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.” 

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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.

Rui Kaneya is CJR's correspondent for Illinois and Indiana. A former investigations editor at The Chicago Reporter, Kaneya was a recipient of the Investigative Reporters and Editors Minority Fellowship and the Robert R. McCormick Tribune Minority Fellowship in Urban Journalism. He has received numerous journalism awards, among them the Watchdog Award for Excellence in Public Interest Reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists and the National Association of Black Journalists’ Salute to Excellence National Media Award. Follow him on Twitter @ruikaneya.