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Our 2020 Year in Review

Published on Feb 6, 2021 by Derek Eder, Josh Kalov, Cameron Sow, Eric Sherman, Joel Inwood and Ryan Spencer

Chi Hack Night

2020 is over. We survived. Chi Hack Night survived. It wasn’t easy.

This, friends, is our recap of the year. It includes the perspectives of Chi Hack Night Board Members Derek Eder, Josh Kalov, Cameron Sow, Eric Sherman and Ryan Spencer. What started as a highlights reel for the year has transformed into a shared biography on one of the most chaotic, stressful and challenging years we will hopefully ever experience.

But through the crucible of pandemic, racial uprising, authoritarianism and more, we’ve come to realize the importance of our community and what we do at Chi Hack Night. So bear with us. It’s a bit long, but hopefully you’ll find it a worthwhile read.

About this Year in Review

For those newer to Chi Hack Night, this is the sixth “year in review” that we have done. Take a look at our year-in-review posts from 2019, 2017, 2016, 2015 and 2014 to follow along how we got here.

In that tradition, here are the high-level statistics for Chi Hack Night in 2020:

And with that, let’s dive in.

We had 35 presentations

2020 became the Year of the Livestream for Chi Hack Night due to the COVID pandemic. We were still, however, able to bring in many great presenters from across Chicagoland and beyond.

Below is every presentation from 2020, organized by topic. You can also watch all 35 of them in one YouTube playlist.

All 35 Chi Hack Night presentations from 2020
All 35 Chi Hack Night presentations from 2020

Presentations by category

Government, technology and the response to COVID

Pandemic responses and reflections

Data journalism and accountability

Justice and Equity

Making civic tech better

Education and youth

Environment

Arts

Poverty and homelessness

List of organizations represented

In these presentations, prominent members of the local government, journalism academic, nonprofit and private businesses were represented:

Government

  • Chicago 49th Ward Alderwoman Maria Hadden
  • Chicago 47th Ward Alderman Matt Martin
  • City of Chicago Chief Data Officer
  • Cook County Public Defender Amy P. Campanelli
  • Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle
  • Cook County Bureau of Technology’s CIO and CDO
  • Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi and CDO

Journalism

  • Better Government Association
  • Chicago Reporter
  • City Bureau
  • Injustice Watch
  • ProPublica
  • Truthout
  • WBEZ

Academia

  • Art Institute of Chicago
  • Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation
  • Northeastern University
  • Qazaq Research Institute for Futures Studies Foresight
  • UIC Institute for Policy and Civic Engagement
  • University of Chicago Department of Computer Science
  • University of Chicago Research Computing Center

Nonprofit

  • Current
  • Chicago Scholars
  • Chicago United for Equity
  • Cleveland Water Alliance (CWA)
  • GET Cities
  • Great Lakes Observing System (GLOS)
  • Lyric Opera of Chicago
  • Sierra Club
  • Sweet Water Foundation
  • National Digital Inclusion Alliance
  • North Side Housing and Supportive Services
  • The Wabash Lights
  • Tech Talent Project

Companies

  • Acumen LLC
  • DataMade
  • Hearken
  • Kim Crayton LLC
  • Rheaply
  • UI Health

We held our first ever board elections

In 2020 we held our first member meeting and first Board of Directors election. To conduct our first Board of Directors election we looked at how several other membership based organizations conducted their elections. Ultimately we created a Candidate Nomination Form where a member could nominate themself or another member. Candidates then filled out a candidate statement which was shared to members. On election night candidates had an opportunity to speak to the members before voting began.

Our first Board Election
Our first Board Election

On February 4, we held our General Meeting and election for our Board of Directors. After announcements at Chi Hack Night, we held the member meeting and election as a breakout group for members. In order to ensure only members voted, we checked off members as they entered the room and handed them a paper ballot. We had 9 members run for elected or appointed seats. Of our 41 official Members, 30 attended in person to cast their votes. Two new Board of Directors were elected and 1 reelected. The membership also approved the appointments of 3 Directors. Additionally members approved our first amendment to our Bylaws. Overall our first election was a great success allowing us to onboard new members to the leadership team.

From top left, elected and appointed Board Members Soren Spicknall, Joel Inwood, Eric Sherman, Alexis Shoemaker, Ryan Spencer and Cameron Sow
From top left, elected and appointed Board Members Soren Spicknall, Joel Inwood, Eric Sherman, Alexis Shoemaker, Ryan Spencer and Cameron Sow

We would like to acknowledge former Board members Monique Wingard and Soren Spicknall who resigned in the last year and thank them for their service to Chi Hack Night. Both have stayed on as Members and will continue to be an important part of our community.

Stay tuned for our second board election on Feb 9, 2021. There, our 40 Chi Hack Night Members will vote on another set of board candidates.

In March, we transitioned our event to 100% remote

In the first week of March 2020, we received notice from Braintree, our event hosts, that all events at their office were cancelled due to the COVID pandemic. We quickly notified our attendees while we, and the rest of the world, scrambled to figure how to stay socially isolated and work remotely.

