JMO and Alex Chat about Hack Night — Being Embedded & Organizing Around Questions

Last week I talked about Chicago’s weekly civic hack night with Jeanne Marie Olson. Jeanne Marie Olson is a researcher and public school parent and is behind projects like CPSApples2Apples and

Last week, we discussed white professional privilege at hack night and collaboration over code.

Here is part 2 of our conversation.

alexsoble Ok, so physical location is half of the challenge in building a stronger hack night. Let’s talk about the other half

jmochicago That’s where the intermediaries come in.

You need those community-based people who understand the world of data/tech (Demond Drummer is a perfect example) and also understand activism and the neighborhood.


jmochicago Otherwise you have a group on one side with their laptops, frustrated that the conversation about community problems doesn’t quickly get to the main points of “problem” and “data”.

And a group on the other side which has a lot of knowledge but may not know “how” to package that knowledge for the data/tech people.

When I came to my first Hack Night, I was absorbed in pretty quickly because I came with everything already packaged in a way that they could understand it.

I had my spreadsheets. Had my variables mapped. Had my problems analyzed.

This would have looked a LOT different if I had been a frustrated CPS parent who just showed up with no laptop, no data.

No pre-existing knowledge of what was possible in an online interface. I had all that. I used to work in UI/UX

And I’m an ethnographer.

It’s a mindset that is well primed to work in the space with tech folks/coders

I just happened to also be someone who was embedded.

So. We need to find folks who are embedded. And those who are used to working with the “embedded”. Ethnographers and org consultants are just as interested in civic and social change. They just don’t have a specific role to play in the Hack Night space unless they also show up with data and/or coding skills

I used to BEG my grad students in the Learning & Org Change program to visit Hack Night

alexsoble Did any of them go? What was their experience like?

jmochicago None of them did! They didn’t believe me that they didn’t have to code or bring data.

That they could just…go.

I think Liz Gerber eventually sent some of her design researchers down there to observe Hack Night as a research project. But not as participants.

I think some of the Knight Lab students have been by…I’m not entirely sure.

alexsoble We get a lot of computer science students for sure

jmochicago CS, yes. Those are the folks who assume it is their space.

alexsoble Exactly


jmochicago But the folks who can do an organizational analysis, who understand decision-making systems analysis, or who are just really good at listening/observing and mapping community problems…those are the folks w/o an explicit tribe there.

Juan used to kind of take those folks under his wing

Before he left

jmochicago He was probably the closest person to a connector for that group

I think…maybe that is part of it. The roles that are needed to get a really robust project off of the ground are not explicit, not on the wall. I can’t walk into the room and, on Night #1, point to a diagram on the wall and say, “What do I do? I do THAT.”

So that everyone at the table knows, “OH! Okay, JMO is the person who is going to be asking questions about how people make decisions.”

alexsoble Absolutely. I think there is a major assumption that groups are self-organizing.

jmochicago Well, they are self-organizing around writing code :)

But these projects are only as good as the analysis and insight that informs the code

alexsoble What can we do to encourage and support and retain the connectors and the interpreters?

For example

When I think about that category

I think about you, Juan, Demond

Being at a volunteer event on a weeknight, every single week, is extremely difficult

jmochicago Such a good question. Hmm. I haven’t been there since…2014?

alexsoble Yes but when I think about what makes hack night important I think of YOU! And SchoolCuts!

jmochicago Hahaha. So, your point is proven by the fact that I haven’t been able to be there since 2014

alexsoble At least for me, that was a very inspiring and eye-opening project

jmochicago there was so much about that project that was unusual.

But yes, it was a fun project

(Not the subject matter, the team)

alexsoble I saw parent leaders and CPS employees working together a time when the news and the politics were all about strife and disagreement. That kind of collaboration struck me as totally essential


jmochicago The thing that made it work was…we were trying to understand a very specific event

And we had clear, concise questions about what we didn’t know. And those clear questions automatically drew people to us.

The data did not pull in people, or the coding. It was the questions.

“What does ‘mobility’?” indicate?

How are schools being ranked and where does that info come from?

Those questions created an energy.

“How do we explain to parents what the possible scenarios are if their school is closed?”

The questions were the invitation for others to get involved.

Blogging about the project really helped with that.

alexsoble I love the way you describe this

And I think these things are true of so many of the best hack night projects

“we were trying to understand a very specific event”

“The questions were the invitation for others to get involved.”

jmochicago Right

We have those people in organizations when there is work to be done on multi-disciplinary teams

The best ones, anyway.

In orgs, you can be on a team without an “interpreter” and it is a painful experience.

In volunteering situations, the team just falls away

I don’t think you will ever get a connector/translator to commit to every single Hack Night

But you might get one to commit to every night a certain project is being worked on (SchoolCuts for me.)

And they will be situated by topic, anyway. Most of the translators/interpreters will be situated in a community, demographic, topic area

(Public health, education from parent persp/admin persp, access to social services, etc.)

So, maybe turning the model of Hack Night inside out is what is needed. Going to community organizations like LISC or RAGE as a volunteer team

Versus community members coming to Hack Night

Does Hack Night have a map of all of the small organizations that are situated in communities and working there?

Like Refugee and Relief services? or Community Clinics in Chicago?

alexsoble I think that is an extremely good idea


jmochicago Hack Night is still creating the opportunity, the conversation…it doesn’t have to be about the space (or the same space)

Anything you can do to get people next to a problem, that’s a good thing. But it is also not the only thing. You also need that opportunity to take the time to observe, reflect, analyze, etc.

That’s “Hack Night”

It’s an opportunity. Not just a night. Or a space.