Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=214509
Story Retrieval Date: 6/19/2013 1:59:00 PM CST
Juan-Pablo Velez (left) of Open City and Chris Whitaker of Code for America answer questions at an "Open Government 101" breakout session at the Hack Night.
Civic hackers: 21st century community organizers?
“Hacker” tends to conjure these images: a dark room, a hunched and ominous figure. Hear the eerie clack of a lone keyboard. Breathe in the stench of stale Doritos.
The hackers that assembled on Tuesday night in the heart of Chicago’s Merchandise Mart would seem rather out of place in that scene. They’re a friendly and earnest group – mostly young men, some in plaid and jeans, some straight from work in their button-ups and dress shoes. They toss around phrases like “open source software” and “civic virtue.”
“Technology isn’t going to fix a fraction of our problems,” warns Juan-Pablo Velez, co-founder of the civic app site Open City.
But they’re sure going to try to fix some.
Juan and his friends are called “civic hackers,” and they’ve assembled for the 37th weekly Open Government Hack Night, hosted by Open City and the Smart Chicago Collaborative.
These guys are one part translator, one part community organizer, and one part techie. Basically, they take data released by the city of Chicago (a massive glut of numbers that’s growing every day) to create apps that Regular Joes like us can tap into on our phones and computers to check things like where we can get a flu shot and what streets have been plowed after a snowstorm. And much wonkier stuff, such as the money behind and interactions of Chicago political lobbyists and their clients.
One of these guys – Raed Mansour, a social media consultant who volunteers with the Chicago Department of Public Health – says that the hackers are “trying bridge the gap between communications, politics and technology.”
Raed serves as a line of communication between the department and the group, and told the hackers that the city could really use an app that’d help people locate where the public health department was offering free flu shots.
That app rolled out on the city’s official website not long after, built by civic hacker Tom Kompare.
Also in attendance is Tom Schenk, a former member of the group who has been poached by the city to help improve city-run tech innovation, like the new site Digital Chicago, a hub for the city’s social media accounts and the data portal that’s these civic hackers’ lifeblood.
Tom leans against a wall and answers questions about city data and municipal minutiae from the group.
Although some city data started finding its way online under Mayor Daley, the civic hacking movement in Chicago picked up major steam when Mayor Emanuel named John Tolva, formerly of IBM’s Smart Cities project, the city’s chief technology officer.
“Mayor Emanuel decided to run with open data,” Velez said. “Every single day there’s a new data set – probably more than any other city out there.”
But the hackers aren’t interested in every piece of data – only the ones that, when presented on a site or in an app, provide a civil service to the people of Chicago.
“You have to be thoughtful of who has a problem to be solved,” he said.
Chris Whitaker, a brigade captain for Code for America, a national nonprofit that helps cities innovate with technology, is present at the meeting to provide guidance.
“Chicago is ahead of the game,” he says. He gives some credit to the city’s new tech staff -- like Tolva -- but also lauds Chicagoans’ level of care and concern for improving their communities.
Chris communicates with other Code for America captains around the country, so that cities like Boston, Philadelphia, Grand Rapids and Chicago can share their progress – and their apps.
In fact, Boston just adopted our flu shot app.
“Because [the apps] are built on solving problems, it makes sense to share,” Chris said.
The biggest challenge these guys face is getting community input on what data merits an app and, as Juan mentioned, who could benefit from an app.
Chris says that getting input from the community on their wants and needs would help the hackers build great apps. Their sentiments echo that great line from “Jerry Maguire” – “Help me, help you!”
But one thing’s for sure – these guys aren’t the cliché, dark-room-dwelling hackers of yore. They’re a new kind of activist, really. Or community organizer. And goodness knows, Chicago loves her community organizers.