Be the Change: The Democracy Evolution



Earlier this month, I had the fortune to attend the 2014 Personal Democracy Forum in New York.  This is a conference attended by people who think about and discuss how technology and the Internet are changing democracy in America.  The attendees included activists and policy makers, political practitioners and technologists, thinkers and doers.  It was an amazing confluence of ideas and action by groups of people that recognize the internet as a key catalyst for change and inclusion.

This event was a solid forum for learning from both speakers and attendees exactly what matters most to the future of democracy.  I heard what they were most concerned about and what they were most excited about.  The theme of this year’ conference reflects that dynamic: “Save the Internet/The Internet Saves”.

In terms of “Save the Internet”, PDF coincided with the one year anniversary of the Edward Snowden disclosures (Snowden himself actually addressed the audience live via video from Russia).   It is apparent that democracy activists have a very clear perception of our nation’s most fundamental values, and a passionate a desire to return to them in the wake of the NSA disclosures.  Topics ran from efforts to challenge government mass surveillance programs, to personal data privacy to strategies for keeping the Internet open as a conduit of expression and community building in uncertain political environments

The second day (“The Internet Saves”) focused on how technology is being used to evolve politics, governance, and civil society for the better.  It was a series of non-partisan discussions focused on how the internet is a platform for creating change, building community, and building engines for civic action that would have been tough just a few years ago.  The speakers themselves were as diverse as the topics.  They included activists, civic hackers, government staff, and experts in policy, economics, and governance.

But for all of the fascinating keynotes, workshops, and discussions, the most fascinating part of this conference was the dynamic of the attendees themselves.  In generations past, an “activist” was almost reflexively thought of as one who pokes their thumb in the eye of authority.  To the contrary, this generation of activists have a strong desire to work within the framework of governance to our democracy and to advance the situation of all of the world populace.

Many of the activists made it a point that a great way to see a societal change through is to actively participate in the policy making and implementation around that change.  They encouraged civic technologists to improve democracy through civil service.  Matthew Burton held a keynote that sums up the ethos nicely:  By The People: Government Service is a Civic Duty.

This is an ethos that would have shocked the senses of anti-government movements of the 60’s and 70’s, anarchist movements of the 20’s and 30’s, ad infiditum. Today’s ethos is: If you want to improve your government, you work to improve your government.   If you want to evolve democracy, you work to evolve democracy.  Perhaps it is cliché, but the conference felt very much like Ghandi’s famous quote: Be the change you wish to see in the world.

Microsoft Chicago To Talk STEM & Job Creation at Democratic Governors Association 2014 Regional Policy Conference

DemocraticGovernorsAssociation2014RegionalPolicyConference-imageAs Director of Civic Engagement for Microsoft Chicago, I am honored to be speaking on the “Jobs and Economic Prosperity” panel at the Democratic Governors Association (DGA) 2014 Regional Policy Conference today at the Allegro Hotel in Chicago. Presented by the DGA and The Center for Innovative Policy and hosted by Governor Pat Quinn, the conference brings together governors from Vermont, Rhode Island, Minnesota and Connecticut, as well as representatives from a variety of national and global industries to talk energy, infrastructure, and job creation in the U.S.

Our panel focuses on job creation, and will be moderated by President of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, Scott Paul. Joining me on the panel is Steve Smith, Vice President-General Counsel and Secretary of Amsted Industries, Inc.; Karen Atwood, President of Blue Cross Blue Shield Illinois; and Steve Pemberton, Walgreens’ Divisional Vice-President and Chief Diversity Officer.

My goal is to talk in further detail about our STEM education initiatives at Microsoft, and how generating students’ interest and proficiency in science, technology, engineering and mathematics is integral to providing jobs for graduates. Some of Microsoft’s STEM programs I’d like to bring to the table include DigiGirlz, our Students to Business (S2B) program, Imagine Cup, and our YouthSpark initiative: TEALS, which stands for Technology Education And Literacy in Schools. TEALS places computer science professionals in high schools. Today, the TEALS program is operating at 70 schools in 12 states, with more than 280 computer science volunteers teaching 3,000 students during the 2013-2014 school year alone.

