CHICAGO, IL — Last year, when Chicago Public Schools released a list of 129 schools slated for possible closure, the move triggered an avalanche of criticism from parent groups, teachers unions, and other stakeholders from all around the city.
Amid all the shouting and finger-pointing, a website emerged to help undergird the arguments with facts: SchoolCuts.org synthesized all publicly available data about every school on the list—academic performance, student demographics, enrollment, school boundaries, and more—and packaged them in a format that was simple to understand.
It was an instant hit. Josh Kalov, one of the seven masterminds behind SchoolCuts.org, chalked up the success to the fact that the site made a mound of seemingly impenetrable data accessible. “We broke down the information into more usable pieces,” he says.
Kalov is a “civic hacker,” part of a growing group of techies—in Chicago and elsewhere—volunteering their time to create Web apps with a public service bent. Chicago’s active civic hacking community has been spurred by the trove of information released on the city’s data portal, which opened in 2010 and now holds more than 1,000 datasets—the most of any US city, according to Code for America, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that helps cities innovate with technology.
But the city’s civic hacking pedigree goes back to long before “open data” became a buzzword. The site ChicagoCrime.org launched in 2005, to show users how many crimes had been reported in a given neighborhood; two years later, it became EveryBlock, the granddaddy of civic apps and a forerunner to a wave of hyperlocal sites that pulled together newspaper articles, Flickr pictures, local business reviews, Craigslist postings municipal data, and more.
That long history means there’s been plenty of opportunity for civic hackers and traditional news organizations to think about how they relate to each other. It’s an interesting, if often distant, relationship, even as the two groups take on overlapping roles of trying to better inform the public. Kalov and other civic hackers don’t consider themselves journalists, and, while they recognize that media outlets can help bring their work to its target audience, most aren’t particularly seeking out alliances with reporters—if they can reach users directly, they’re happy to do so.
But many do recognize that their work—making inscrutable data related to public issues clear and accessible—can be a valuable starting point for potential reporting projects. “A lot of work that we do is something that journalists can build on top of,” says Derek Eder, who has worked on Chicago-based apps and sites ranging from a lobbyist tracking tool to one that hacked the city’s plow tracker to show which streets are clear. “In the back of my mind, it’s always the goal of any of the sites we build.”
There’s more emphasis on collaboration—or finding other ways to cultivate the ethos of civic hacking—within journalism circles. The early success of EveryBlock helped prompt the Chicago Tribune to set up its news apps team back in 2009. And, this year, the political team at the Chicago Sun-Times worked with Eder’s company, DataMade, to develop the “Clout Meter” app, which uses an algorithm to rank the political influence of Chicago aldermen.
Craig Newman, managing editor of the Sun-Times, expects his paper to produce more coding-heavy projects like Clout Meter in the future. “We are in the process of trying to develop more of that skill set here,” he says. “We don’t really have that part in the middle that ties together between the codes and data reporting, so [civic hackers] helped us get to that point quickly and helped our thought process along the way.”
But Newman adds a caveat: “Everybody’s throwing data against the wall now since the payoff can be great, but it’s got to match up with what we are looking to do and things that our readers care about.”
It’s just past 6pm on a recent Tuesday evening, and the mid-sized conference room at Chicago tech hub 1871 is packed to the gills. The standing-room-only crowd is there for Open Gov Hack Night, a two-year-old weekly gathering organized by the civic hacking community’s linchpin group, Open City.
The attendees are a ragtag group of developers, Web designers, academics, activists, educators, students, and journalists—united by their shared interest in data science. After the introductions and announcements, they break into small groups to collaborate on app development. One group, led by Kalov and his colleague Elnaz Moshfeghian, sets up shop in a large open space near the front desk to work on an education project. Another group heads further down the hallway to wrestle with a dataset containing red-light camera records. Still another group hunkers down to build an app that will compile a list of residential buildings that ignore recycling requirements.
Many successful collaborations, SchoolCuts.org among them, have come out of the Hack Night or from gatherings of other civic hacking groups here. One of those groups, Smart Chicago Collaborative, now wants to help grow the community even further. To that end, it has launched a user testing group that allows hundreds of Chicago residents to help fine-tune apps in development. Smart Chicago is also attempting to measure the city’s “data ecosystem” with an exhaustive survey of anyone who uses data for social good in their line of work. The hope is that the effort will identify gaps in the ecosystem that civic hackers can go on to fill.
Smart Chicago, in a sense, represents the institutionalization of the civic hacking movement—the nonprofit was born out of an unusual collaboration between the City of Chicago and two prominent local philanthropic groups, the Chicago Community Trust and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Helmed by Daniel X. O’Neil, a cofounder of EveryBlock, the group functions as an incubator of sorts for civic hackers, helping them to amplify—and, hopefully, ultimately make a business out of—their work.
“We are trying to create and encourage an alignment among all of the amazing players in this movement, so that what they create leads to products and services that people truly need,” says O’Neil, who was also one of the convenors of an early meet-up group, now called Open Government Chicago(-land). “When you move from [working on] ‘projects’ to ‘products,’ you can make an impact. And you can sustain your work.”
EveryBlock, of course, became a product—one popular enough that it was snatched up by a news site, MSNBC.com, in 2009 and expanded to 19 cities across the country. Last year, NBC News, which had taken control of MSNBC.com, abruptly pulled the plug on the site, only to resurrect it earlier this year in Chicago. It’s now being expanded to other cities again.
None of the current generation of startups has developed that reach yet, but the community is making a dent, from apps for flu-shot locations and where the city has towed your car to more conventionally journalistic projects like Chicago Lobbyists, the watchdog site. As the community grows and matures, it will be worth watching to see whether projects like these become linked to bigger news organizations—or whether they find an audience on their own.
Either way, says Joe Germuska, the director of software engineering and “chief nerd” at the Knight Lab at the Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, cross-fertilization between the civic hacking and journalism communities will continue.
“The thing that I think is the really interesting core of civic hacking is that technology skills, knowledge, and tools are democratizing at an incredible rate,” says Germuska, who was among the Tribune apps team’s first hires before joining Knight Lab. “There’s a lot of things you can get for free, and you can learn to do them without having to get trained for years and years. That’s going to benefit journalism as well.”