Hack Nights Are a Civic Good

Reflections on three years of building San Jose’s civic tech community

Celebrating three years of Code for San Jose!

This spring, Code for San Jose turned three years old. In addition to celebrating with craft cocktails at a favorite local bar, we made time to reflect on our successes, struggles and future direction. What surprised me about our discussion were not the areas we need to improve (which are discussed frequently by our leadership team), but the successes that we’ve overlooked.

What I realized was this: The humble hack night is Code for San Jose’s defining contribution to local civic engagement and civic innovation. It’s not perfect, but it’s good. With work, it has the potential to be a new kind of civic institution.

Cofounder Kalen Gallagher speaking to participants at one of our very first hack nights at NextSpace San Jose

A lot has happened since Kalen Gallagher and I issued the call for San Jose’s first ever civic hack night on March 13, 2014. At the time, there was no gathering place in San Jose for regular citizens who wanted to learn about or contribute to technology projects for the civic good. We started holding civic hack nights, modeled on other cities such as Chicago and Oakland, as a place for people to meet, learn about civic issues, and experiment with building civic technology.

Over the past three years, Code for San Jose has brought hundreds of local developers, designers, government staff and community members together at over 90 civic hack nights, 2 open data jams and 3 National Days of Civic Hacking. Our volunteers have built apps that helps the library track of free summer meals, map local neighborhood associations, and visualize economic indicators. Our policy team has educated elected officials about the value of open data, beta-tested open data portals for the VTA (county transportation authority) and City of San Jose, and celebrated the adoption of open data policies by the same agencies.

Open Data Jam: Participants share their ideas with San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, Chief Innovation Officer Shireen Santosham, and Data Analytics Team Erica Garaffo and Kevin Miller (March 2016)

As our local civic tech ecosystem has matured, Code for San Jose’s activities have evolved too. A few of our volunteers have taken full-time jobs innovating at VTA and the City of San Jose from the inside. In March, our nascent user testing group conducted usability testing on the City of San Jose’s soon-to-be-launched mobile app for reporting potholes, graffiti and other common resident concerns.

None of Code for San Jose’s achievements would have been possible without creating a regular, informal space for people interested in advancing civic tech in San Jose. We do that by hosting civic hack nights.

What is Civic Hack Night?

Two Thursdays a month, we gather at the same time (6:30–9pm) and same place (The Tech Museum). We provide pizza (sometimes banh mi). Typically, 20 to 40 folks show up. After a short kick-off, people break out into smaller groups to chat, explore and experiment on a range of topics. Some people code, others work on ideas, words or user experience.

It’s such a simple formula that it’s easy to overlook how powerful it can be.

A special Civic Hack Night held at San Jose City Hall Rotunda in November 2015.

Sometimes it takes a newcomer to capture what’s special about a place. Last month, Jen Myrhe, a sociologist, documentarian and visual artist, visited Code for San Jose to tell us about her project. 1500 stories is a public art, storytelling and civic engagement project about class inequality in the US. Here’s how Jen described her first experience at hack night:

It was such a fun and inspiring night — so many great minds working on so many cool projects. My favorite thing was the general attitude of everyone in the room, which was: “This can be done. Let’s get to work!”
— Jen Myrhe, creator of the 1500 Stories Project
Jen Myrhe telling Code for San Jose participants about increasing inequality in the U.S.

I love that this person, whom I’d never met before, had heard about Code for San Jose as a place where she might find civically-engaged technologists to join her project. I love that she walked in not knowing anyone, and was approached by multiple volunteers enthusiastic about helping her out. That attitude of optimism, of rolling up our sleeves to work side by side, is something we need to nurture in ourselves and in our communities right now.

As we embark on Code for San Jose’s fourth year, I’d like to highlight four qualities of civic hack night that I think are worth celebrating.

Four reasons to celebrate Civic Hack Night

1. Hack nights connect people who wouldn’t otherwise meet

Our hack nights are one of the few spaces where folks from San Jose’s tech, nonprofit and government sectors will cross paths in an informal setting. As a result, hack nights are a great place to talk to someone you wouldn’t usually meet. Sometimes these conversations lead to productive partnerships, and sometimes they just help you broaden your understanding of the world around you.

At hack night, a seamstress-turned-urbanist can team up with a software engineer from Netflix to count pedestrians in time-lapse videos of San Jose’s urban spaces. At hack night, a nonprofit-manager-turned-full-stack-developer can partner with an architect-turned-UX-designer to research the housing search needs of San Jose’s low income renters.

Time lapse video filmed in downtown San Jose by Lorin Camargo

2. Hack nights provide a safe space for trying new things

At hack night, we have no formal agenda and no hierarchy (although importantly, there is a Code of Conduct). This provides participants with a welcoming space for collaborating, exploring new ideas and practicing new skills. It’s okay to be a beginner, and it’s okay to try something that doesn’t work out.

3. Hack nights are dependable

The people and projects may shift from month to month, but hack night is always on for whoever shows up. We’re here for you when you need us. Given that we are not a formal entity, but rather a loosely-joined group of individuals connected only through a Meetup page and Slack, it’s pretty remarkable that we’ve been pulling this off consistently for three years running.

Our consistency has enabled us to provide what amounts to “community office hours” for nonprofit and government staff that need tech help. Cheryl Hedges, a Business Intelligence Program Manager Performance for the City of San Jose, has shown up on several different occasions when she’s needed tech assistance to implement code from hackathon projects whose original contributors have moved on.

Local government staffer Cheryl Hedges works with Code for San Jose volunteers Mark Williams and Matt Norman at a hack night

4. Hack nights are sustainable

The sustainability of civic hack night is key. As an entirely volunteer-run organization, Code for San Jose’s reach is necessarily limited by the bandwidth of its volunteer leadership team.

By design, hack nights do not take a lot of effort to produce. Thanks to a great venue provided by The Tech Museum, all our volunteer leadership team needs to do is order pizza, show up, and kick things off with introductions. While we see the value of providing more organized structure and content, we need to keep the workload sustainable so that we can continue to commit to hack night as a regular, dependable gathering.

Help Us Make Hack Night a Civic Institution

This is a call to action for San Jose residents and workers who want to make an impact at the intersection of civic engagement and technology. With your help, we can make Civic Hack Night even more relevant, inclusive and beneficial for our volunteers and for the broader community.

Code for San Jose is seeking volunteers to serve on our leadership team for a minimum one-year term. Coding experience is not required, nor is prior participation in Code for San Jose activities.

Here are a few things we want to work on:

  1. Inclusivity. How might we encourage hack night participation that’s more reflective of San Jose’s diverse population?
  2. Civic content. How might we invite subject matter experts to engage with hack night participants on key civic issues in San Jose?
  3. Learning pathways. How might we equip our volunteers with the knowledge and skills they need to be successful civic hackers?

Interested? Ready to learn more? As a first step, fill out this Google form and if you can, come to our next civic hack night.

Author’s acknowledgements: Special thanks to co-captain Vivek Bansal, Microsoft civic engagement fellow Tiffany Vuong and civic engagement manager Jessica Weare for helping me think through the ideas expressed in this post, and to cofounder Kalen Gallagher and Microsoft civic tech manager Kevin Miller for their continued leadership in Code for San Jose. Code for San Jose’s activities would not be possible without the generous support of our sponsors, The Tech Museum and Microsoft.