Build, Share and Learn: How Chi Hack Night Makes Chicago a Better Place

[This post was written by 3Points analyst Katie O’Shea]

Every Tuesday night, 60–100 people gather under the cumulus-like lights that hang from the glass ceiling of the atrium at Braintree, tucked inside the massive Merchandise Mart building. These people vary across age, race, gender, profession and more. There’s a quiet buzz of conversation as people enter — warm greetings exchanged as new arrivals spot familiar faces and some small talk as people wait in line for empanadas.

Then, once the atrium reaches a critical mass, a smiling man clad in plaid shirt, jeans and glasses chirps out a greeting to the room. “Hi, everybody! Welcome to Episode 243 of Chi Hack Night, Chicago’s place to build, share and learn about civic tech. I’m your host, Derek Eder.”

Derek’s quote is probably the simplest way to describe Chi Hack Night. It’s all about learning more about different issues facing people in the city of Chicago, then figuring out how to solve those problems. The issues discussed range from lack of access to social services to lack of recycling bins at residential buildings. Solutions to those respective issues include mrelief.com and mybuildingdoesntrecycle.com, both of which were born and grown at Chi Hack Night.

Each “episode” of Chi Hack Night follows the same general format: small talk over empanadas, a welcome from the co-hosts, brief introductions from everyone around the room, announcements, a presentation from someone involved in using open data to improve the current state of things (or from some significant figure), then breakout groups, in which people work on different projects related to using open data and bettering the city and the world.

Strictly speaking, Chi Hack Night is a tech event, but it’s a tech event like no other. Although many or most of the regular attendees work in tech jobs as software engineers, data scientists, UI/UX designers, etc., there are plenty who do not — including me.

The crowd at Chi Hack Night Episode 200 last year

I’ve been attending Chi Hack Night since Fall 2015, when one of my co-workers at my previous job told me about the event. The first time I attended, the evening was dedicated to surveying attendees about the event through an interactive feedback session. Though I was initially disappointed, thinking that I would be experiencing an atypical event on my first attendance, I learned a lot that night about the community that participates in the event and the spirit they bring to it. People all gave positive, constructive feedback, clearly demonstrating their optimistic attitude toward improving the city and, perhaps more significantly, their commitment to doing so in an inclusive setting, in which everyone can participate and help develop solutions. As I returned in the following weeks, months and now years, I found that this commitment is unwavering — as evidenced by the presentations, the breakout groups, the hiring of an ASL interpreter, the video recording of each presentation for anyone who couldn’t attend, and more.

Chi Hack Night’s sustained commitment to inclusion is unparalleled among tech events, especially given that the tech industry often struggles with promoting diversity and creating safe, welcoming environments. There’s something funny, yet perfectly apt, about the fact that Chi Hack Night provides a safe space within a glass-ceilinged room, given the seriousness with which participants attempt to stay aware of the glass ceilings that hold people back, then smash them.

There’s also an understanding amongst the participants that the work being done at these events isn’t just about putting a band aid on current problems. Rather, people at the event think in terms of building solutions that last — ones that go beyond the current generation.

A relatively recent example of this thinking was a Chi Hack Night presentation that took place just a few weeks after the T4Youth event that 3Points helped organize last November, and touched on many of the same themes as T4Youth. The presentation came from a group of CPS students who had been working as interns at Chi Hack Night. They had been evaluating user experience for a Chi Hack Night project called Edumap (soon to be renamed “Computer Science for All Lesson Finder”), a tool for finding computer science curriculum to assist with Chicago Public Schools’ new CS4All initiative, which aims to bring computer science education to CPS students. The students spoke about their experiences surveying teachers and students about technology, in order to discover what teachers and students want in terms of computer science education and determine the barriers to face as CPS begins to implement it in the curriculum. This data will be used by CPS employees to better understand how to expand the program across the district.

What this demonstrates is the impact that real people can have on the city. And it’s not limited to this one instance — the city has taken notice of the innovations being produced by Chi Hack Night as well. This has been evidenced by, among other things, the roster of speakers at the event, which has included Cook County Board president Toni Preckwinkle, and policy analysts from the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Also indicative is the frequent presence at the event of Chicago city employees, including Tom Schenk Jr., the city’s chief data officer, who led a breakout group that created a better predictive model of E.coli levels in Lake Michigan (in order to give swimmers a better idea of water safety), and Joel Inwood, the city’s public information officer, who led a breakout group that created a map of Chicagoland nursing homes, complete with information about nursing home quality. The engagement and cooperation between the city and the citizens attending Chi Hack Night demonstrates the potential that such involvement can have, and thus why it’s important to keep pushing for more of it.

In an age in which tech is changing rapidly, and in which divisions between people are causing very real conflict, it’s more important than ever to bring together a spirit of inclusion, open-mindedness and a desire to learn about and collaboratively solve the problems facing our city and our world. That’s why I recommend to everyone I know that they attend Chi Hack Night — because it’s for everyone. If you’re interested in checking it out one Tuesday, let me know at katie@3ptscomm.com, and I’d be happy to bring you along next time!