Municipal Code

Students and city groups collaborated at the first-ever UChicago Civic Hackathon.

At a typical hackathon, you might expect a convergence of computer programmers working intensely for 36 hours straight to develop a usable app or software. But this fall, a new student group at Chicago Harris took a fresh approach to the concept, focusing not simply on nimble coding but on bringing diverse groups together to collaborate on social problems.

The first-ever UChicago Civic Hackathon took place October 9–10 at the Chicago Innovation Exchange, a Hyde Park hub for developers and entrepreneurs. The event brought together civic leaders, students and members of the community who share a common interest in developing data-driven solutions to address complex social challenges. South Side Civic, an organization founded by students in Chicago Harris’ Computational Analysis and Public Policy (CAPP) master’s degree program, hosted the hackathon in partnership with UChicago’s Institute of Politics, the Computer Science Department, the Center for Data Science and Public Policy and the student group hack@uchicago.

The hackathon brought together civic leaders, students and members of the community who share a common interest in developing data-driven solutions to address complex social challenges.

Aneesh Chopra, co-founder of the data analytics firm Hunch Analytics, kicked off the event with a keynote address. In his talk, moderated by City of Chicago Chief Data Officer Tom Schenk, Chopra recalled his experience as the first Chief Technology Officer of the United States and affirmed the promise of civic hacking. “If you believe and trust that government is a source of good, then you will believe that open data and civic engagement and civic innovation will be key factors in making a difference,” he said.

The “hacking” portion of the event began after the reception, when the leaders of nine civic and nonprofit organizations described their missions and challenged attendees to develop innovative solutions to their greatest challenges. Organizations that participated included the Chicago Park District, the Donors Forum, the American Red Cross of Chicago and Northern Illinois and Harris’ own BallotReady, among others.

Immediately following the presentations, participants engaged with the organizations’ leaders to learn more about their goals, obstacles to progress and opportunities for improvement.

The next morning at sign-in, the hackers broke into teams and began problem-scoping exercises with organization leaders to learn more about the problems at hand. Teams identified what data was available and useful, and then mapped out possible solutions. A series of workshops led by University leaders offered fresh perspectives on topics like problem discovery, data gathering, solution mapping and communicating the vision.

The teams revealed their findings on Saturday afternoon in presentations judged by Chicago Chief Information Officer Brenna Berman, Smart Chicago Collaborative Managing Director Demond Drummer and JPMorgan Chase Senior Director of Technology Sharon Dobbs. The award for problem discovery went to the YMCA team for distilling a complex measure into a single answerable question: How do we quantify the full improvement of an individual’s well-being from participating in the Diabetes Prevention Program? Another prize-winning team, working with Project SYNCERE, was honored for helping the youth organization determine the extent to which participation in its school programs prepares students for STEM studies in college.

The experience was rewarding for all involved. “It was incredible to see how many people are willing and able to apply their skills and perspective to meaningful issues that involve their community,” said South Side Civic organizer Mitsue Iwata, a second-year CAPP student who helped organize the hackathon. “It was a great learning experience for everyone.”