Chi Hack Night: 2015 Year in Review

Published on Dec 22, 2015 by Derek Eder , Christopher Whitaker

Introductions at Chi Hack Night
Chi Hack Night, July 28 2015

It’s the end of the year, and time to reflect on all the amazing things we accomplished in 2015 at the Chi Hack Night, Chicago’s place to build, share and learn about civic tech.

Our community has never been as large, as diverse, as engaged and as productive as it is now. We have a lot to be proud of.

To start things off, here’s some data about Chi Hack Night for 2015:

  • We hosted 48 events. This is what we do. We meet at the same time and place every week.

  • We had 37 presentations on topics covering Chicago Public Schools, predicting food inspections, social strategies in Chicago activism, cryptography and more! See the list of our favorites below.

  • Largest audience: 152 attendees. A new record is set! The Data Science for Social Good presentation drew the largest crowd this year (pictured above), beating our old record of 120 in 2014.

  • We have 160 Slack members. This year, we launched our own Slack community so that we could keep our discussions going from week to week. Want to join? You’ll have to come to a Chi Hack Night!

  • We have 1,300 email subscribers. Our email list continues to grow! Sign up for it to hear about new events, talk about new projects, civic tech wins, and job postings.

  • We ate 2,400 empanadas. After many many years of many many deep dish pizzas, we have switched over to empanadas from local Costa Rican joint, Irazu. So yummy.

New in 2015

Open Gov Hack Night becomes Chi Hack Night

Chi Hack Night

Since we started 3 ½ years and 185 events ago, our event has grown into a community all its own. We emerged out of the Open Government movement here in Chicago, and have become something much more.

We’re not just about Open Gov anymore. We’re about all things technology and civics in Chicago. This includes govtech, digital access, data journalism, community building and modern activism, just to name a few.

And we’ve got t-shirts and stickers now too!

Check out our Chi Hack Night swag!
Check out our Chi Hack Night swag!

Braintree is our new home

At the beginning of the year, Braintree offered us the use of their auditorium and conference room area for free. It’s not every day you get offered one of the premier meeting spaces in Chicago for $0! Braintree, an online payment processor, is a bright spot in the Chicago technology scene and supports not only the Chi Hack Night, but various other technology meetups in Chicago.

Enjoying the Braintree auditorium!
Enjoying the Braintree auditorium!

With the Braintree space, we’re able to take advantage of their sprawling space including cafeteria area, conference rooms, and auditorium. At our largest event, we were able to fit almost 150 people comfortably - which makes a huge difference.

A huge thanks to Adam Forsyth for inviting us, and the rest of the wonderful staff at Braintree!

Community Feedback Session

As the Chi Hack Night has grown, our community has changed. We’re not just 4 nerds sitting around a table anymore, and it’s important to hear from everyone if they have feedback to give.

Community Feedback Session at the Chi Hack Night
Community Feedback Session at the Chi Hack Night

To facilitate this, we held our first community feedback session in September. Over 70 people participated and provided some amazing feedback on what we’re doing right, and what can be done better.

Dev Bootcamp and Microsoft join as a recurring sponsors

As a volunteer-run organization, the Chi Hack Night relies on the contributions of both our attendees, and our sponsors. Them empanadas ain’t free!

Dev Bootcamp

We were thrilled to have Dev Bootcamp join as a recurring sponsor in April. Several members of the Chi Hack Night have since enrolled at Dev Bootcamp to level up their development skills, and many of their graduates have become hack night regulars. That’s what I call a virtuous cycle!


We’re also happy to announce that starting in 2016 Microsoft will become a recurring sponsor. A big shout-out to Adam Hecktman for making it happen!

And a huge thank you to our former partners The Smart Chicago Collaborative and Code for America for supporting us over the years. The Chi Hack Night wouldn’t be what it is today without them!

New breakout leaders emerge

In 2014, we rolled out a new volunteer organizing model: breakout groups. Anyone is welcome to start their own group. Every week, the groups are pitched and people join the ones that interest them the most.

Not only has this model turned out to be a great way to organize volunteers with diverse skillsets, it also allows new people to step up and become leaders themselves.

Here are a few of the emerging leaders from 2015:

Mary Kuhn

Mary Kuhn, Dolphin Tank

Dolphin Tank is a friendly place to pitch civic tech app ideas and get honest feedback on its viability and guidance on how to prototype it. It’s like Shark Tank, but nicer. Mary pioneered this group in July and it became an instant hit!

Kulsum Ameji

Kulsum Ameji, Access to Justice / Hack Night Taxi Project

Kulsum is an attorney, trainer, speaker and strategist at the Legal Aid Foundation. She brings a ton of expertise from both the legal and social sectors.

At the Chi Hack Night, she decided to focus on the negative impacts of the sharing economy and finding out what are the implications for low-wage workers who exist in the contradictory space between traditional, highly regulated systems and new, “disruptive” economic systems.

Tom Schenk Jr

Tom Schenk Jr, Beach Water Quality

Tom is a veteran of the hack night, but his recently formed breakout group is new and very exciting. As Chicago’s Chief Data Officer, Tom is leading a new partnership between the City of Chicago and the Chi Hack Night to improve the statistical model is used to predict the E. coli levels at Chicago’s beaches. Not only is the project endorsed by the City, they’re building it 100% in the open.

Fabian Elliott

Corey Thurman

Fabian Elliott and Corey Thurman, Black Tech Mecca

Through Black Tech Mecca, Fabian and Corey are striving to transform Chicago into, you guessed it, the black technology Mecca.

After presenting in September, they started a breakout group to build a community platform to strengthen connections within the black tech community and collect data to evaluate health of ecosystem.