A wide range of industries throughout the U.S. have openings for workers with knowledge and skills in STEM fields, but cannot find enough individuals with the background to meet that demand and drive innovation. Without a national effort to improve STEM education and increase the number of graduates in these fields, this trend is likely to continue and even worsen over time.

While the overall number of STEM graduates has increased, it is not keeping pace with U.S. employer’s needs. The problem is particularly pronounced in computer science. Our universities are producing less than half the amount of computer science bachelor’s degrees needed for the new job openings each year—which totals approximately 122,300 jobs.

Having enough graduates with the necessary skills to fill already open jobs is the issue in this case. I look forward to hearing thoughts on this at today’s DGA panel.

See you all there!

Introducing the Chicago City Data User Group


“WHEREAS…the timely online publication of public data will empower Chicago’s residents by providing them with information necessary to participate in government in a meaningful manner, to assist in identifying possible solutions to pressing governmental problems, and to promote innovative strategies for social progress and economic growth”

This is part of the pre-amble for City of Chicago Executive Order 2012-2. That is the executive order signed into law by Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2012. Thus began Chicago’s move, early for its time, to open its data to the city’s citizenry. The first wave of people to leverage the city’s open data sets has been our developer community. Civic minded developers have created many great apps, visualizations, and new data sets based on Chicago’s open data platform.

And that’s just the start. Chicago’s city data is not just for developers. Tom Schenk, Chicago’s Chief Data & Analytics Officer, told me he believes that many people, if they understood what data was out there and how to use it, could leverage that data to their advantage and the advantage of others. He’s right. End users, business users, analysts, journalists, students, community organizations, enthusiasts – we all can benefit from these valuable resources that the City of Chicago has provided.

That is why I, and co-founder Spencer Stern (Stern Consulting), have formed the Chicago City Data Users Group (CCDUG). The user group seeks to educate and inspire the usage of that data. We see the CCDUG as a way to promote civic engagement, innovation, and economic opportunity leveraging that data.

So far, we have had two meetings: one focused on the data platform itself (keynoted by Socrata’s Tyler Masterson) and a second on using every day tools like Excel against the city’s datasets (keynoted by Microsoft’s Ross Loforte). The diversity of the attendees is what made them successful. From student projects, to for-profit ventures, to community organization, the projects ran the gamut.

And that is exactly how we want it. A diverse set of users learning from a diverse set of users. You do not have to be a developer to benefit from open data. You just have to have a little background. What do you want to see? Let us know by tweeting us at @MSFTChicago.


We meet on the first Wednesday of every month.

Meetings take place at The Microsoft Technology Center Chicago
The Aon Center
200 E. Randolph
Suite 200


Future topics include:

  • What city data is out there – the data catalog in depth – Adam and Spencer
  • State and County Data – what is out there, how to reach it
  • 311 data set tear down
  • 911 data set tear down
  • Developer tools for the non-developer
  • Citizen solutions, big and small – what do they look like?


Hello, Chicago

When I started my career at Microsoft in 1991, I was struck by two things: the passion of our people for the work that we do for technology, and the passion of our people for their Chicago community.  In 2014, this dynamic has not changed.  Our company was founded on the optimistic belief of the empowering potential of technology. That remains our belief to this day.  And our 500+ Chicago employees also remain a united community of passionate activists, who work together to make the city we love a better place.

That’s why today I’m pleased to announce the formation of a Microsoft Technology & Civic Engagement team here in Chicago.   The vision for this team is to bring Microsoft’s best assets and thought leadership to help civic leaders – and the Chicago community – use technology and the cutting edge ideas to solve our biggest challenges.

