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Brigade Spotlight: Chicago

When it comes to strong civic hacking communities; Chicago has an embarrassment of riches. Captain Christopher Whitaker talks about keeping the momentum, Chi-towns civic hacking heroes, and why it’s just as possible in your city.

What’s the origin story of civic hacking in Chicago?

Chicago has a long history of data journalism that existed even before we started calling it data journalism. Data journalism has had a large influence on the open data movement that continues to this day.

The civic hacking community in Chicago began to get organized in February 2009 with the formation of the OpenGov-Chicagoland Meetup group, first organized by Joe Germuska and Dan O’Neil. Dan O’Neil has a great blog post about Chicago’s early open government movement and all the unglamorous work that paved the way for the community we have now.

Why does civic hacking matter in Chicago?

As somebody who worked in the front lines of government, I’m personally frustrated by the level of technology that I had to use. When the systems government workers use are cumbersome, slow, or inefficient — this means workers are spending more time dealing with systems instead of doing what they went into government to do: help people.

It doesn’t have to be this way, the work done in Chicago and by civic hackers across the country shows that cities can work smarter by using the data that they produce on a daily basis anyway.

Who is Derek Eder? Why is he a civic hacker celebrity?

Derek Eder, along with his partners Forest Gregg, Juan-Pablo Velez, Paul Baker, Chad Pry, and Nick Rougeux, are part of the Open City team. Open City’s team has built a number of open-source civic applications that have hit on a number of topics including lobbyists spending, education, crime, and the economy.

Many of these apps use a tool called Google Fusion Tables. Part of Open City’s work has been to build template and javascript libraries that makes it easy to integrate fusion tables and google maps. The map template is also simple to use so anyone with a spreadsheet of information can create an interactive map (even somebody with very little coding experience like me).

In addition to building great tools, Derek (and really all of the Open City team) does a great job of teaching and coaching people on the process of building civic web apps and using data. And the teaching aspect has really helped grow the community in Chicago.

Can you give me a sense of the momentum in Chicago? What’s working?

The city and the civic hacker community are working hand-in-hand. This means that that city doesn’t have to focus on building applications – but can build APIs like the city’s new Open311 and PlowTracker. PlowTracker is an app on the city website, but Derek and OpenCityApps.org took it and improved upon it by releasing ClearStreets.

There’s so much data, that the community is now figuring out ways to refine and package this data so it’s easier for people to use. The community is meeting with city department heads to find ways to partner up. (For example, the Health Department wanted a way to show people where to get a flu shot. A week later you have a site that does exactly that built by Brigade member Tom Kompare.

Okay, Chicago has one of the most developed civic hacker communities. What do you have in common with cities that are just getting started?

All cities have people who are brand new to civic hacking – even in a community as well developed as Chicago. The key to having a great civic hacker community is having people who give a damn about their city. Whether it’s a well developed community like Chicago or a city just starting out, having people who care about their city is the most important factor.

One of the bigger lessons is that the sooner your city starts opening data the better.

Another big advantage we’ve had is our partnership with the Smart Chicago Collaborative. Through that partnership, we’re able to host weekly meetings inside Chicago’s startup coworking space, 1871. Since it’s the same time and place every week we don’t have to spend time coordinating and can focus on doing cool stuff.

And how do you see your role as Brigade Captain?

My role is not to try to duplicate any of the efforts already in progress. Instead, I’m going to expand the civic community to include community service organizations and finding ways to partner with groups already doing good work in Chicago. I’ll also be recruiting college students into the community. Many of my fellow Brigade Captain also hail from cities with great universities and so there’s plenty of room for healthy competition.

Another aspect of my role is going to be helping other communities start their own civic hacking communities based on the lessons learned in Chicago. I’ll be doing a lot of documentation of our efforts here and helping to tell those stories in other cities.

What do you want to be able to say in a year?

I’d like to be able to say we partnered with community service organizations to help those organizations continue to help solve problems in Chicago. I’d also like to say we expanded the civic hacking community not just by numbers – but by helping new communities around the country as well.


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