The Mission-Driven Developer’s Guide to the Chicago Civic Tech Community
Chicago has a long and distinguished history of civic participation and activism. From citywide protests, like the ones that took place during the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention, to the neighborhood activism of North Lawndale in the early 90’s, Chicago’s citizens have historically stood up, made their voices heard, and fought for change.
Chicago today is no different—and we see that quite clearly when we examine the ways citizenship and tech intersect there. John Kunesh, founder of Public Good Software and former President Obama’s director of UX, believes Chicago is one the country’s leaders in civic tech because“the city has the mindset of what data can we get to and how can we build around it.”
4 Chicago Civic Tech Meetups
In 2019, Chicago is home to an active and social tech community responsible for creating some of the city’s most powerful and influential public tools and websites--and there are many ways developers can get involved in the scene. A good starting point would be to attend one of the following events and meetups that happen regularly across the city:
- Chi Hack Night: A free weekly event bringing together all of Chicago’s civic techies to learn, build, and share tools that serve the public good. The invitation is open to anyone.
- Chicago City Data Users Group: A monthly speaker series and discussion group for anyone interested in using open data for the public good.
- Connect Chicago: A network of more than 250 locations in Chicago where technology, computers, and digital skills training are all available for free.
- City Scrapers: A community of programmers, journalists, and freelancers who have built an open-source coding community that collects and shares information on local public meetings. They also run open coding sessions throughout the city.
These meetups are the bedrock of Chicago’s civic tech scene—but they’re only one part of it. There are plenty of other ways for developers to get involved by building tools, joining companies, or becoming civic leaders themselves.
3 Companies Making an Impact on the Civic Tech Scene
If you’re a developer interested in civic tech, you’ll have lots of opportunities to pursue that passion. There are several civic-minded companies (for-profit and nonprofit alike) based in Chicago. Some are looking to hire developers; others are looking to back developers who have big ideas.
City Tech formed when the now-shuttered Smart Chicago, an organization founded in the early 2000s, joined the tech organization UI Labs to explore the macro-level problems that modern cities and tech regions face. City Tech leverages its network of partners to connect cities with the kind of technology that can “strengthen urban infrastructure and essential services.”
Examples of City Tech’s work include trial projects like the mass text-alert system that passengers on Chicago’s Red Line L train can opt into. That project, whose partners included MasterCard, pushed messages to passengers during peak travel times — when games at Wrigley Field let out, especially. That little heads-up has reduced ridership on the Red Line during busy times, which in turn provided the city with an alternative to other, more expensive methods of supporting passenger spikes (which might include running more trains or investing in infrastructure upgrades).
DataMade transforms complex data into “clear, appealing, and actionable websites.” The company works with everyone, from nonprofits and government agencies to journalists and researchers. Together, they turn civic data into a variety of tools—past examples include tools that make city council operations more transparent, as well as others that provide insight into local government budgets.
Impact Engine is an 18-week accelerator program and venture capital fund that partners exclusively with for-profit companies working to make the world a better place. Impact Engine has invested in dozens of tech startups to date, including BookNook, Full Harvest, and ClassroomIQ.
5 Civic Tech Tools Created in Chicago
The organizations and meetups listed above have facilitated the development of dozens of tools aiming to improve the lives not just of Chicagoans, but of Americans as a whole. Here are some of our favorites:
mRelief is a nonprofit startup that originated at a Chi Hack Night meetup. It seeks to improve the way that citizens access social services. More than $13 billion in food stamp benefits go unclaimed in the US every year, in part because the average applicant has to fill out a 20-page application form or sit through a 90-minute phone call. mRelief provides web and text message applications that make it much easier for people across the country to find out whether they qualify for food stamps--and, if they do, to apply.
$1 Large Lots
$1 Large Lots is an open-source website built to facilitate the sale of city-owned land back to the community. This gives local residents greater control of land in their neighborhood, helps to increase safety and strengthen communities, creates wealth in the community, and returns land to the tax roll.
Clear Water is an initiative by the Chicago Parks District and the City of Chicago’s data science team to forecast the quality of the water along Chicago’s beaches. All of the Lake Michigan shoreline belongs to the public, and millions of visitors flock there each year. For the most part, the lake’s water quality is acceptable, but occasionally bacteria levels rise to unhealthy levels. Traditional testing methods don’t return results fast enough, so volunteer data scientists and local students built a better predictive model to forecast quality.
Expunge.io is a youth-led project for Illinois residents with juvenile records. The site is run by Smart Chicago and the Mikva Challenge and helps citizens who are in the process of expunging or erasing their criminal records. Juvenile records can be significant barriers to employment, education, and housing, and while some juvenile records are expunged automatically after a year, many more require a complex appeals process that takes a minimum of five months. Expunge.io seeks to clarify the process and directs people to additional legal services if that’s what they need.
When people contract food poisoning, the first place they usually go to vent is Twitter. Knowing this, Smart Chicago Collaborative teamed up with the Chicago Department of Health to build Foodborne Chicago, a program that connects people who have contracted food poisoning with experts who can help. The tool automatically searches Twitter for tweets related to food poisoning in the Chicago area and passes them on to real people who can verify the information and reply with advice and resources.
Clear Streets, another product of Chi Hack Night, provides real-time information to residents about whether their streets have been plowed. It draws on data from the City of Chicago’s Plow Tracker and has helped journalists and residents highlight city blocks that are plowed irregularly, potentially revealing and helping to resolve bias within city departments.
4 Chicago Tech Activists to Follow
Chicago is home to several leading activists who champion civic tech. Follow them on Twitter to learn about the newest tools being developed, the latest meetups, and the thoughts and perspectives of people at the heart of the city’s civic tech scene.
Derek Eder is a co-founder and partner at DataMade, a co-founder at Open City, and an organizer for Chi Hack Night. Eder is a leader in Chicago’s open government movement and the city’s civic tech scene.
Forest Gregg is another partner and co-founder at DataMade. Gregg trained as a sociologist, and his experience in statistics and machine learning has proven very useful on a number of DataMade’s projects, including Chicago’s Million Dollar Blocks and Where to Buy.
Demond Drummer is the co-founder and CEO of CoderSpace, an organization that helps children learn to code and develop leadership skills. He was previously a tech organizer at Teamwork Englewood and was also was a field organizer for former President Obama's first presidential run.
Rose Afriyie grew up in the Bronx borough of New York, studied public policy at the University of Michigan, and now lives in Chicago. As a child in the Gun Hill Housing Projects, Afriyie and her family relied on public assistance programs. Only after speaking with organizers at Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100) did she realize just how difficult it is for many families to get food assistance.
So in 2014, after learning to code at a bootcamp and attending Chi Hack Nights, Afriyie decided to create mRelief, in partnership with Genevieve Nielsen, to make it easier for people to apply for food stamps. She still runs the company today as an executive director and chairs BYP100’s national board.
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