Local hackers raise awareness through community-focused websites

By Assistant Campus Editor

Soon after Chicago launched its Large Lot program—the city’s initiative to allow qualified Englewood residents to purchase up to two of the 5,000 vacant lots in their neighborhood for only $1—Demond Drummer decided to take the project one step further with the help of a few hackers.

A tech organizer for community group Teamwork Englewood, Drummer said neighborhood residents were eager to purchase the plots of land, but the city’s website interface was confusing and made the application process difficult. In the midst of the confusion, Drummer approached a group of hackers—not to overhaul the city’s website, but to make it more accessible.

“It’s not that the city website is bad,” Drummer said. “They just don’t have the resources or the time to expand on [it].”

The Large Lot website does not include step-by-step instructions but instead provides PDF images of applications. LargeLots.org lists and depicts each lot with a simple map including photos and lot sizes.

Drummer said he reached out to Derek Eder, co-founder of DataMade, a company that creates civic websites, and asked him to develop a more accessible version of the city’s website. Eder and his three-person team took on the challenge in the spirit of civic data hacking—a quickly expanding culture intended to improve government efficacy through technology. With funding from the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, the group created LargeLots.org, an easy-to-use website that clearly spells out the necessary steps to purchase one of the empty lots.

“This is where civic hacking meets civic organizing,” Drummer said. “Usually, it’s tech geeks that are asking if these are the problems. Now it’s the residents that are saying, ‘We created this policy and now we need this tech tool to helps us.’”

Drummer said the Large Lots website has been very successful since its April 11 launch, logging more than 6,500 hits as of press time.

“People have been telling me it’s easier to understand and there is a lot that’s available on this site,” Drummer said. “We saw an opportunity to take an innovative program and make it easier to understand, navigate, access and capitalize on.”

Using public data already available in city and county data portals, the website was fairly simple to create, said Eric van Zanten, a DataMade developer who coded LargeLots.org.

“This is just a matter of cleaning up data and putting it in an accessible format,” he said.

Eder said that hacking began catching on in Chicago in April 2012 when Mayor Rahm Emanuel launched an initiative to mass release city data on a navigable online portal easily accessible to the public. The data portal inspired local programmers and provided them with data they needed to develop other websites to improve government efficiency and community engagement.

“We’ve been asking for this data for years now and they finally gave it to us,” Eder said. “It’s on us now to finally do something with it and that was our motivation to begin creating civic websites.”

Eder hosts the weekly Open Gov Hack Night event at 1871, a tech startup incubator located in the Merchandise Mart, to unite community organizers in developing civic websites.

Since he began Open Gov Hack Night on March 22, 2012, more than 281 developers, designers, data scientists, civic organizers and students have come together to contribute to more than 130 projects on local, state and national levels, according to OpenGovHackNight.org.

Open Gov Hack Night has created websites such as IsThereSewageInTheChicagoRiver.com—which tracks the dumping of excess sewage water into Lake Michigan and the Chicago River after heavy rainfall or significant snowmelt—and SchoolCuts.org—which enabled parents to anticipate potential school closures last year when Emanuel closed 50 Chicago Public Schools buildings.

Civic hacking is picking up all over the country and internationally as more programmers realize their knowledge of technology gives them the power to influence legislation, said Kin Lane, a programmer who works with the White House to release public data using an API, or application program interface, a set of tools to build software applications.

“People want to make change in government, and you can become a politician to do so, but the other path you can take to create change in government is to hack,” Lane said.

Eder said the problem with civic hacking is identifying key community problems and issues and said he was excited to work on LargeLots.org because the community identified its own problem.

“The hardest part about making civic websites is, OK, now you have the tools and the resources to build a website, but what are the actual problems that are out there?” Eder said. “I’ve made a ton of apps and a lot of them are scratching my own itch on something. Those are useful, but to make something that is actually going to help people, you need to figure out what the real problems in government, society and community are.”

Civic hackers voluntarily develop these community-focused websites at hack night—a philanthropic component that van Zanten said makes the work worthwhile.

“A lot of people, when they go to college for programming, come out with the expectation that they’re going to be making $100,000 and be working for Facebook or optimizing click performance and that just doesn’t seem quite fulfilling to me,” van ZanTen said.

Lane said he hopes more people will begin to see the value of civic hacking and that more non-programmers will attend, brain storm ideas and contribute to hack events.

“[Hack events] aren’t just for developers and programmers,” Lane said. “If you care about government and care about making change, go to hack days, go to hack-a-thons. Civic hacking isn’t just for geeks. It’s for everyone to get involved.”