What We Learned: Array of Things Engagement Event in Chicago

(Madison tutorial video on YouTube)

On June 22, Meag Doherty and I, representing The OpenGov Foundation, rolled into the Harold Washington Public Library to participate in an important public engagement session. The topic: two policies governing Chicago’s new “Array of Things” (AoT) urban data collection initiative. For AoT to work, Chicagoans must understand it, feel comfortable with it and agree to the rules governing this watershed implementation of the Internet of Things (IoT). This is a perfect use-case for the free and open source Madison online policymaking platform our team is the lead on developing.

Smart Chicago is running point on gathering resident input on the city-wide AoT effort to create a municipal “fitness tracking” sensor network. According to a September 2015 release announcing AoT, a $3.1 million dollar National Science Foundation grant to the University of Chicago will fund:

“…[the installation of] 500 Array of Things (AoT) nodes [that] will measure data on Chicago’s environment, infrastructure and activity to scientifically investigate solutions to urban challenges ranging from air quality to urban flooding. The ultimate goal of this innovative community technology platform is to help make cities cleaner, healthier and more livable.”

It was Meag’s first-ever public engagement experience as a member of The OpenGov Foundation team. And it was my first on-the-ground software observation session in Chicago. In this post, I will share our goals heading into the event, what we saw and learned, an example of our notes, where you can learn more about all of the above, and how you can get involved.

Goal #1 — Watch and Learn from Smart Chicago

Heading into the public library, our goals were twofold. First, do whatever we could to help our friends at The Smart Chicago Collaborative. This singular outfit was founded in 2011 by the City of Chicago, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the Chicago Community Trust. Daniel X. O’Neil, was the organization’s first Executive Director and literally wrote the book on civic user testing.

Goal #2 — Test New Ways for Chicagoans to Govern Better, Together

Our second goal was to learn how to best prepare for the next chapter of our public-private-partnership with the Chicago City Council and City Clerk Susana Mendoza. Together, we are building the first Internet-Age legislature and legislative operating system. We’re calling this end-to-end system AssemblyWorks. It will give Chicago — and any legislature — the crucial ability to move off paper-based systems and instead pump out 100% digital, open legislative data. It will allow any legislature to move off expensive, proprietary and ineffective systems, and instead run on free and open source software. It will empower any citizen to see, shape and understand the laws that govern their lives, their families and their businesses from the comfort of their home, office or mobile phone. No more days off of work to visit your elected officials, fewer frustrations and less anger over unaccountable and opaque government actions.

A photo of a Chicagoans discussing the Array of Things initiative on June 22, 2016 at the Harold Washington Public Library.
(Chicagoans discuss Array of Things initiative)

Over the past year, we have gained a good grasp of how to transform Chicago’s paper-based legislature, legislative information and legislative process for the public officials and staff working on the inside of the City Council. Now we are turning to the even larger, more difficult, and to us, more fundamental questions of what needs to be built, adapted and implemented in order for AssemblyWorks to deliver Chicagoans the most inclusive and accessible, accountable and understandable, effective and user-friendly legislature on Earth.

3 Madison Takeaways

Over the course of the 90-minute session, our team learned a great deal about civic engagement — conceptually, and as applied to the “Array of Things.” We took home valuable insights to apply to our ongoing development of the software, data and process innovations under construction with the City Council. And we left with even greater respect and admiration for Smart Chicago’s incredible people, for their powerful approach to civic engagement, and for the forward-thinking local leaders committed to harnessing modern technology to build a more informed, engaged community. Our top three takeaways from the June 22, 2016 public meeting?

  1. Madison Already Helping Residents Govern Better, Together…But Much Development Remains — The current technical foundation for smarter Chicago civic engagement is strong, but there remains a mind-boggling number of questions to answer, engagement strategies to develop, and features to build into AssemblyWorks. Madison, the public-facing participation layer to the free and open source legislative operating system, is clearly improving access and engagement for certain types of users — for example, tech-savvy people who know a lot about the IoT; however, there remains a great deal of research, testing and development do before AssemblyWorks/Madison can meet the needs of the approximately 2.7 million people who call Chicago home.

  3. With Tech-Powered Civic Engagement, the “On What” Matters as Much as the “How” — One of biggest observations was the complexity of the content running through Madison during this public engagement session. To meaningfully engage in a conversation, you need to understand the fundamentals. And to understand the fundamentals underpinning Chicago’s AoT initiative are, you need to know more than a little about the IoT. What is it? Here is how Forbes explains IoT:

    Internet of Things (IoT) or Internet of Everything (IoE) refers to devices or objects that are connected to the Internet, like your smartwatch, Fitbit, or even your refrigerator. These devices are able to collect and transmit data via the Internet, contributing to our big data world.

    The concepts behind AoT, it is safe to say, rest on rather advanced, cutting-edge technical knowledge. It took a full 70 minutes of the 90 minute session for the presenters to simply explain AoT. And of the remaining 20 minutes, all but five were devoted to basic questions. That points to highly complex concepts communicated with highly technical language that demands of residents a highly advanced reading level to understand. Complex language makes it more difficult for a broad audience to provide feedback. It’s also worth mentioning that privacy experts have criticized the AoT policy for being too short and not going into enough detail about the type of data collected or what will be shared.

