Toward Sustainable Community Tech Organizing

Sustainability of civic tech organizing is basically resolved in Chicago. The question for me is whether these kinds of tech organizing groups are the model that should be supported.

Chi Hack Night meetings are held in River North, one of the most affluent neighborhoods in Chicago. (Photo: Daniel O'Neil)

Chi Hack Night meetings are held in River North, one of the most affluent neighborhoods in Chicago. (Photo: Daniel O’Neil)

After announcing their departure from OpenOakland, co-founders Eddie Tejeda and Steven Spiker spoke to Civicist’s Jessica McKenzie about their experience running a civic innovation organization and, in particular, the challenges of funding hack night-style organizations.

“There isn’t anyone that’s figured this out yet,” Spiker told Civicist. “Like, this particular type of organization—that we can tell—doesn’t exist anywhere in the U.S. that’s been funded effectively and has any staff, anywhere. There are organizations that are starting to get small grants here and there, or small projects, but by and large they’re tiny and there’s no one that’s actually figured out what the model is.”

At Smart Chicago, we’ve supported organizations like this for years—both successful groups and groups that haven’t lasted—and we believe we have some insight. We think we’ve even figured out the model: early support through free meeting space, relevant project revenue, and documentation.

The question for me is whether these kinds of tech organizing groups are the model that should be supported.

We’ve worked with many tech organizing groups that have long-term plans, including Data Potluck, a four-year hackathon series, and OpenStreetMap. We’ve provided varying degrees of help, and the projects are still going in one form or another.

But the group to which we’ve provided the most support is what is now called Chi Hack Night. It can reasonably be described as the most successful speaker series devoted to civic tech anywhere in the country. The weekly meetings have been happening regularly since March 2012, and Chi Hack Night’s success is based on the hard work of co-organizers Derek Eder and Christopher Whitaker, and, previously, that of co-founder Juan-Pablo Velez.

Smart Chicago has provided a goodly amount of support to Chi Hack Night, and I think that the hack night organizers actually have figured out how to sustain their work.

First, let’s take a look at the support provided by Smart Chicago.

Free meeting space in a premier tech-oriented location

The opening of 1871 was a seminal event in the startup world here in Chicago. It was very difficult to get accepted to the inaugural class of companies. Smart Chicago was a founding member and we opened up seats there to the civic tech world for free. Derek, as a leader of Open City Apps, applied for free space and we gave it to him.

Here’s what Derek had to say in his application to Smart Chicago for a seat at 1871 back in April 2012:

Open City is a group of volunteer entrepreneurs who create “civic web apps” that aim to improve transparency, efficiency, and decision-making in Chicago, Cook County, and the State of Illinois.

We’d love to have a place at 1871 to promote the use of open data and to meet innovative people who want to improve the way their city and governments work.

It ended up that he started both his business (DataMade) and his weekly event (then-called OpenGov Hack Night) there from the first week.

After about 10 months, Derek and Data Made had attracted many clients and had enough revenue and mojo on their own that they became a tenant there in their own right, and paid for the event space through their own membership at 1871.

Revenue from relevant tech projects

Another form of early support we provided was contract work. We hired Derek Eder and his nascent software consulting firm to work on a number of projects for Smart Chicago: Connect Chicago, a map-based website showing public computer centers, Chicago Early Learning, a site about preschool options, and Chicago Health Atlas, a place where people can see citywide health data and take action near them. All of these projects are still going, supported by other technologists and consultants in the local scene.

We employed Christopher Whitaker for three years—paying him for, among other projects, organizing at hack night. This kind of stability—where all of your efforts, each hour of labor, are compensated—is a key way to sustain that effort. Whitaker did so much work in civic tech organizing for us that we published a book about it: The @CivicWhitaker Anthology. None of that was volunteer—every word, every scrap of effort, had an invoice associated with it, and he provided enormous value for it.

Based on support from foundations like the MacArthur Foundation, The Chicago Community Trust, as well as contracts like the ones we have with Cook County, we are able to employ many other people in the civic tech scene doing relevant work. Longtime hack night (and OpenGov Chicago(-land!) attendee and leader Josh Kalov has been doing Cook County Open Data work for two and a half years for us. He has worked on a couple of other projects as well, including one that re-uses code developed during a Code for America fellowship. Cathy Deng, an employee at DataMade and a hack night person, does Civic tech pioneer Scott Robbin used to run our Amazon Web Services accounts. Sandor Weiss, formerly a colleague of mine at EveryBlock, made Chicago Works For You.

This is real money used for real projects that benefit the residents of Chicago and Cook County and help build the scene.


Chi Hack Night organizer Christopher Whitaker conducts a CUTGroup test as a consultant for Smart Chicago. (Photo: Daniel O’Neil)

Promotion and documentation

Lastly, Smart Chicago supported Chi Hack Night with promotion (live tweets, mainly) and documentation (hundreds of hours of video, dozens of blog posts, and the incessant energy of Christopher Whitaker. Having this kind of outbound prove-up, week-in, week-out, is invaluable.

Download The @CivicWhitaker Anthology here:

Sustained for years and going strong

Nowadays, the people who run Chi Hack Night, the premier event of its kind, don’t need Smart Chicago at all to do their work.

Derek and his partner have built Data Made into a thriving business that is at the center of Hack Night. They haven’t needed free office space, free event space, or even project work from Smart Chicago for years now. They’ve attracted many other sponsors with their consistently high quality speakers and crowds of people who want to hear them.

Christopher left as a consultant last September, and is now employed with Code for America as Brigade Program Manager, where he helps develop tech organizing capacity across the country.

Smart Chicago livestreamed and documented dozens of events for Chi Hack Night, all for free. (Photo: Daniel O'Neil)

Smart Chicago livestreamed and documented dozens of events for Chi Hack Night, all for free. (Photo: Daniel O’Neil)

Beyond sustainability for civic tech

In fact, Smart Chicago has essentially stopped supporting civic tech organizing infrastructure. We find more value in supporting community technology through programs like Connect Chicago, Youth-Led Tech, Smart Health Centers, and Documenters.

When it comes to convening people around technology for good, we tend to focus on adding resident voices to Internet of Things projects, recording meetings about police accountability in neighborhoods beyond downtown, and meeting in small groups with people from all over the county.

Smart Chicago’s focus is on the unmet technology organizing needs in neighborhoods all over the city.

Sustainability of civic tech organizing is basically resolved in Chicago. What remains is a city of 2.7 people million with precious few invitations to range beyond their own block, very few jobs in tech for people with low to medium digital skills, and very few ways to listen and hear the needs of the people.

That’s what we need to build.

Daniel X. O’Neil is Executive Director of the Smart Chicago Collaborative, a civic organization devoted to making lives better in Chicago through technology. Prior to Smart Chicago, O’Neil was a co-founder of EveryBlock, where he was responsible for uncovering new data sets through online research and working with local governments.