Category Archives: Politics

Technology, Equity, and Who’s Mayor

I read this article this morning, looking for myself, since I am in technology and I support the Mayor for re-election: “Can Chicago’s Tech Community Carry Rahm Emanuel To Victory?

I found lots of places and themes that are familiar to me (1871 as a hub for innovation, the growth in tech jobs, and the Mayor’s concrete efforts to make Chicago a more inviting place for tech businesses).

What I didn’t find is anything about the parallel growth in support for public computer centers, and the training in digital skills, and the support for the hundreds of technologists and regular residents I work with all the time in order to make technology work for everyone.

It’s a common oversight. There’s a natural tendency to focus on heroic tech people, gleaming downtown workspaces, and gaudy corporate job announcements. But we’ve got a pretty special sauce here in Chicago, and the Mayor’s policies and people have played a significant role in that.

Technology isn’t just a driver of raw economic growth— it’s an engine of equity for all. Where getting an email account is necessary for getting an entry-level job, where being connected to the Internet is essential for receiving social services, and where we can use networks to plan our lives together. I want more of that.

Public Computer Center, King Library, Chicago

Public Computer Center, King Library, Chicago


The Sweater Ad, Feelings, and the Methods for Listening

Mayor Rahm Emanuel published a new campaign video last week.

The ad has gotten lots of attention and has been covered by media in the context of the runoff to be held on Tuesday, April 7, 2015.

The Washington Post put it this way: Rahm Emanuel’s remarkable confession.

The 30-second ad, which began running on Tuesday in Chicago, shows a very different side of Emanuel — all soft-spokenness and humility. “I can rub people the wrong way. Or talk when I should listen,” Emanuel acknowledges in the spot. “I own that.” Later, he admits: “I’m not going to always get it right.”


Emanuel is trying to make a simple argument in this ad: I may be a jerk (and I know I am one and I’m sorry), but I’m your jerk. And don’t let my abrasiveness get in the way of the accomplishments I have racked up in my first four years.

I don’t know if “remarkable” is the right word for it, as it seems a completely reasonable and normal thing, when running for office, to address issues that voters have with you as a candidate.

As I’ve indicated before, I support Rahm Emanuel for Mayor (here’s a possibly helpful post re: where I’m coming from).

I take the Mayor at his word. He’s trying to address the feelings that people express about how he works and how his decision-making process runs. He doesn’t always make people feel good, but I think his policies are, in large part, winners.

One example is the minimum wage. The Mayor has supported “$13 minimum wage by 2018 that will inject $800 million into the Chicago economy and lift 80,000 residents out of poverty—including 8,000 single mothers.”

To me, that’s a win. It makes me feel good to know that Chicago is out front on this issue. But I’ve seen lots of issues with how he came to support it. Here’s a good timeline. To me, this seems a focus on process and feelings rather than results. By nature, I like results.

But I also appreciate processes and procedures, especially genuine ones that allow for real people to drive policy and solutions. I do a lot of this work in my professional life— I am deeply devoted hearing people and responding to their  needs. It’s the most human thing we can do for each other. The goal is better lives, and that feels better.

In a second Emanuel term, I would love to see more structures for listening to residents. This is what election are for— to elect the people we want, and to get them to make us feel the way we want to feel.

Let’s work with our Mayor on that.

Sometimes things don't feel good; sometimes they do.

Sometimes things don’t feel good; sometimes they do.

The FCC “Political File” Ruling and Price Transparency

Last week the Federal Communications Commission ruled that stations affiliated with the top four national networks (ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox) and serve the top 50 markets must post “political file documents” online.

All stations— regardless of size— already have to maintain such files and make them available to the public. Stations balked at this rule, however, because they’re concerned that their competitors will be able to easily see revenues from political ads and overall rates charged. Here’s a snip from the Chicago Tribune story, “FCC passes online political ad rule: Stations will be required to post campaign spending info“:

For months, broadcasters have objected to the new rule, arguing that even though they already must disclose it, posting it online would give competitors access to commercially sensitive rate information. Broadcasters last week had proposed a compromise to instead post a campaign’s total ad buy, rather than specific information on the exact amount paid per ad. Stations are required to sell candidates time at the lowest unit rate.

We hear these kinds of arguments all the time, and they feel more and more like the fading bleats of lambs. There is a brutal efficiency to spreadsheeting rates for ad time. We’ve all experienced the pain of hidden truths in markets (no one else really wants the house you’re bidding on, the car dealership is about to stop selling that Dodge Dart, the grocer is about to throw out those tomatoes anyway). People make bank off of knowledge gaps, and closing them can be scary. Let’s go ahead and be scared for a while.

