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How Chicago's Tradition of Civic Organizing Inspired the Best in Civic Tech

Chi Hack Night has become a national model for sustainable and successful volunteer civic technology projects.

Every Tuesday evening, there is a civic tech meetup in Chicago, complete with food for attendees, a presentation of a successful or ongoing project, representatives from local government and more than 100 volunteer technologists.

This event is called Chi Hack Night, and it’s been happening since 2012, sparking work that has helped foster progress throughout the city, ranging from a website that provides easy access to lobbying data to a visualization of vacant buildings to an online snowplow tracker. Chi Hack Night has drawn interest from all levels of government, been featured in the Chicago Tribune and inspired copycat efforts as far away as Toronto.

It is the type of thriving and localized civic tech movement many communities yearn for, the type that Code for America seeks to foster with its brigades, the type of civic organizing that so often has proven to be elusive, even as many in government have seen an increase in technologists wanting to help improve life for residents.

The structure of Chi Hack Night is a relatively simple one, too. Each meetup begins with socializing and some food, followed by a brief welcome and introduction for the event with announcements, then a headline presentation and, finally, two hours of civic hacking. It’s a simple yet incredibly effective event.

So, what then has given rise to a movement as sustainable and successful as Chi Hack Night? The group’s founders say it was a perfect storm of circumstances, combined with the occasional bit of luck and a few savvy moves.

Derek Eder, one of Chi Hack Night’s founders and lead organizer, remembers its beginnings. Back in 2011, Chicago’s mayor’s office was changing administrations for the first time since 1989, going from Mayor Richard M. Daley to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the former chief of staff in the Obama White House.

The transition, Eder said, made for a more malleable local government, open to suggestions, especially in terms of information technology, which had made major strides at the federal level during the Obama Administration where the new mayor had come from. At the same time, Chicago had a history of both civic organizing and civic tech.

“There was this community of folks advocating for this stuff, and so that, combined with this administration change, led to us having the first ever open data policy for Chicago and the first ever chief data officer for any city in the United States,” Eder said. “There was all this data being published by the city of Chicago that wasn’t there before, and there was a group of people interested in this stuff that was ready to dive into it as soon as it was published.”

Chi Hack Night started with basically four volunteer technologists. In addition to Eder, the first meeting included Juan-Pablo Velez, Scott Robbin and Tom Kompare, with Christopher Whitaker and Steven Vance as other early members. Webitects, where Eder was then employed, hosted the first nine hack nights, before Chicago’s 1871 tech hub hosted the event through January 2015, when it moved to its larger home at the Braintree offices.

The group, Eder said, has been fortunate to have collaborators give them space for meetings. Another key factor, however, has been the impact they’ve had. In short, ideas at Chi Hack Night have been regularly embraced and propagated by the local, county and state governments in the area. Projects born at Chi Hack Night have gone on to make a difference in the communities where the technologists live.

Almost everyone who donates their time to Chi Hack Night is a volunteer, and so it’s the meaningful work that keeps them returning. As more open data came out, the technologists built more sites. Soon, they found themselves in meetings with important city leaders.

“It was just kind of crazy if you think about it,” Eder said, “and it really motivated us to keep going.”

Eder also said having a regular weekly time to meet has been valuable, because attendees know that Tuesday is Chi Hack Night — they don’t have to sporadically slot it into their regular schedules.

Word of mouth has also been a valuable asset for the group. Katie O’Shea, who is one of Chi Hack Night’s co-organizers, said she became aware of the group through a colleague and was then reeled in by a mix of professional development opportunities and commitment to helping the community.

“What really struck me and made me want to come back was the fact that everyone there was so committed to giving good constructive feedback and was really committed to issues like diversity and inclusion,” O’Shea said.

In terms of the future, the group is now exploring becoming a formal nonprofit organization, with a managing board for oversight. Other groups around the country have contacted them for insights into their success, and they have booked a list of presenters through September.

They are now producing long-term projects and serving as a venue for initiatives by governmental agencies. For example, on the last Tuesday in May, the presentation was a project that had been in the works for over a year: Illinois Re-Entry Resources, an online version of a resource for prisoners and parolees aimed at helping them successfully return to society, a print version of which was created by the Education Justice Project.

Nicholas Hopkins, coordinator of Illinois Re-Entry Resources, said his own group is not very tech savvy, and prior to working with Chi Hack Night, their only online component of the resource was a 250-page PDF, to which they were in the process of adding hyperlinks.

“Their team was interested in helping with work on re-entries and we were really interested in hosting this online,” Hopkins said.

It was a natural fit. So, that project was presented on the last Tuesday in May, and then on the first Tuesday in June. Chicago government representatives also came to show the group a new resource they had built to help identify properties that put children at risk for lead poisoning.

Essentially, through a mix of timing, governmental cooperation and enticing benefits for participants such as networking and professional development, Chi Hack Night has created a model for volunteer civic tech work that any city in the country would be fortunate to emulate.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine