September 23, 2014

UIC Staffer Forms Tech Group to Work on Pension Crisis

Dennis Roarty may be wearing a DePaul shirt, but he is a former staffer for the UIC College of Education and now consults with UIC. He has formed a tech group to work on Illinois’s pension crisis.
By Susan S. Stevens

DENIS ROARTY was looking for an educational topic to explore when he first attended an “Open Gov Hack Night” at the technology start-up 1871 Technology Center in the Merchandise Mart. Instead, as a “future retiree,” he decided to start a group that is examining Illinois’s pension problems.

THE OPEN City organization ( hosted the event, and hosts other Open Gov Hack Nights as well. Open City is a group that creates apps with open data to improve transparency and understanding of government. Open Gove Hack Nights ( are for individuals interested in building, sharing, and learning about civic technology.

A FULL-TIME software developer for the College of Education at UIC until earlier this year, Roarty now is a consultant for UIC and has begun his own company,

“I WANT to see the pension problem solved in a sane way,” Roarty said. Right now, the pension reform is so complex that it needs close examination in various ways. “It is hard for people – pensioners, taxpayers, to make any sense of it all,” he added.

“ALL WE WANT to do is create a model that is acceptable to both sides of the debate,” Roarty said. “We want to bypass all the complex formulas and rules that don’t really mean anything to those people.”

“OUR GOAL is through this modeling, taxpayers and pensioners can see clearly what portion of this $80 billion in debt is going to fall into their laps,” he added. The group is downloading data, largely actuarial reports, that are available online. By using the data, people will be able to model their own pension figures or look at the State as a whole.

ROARTY PITCHED the idea to the Open Gov group about six weeks ago in the tech center, and now has a number of collaborators. An economist, a lawyer, two data scientists, and two programmers have joined his team. Additional members are welcome to attend the sessions at that begin at 6 p.m. Tuesdays in the 1871 Technology Center in the Merchandise Mart’s Suite 1212.

FOR THE pension analysis, Roarty said, “We can see that as a good use of public data.” If the group has difficulty obtaining information, it will file Freedom of Information requests. Once all possible online information is collected, the group will move on to do models of current pension plans, proposed pension reform plans, and plans from other states. Membership guides and other outside sources will be searched. “At some point, we need to start consulting with experts,” he said. “We know that is going to be a very complex process.”

“WE WANT this to be agnostic of political views” when the group reaches its conclusions, Roarty said. “Repairing the underfunded system will impact current pensioners and taxpayers as well as future pensioners and future taxpayers. Our goal is to create a context that simplifies the complex formulas and lets pensioners and taxpayers draw their own conclusions and understandings so they can inform the political debate, not us.”

A RESEARCH assistant professor in UIC’s School of Public Health, Alexander “Sasha” Gutfraind also is a participant in Open Hack Night.

“THE OPEN Gov Hack group is unique in serving valuable public missions, while at the same time helping the hackers network and master powerful analytical tools,” Gutfraind said. “I have not found a project yet, but generally I am interested particularly in work that is relevant to public health, which is the area of my research at UIC. Perhaps I will start a new project to lead this work.”

OPEN GOV Hack Night is organized by Open City and documented by the Smart Chicago Collaborative. On a recent Tuesday, more than 50 people, most under 40 and most men, met at 6 p.m. for the opening session with free pizza. They heard a presentation from a group that explained how data has been mined for revealing which City lots will be sold for $1 to current residents of two impoverished neighborhoods. At 7 p.m., the group broke up into smaller gatherings such as Roarty’s which had a half-dozen in it.

FOR NEWCOMERS, Christopher Whitaker each week leads an orientation session to teach what civic hacking is all about. Others teach programming. Various aspects of transportation, education, the environment, and social service delivery are among the topics being probed.

FOR MORE information about the pension group, contact Roarty at or Gutfraind is at Open Gov Hack Night details are at

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