We decided, however, that Chi Hack Night could and should continue on as a remote event. We started with the tools we already had: Slack and YouTube. We opened up our slack channel to anyone who wanted to join and created dedicated channels for #chihacknight-remote to organize our Tuesday events, and #covid19-response to help share updates and actions people could take to help in the response to the pandemic.

Going remote. Radical!
Going remote. Radical!

Initially our Slack channel was filled with COVID information, and it became important to make channel purposes more explicit. So much of the coordination of Chi Hack Night remote involved figuring out how to communicate logistics as well as relevant COVID related information.

Pinned message on the Chi Hack Night Slack about our newly organized channels
Pinned message on the Chi Hack Night Slack about our newly organized channels

In our initial Board meeting we took account of the situation and importantly took time to reflect on our values, mission and role.

We assembled our judgment in consideration of an unprecedented situation and divided up a proposed response that aimed at tending to the temporary digital format, while beginning the process of shaping the course ahead. Supporting our members and the broader Chicagoland area was an important guiding light. Of course, our priority was the public health situation and rapidly evolving response needs.

There were early doubts about how our very place-based event would transition to digital. We had questions about how the various roles we play as a crossroads of people, ideas and information would (or wouldn’t translate) to digital. Some of our concerns were borne out, while some of our doubts were unfounded. Some of our initial fears were tempered with additional information. In the immediate response, survival was a concern more so than a clear interpretation of any potential opportunities; though some ideas were tossed around.

During the months of March and April, we experimented with different platforms. Jitsi, Google Meet, Zoom, and considered the relevant tradeoffs, affordances and concerns around each. All the while we pieced together a workable production itinerary, troubleshooting along the way. Teamwork makes the dream work. Experimentation, documentation, and communication were crucial to making Chi Hack Night a success.

A special shoutout and thank you to everyone who has helped make Chi Hack Night remote awesome! A lot of people have devoted a lot of time and effort towards making these events all that they are! :D

We tried both new tools and approaches to organize our event throughout the year. One tool that we have gotten a lot of fun and value out of is Gather.Town. We were turned on to this tool by Ray Berg, one of our event contacts at Braintree and an organizer at ChiPy.

Gather.Town can best be described as a Zoom call dropped on top of a Super Nintendo game. Each attendee has a character they can move around with their keyboard. They can interact with objects (whiteboards, links, videos) on the map and when you get close to another person, their video and audio become available. This allows for a somewhat organic experience of meeting in the same ‘space’ but having the freedom to move around and form different groups.

Since October, we’ve used Gather.Town to organize our breakout groups. And since it allows you to make any kind of map you want, we decided to start meeting on the back of a giant floating sea turtle. We figured, if you’re going to have a virtual event, why not go all the way and have some fun with it!

2020 Chi Hack Night Remote - On the back of a giant floating sea turtle!?
2020 Chi Hack Night Remote - On the back of a giant floating sea turtle!?

We identified ways that civic tech can productively contribute to the pandemic response

It was important to recognize in the early response to COVID, that a lot of the civic tech activity in direct response –or related– to COVID was happening beyond Tuesday nights. Thus, we oriented more around the ongoing needs of the civic tech community and beyond.

The COVID-19 virus
The COVID-19 virus

At one point the term ‘loose tech energy’ was coined in observance of the tendency to want to help out as it vyed against the need for attentiveness and domain insight, and a with not for problem-defining approach. Some early civic tech projects were cringe worthy in their cliche.

But others were clutch, needed, and athletic displays of the power of civic tech in action–of people in action in cities working toward common cause. Many such project teams, or their representatives spoke at Chi Hack Night. It was through these conversations as a Board that we came up with and refined the idea for a Tech & Data Help Desk (more on that below).

The aims we set out earlier on in our response continue to be important, even as we have refined our approach. Broadly considered, they are to support the Chicagoland and civic community, continue to host our weekly civic tech event, to share resources and help direct energies to productive channels.

Eventually we inhabited working routines, and soon talked about ways to feasibly scale our efforts. This included ensuring there are opportunities for members to volunteer in hosting and operating Chi Hack Night Remote.

In considering some lessons learned, the following stood out:

  • Communication and planning are critical
  • Leadership and how we respond to uncertainty is important
  • Civic tech, as a community of people, represents an essential resource for serving the needs of communities across the country and the world, from Chicago to Taiwan; there now exists an adapting civic infrastructure with serious demonstrated capability and possibility

We held space for discussions and actions towards racial justice

Chi Hack Night’s 400th event coincided with the racial uprising and protests around the murder of George Floyd. We used this event to host a remote group conversation on Actions Towards Racial Justice. The results from this conversation were summarized in this blog post supporting Black Lives Matter.

Summary of our conversations for Chi Hack Night’s 400th Episode
Summary of our conversations for Chi Hack Night’s 400th Episode

We commit to continuing to host diverse speakers, encourage attendees and members to support racial equity, spotlight civic tech’s role and potential for harm and deepen our own diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.

