Saturday, April 22, 2017

Chi Hack Night develops its civic role


I've been the balding guy near the front of the room for three of Chi Hack Night's five years.

Working in newspapers was an education in civics, and in hacking. Chi Hack Night helped me put the two together.

As Chi Hack Night marks its 5th anniversary this week, its role in Chicago's tech community and civic life , and I'm personally grateful for its endurance.

At a 2014 Blue1647 hackathon, Daniel X. O'Neil introduced me to a weekly event called Open Gov Hack Night. The co-founder of the EveryBlock community was showing off a flashy set of online zoning maps in vivid heliotrope hues. Sure, not all of us are turned on by zoning maps. But what really excited him was that they were volunteer collaborations. So I was sold on visiting the room where it happens: a classroom in 1871, the Merchandise Mart's wing for tech founders.

Open Gov Hack Night was a typical after-hours meetup, except that the hackers hung around after pizza to work on civic-minded joint projects. When I started dropping in before my night shift, the regulars were either developers like co-founder Derek Eder with newspaper clients or writers like Steven Vance who coded on the side. These alpha hackers showed their work on sites to allocate vacant city lots or track neighborhood construction sites.

But Hack Night was not just for hackers. Lawyer Maryam Judar explained rulings of the state's Public Access Counselor, which she had indexed in a Google doc. A deck on the Chicago Public Schools' responsive web redesign from designer Jay Van Patten could have been presented at any parent-teacher meeting, though it was a heroic in-house feat in buttoned-down Sharepoint web software. No matter their technical expertise, presenters always had time to compare notes—no matter that I was between projects.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Accessible design and the law: a personal vision


Brenda Rotzoll with editor Bob Mutter at a 2013 Chicago Sun-Times alumni dinner.

Web accessibility law is still sketchy but best-practice guidelines are clear, and users are your co-workers.

Without realizing it, I watched one of my co-workers go blind.

These things can happen slowly. Brenda Rotzoll was quite nearsighted as a Chicago Sun-Times feature writer. She never gave up her big 1990s-style glasses, and in a newsroom if you're not wearing glasses chances are you have contact lenses. As a reporter in the field, Brenda would take notes on a laptop computer. That was a new practice, and more reliable for her. One reason was that she was developing cataracts.

After surgery, Brenda was diagnosed with degenerative myopia. Her peripheral vision was good, but straightaway it was fuzzy. About 2 percent of the population has this severe form of nearsightedness, and the Macula Vision Research Foundation says it's the leading cause of blindness in adults 50 and older.

A few years after the diagnosis, Brenda was legally blind. She adopted special equipment for work, but impaired vision did not stop her; she had become the local expert on the Asian long-horned beetle, the inch-long insects that were infesting trees across the city.

These days special computers are no longer necessary to resolve many vision problems, or for that matter hearing or mobility issues. Anyone can change their computer's font size, colors and contrast, display closed captions or set up keybord shortcuts. Siri will read your email aloud.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Toastmasters makes time for practice, but not 10,000 hours

There's a notion that you need to have practiced something for 10,000 hours before you get good at it. Writer Malcolm Gladwell made the idea popular, and writers indeed spend that kind of time honing their trade. Spelling and grammar are just the basics: The only way I could get beyond them was to write, and write often. Working on deadline took practice, but once I met one deadline I became more confident I could meet the next one.

Public speaking takes practice too, but not 10,000 hours worth—or 10 years, if you figure three solid hours a day. Honestly, it doesn't take that long to see results. It does take an audience, but few speakers have logged 10,000 hours in front of a crowd.

Gladwell gets a lot of heat for his 10,000-hour rule, but those who've studied the idea agree with at least one facet of it. Practice will lead to mastery if it's deliberative. That means learning the elements of a skill, taking time to focus on those building blocks, and keeping at it without getting discouraged or burning out.

Amateur speakers have used those three steps for years to practice speaking in YMCAs, church basements and conference rooms. Toastmasters clubs all follow manuals that present the skills in sequence. Members work mindfully on each skill, and the audience gives feedback to improve. One skill bulds on another, and with practice they all come together. So while Toastmasters has a long history, its program fits the current thinking about mastery.