‘We are a civic tech city:’ How Chicago is rapidly advancing public good technology

by Carlin Sack
September 14, 2014

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Obama For America’s digital team was a tech victory for the City of Chicago. The companies that sprouted from Obama's digital team latter became a big success for the city. Civis Analytics, for example, was started by Obama’s Chief Analytics Officer Dan Wagner to use Big Data to drive organizations’ decisions. Another company, Public Good Software, started by Obama’s Director of UX Jason Kunesh and Director of Development Dan Ratner is getting off the ground to become a civic participation marketplace.

Chicago is welcoming these digital veterans to build up its own civic tech scene. The Open Gov Hack Nights hosted weekly at 1871 and the programming surrounding this year’s National Day of Civic Hacking are proof of Chicago’s status as a leader in civic tech. Individuals like Dan O’Neil of Smart Chicago, a civic organization dedicated to improving lives in Chicago, former Chicago CTO John Tolva and the early leaders of the Knight Foundation helped to mold Chicago’s mindset into what it is today.

“The city has the mindset of what data can we get to and how can we build around it,” Kunesh, CEO of Public Good Software, said. “We think that Chicago is a civic tech city. Here and New York are the two key areas.”

Kunesh said that the abundance of national non-profits with a presence in Chicago keep the conversations open between tech innovators and civic organizers. Public Good Software is taking full advantage of these collaborative opportunities to help civic causes by being the go-to crowdsourcing site for rating, building up, donating to and volunteering for non-profits. It plans to reel in users by placing a “Do Public Good” button on relevant news stories (similar to a share button).

Public Good Software currently has about nine employees to power its pilot which includes about a dozen organizations. Kunesh said the team is expanding the pilot by onboarding a couple more organizations every week through the rest of the year. The sweet spot so far for Public Good’s clients is medium-sized, regional non-profits. Many of these non-profits are focused on Chicago violence.

Despite its non-profit clients, Public Good is a Chicago tech company inside and out. Kunesh, a veteran of online travel marketplace Orbitz, and Ratner, former CTO and COO of online babysitter marketplace Sittercity. By combining their tech marketplace know-how with the non-profit world they hope to change the way the non-profit sector operates.

“Chicago is a roll-up-your-sleeves and get-down-to-work kind of place,” Kunesh said. “We have a transactional focus, we have always revolved around some sort of commerce. Now, with Public Good, we want to take that kind of experience and make it easy for people to get involved. We want to let people see that the whole picture is greater than the parts by creating a new kind of marketplace.”

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