    The results of a readability score of the Array of Things policy document.
    (Average reading level of all AoT text)

    We put a pin in the AoT language for further research, though as support players in this engagement round, we cannot change the content itself. However, we can run the content through a tool to determine the rough readability of the AoT documents as currently drafted. We used Readability-Score.com and found the average document readability translated to a second semester college sophomore. The introductory text is an average reading level of a high school senior, but the policy itself came in at the level of a first semester college junior. According to the Flesh-Kincaid Reading Ease score, the introductory text is 40% easier to read, but still outside the “easy to read” zone.

  4. No One Really Knows (Yet) What Online Public Engagement with a Legislature, Legislators or Legislation Itself Should Look Like — If we learned anything, it was that we are standing far closer to the beginning than the end of the journey towards building legislatures that are fully accessible, understandable and open to online public engagement. Leaving the AoT event, we took home way more questions than answers. But to us, that is progress. We cannot wait for the next research round to begin.

Next Steps

While this resident input round has concluded, we are grateful to have had the opportunity to learn alongside Chicago’s civic engagement gurus. We are thankful for the chance to get our on-the-ground engagement feet wet to prepare for what lies ahead on the AssemblyWorks 1.0 roadmap. But above all, we are excited to help the Chicago City Council — and our other awesome partners in Cook County, IL, across the United States and around the world — answer the critical questions that democratic governments of all shapes and sizes must confront today if they expect to thrive well into an increasingly digital, mobile and on-demand future.

The OpenGov Foundation’s Meag Doherty excited to be observing new users try Madison.
(Meag excited to observe Madison users)

What does productive Chicago public engagement look like on education policies, or the city budget, or on the rules governing Uber, Lyft and AirBnB — very hot topics in Chicago right now? How can we harness digital strategies and smarter software to include those who are not already participating in the decisions that impact their lives? What does a non-native english speaker need in order to secure their right to be heard by their local legislature? How can we efficiently and effectively demystify a legislative process, providing hands-on civic education that scales?

No one has uncovered data-driven answers to these kinds of questions. No one has done much more than scratch the surface. But we could not be more excited to be on this quest for insights and actionable results. The future of democracy in Chicago — and in every free society — may just depend on it.

What do you think about AoT, governing together with Madison and Chicago-style civic engagement? We would love to hear from you, work with you and stay in touch. Find The OpenGov Foundation on Twitter, send us email or join the developer conversation on Github.

Observation of a New Madison User at the Event

  • Software Tested: Madison
  • Document Tested: Chicago’s “Array of Things” Privacy and Governance Policies
  • Time: 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. CST
  • Location: Harold Washington Public Library Multi-Purpose Room
  • Guide: Meag Doherty, The OpenGov Foundation
  • Documentor: Seamus Kraft, The OpenGov Foundation
  • User: Woman in her mid-twenties, wearing reading glasses.

Test Function 1. Create a User Account
Observation: User was able to quickly create an account without any instructions or assistance. She found it in seconds. Signed up rapidly. She appeared to be a really savvy, tech-literate person who is used to platforms like this.

Test Function 2. Verify User Account
Observation: The banner telling the user to verify her account disappeared way too quickly (before she even saw it). We told her what to do at this point in order to proceed with the test.
Idea: In-platform instructions that each user needs to see need to actually be seen. Leave this one up or have a pop up that cannot be missed? Github issue opened here.

Test Function 3. Log In to Madison
Observation: User was able to log back in after verifying her account. BUT she found the fonts for these instructions “too thin/hard to read.” Github issue opened here.

Test Function 4. Support or Oppose the Document
Did not test this.

A screenshot of feedback on the Array of Things policy document on Madison.
(AoT feedback on Madison)

Test Function 5. Make a Comment on the Document
Observation: User was able to make a comment/annotation fine, but she was really asking a question. She wanted to ask questions and have them displayed as such.
Idea: We could add “comment,” “propose change,” and “ask a question” as the options in the annotator window. Github issue opened here.
Observation: User was squinting to see the little box that pops up when you highlight text. It was not clear what the user’s action should be after highlighting. User: “What is this thing? What do I do now?”
Idea: Need more and more direct/inline instructions on how to do these basic functions.

Test Function 6. Propose a Direct Change to the Document
Observation:User was confused as to what text she was editing. The text she was trying to change didn’t pop up in the annotator to be edited.
Observation:User posted her proposed text change before explaining why she was proposing the change.
Idea:We should make posting the why either mandatory for a change, or have another pop up being like “before you go…why the change?”
Idea:We should make sure the editor automatically pulls up the highlighted text to be edited for redlining.

Test Function 7. Send Feedback on Madison
– Did not test.

General Notes

  • Observation: Users were squinting at the text/screen throughout the testing session.
  • Observation: User was looking for a way to search the document text for specific words/phrases. Since this feature does not exist, user used control-F instead.

    Idea: Add a document-wide search function to each document page, with filters for “all,” “comments,” “edits,” “questions,” and maybe by specific users, i.e. “my feedback, “User X’s feedback,” etc.

  • Observation: Most of the event was spent with people at the front of the room explaining what IoT and AoT are conceptually. Most of the citizen feedback came in the form of questions.
    Idea: Add an “Ask a question” option to each document page.
    Idea: Create a feed of user-generated questions AND administrator-generated FAQ-type questions, along with the responses from the administrator and other users.
  • Observation: Array of Things is very complicated document related to a very complex policy (IoT). It appeared that most of those in the room had trouble following the conversation.
  • Observation: It appeared that there was a significant number (approximately ¼ to ⅓) of people in the room that were NOT native English speakers.

Links to Learn More and Get Involved


Seamus Kraft is the Executive Director and Co-Founder of The OpenGov Foundation.