What We Do

This team is in it for the long term. We are committed to building deep local partnerships with organizations that are cornerstones of finding and building solutions around Chicago’s most pressing challenges. We are going to be part of the conversations that impact economic development, education, innovation and research in Chicago. Chicago is fortunate to have a great number of civic leaders and citizens who are interested in the same issues. We will learn as much as we can from those channels, and do our best to contribute our ideas on solving those challenges as well.

Let’s look at the civic landscape in Chicago. We have economic engines like World Business Chicago, the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, and LISC; we have innovation and research centers of excellence like 1871, TechStars, The Chicago Idea Exchange, and our great universities; we have partners in STEM like the Chicago Public Schools, the Illinois Science and Technology Coalition, and the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship.   Add to this Chicago’s Civic Tech community (CodeForAmerica, Impact Engine, Blue 1647, etc.), our museums, our libraries—the list goes on, and this is just scratching the surface.

We have an opportunity to build and expand on the work done by this great community of civic engagers in Chicago, along with the rest of the Microsoft Chicago team.  We will bring people together, listen, collaborate, and explore the issues together. And we will feed what we learn back to others at Microsoft, who are looking at ways to leverage technology to address urban issues.

Who we are


This team is currently led by two Microsoft veterans. I am Adam Hecktman (@AdamHecktman). I am a life long Chicagoan and Microsoft’s Director of Technology & Civic Engagement.  I’m passionate about technology and even more passionate about my hometown, Chicago. I am so thrilled to be able to bring these two passions together as the core of my job. I have been with Microsoft for a little over 22 years, most recently as the Director of the Microsoft Technology Center Chicago.


Shelley Stern Grach (@ShelleyStern) is the Director for Civic Engagement.  She has been with Microsoft for 12 years, and most recently has led our Citizenship strategy and activities for the 16 states that form Microsoft’s Central Region.  Now, she gets to put her focus on her hometown of Chicago.  She will be working at the intersection of computing and community, promoting STEM programs and using technology to spur growth in the area’s youth, education and entrepreneurial communities.

chicago-shelley-large-finalIn addition to her roles as a board member for the Women’s Business Development Center, the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce and Skills for Chicagoland’s Future, she’s also a Commissioner for the State of Illinois Workforce Board.  I can’t think of a better or more energetic partner in this endeavor.

We are very much looking forward to the dialogue. Already we have been inspired by the groups in Chicago who are as obsessive as we are about taking on big city challenges with big ideas, and leading edge technology. Join us by following and tweeting us at @MSFTChicago.

Introducing “A Series on STEM & STEAM”


In March 2014, the City of Chicago released its Citywide STEM Strategy, arguably one of the most important initiatives that can positively affect the lives of our children. Too often, the lack of access to technology and tech skills, leads to an “opportunity divide”, thereby preventing young people from productive careers in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields. Research shows that there will be approximately 450,000 STEM related jobs in Cook County by 2018. We are already late in preparing our children and young adults with the essential skills they need to be successful in 21st century careers.

Let’s not have Chicago be “a tale of two cities”. Let’s support the Citywide STEM strategy to ensure our children’s future and the continued growth of Chicago as a world class city and a center of innovation and technology. This takes everyone rowing together in the boat…educators, parents, students, community leaders, large and small businesses…to help all of our children embrace and enjoy the benefits of technology.

Join Microsoft Chicago, and me, for a series of dialogs (right here on the blog!) focusing on ways to support the Citywide STEM Strategy. We will discuss virtually and in person, how we, as a community, can help our educators, parents and students reach their full potential. On our blog, we will be discussing various approaches to accelerate technology access and skills across Chicago. Starting in a few weeks, we will explore the following areas:

  • How to “demystify STEM” and make STEM more understandable to families who have not have experiences with technology.
  • What’s the difference between STEM and STEAM? STEAM puts “ARTS” into STEM, thereby infusing the creative aspect of education into technology. Developing student skills in the visual arts, dance, and music complement the development of Math and Science skills.
  • We will shine a spotlight on Early College STEM Schools program. What have we learned? How can we expand this focus?
  • How can parents get engaged with their families on embracing and accelerating technology skills? How can we support families who don’t currently have access to technology at home? What are the resources available in Chicago to address this key issue?