2015 presentation highlights

37 presentations is a lot (see the full list here), and it’s a real challenge to pick our favorites. We can try, though:

#140 Slow Roll Chicago

Olatunji Oboi Reed from Slow Roll Chicago told us a very moving and personal story and how bicycling literally saved his life. This talk spawned the Chicago Bike Equity Project, led by Oboi and Steven Vance at Chi Hack Night, which became one of the most popular breakout groups with over 40 contributors.

#148 DIY Environmental Monitoring

The alternate title to this talk was: Instructable: Banning petcoke with a community united, 2L soda bottle, 10 megapixel camera, and a 5.5ft balloon.

Benjamin Sugar and Olga Bautista told an amazing story how a coalition of community organizations and area residents employed an aerial balloon mapping kit to help oust open air petcoke facilities from of their neighborhood in Chicago’s Southeast side.

#151 There Are No Innocents: Data Rebroadcasting and Server-Side Responsibility

Karl Fogel of Open Tech Strategies, LLC and open source fame offered some sobering examples of how merely republishing open data or publicly available information can lead to ethically uncomfortable situations. This led to a great discussion around a framework for handling such situations.

#152 American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois

Karen Sheley, staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, gave an overview of the ACLU’s use of data in Chicago around CPD Traffic Stops and Resulting Searches in 2013, stop and Frisk in Chicago and the War on Marijuana in Black and White.

Agenda and meeting notes

#156 Predicting Food Inspection Outcomes Using Open Data

Tom Schenk, Gene Leynes, Gerrin Butler, Raed Mansour and Jon Levy from the City of Chicago debuted their predictive model used to estimate the riskiest food establishments to assist in the City’s food inspection operations.

The model was released as an open source project as an example to other other cities, critiqued by other researchers, and improved upon - in the public arena — by the City or others.

Agenda and meeting notes

#163 Social Strategies in Chicago Activism

Rachael Perrotta, Media Relations Activist, showed us what activism looks like in 2015. She gave us a look behind the scenes at the social media and public relations tools and strategies used by local groups like the Trauma Care Coalition, to get local and national media coverage.

Rachael Perrotta at the Chi Hack Night

Agenda and meeting notes

#165 Chicago’s Million Dollar Blocks

In July, DataMade debuted Chicago’s Million Dollar Blocks, a website exploring where Illinois is spending public dollars on incarceration.

Dan Cooper discussed his research on the impact of incarceration at the neighborhood level and Cathy Deng gave some practical tips on the process of transforming raw materials — data & text — into an interactive story on the web.

Agenda and meeting notes

#180 Covering schools through public records and data

Sarah Karp, Senior Investigator for the Better Government Association, blew our minds with her groundbreaking investigations, and her humility. She walked us through breaking the Barbara Byrd-Bennett / Supes Academy corruption story in 2013 and how she uncovered rampant cheating in the Chicago Public Schools graduation rate.

Agenda and meeting notes

#181 Cryptoparty: Digital Security for Everyone

We learned all about practical tools to encrypt our data from Jennifer Helsby at Cryptoparty Chicago. Jennifer gave a wonderful talk about why understanding digital security is so important, what goes on at a digital security training, and where to begin when thinking about privacy issues.

Jen Helsby from Cryptoparty at the Chi Hack Night

Agenda and meeting notes

#184 Nothing About Us Without Us: Participatory Action Research

We went out with a bang for our last talk of the year. Dr. Dave Stovall, Professor of African American Studies and Educational Policy Studies at UIC, covered his work doing youth participatory action research in the context of decades of institutional racism in Chicago. You have to watch the talk to fully appreciate both his style and substance.

Agenda and meeting notes

Spreading the Chi Hack Night love

This year, members of Chi Hack Night had a large presence at the national events like the Code for America Summit and Sunlight Foundation’s Transparency Camp. Our members spoke at a number of other events including Socrata’s annual conference and Japan’s Civic Tech Forum!

  • Code for America Summit: The Chi Hack Night sent 13 or our members to the Code for America Summit. Read all about them here.

  • Transparency Camp: At the Sunlight Foundation’s annual unconference, Forest Gregg and Eric van Zanten led sessions on data standards and data linking.

  • Socrata Customer Summit: At the Customer Summit, Derek Eder served on a panel about his experience raising citizen awareness around critical local issues through civic coding. Jon Levy also spoke at Socrata about Chicago’s open ETL kit.

  • Chicago CDO Tom Schenk Jr spoke at OECD in Guadalajara, Mexico and IEEE in Quito, Ecuador

  • CivicTech Forum Japan: Christopher Whitaker spoke about how Chi Hack Night is part of Chicago’s larger civic innovation ecosystem at the Civic Tech Forum in Tokyo, Japan.

Here’s to 2016!

What a year! We already have some great things planned for the next one, so stay tuned.

2016 will bring about our 4 year anniversary, our 200th event, a slew of new projects, breakout groups, presenters, partners, civic hackers, citizen advocacy, and of course, fun!

See you at our next Chi Hack Night: Tuesday, January 5th, 2016!

About the authors

Derek Eder

Derek Eder
Derek is an entrepreneur, developer and one of the leaders of the civic technology community in Chicago. He is founder and partner at DataMade, a company that tells stories and builds tools with data and lead organizer for Chi Hack Night.

Christopher Whitaker

Christopher Whitaker
Christopher Whitaker serves as the Brigade Program Manager for Code for America. Previously, Whitaker worked at the Illinois Department of Employment Security and served with the U.S. Army in Iraq as a mechanized infantryman.