It was interesting to see the FCC struggle with requiring stations to post in a standard format for reporting this data. Here’s snips:

We will not establish specific formatting requirements for documents posted to the online public file at this time. Some commenters promoted making the data well-structured as searchable as possible, and downloadable.


We agree that certain information in the public file would be of much greater benefit to the public if made available in a structured or database-friendly format that can be aggregated, manipulated, and more easily analyzed; this continues to be our ultimate goal.

This is evidence of growing pains inside this particular industry that are repeated nearly everywhere else. We can expect that wily stations may upload their documents in non-searchable PDFs so that they can comply with the rule while making analysis as difficult as possible.

One day at a time.

FCC 12 44A1 (Text)

Easter Morning for an Urban American Catholic in an Age of Misplaced Catholic Energy

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I am a lifelong urban American Catholic, and I am not going anywhere.

That’s my message to the extremists in my religion who have strayed from our core principles of tolerance, labor, and love to focus on exclusion, doctrine, and shame.  My experience of Catholicism in the cities of Pittsburgh and Chicago over the last 40 years has been full of people devoted to service.

  • Fr. Regis Ryan gave me my First Communion at Annunciation Parish on the North Side. He’s still working near Pittsburgh today, running Focus on Renewal, a slew of agencies that provides services for the homeless and the working poor in McKees Rocks
  • Strong, intelligent, loving nuns served as principals and teachers of my grade schools in Pittsburgh (Annunciation, St. Philomena) and Chicago (St. Mary of the Lake). St. Mary of the Lake (4200 N. Sheridan Road) was an oasis of peace in Uptown for dozens of Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees in the late 70s and early 80s
  • Tough, serious priests at Gordon Tech taught by example the importance of service. There was never a component of condescension or judgment for people in need. The men I know who graduated from there are all involved in community service in some way
  • I lived near Mt. Carmel Parish in the mid 80s, and I remember the dozens of funerals held there for gay men who died of AIDS. To me, as a teenager, it was completely uncontroversial and expected that the Church would do this
  • I’ve benefited from professionals who were also people of the cloth— therapist nuns, lawyer priests, and so on. People who have been essential to me and my family as we’ve gone through tough times
  • As a catechist for the Church, I was required to take a training course called “Protecting God’s Children“, and I have to keep up with it on a monthly basis

I don’t mean to paint a inaccurate, bucolic picture. My father obtained an annulment of his marriage to my mother after seven kids and decades of marriage. A priest at St. Benedict High School cast aspersions on my mother as a single parent in the early 8os. A good friend, the pastor of my church in the early 2000s, was removed from ministry based on an accusation of sexual abuse in the 1970s. In general, the priest abuse scandal uncovered a criminal enterprise operated within the Catholic Church.

My point is a matter of focus. In my experience of the Church, the focus is on helping people, being of service, and tending to the needs of the poor. Over the last few years— coinciding with Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s leadership of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops— the static coming from official Catholic organs and prominent Catholics has been disturbing to me.

  • Dolan applied key pressure to the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation in their disastrous jettisoning of Planned Parenthood. The mission of Planned Parenthood is 100% in line with my experience of the Church, so I found this meddling very worrisome
  • The Church has been utterly unhelpful in the matters of basic human rights when it comes to gay marriage
  • The two nuttiest Republicans in the presidential race are not the usual Evangelical Christians but, in fact, Catholics. Santorum’s stomach trouble vis a vis the separation of Church and state is particularly troubling, and completely un-American
  • The entire Church went into conniption fits over the President’s reasonable plan to make sure women employed by Catholic organizations had acceptable health care. My kids and I had to listen to two off-kilter homilies in two different churches earlier this year. One of those homilies threatened the Mass Hour Social Compact. There is very little more sacred, in a secular sense, to the American Catholic than the idea that the Mass lasts an hour. You get in, you read some stuff, you hear some stuff, you consecrate some stuff, you consume the body and blood of Jesus Christ, you sing one last song, and you’re out. The time the priest spent inaccurately describing the birth control policy severely impinged this essential compact, so we split (after proper genuflection in the aisle) while he was still talking

I have been disheartened at times by these policies and developments. But there is hope here, and it exists in the millions of Catholics like the ones I’ve grown up with. The deal struck by the President on birth control showed that mainstream American Catholics are in lock-step with the rest the country.

A new New York Times/CBS News poll has found that 57 percent of Catholic voters supported the requirement for religiously affiliated employers, like hospitals or universities, to cover the full cost of birth control for their employees, while 36 percent opposed it (7 percent said they did not know). There was almost no difference between Catholic and other voters on the question.

