Civic Hacking: Catching Up with Chi Hack Night

June 30, 2016 by Isabelle Lim

If you haven’t already heard of Chi Hack Night, you probably should.

Originally known as Open Gov Hack Night, this weekly gathering of open data aficionados, data scientists and civic technology mavens is a fixture in the Chicago data ecosystem. The community shares a common mission “to build, share and learn about tools to create, support, and serve the public good.”

When it started in 2012, the first meeting was an intimate affair attended by four people. Fast forward four years and renamed Chi Hack Night, the weekly event hosted by Derek Eder and Christopher Whitaker is now a heaving behemoth of a Tuesday night get-together. With sponsors like Google, Microsoft and DataMade now thrown into the mix, the weekly powwows have clearly expanded – our evening kicked off with more than 50 people in attendance.

Despite this surge in participation, the sense of community was anything but lacking even for this first-time attendee. One of the first things that happened was a round of introductions and literally everyone introduced themselves, from the City of Chicago’s Chief Data Officer (CDO), Tom Schenk, to high school juniors who squeaked “Hi”. And so it was with this friendly, all-in-this-together spirit that the evening proceeded, which is perhaps not surprising – this is a room full of people who voluntarily take 4 hours of their Tuesday to spin out civic tech projects that benefit the community (and feast on the complimentary empanadas, of course).

Joanna Klonsky speaks at Chi Hack Night on June 28th
Joanna Klonsky speaks at Chi Hack Night on June 28th

Tips for Newcomers

Now, if you’re a first-time attendee to Chi Hack Night as I was, here are a couple of things you should know:

1. Check out the Agenda, and RSVP

The organizers put up a Google Doc with what’s happening for that week’s Chi Hack Night on their main page. This is a good place to start. And RSVP to save yourself a little time during the sign-in process.

2. You don’t have to be a coder or computer whiz to be there

Besides tinkering a little on R, I’d say I know rocks about coding. But Chi Hack Night is about more than just coding. They’re constantly on the look-out for researchers, journalists, activists, public policy folks and even just interested citizens who want to contribute. After all, projects need more than software and data to run on – the foundational knowledge that guides their purpose, for instance, comes from folks in the know about every sector from education to transportation.

3. Having said that, it’s a great place to get started writing code

Some of the best and most experienced coders are there every week. If you’re looking to get started, or are stumped with your early efforts, Chi Hack Night is the place to be. A consistent group called “Code Clinic“ meets every week to help out with technical issues.

4. Check out the list of “breakout groups”

“Breakout groups” are smaller project teams that break off after the main presentation. They focus on a specific civic issue, fashioning a data project around it to address the problem. This list is constantly updated, and having some of the topics in mind before going helps you figure out where you can plug in.

Chicago Hack Night Logo

First-timer tips aside, the event on June 28th was about City Hall Politics and Media. I won’t rehash the night (the enterprising organizers put up minutes and videos here), but here are some highlights from the presentation and current projects that got me excited!

City Budget Group

The speaker for the night was Joanna Klonsky, a communications strategist and consultant. She spoke about her work with the 11-member Chicago City Council Progressive Reform Caucus of aldermen. What stuck out though, was when she answered a question about how data factored into city council work and if there were any data-related challenges council members face.

Her reply? That often times, aldermen are handed large books of information to parse through and classify manually, and with the time that it takes, key information about legislation is hard to process. Other issues included just being able to fact-check how statistics are used during debates, and being able to more easily analyze large amounts of civic data to help plan the city budget. At this point, several voices in the audience piped up to suggest having Chi Hack Night form a group to help with this work. Ah progress, sweet progress!

GUYS #chihacknight was so great & inspiring. And now I have a team of data friends who want to help solve problems! https://t.co/EwW8mwYwlF

— Joanna Klonsky (@joannaklonsky) June 29, 2016

Open Grid

Another fascinating data project that was mentioned was Open Grid, a project that aims to be make data from Chicago’s open data portal viewable in the context of a map.

Open Grid is an open source project led by developers at the City of Chicago that’s built on the open data the city’s made available. With a quick selection and click of a mouse, you can track things like 311 service requests, street closures or potholes in your vicinity, as they show up on a map. And with the source code available on GitHub, any interested coders are invited to get involved directly and help expand and improve the site. For more about this project, check out this video:

These two projects were just a quick slice of the myriad of other civic hacking initiatives already present or emerging at Chi Hack Night. From transportation to crime data, education to campaign finance filings, the diversity of projects these civic hackers take on is truly exciting.

If anything, it only goes to show how much social good can come out of open data being put to work by concerned citizens and fueled by one (or many!) empanadas.


Header image by: Descrier (descrier.co.uk)