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Brigade 101: How to Hack Night

Note: This article is an archived resource for Brigade leaders and may not reflect current best practice. Visit the current Brigade website for the latest resources on running a Code for America Brigade.

Following in the footsteps of Chicago’s Open City Open Gov Hack Night, Code for America Brigades are increasing innovation and building a national network of weekly meetups to socialize, code, and foster interdisciplinary collaboration for civic change. These hack nights are building the social and technical infrastructure to make government by the people, for the people, for the 21st century.

What is a hack night?

A civic hack night is a safe space* event that brings together an interdisciplinary group of community makers** to meet regularly and collaborate on software and policy projects at the intersection of government and civic engagement.

  • Safe space – A place where anyone can relax and be fully self-expressed, without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or unsafe on account of biological sex, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, cultural background, age, or physical or mental ability; a place where the rules guard each person’s self-respect and dignity and strongly encourages everyone to respect others.

** Community Makers – tinkerers, designers, software developers, data scientists, technical project or product managers, policy makers, lawyers, activists, non-governmental organizations, and government representatives.

Note: Most hack nights operate under Chatham House Rules to ensure free flowing and respectful dialogue between the public and government officials.

The natural tension between getting things done vs just hanging out…

Most hack nights have a natural tension between getting things done and having people hangout. For some, this hack night is the only night they get to work and collaborate with like minded civic hackers. For others, this is their “salon” night where they can openly discuss new ideas in a safe, like-minded space. Between the two, exists the perfect solution.

Here in New York City, we look for locations that allow us to balance between the two. At our hack nights at Blue Ridge Foundation, we secure three to four conference rooms that allow for flexibility. Should someone have a specific project they want to work on, we point them to a room and let them go to it. Otherwise, we reserve one room for “hacking” and another for “yacking.” This ensures each sub-community can set their tone.

If you look at OpenOakland in Oakland, Calif., they commandeer a room in City Hall, outline specific projects, and ask the public to bring their own projects. Another example of a hack night is DataKind’s Open Office Hours. At these monthly events, DataKind opens its doors to hang out, work on projects, socialize, and otherwise talk about data for the greater good. More or less, a hack night on a monthly basis.

Why do  hack nights exist?

In Chicago, the community developed a weekly night as a tool to work on longer term, more complex projects. As of their one year anniversary party, 48 hack nights were held, seven data potlucks were produced (which grew out of DataKind’s Chicago DataDive), 98 Lou Malnati’s Pizzas were consumed, 300 unique attendees from 15 cities, and 24 civic apps were created at hack nights. This has led Chicago to be one of the Nation’s largest civic technology communities with weekly hack nights, monthly Open Government Chicago(-land) meetups, and frequent DataPotlucks.

How to hack night?

If you are looking to start a hack night, there is a plethora of reference material.