I still go to Church, I still teach religious education to 7th graders, including my eldest child. I deeply believe every word of the Nicene Creed. Transubstantiation is a fact, not just a long word. In short, I am Catholic, and I am not going anywhere.

Christ is risen. Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.

Toward Better Tools For Context in Civic Data Using Private Data Sources

Now that civic data is a normal part of the atmosphere in Chicago, it’s time to start mining private data sources to make automated context a natural part of our Web infolives. By that, I mean the addition of information about a subject that is generated without human intervention. My experience as the person responsible for obtaining civic data at EveryBlock has made me deeply aware of the power and limits of data lookup tools. Now that we have much more lookup tools and data to fill them, especially here in the City of Chicago, it’s time to turn our attention to the Web and the tools we use to extract data from it.

The recent dogged work of the Chicago News Cooperative, with help from Medill Watchdog, dovetails well with automated context. They’ve been publishing a great series of articles this week about lobbying in Illinois:

There’s great reporting in here based, in part, on a review of data. Here’s are some snips:

The investigation showed that the filings frequently are inaccurate. Both lobbyists and their clients are required to disclose their lobbyist-client relationships. In 242 instances, records show, lobbyists reported working for a client but there was no corresponding registration by the client.


Medill Watchdog examined statements of economic interests of public officials, lobbying registrations filed with the City of Chicago, Cook County and the state, and records of state bills and local ordinances. The investigation found 14 elected officials from Cook County alone who, while not lobbyists themselves, are related to or in business with lobbyists.

It’s time to automate some of that review.

Why civic data is not enough

City of Chicago Lobbyist Data - Lobbyist Data - 2011 Lobbyist Registry

Lobbyist data in Chicago has a great start on automated context. Lobby data was released earlier this year, and then improved when developers asked for better data and the City provided it. Those developers launched an awesome Web site– Chicago Lobbyists– that tracks lobbyists, clients, and projects. Here’s more info on how the Web site works.

Chicago Lobbyists Homepage

This is a great round-trip story: municipality releases data, developers analyze data (for free) and make suggestions, City heeding suggestions and releasing more data, and developers making a great app (again, for free) to view the data.

The next step seems simple– use the site to figure out all the big money relationships inside and outside government. But that didn’t happen. According to the data, $11,422,846 was paid to lobbyists working to influence the City in 2010. While that’s a lot of money, I do not believe that is the sum total of money involved in influencing the actions of a $6 billion operation. That doesn’t pass the sniff test, and the CNC articles this week show the nature of that failed sniff. There’s much, much more to be had.

Reverse-engineered bios

My assumption is that there are dozens of other positions, arrangements, and relationships that are factored into the true picture of lobbying. I am not in any way suggesting that these are nefarious, illegal, or improper. In fact, I find them to be absolutely normal. I just also find them to be hard to find. The CNC/ Medill stories of this week illustrate this very well– they did a ton of shoe-leather reporting to get insights. The thing is that we should be able to piggyback on that work with better tools.

For example this snip from a CNC story:, “the investigation found 14 elected officials from Cook County alone who, while not lobbyists themselves, are related to or in business with lobbyists.”

How did they find that out? Probably by painstakingly reviewing the economic interest disclosure forms and googling the shit out of the businesses listed. In most cases, online biographies of lobbyists played little to no role in pulling these pieces together.

As is typical in an industry where relationships matter, the people who do (and make) the most have to day the least about their work. The firm with the highest billings in 2010, Illinois Governmental Consulting Group LLC., has a one-page Web site with no feature/ benefit text and just emails to the principals. Why? if you don’t know who these people are already, they probably don’t really want to hear from you. To mailto me is to love me.

In situations like this, it’s not impossible to pull together a reverese-engineered bio for the principals, and picking up some noun clauses in the process. For instance, he was appointed to the Western Illinois University Board of Trustees. While we’re at it, here’s a mother-lode of George Ryan appointments to various state boards from 2001, including the Western Illinois appointment for Brunsvold. Someone needs to slurp that up and put it to use.

Automatically-generated entity associations

On the other end of the biographical info spectrum, I found that large law firms— with their sophisticated in-house marketing and PR teams— are much more forthcoming about what noun clauses matter in the world of Chicago lobbying. By doing entity extraction on the biographies of lobbyists, we can be armed with fodder for understanding and connections. With information from these tent-pole sources like law firm Web sites, we can apply that info to the other people in the industry.

Open Calais is one of many tools and companies that are focused on entity extraction and compiling knowledge on a topic.

