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.
That fall I documented the Chicago School of Data conference, which brought together the nonprofit and tech communities. After a session that touted social-service uses for open-source software, I realized I should be using the same apps to manage neighborhood data. Since my evenings had opened up, I decided to do my own civic hacking—and maybe team up on on something bigger. At least there'd be pizza.
Like many hackathons, the Tuesday night breakout sessions can be more yack than hack. Most work groups coalesce around issues like schools or transportation, then start playing with publicly available data. The most effective projects have informal clients, community organizers on the team who could attest that the hackers were trying to solve an actual problem.
As the renamed Chi Hack Night moved downstairs to the Braintreee offices, the larger crowd shared empenadas and their efforts moved beyond maps. Its most robust product, a website that connects people to food stamps, moved Open Gov Hack Night beyond maps. But its team worked full-time to launch it, and would need more user testing and development before social workers could hand it off to clients.
I huddled in a conference room to work on a pension reform calculator, and with a larger, younger group in the cafeteria on a bicycle-path access map. Team members came and went, and all discovered a dirty data science secret: If you're lucky enough to get your hands on relevant data, good luck finding time to hammer it all into shape.
Despite the challenges, Chi Hack Night keeps launching working apps, which is more than many hackathons can muster. Eder chairs a loose governing council that's fine with the casual structure and on-again, off-again workforce. Once I dropped in on a meeting and suggested that a scrum master might bring teams more focus. He looked at me with horror.
Chi Hack Night's most valuable lessons are easily overlooked:
- Coders have a code of ethics. Visitors who come expecting a tech meetup might wonder why there are no code samples. I live-tweeted a wide range of presentations on criminal justice, education, politics, social equity and transportation. In this group, "good code" isn't measured by its readability or ease of maintenance.
- You can never have enough tools. As I learned new business-intelligence techniques in the Carto mapmaker and Tableau, it was great to have power-user Eder at hand. But hackers are expert in a wide range of open-source techniques, which they widely share. René Marcello Paccha told me why he preferred LibreOffice to OpenOffice, and Cathy Deng helped me get comfortable with GitHub after years working on proprietary versioning software. This all came in handy as I picked up work in nonprofits with slim software budgets.
- Teaching is the best way to learn. Code clinics have persisted in years of breakout groups, lately supplemented by a blockchain study group and a cryptoparty. A statistics clinic was one of my early interests. But instead of strapping down and finally learning how to code in R, I'd sample the breakout groups, walking people through how to file a FOIA request, work with a city data set or design a less confusing interface. I didn't count on how much I'd be the teacher as much as the student, or how that propelled my own exploration.
- Communities are all around you. The conversations were helping me get through an abrupt career shift. Civic tech was in my wheelhouse at the intersection of technology and journalism, and Chi Hack Night discussions pushed me toward nonprofit work and Smart Chicago Collaborative projects. Often Chi Hack Night was a conversation starter in job interviews. Ultimately, it helped me land full-time work at a nonprofit with a civic mission, and an occasional hackathon.
There's a lot of competition these days for my attention Tuesday nights, and my wife enjoys having me at home more often. Yet I still drop in on Chi Hack Night. Friends ask where I've been, which is reason enough to return.