Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Hackers, nonprofit workers bridge a digital divide at the Chicago School of Data

Civic hackers plan next steps at the Chicago School of Data conference.

"If you look around the room," says programmer Neil Rest, "it’s pretty clear which are the hackers and which are the nonprofits and which are the suits. There needs to be more communication."

We're in the main hall of Willis Tower's Graham Center, where the Smart Chicago Collaborative has convened about 250 people "using data to improve the lives of regular residents." Rest and I are on the hacker periphery: He's newly retired and looking for a cause, I've built and run websites. "How much geek do you speak?" he asks. We're all asking each other that question.

"I’m suspecting a lot of the people here could use better communication and data exchange," Rest says, "and that’s going to be one of the aspects I’m looking out for." He's talking mostly about how to index and cross-reference data, but I'm looking for exchange too. I'm here to live-blog, photograph and otherwise document the discussion.

But as a neighborhood group's webmaster it disturbs me that so few technologists are on hand when neighbors meet in church basements and library meeting rooms to tackle community issues. Collaboration between community hackers and community activists could close that digital divide.

Affordability gaps

That work starts with the first panel. Association House tech supervisor Stephen Pigozzi walks through how the Humboldt Park agency logs casework. The form's not ideal, and money for the software license takes a significant commitment. A cheaper solution's as close as the next breakout room, where the Chicago Benchmarking Collaborative's discussing open-source software.

"To pay even $2,000 ... is a tremendous financial challenge," says Amy Terpstra, Heartland Alliance research director, speaking from the audience in an exchange not recorded on video. But Terpstra tells me her agency's database managers aren't convinced they could switch to a free alternative.

"I need to figure out a way to educate them about what this stuff can do and how OK it is," Terpstra says. "A lot of people are using this stuff, right?"

Nonprofits must scale more resource barriers. Woodstock Institute vice president Spencer Cowan says his small staff consults with community groups, but has only so much time to crunch the numbers. "You'd be surprised what we can do in four hours," Cowan says. But bigger projects have to be funded first.

The most current, accurate and revealing demographic data can be the most costly. "It's easy to build the cost of data into a contract, but not into funding for direct services," Cowan says.

Off the map

One persistent issue emerges: Resource-starved neighborhoods are not well represented on the data grid.

"We know the data's not accurate from talking to businesses," says Samia Malik of the Chatham Business Association. She tells the panel that younger shoppers travel to other neighborhoods because local merchants without websites don't appear on their cellphone map. That admission prompts audience discussion on whether cheap computers would help, and a "let's talk" offer.

"I'm tired of being convened," says Tom Tresser of CivicLab. "This is like the 90th conference complaining about Internet community bandwidth, and it's still not solved."

The conversation continues at lunch. While the Chatham group wants merchants to promote themselves on the web, the TAG Foundation started its Bronzeville Counts program to promote the community.

"If you googled daycare in Bronzeville, no daycare centers show up. So there’s actually five within my own walking distance," executive director Angela Ford tells me. "I say, 'Hey, why are you not on even Google search and Yahoo?' And they were like, 'We don’t really need to be, because everybody who has children are within a five-block radius and they are not searching for us on the Internet. They’re walking down the street.'"

Yet Ford says even daycare listings figure in economic development. "If you’re looking to relocate to Chicago and want to find a pool of young, able-bodied people that are willing to work and a lot of vacant land, you’d look right past Bronzeville because it isn’t digitally on the books, you see?"

Disruptive technology

Bruce Montgomery of the Urban Innovation Center @ IIT says mobile phones are bridging the gap between rich and poor neighborhoods where past efforts like public Wi-Fi have failed.

"Now the same person walking up and down the street in Bronzeville is twice as likely to have a smartphone and know how to completely use it than their Highland Park, Winnetka, suburban counterparts," Montgomery says. "There’s going to be a whole new set of tools that are going to be picked up and adopted."

A panel on tech on-ramps for youth quickly takes on a bigger question: Now that games and apps have hooked urban teens on technology, do they have the confidence to pursue tech jobs, and the attention of hiring managers?

"There is a shortage of technology workers in our region, in our nation," says Sandee Kastrul of i.c. stars. "And there's a real need for people who can problem-solve, who understand data, who can analyze data and who can really get in there and use technology to solve business problems.

"The challenge is that they're not looking at the inner city in our communities as a solution to that problem. So if our companies are only recruiting from the top five schools in computer science across the nation then we're going to continue to have this problem," she says.

"We don't want to scale up, and find that we're training people who don't have jobs," she says. "When we shift from being the consumer to being the innovator or the maker, that's power."

It's comforting to think that a generation of web natives will bring their fierce analytical skills to intractable civic issues. But the weekend's discussions makes the size of the challenge clear.

"It’s going to take about $6 billion roughly to turn the corner just on the West Side. And that $6 billion is investment in education, business development, workforce development, over a decade or more," Bethel New Life vice president Edward Coleman tells me before the closing remarks. "It’s cheaper than the money we’re currently spending in dealing with the problems that exist on the West Side."

After two days of mingling, a score of hackers and nonprofits and suits cluster in groups to plan next steps. The biggest group brainstorm how to introduce entry-level and enterprise data tools to a wider audience.

Can a devoted group use technology for social change? We're still collecting the data.