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Can you hack it?

Tech heads descend on data to fix Chicago

  • 'Hack night' at 1871 Chicago on the 12th floor of Merchandise Mart on Sept. 25, 2013. ( Lenny GIlmore / RedEye )
'Hack night' at 1871 Chicago on the 12th floor of Merchandise…
September 20, 2013|By Tracy Swartz, @tracyswartz | RedEye

Problem: How can the hundreds of datasets the city releases to the public be transformed into online tools that improve the lives of residents?

Solution: Collect a group of 30 to 40 young Chicagoans every Tuesday in a glass room in the Merchandise Mart to pick a city service or an issue and problem-solve a way to create apps that track these services.

Some of the successful ventures born from these nights include apps that break down information about elementary school closings and locations for free flu shots. In the last few years, the city has posted online a trove datasets from crime locations to condom distribution sites.

For the last year and a half, civic group Open City has hosted these Open Gov Hack Nights at the 1871 tech co-op offices—which provide workspace to digital start-ups—to gather Web developers, data scientists and Chicagoans interested in bettering their community to decipher, clean and massage this city data for the apps.

The Open Gov Hack Night has been a launching pad for other so-called hackathons—data problem solving sessions for various topics—around the city. If civic engagement of the past were writing a letter to your city councilman seeking change, the new civic involvement is this army of data-crunching volunteers donating their time and services (with the city's blessing).

"I have skills as a developer. I've always wanted to do something meaningful with them," said Logan Square resident Derek Eder, founder of the Open Gov Hack Night. "It's pretty empowering … to be able to improve the city."

One recent Tuesday, fueled by Lou Malnati's pizza, a group of two dozen Open Gov attendees talked about garnering data related to Safe Passage routes, a city program designed to help kids get to school safely.

Chicago Public Schools issues are a hot topic among this group, some of whom worked to create schoolcuts.org, which analyzed 129 Chicago elementary schools either closing or receiving students from closed schools by performance level, enrollment, race and income.

Another Hack Night win is the flu shot app, which helps Chicagoans find the locations for free flu shots by address or GPS from their phone.

The app was developed by Tom Kompare, 43, after city health department officials visited an Open Gov Hack Night last year. Kompare, of Rogers Park, said the city was "completely helpful" about the data. After seeing Chicago's tool, Boston officials asked for help creating a similar app.

John Tolva, the city's chief technology officer, said the city kicked off the hacking movement in 2011 by hosting a competition to create apps from city datasets released as part of Mayor Emanuel's push for open government.

The city also initially played a larger role in the Open Gov Hack Night to get the word out—the night grew from four developers to 40 attendees. Tolva said the city still promotes the crunching of their data because "we are not just naive enough to think that we'll come up with the best product."

The city is even on board with the creation of apps on touchy subjects such as the CPS closings. Hacker interest in CPS data seemed to strengthen after last year's teachers strike.

"The truth is, the hard things, the things that people disagree with us about ... is when you get a flourishing of activity," Tolva said.

What Tolva doesn't want to see are apps that deem some parts of the city safe and others unsafe. What he does want to see come out of local hacking is an app that would personalize your entire transit experience by telling you about street closures that affect CTA buses and open Divvy bike docks.

He called those who attend Open Gov Hack Night tend to have an engineer's mind.

"Most of them, they just like a hard problem," Tolva said. "They see the city, in our case, as a really thorny problem set."

One of the challenges in getting more people involved in the hacker movement, Tolva said, is breaking down the barrier of technical skill. There also may be a feeling that the groups are unapproachable. A recent Hack Night audience was split between male and female attendees, but the computer science field tends to attract more men, according to a census report.

Chris Whitaker, a captain for the Code for America Brigade, which helps promote civic technology, said the meetings are open to everyone. At each Hack Night, he pulls aside newbies to give them a primer on civic hacking. The attendance is about 60 percent developers and 40 percent non-developers, Whitaker said.

Some are university students working on projects for school. Some come one night and never return. Some come and stay well past the 10 p.m. end time.

The involvement of non-developers helps bring in new ideas and new approaches to solving problems, local hackers say. This will only help evolve the type and scope of apps.

"The community has matured in a big way," Eder said. "It's not just stuff on a map."

tswartz@tribune.com | @tracyswartz

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