Chi Hack Night

By Joshua Conner

Chi Hack Night is a weekly learning exchange producing meaningful dialogue, strengthening skills, diversifying networks and building apps with each episode. 

On Tuesday, March 29, a variety of curious change-makers came to Chicago’s creative space Braintree located at 222 West Merchandise Mart Plaza, to participate in the 198th episode of Chi Hack Night.

Chi Hack Night can best be described as an open forum meets learning laboratory. Although the title may imply that the event is exclusively for hackers or technological enthusiasts, nothing could be further from the truth. Chi Hack Night is a free weekly event open to anyone who wants to use civic technology as a medium to learn, collaborate and create.

The night began with every person in the room introducing themselves to the audience — 20 seconds of fame to give their name and occupation. Any opportunity for public speaking is always a plus.

After this participatory cast was introduced, announcements were next on the agenda, including upcoming events and job openings.

Chi Hack Night Logo Photo Courtesy of Christopher Whitaker

The main headline was how Chi Hack Night was about to hit 200 episodes. In honor of the milestone, Chi Hack Night was making a call for speakers and writers to do talks or write blog posts about something that they learned or a project that they are developing as a result of the Hack Nights.

Data application is the backbone of Chi Hack Night. Participants are able to observe, inquire and offer recommendations to implement data and civic technology. The presentation on March 29 was by the Heartland Alliance on “Ending Poverty.”

Heartland Alliance Director of Research Amy Terpstra and Patricio Cadena, Senior Director of Information Technology, came to explain what the mission of Heartland Alliance. They explained that Heartland Alliance is comprised of five different 501(c)3 organizations addressing poverty, international, health, housing and human care topics.

““Heartland Alliance has organizational capacity for evidence-based programming, data-informed decision-making, and an opportunity to tell our story,” said Terpstra.

After a productive rapid-fire question and answer session, it was time to break out into groups. Most interesting to note is the successful apps that have come as a result of Chi Hack Night breakout groups including, the apps “my building doesn’t recycle,” schoolcuts.org and m Relief.

Chi Hack Night is also very democratic. If there is not a breakout group you are interested in, participants are invited to make suggestions that are considered right on the spot.

Derek Eder, the event’s founder and lead organizer, and Christopher Whitaker, organizer and documenter, are hosts for Chi Hack Night.

Whitaker is also the brigade program manager for Code for America and author of the Civic Whitaker Anthology.

Chi Hack Night has evolved a lot since the first episode, Whitaker noted.

“We have more people, so originally we were open government hack night,” he said. “This group spun out from the open government meet-up in Chicago. Open government meet-up was primarily focused on transparency and government data. Once it started opening up data, we began to work on it more, developing projects, hosting talks and it really became more than government transparency. So we ended up rebranding to Chi Hack Night which we thought would be a little more inclusive of what we did.”

What is the biggest difference since the events started?

“The big difference, I think between episode one and episode 200, is we have a lot more people and more leaders,” Whitaker continued. “We have about 15 regular breakout groups, and a lot of those breakout groups have more than one person leading them, which I’m really proud of. The other thing I think has changed a lot, is wherever we first started we were the first civic hacking volunteer group in the country. Now the Code for America brigade network, which is comprised of groups like these, is in 63 cities and we have more than 50,000 volunteers in the brigade…Then, what’s been interesting to see is the amount of people who have been able to do this work professionally and the amount of people who have become sort of professional civic technologists or have folded civic technology into their work…I don’t think we could have imagined this when we first started.”

Whitaker said Hack Night helps participants develop their qualifications and skills and become more attractive to employers, too.

“I know for me personally, I didn’t know anything about technology when I first started,” Whitaker said. “I have a Master’s degree, but that Master’s degree is in public administration. I ended up finding out about government technology from being an employee using the technology. As I have been involved in Chi Hack Night, I’ve learned more about technical stuff. So I know about what GitHub is, I know what Ruby is, I can follow some of Derek’s recipes and build my own search map template.”

And technology experts also learn from non-tech participants.

“When we get people from the developer side in and we have speakers talk about their work in government and the nonprofit sector, and dealing with civic issues, they become more knowledgeable about the civic side of things,” Whitaker continued. “So we are creating people who know both sides of the house…We’ve noticed that people with both sets of skills turn out to be really valuable employees for city and federal government….People get hired by government in order to leverage their skills…to make the government better from the inside. That’s been really exciting to see”.

You can find out more about Chi Hack Night at http://chihacknight.org/ and follow them @chihacknight. Chi Hack Night meets every Tuesday at Braintree located at 222 West Merchandise Mart Plaza.

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