To learn more about Microsoft Chicago, be sure to follow us on Twitter @MSFTChicago!

Civic Engagement?  Civic Tech?


Our Technology & Civic Engagement team is a nascent one for Microsoft.  We plan on learning a great deal by experimenting a great deal. Large urban areas make for great places to experiment with ways to bring government and citizens together.  To quote my colleague and friend Dr. Elizabeth Grossman, “Cities are the places where, as a society, we are trying to figure out how to use leading edge technology on very large scale problems.”

This team is focused specifically around civic engagement and its implementation through civic technology.  These are terms that are being used very broadly today.  There is actually little agreement on what, specifically, they mean.  One thing that most folks can agree upon is that democracy works best when: a) you have a government who has a way to listen to and understand the needs, wants, and orientation of its citizenry to create and execute policy; and b) you have citizens who are engaged and working with the government (and each other) to solve societal challenges.

In other words, citizen involvement and engagement with their elected leaders is a crucial element to a highly functioning democracy. While you can visualize this at the broadest of government levels, it is easier to get your head around it when you view it through the lens of a large, complex city like Chicago.  After all, cities are where a large part of civic tech is happening.

So you have these two elements: government and citizens.  What do you need to turn those two things into “civic engagement” that actually solves city challenges?   One thing you need is a committed government leadership who believes in open data. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, during his campaign, held an event at the Microsoft Technology Center Chicago where he spelled out his vision for open city government and a transparent Chicago.  Then in 2012 as Mayor, he signed into law the Chicago Open Data Executive Order.  This calls for the “timely publication of public data” with the explicit goal of empowering Chicago’s citizens to “participate in government in a meaningful manner, to assist in identifying possible solutions to pressing governmental problems, and to promote innovative strategies for social progress and economic growth.”

The second thing you need, then, is a citizen base that is interested in engaging in solutions to city challenges. In Chicago, we have an ample supply.  You have citizen led groups focusing on economic development such as: World Business Chicago, the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce and 1871, to name a few. You also have organizations interested in STEM education and research like, Illinois Science and Technology Coalition, the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship and many others. All citizen led.

Then there is the civic tech piece, which is a type of civic engagement.   The Knight Foundation puts it this way: “Civic tech is technology that spurs citizen engagement, improves communities, and makes governments more effective.” And it is also defined as:

  • An emerging field that connects people with their elected officials and government agencies to solve problems;
  • A way of accelerating public/private/individual partnerships to solve problems through technology;
  • Using technology to facilitate conversations and collaborations (not just putting data or information online).

Technology not only provides the platforms for citizens to articulate their interests and have input on policy, it allows them to actually create solutions to the problems shared by their communities—and from the standpoint of the government itself, civic tech helps the city to anticipate the needs of Chicago citizens.

Everywhere I turn in the city, there is major buzz and activity around delivering on the promise of civic tech.  Just do a search on on “Chicago” or “Chicago Tech” and you will understand the breadth of activity going on in all parts of the city.  You will see app challenges, hackathons, and user groups built around the idea that citizens can create solutions to societal challenges.  I have personally seen this kind of civic ideation at the Center For Neighborhood Technology, at CodeForAmerica’s OpenGovHack Night, and at my own Chicago City Data Users Group, just to name a few.

I believe that Chicago is just on the cusp of a full transition to civic engagement, and fully leveraging civic technology.  It is equal parts being in a new era of transformational technologies, and a coalescing of the civic groups that infectiously co-opt their fellow Chicagoans. It’s great to be here.


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