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Mayor Emanuel’s social-media director, Kevin Hauswirth, had come to 1871, the startup tech hub in the Merchandise Mart, to share a bit of news. The occasion: the Open Government Hack Night hosted on Tuesday evenings since April by Open City, a loose group of “civic hackers,” young developers turning the glut of information on the city’s data portal into useful Web tools.
Two days earlier, the city had launched Chicago Digital, a clearinghouse for tech info, from streaming video of mayoral press conferences to links to all its departments’ social-media accounts. But first Hauswirth had to address what he called “zombie finger.” His right middle digit was wrapped thick with bandages, the result of a workout mishap; it got smashed between two dumbbells, and a large piece “fell off,” he explained. “I wrapped it in a towel and left the gym” for the hospital, where a doctor made him whole again. It’s the same finger as Emanuel’s partially missing digit, which caused some of Hauswirth’s City Hall colleagues to rib him for sucking up to the boss. “Everyone at work is like, ‘You’ll do fucking anything to get ahead!’ ”
Chicago Digital, Hauswirth went on to explain, will showcase the civic-data apps Open City’s hackers are churning out. Several are already on the site: Sweep Around Us helps drivers avoid parking tickets by registering for message alerts letting them know when their streets will be swept; cpstiers.opencityapps.org, which was adopted by the Chicago Public Schools, allows parents to easily determine which CPS “tier” they fall into and thus their children’s chances of getting into a selective school; the Vacant and Abandoned Building Finder; and Look at Cook, which tracks Cook County budgets and expenditures.
The developers don’t make apps to make money. They do it as a public service. “It took me a while to get it,” Hauswirth told me. “So you write code and give it out for free? It was mind-boggling.”
“It’s a new kind of volunteering—digital public services,” said Open City cofounder Juan-Pablo Velez, a data scientist with Datascope Analytics. “Some people work at a soup kitchen. Programmers fix a narrow range of problems through code.”
Last year, the city released the Adopt-a-Sidewalk neighborhood snow-shoveling app but didn’t have resources to improve it, Hauswirth says. “So we put the entire code online and said, ‘You guys do something with it.’ [Civic hackers] can take this thing and make it a million times better.”
“A lot of the drive to do this comes from a do-gooder idea,” says Derek Eder, another Open City cofounder. “The fact that I have the ability to make an app that can improve people’s lives is a powerful thing. The typical developer’s full-time job is not going to provide that feeling.” Eder helped create several civic-data apps, including Crime in Chicago and Chicago Lobbyists, a scoreboard for influence-peddlers and the city agencies they solicit. He parlayed the attention his apps gained into starting his own Web consulting company, Data Made.
“In the tech community, the way you get credentials is by doing projects and talking about them,” said Ian Dees, a developer for Obama 2012 who came to Hack Night to discuss his work on OpenStreetMap.us. Nearby, another former Obama for America digital team member, Michelangelo D’Agostino, said he was toying with GPS data for CTA buses.
The mayor has touted his administration’s data releases as a transparency initiative while sometimes running counter to that by cooking up policy initiatives behind the scenes, with little or no public input (recently, the 20-year digital billboards contract). “A spreadsheet does not equal transparency,” Velez said. “But open data fueling civic apps can overhaul the interface between a government and its citizens.”