencies and see how other residents rate them. Elsewhere, Commonwealth Connect enables Massachusetts residents to report local problems on a centralized platform. This mobile application then forwards requests to the relevant agencies and generates an infrastructure complaint with Open 311.
For the Collaborative, Spicknall sparked new ideas about how we can leverage civic tech in our own work with community partners by collaborating with civic technologists to create tools and resources to effectuate transformative policy change.
To learn more about civic tech, Spicknall runs the Chicago City Data Users Group and Blockchain for Social Good Chicago, and encourages everyone to check out Chi Hack Night where thousands of designers, academic researchers, data journalists, activists, policy wonks, web developers and curious citizens collaborate to make our city more just, equitable, and transparent. Check out Spicknall’s Twitter for more!
Join us for our next Speaker Series event on Monday, March 19 with Steven Vance, Founder and CEO of Chicago Cityscape, who will discuss the role of geospatial analysis in shaping innovative public policy.