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 expunge.io. 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.

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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.

  • We did not see any of this help, money support, respect or love at the CivicLab (www.civiclab.us). We operated for two years in the West Loop as America’s only co-working space for civic engagement, social justice and community organizing. We created and supported the TIF Illumination Project (www.tifreports.com) which used data mining, graphic design and community organizing to expose TIFs in dozens of public meetings all over Chicago where thousands of people attended. Our work was turned down 15 times in three years by local and national funders who say they support civic engagement, journalism, innovation and holding government accountable. We tried repeatedly to engage the folks at the Hack Nights and approached all the funders who have given lavishly to 1871 and their various satellite programs. I’ve begged local funders to recognize and support what I call the “Voice of Opposition.” I’ll be blunt. What passes for civic tech in many instances is technical jewelry designed for show and not utility – having no FIGHT or group who is FIGHTING that uses that tech to WIN some justice or fight some BS scam being foisted upon their community or the city as a whole. If anyone out there reading this has $4,000 to spare you can make a difference RIGHT NOW by helping me publish a book based on the three years of TIF research and organizing – “Chicago Is Not Broke. Funding the City We Deserve.” Local experts have written short articles on how Chicago can save or generate major revenues. We are at http://wearenotbroke.org. Tom Tresser. tom@civiclab.us

  • Daniel X. O’Neil

    Hi, Tom. I know you’re not talking to me in any way‚ because:

    1/ I’ve always respected your work, and told you so to your face
    2/ As a Voqal (not Smart Chicago) person, I’ve supported your work directly— the only funder to do so, iirc
    3/ Completely agree re: “what passes for civic tech”, and advised you to stop hanging out with them 1.5 years ago (lol @ “technical jewelry”)

    I always appreciate your voice, so I’d appreciate it if you not inaccurately lump me into the people about whom you rightly complain in your comment.

  • Thank you for the Voqal support. Truly, without that grant of $23,000 CivicLab could not have lasted for two years. Unfortunately we were not able to sustain it. We were interviewed by the folks who founded NYC’s Civic Hall which got major $, so I’m getting grumpy in my old age. My hope is that you can steer more civic resources to what I call the Voice of Opposition. That’s really my main concern here. Thanks for taking the time to reply. Tom

  • In 1993 I started applying GIS technology to support the growth of non-school tutor/mentor programs in Chicago. Donated software from ESRI, small grants from IBM, help from Metro Chicago Information Center, and the GIS group at Northern Illinois University got us off the ground in 1994-95. I used the maps to share information about tutor/mentor programs operating in Chicago and where they were most needed. I started publishing a printed directory in 1994 and did so every year through 2001. In 1998 volunteers helped me move this information to the Internet. In 2004 a small IT grant enabled me to hire a part time IIT student who created an interactive map-based directory seen at http://www.tutormentorprogramlocator.net/Prgloc.aspx. This included a portal that programs could use to add/edit their own information. In 2008 an anonymous donation of $50k enabled me to update my ESRI based mapping, and then duplicate it in an interactive portal at http://www.tutormentorprogramlocator.net/InteractiveMap.aspx. This not only provide a way to understand the availability of programs in different areas, but also showed assets and government officials who should be involved in supporting programs in different areas. I’ve never had consistent help from government, foundations or anyone else. Instead, the city built it’s own Program Locator in the early 2000s, without ever even asking “what did I learn from what I’m doing?” or “how can we help you?” I introduced myself to Smart Chicago a couple of years ago, but never had any offer of “how can we help?” . I agree with Dan that technology is a tool, that needs to be available and used by many in order to solve Chicago’s complex problems. However, there needs to be some way that fund/talent/resources can be more easily accessed by all of those who are already doing work in this arena, rather than a constant launch of new efforts, with new funding, and new leadership. My own platforms are almost out of business due to lack of resources/talent to support them over the past few years. The lessons I’ve learned, the vision incorporated in developing them, will be lost if these go away.