JMO and Alex Chat about Hack Night — White Professional Privilege & Collaboration Over Code

Recently on Twitter, one of the original promoters of civic hack nights in Chicago declared that the “civic tech movement should be shelved”, which caught folks’ attention and raised good questions.

I wanted to hear from Jeanne Marie Olson, the researcher and public school parent behind projects like CPSApples2Apples and SchoolCuts and CPSApples2Apples have been cited as two civic data projects that have influenced (and still influence) parent engagement with policy and discussion regarding systemic changes in Chicago Public Schools.

I consider Jeanne to be a central part of what makes the civic hacking movement in Chicago worthwhile. But Jeanne hasn’t been to the hack night itself in a while. What did she think about Chi Hack Night? We used Slack to catch up.

alexsoble Hello!

jmochicago Hi! You ready?? Hang on, let me put something away.

alexsoble Sure thing!

jmochicago okay! Coffee? Check. All my other stuff put away? Check. Let’s do this.

alexsoble OK great! Let’s chat. I hear you have 5 Rules for Hack Nights?!? Tell me about them.

jmochicago Yes!


5 Rules for the Productive Future of Hack Nights

1) Start with a question. And you will need to invite people from the community in to co-discover those questions.

So, don’t start with the data you have. Start with the question someone wants to answer. Like,

SchoolCuts started with questions such as “Which schools are likely to be targeted for closing?” and “What is considered to be a better performing school anyway?”

Hack Nights are great opportunities to sit people around a table and talk to them about their questions, everyday problems and frustrations.

2) Don’t code without insight into the problem you are trying to solve. In other words, asking a question may not be enough. You may have to work with others or do some investigation yourself into the context that the question sits in…Whether that is secondary research done in a Hack Night Setting, or getting out of the room between Hack Nights into the “field”.

An example would be related to the question, “How can we get people in all neighborhoods to healthier grocery stores?”

If we just ended there, maybe we could build an app re: routes in neighborhoods to grocery stores, times the store is open, etc. But when we get into a neighborhood that is in the middle of a grocery desert, we realize that the question changes. The insight is that there aren’t close by grocery stores. That the stores people do go to may not have fresh produce. Oh, look, there is a farmer’s market. Or here someone has started a project with a fresh foods truck that comes around. Maybe the better “hacked” solution is a locator for the food truck so you know when/where it will be. It becomes less about where grocery stores are located. And more about shortening the distance between people and healthy food.

3) Vet the projects for “Hack for Change” events carefully. Make sure that they already have the question they are trying to answer, the insight AND the location of the data nailed down. OR acknowledge that…without those 3 things, a team’s success might not be an app. It might be the finding of one of those 3 things.

It might be as important to celebrate developing a way to connect the insight to the data needed to answer it as it is to code anything.

4) Do as much as you can to welcome non-coders into a Hack Night space as you possibly can. Even if they don’t “get” tech or code. Especially if they don’t look, talk, or think like you do. Non-tech people can be intimidated by how the tech folks present themselves, their space, their language.

Make the event about them. An orientation for non-coders as well as coders.

5) Find your translators and use them. The community activist world and the tech world don’t naturally speak the same language. Designers and coders don’t always prioritize the same things. Find those people in the community who can bridge groups, and set them up as intermediaries at events, for projects, etc. Make them official so they have a place, and others know they can help to “interpret” if needed.

Those are my 5. Do you have any?

alexsoble Hmmmm . . . not that I’ve thought about and put into list form! I want to talk about yours because I think they are WONDERFUL.


jmochicago I love Chi Hack Night and I wish I could go every Tues.

I credit them fully for kicking my work on school data up at least 10 levels.

Derek, Juan, and Christopher were my connectors.

Josh was a translator for me.

So, part of my white professional privilege meant that I was set up to feel comfortable there.

It was a space that I was familiar with, and not intimidated by. That said, I received a lot of positive encouragement and interest from the attendees at Hack Night from my first visit.

And that made it VERY easy to interact with people.