From this first conversation, we have hosted many others through our main event and our standing Diversity, Equity and Inclusion breakout group. We also brought in a number of presenters to specifically talk about police & prison reform, as well as what people can do to dismantle white supremacy culture:

We launched the Tech & Data Help Desk

In July 2020, we launched and piloted a new initiative: The Tech & Data Help Desk. The Help Desk offers free tech & data assistance to nonprofits, government, small businesses and people that request it.

The Tech & Data Help Desk form
The Tech & Data Help Desk form: bit.ly/chn-help-desk

Modelling this service off of the numerous mutual aid groups that sprung up in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we offer help with:

  • Finding or getting access to data
  • Cleaning up or analyzing data
  • Providing recommendations on what technology to use to solve a problem
  • Guidance on building my own app or website
  • Help with using software like Zoom, Google Docs, and GIS tools
  • Ethical guidance on the potential harm caused by using data or technology

In 2020, we responded to 21 requests and signed up 46 volunteers and plan on continuing to offer this service into 2021.

We Maintained the Chi Hack Night Membership

2020 was also the first full year that Chi Hack Night existed as a membership-based organization. We started the year off with 41 voting members; and are excited to see that, despite everything else going on in the world and our pivot to a remote only meeting space we have 40 voting members to help guide and shape our community for 2021. Many of these members are long-time attendees, but we also have many new members who found and connected with us during this pandemic.

The pandemic and stay-at-home orders meant that many people had been feeling isolated, and it’s been harder to get feedback from our community about how we can best support each other. At the same time, we know people have been fatigued from many video calls (see: Zoom fatigue). With our members, we struck a balance and held two member meetings; one on March 26th and the other on October 27th.

These meetings were great for engaging people, staying in touch, and helping generate input on ideas for continuing to make Chi Hack Night an engaging event. Looking into 2021, we’re planning more ways for people to connect with each other in productive and fun ways!

We remained financially stable

One unexpected upside to switching to a fully remote event this year was financial. Our typical budget for Chi Hack Night was mostly for providing food and filming/producing our presentations. Starting in March, these costs were essentially reduced to zero, allowing us to build up our bank account for when we return to in-person events.

It also allowed us to cover some new additional expenses like a professional Zoom account and to offer honorariums to a number of speakers.

Income
Donations $1,205.57
Sponsorship Donations $44,500.00
Total Income $45,705.57
Expenses
Advertising & Marketing $6,982.32
ASL Interpreter $150.00
Food for Weekly Chi Hack Night $3,690.36
Legal & Professional Services $100.00
Office Supplies & Software $560.84
Speaker Honorarium $303.83
Taxes & Licenses $614.00
Total Expenses $ 12,401.35
Cash on hand $33,304.22

We are committing to clear and actionable goals for 2021

There’s a lot to be optimistic about this coming year. With the tumultuous 2020 Presidential election behind us and the national COVID-19 vaccine distribution campaign underway, we hope to be able to return to our in-person gatherings once it is safe to do so.

While vaccine distribution is outside of our control and difficult to plan for, the Chi Hack Night Board is moving forward with a new set of goals for 2021. For the first time, we have created and will be following through on Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) for Chi Hack Night.

To help keep ourselves accountable and transparent, here are our OKRs for 2021. We plan on reporting back on these throughout the year to our attendees and members.

Objective: Produce a live, weekly civic engagement event that meaningfully includes diverse speakers and attendees

  • Key Result: Measure and track the diversity of the Chi Hack Night membership, presenters and co-hosts
  • Key Result: Ensure that at least 30% of presenters are persons of color
  • Key Result: Recruit and onboard 2-3 new volunteers for operational functions at Chi Hack Night
  • Key Result: Ensure that at least 50% of co-hosts are from underrepresented groups in tech
  • Key Result: Host Civic Tech 101 each week to engage new attendees

Objective: Offer valuable opportunities for community members to learn about and contribute to civic technology projects

  • Key Result: Collect and parse feedback from attendees on a quarterly basis
  • Key Result: Deploy a member journey and nurture campaign to grow our membership
  • Key Result: Involve members in at least 1 leadership decision every quarter
  • Key Result: Share board meeting minutes with the members or otherwise engage them for feedback after every board meeting
  • Key Result: Establish skills database of membership by the end of Q2 2021

Objective: Nurture civic engagement in Chicagoland through membership activities and community partnerships to promote equity, justice and community service

  • Key Result: Fulfill 5-10 Help Desk tickets per quarter
  • Key Result: Explore forming 1-2 meaningful outside partner collaborations
  • Key Result: Explore partnering with a local journalism school/organization to publish a monthly digest summarizing presentations for the month as a blog post
  • Key Result: Conduct and report out quarterly anti-racist affinity discussion groups

Thus concludes our 2020 recap. Thanks for reading it. Here’s to a great 2021 for Chicago’s civic tech community! See you Tuesday!


About the author

Derek Eder, Josh Kalov, Cameron Sow, Eric Sherman, Joel Inwood and Ryan Spencer

Derek Eder, Josh Kalov, Cameron Sow, Eric Sherman, Joel Inwood and Ryan Spencer