Here’s an example from the bio of Edward  J. Kus, one of the lobbyists found in the data (with some initial research)

  • Executive Director of the Mayor’s Zoning Reform Commission
  • Zoning Administrator of the City of Chicago
  • First Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Planning and Development
  • McCormick Place Expansion: the Chicago Tribune has a hundred or so stories about this from the 1980s and early 90s in their archive
  • Navy Pier Redevelopment
  • Central Station
  • Lakefront Millennium Park
  • Chicago Plan Commission: homepage of the Commission has a list of all current members as well as searchable PDFs of all meetings (with members, matters, and outcomes) going back to December 2009. Plethora of info. Includes vote counts, recusals, etc.
  • City of Chicago Zoning Board of Appeals
  • City Council Committee on Zoning
  • City of Chicago Department of Planning and Development
  • City of Chicago Department of Zoning.
  • Group Home Task Force
  • Open Space Committee
  • Landscape Advisory Executive Committee
  • Greater North Michigan Avenue Association
  • Leading Lawyer in Illinois

So even though Kus only received $19,000 in 2010 from lobbying (the top person, Brunsvold, pulled in $978,000), the 17 initial-caps entities can be whacked against all other names in the data to tease out connections. The best thing is that all of this could be automated. I would like to see a computer program that does entity extraction of each of these noun clauses and drill automatically into each of them, slurping up all of the people and putting it into an understandable chart. Again, all of this is fine– it’s nice to make money, it’s nice to have responsible civic voices helping us make decisions, and it’s nice to know everything one needs to know in order to understand.

This info can also be pulled into the Chicago Lobbyists Web site as context in and of itself. These two pages on the Internet: the ChicagoLobbyists page for a registered lobbyist and the Mayer Brown bio for the same person don’t even know about each other. No link, no unique user ID, no way to know that they are the same person, even though the content is in many ways complementary. Here’s an example:

Connections in plain sight, rendered in plain text on the Internet, there for the making.

Marrying databases and the importance of standards

The public data environment is maturing quickly; moving from one in which very little data is available to one in which different units of government publish different datasets about essentially the same thing. For example, the Cook County Clerk has their Lobbyists Online lookup tool which contains lots of information about many of the same people who are in the City data. The Cook County system publishes the contact information (including email and cell phone number) as well as what looks like a copy of the building access ID photo for every registered lobbyist. The City data does not include this info, but since they publish the name and firm, it is possible to marry this info into one record.

We’ve been successful in changing policy when it comes to the publication of data, but there has not been much corresponding thought on standards. Much of this has to do with the vagaries of existing software and the idiosyncrasies of intake forms. Meantime, there is lots of opportunity for private developers to pull together all of this info into a useful (and valuable) repository.

Compiling language about the thing itself

One cool thing about marketing and public relations text is that it allows one to leverage the curation of others. Here’s  a snip from a lobbyist bio on the DLA Piper Web site:

In 2011, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that a zoning deal concerning plans to develop the old Lincoln Park Hospital site in Chicago had won initial approval from the Chicago Plan Commission despite aldermanic opposition. Reporter Dave Roeder noted, “As a historical note, this project is the third example of a zoning deal winning initial approval despite aldermanic opposition. The only other recent case was the proposal, yet unrealized, for a Chicago Children’s Museum in Grant Park. The zoning lawyer for that deal and the Lincoln Park Hospital site is Ted Novak of the firm DLA Piper. Other zoning lawyers probably wish he would bottle his secrets and sell them.”

Telling language. How people describe their actions is almost always telling. That’s probably why the ones with the most work say the fewest things.

Another example is Shoefsky & Froelich’s pretty enlightening definition of lobbyng:

Our firm represents private-sector entities seeking rights, licenses and privileges from government boards, commissions, and legislatures. We develop government relations strategies, draft and engage in hearings on petitions for relief from government regulations, and negotiate public sector/private sector partnerships. In addition, a substantial element of this practice area includes pursuing zoning changes and other relief required for development

Here’s Mayer Brown’s mega-page explaining, in detail, the actions they take on behalf of their government relations clients.

Meanwhile, watching entities from the DLA Piper bio reffed above, I saw “Lambda Alpha International, Ely Chapter (an honorary Land Economics Society)”. Their Web site has a basic info on the field of land economics. They’ve also got 10 years of their newsletter archived. My guess is that contains some good info about tactics and methods for lobbying, written in the congratulatory prose of a trade publication. Good stuff.

If one wants to understand lobbying, one has to have this stuff in front of them. Making tools that finds and monitors these sources would be valuable.

There’s money in this

It’s not hard to think about commercial uses for such a tool. Opposition research for political candidates and competitive intelligence for the lobbyists themselves are just some of the uses that come to mind. There’s lots of great work going on in civic data, especially in Chicago. I’d love to see venture capital follow some of this important work. I think we’d all benefit.