Una foto publicada por @alexsoble el

Above: The Merch Mart in downtown Chicago, where ChiHackNight meets each week.

jmochicago If I was, for example, a public school teacher—a middle aged woman of color who was not used to corp tech spaces—I don’t know how easy or comfortable it would have been to navigate that space.

That is where intermediaries can really come in handy

alexsoble What steps could the hack night take to become a more inclusive place?

How can we recruit more intermediaries and support them?

jmochicago Great question.

I’ll tackle the first one to start.

Hold Hack Night events in different spaces around the city every once in awhile. This is going to be more work, more logistically challenging.

But making the collaboration opportunity closer to the community with the information you need, that would be huge.

A church in Pilsen. U of C Campus. A coffeeshop in Englewood. Not easy.

There is Wifi access, and outlets, and transportation, etc. But! I think the Hack Night community would strengthen their community data network.

I don’t know how I would label this, but I see the types of data that the Hack Night community working with in “buckets”

There is the data provided through Open Data… etc.

There is the data that has not been “opened” all of the way yet but still exists somewhere in quantitative formats…some of the CPS data used to be under this umbrella. It wasn’t on but it was out there in PDFs

Someone had it.

And then there is the qualitative data in communities…how things work, how people make decisions, etc.

The qualitative data…the process maps, the decision-making trees that are implicit…those can really help hackers to make sense of and design around the quantitative or “spreadsheet” data.

That is the data you can really only get in 3 ways:

1) going into the field/community and looking/listening for it.

2) being a member of the community with an experience so universal to all demographics that you can represent the community,

3) Bringing in members of the community who are self-aware and proficient in explaining how things work to you (harder to find than people think)

Hack nights historically and serendipitously rely on 3

If someone wanders into the Hack Night who has the capacity for 3, great! But it is often a happy accident, versus an intentional analysis of various community networks and an intentional strategy of getting those people in.

Sometimes they come along as part of someone talking in front of Hack Night, but even those folks often have more knowledge as onlookers, versus participants.

Not always. But a lot of the time.

The most interesting Hack Night to me, personally, would be to invite in a group of, say, school principals. Or public health nurses and patients (together).

They aren’t there as tech people, or even data people. They are there as experts in their community.


jmochicago The key is though…having the space and opportunity to do it.

That is why I don’t think Hack Night is dead.

Kill Hack Night and we lose an awesome opportunity.

One of the cooler things about Chi Hack Night is that, although it is still majority white and male (that’s a lot of tech), it is also women and minorities. So you are seeing people who look like/sound like you which signals, “You are included also.”

I don’t know if that is typical nationally. Or specific to Chicago.

But people like Lincoln Chandler, Demond Drummer, Anna Marie Tamayo… it’s see different people behind those laptops than the stereotype.

I would be interested in hearing from those folks and others about what it would take to make Hack Night more diverse and inclusive. I personally know black women who code, but I’m not seeing them at Hack Nights. And I don’t know why that is (and it could have changed, I haven’t been able to attend for awhile)

Your second question: How can we recruit more intermediaries and support them? But I’m going to take a breath first and see if you want to get a word in edgewise here :)

alexsoble I think both of your suggestions are right on point!

I agree that having hack night in River North every week is a barrier to building a more inclusive community

jmochicago Just going to Merchandise Mart is intimidating… It’s not intimidating for me…I used to work in corporations. But it’s intimidating for many.

alexsoble Building an actively welcoming culture takes work.

jmochicago So much work

alexsoble It takes setting and fostering norms about how you treat new people.

jmochicago YES!

alexsoble You are so right that the place we meet sends signals and sets cues that are easy to miss if you’re comfortable in downtown office settings…

Una foto publicada por @alexsoble el

Above: Paseo Boricua, Humboldt Park, Chicago, Illinois.

alexsoble I think if we empowered hack night members to set up alternative spaces for the hack night, the vision you described of Pilsen churches and U of C Campus and a coffeeshop in Englewood could really happen.

The hack night community has members who live or work in all of those neighborhoods.

jmochicago I think it is possible, absolutely.

3 nights in River North, 1 night out in community. Or 2 and 2

The geo location is 1/2 of the challenge…

Next week: we talk in more depth about the other half of the challenge.