« back to Projects

Petcoke Alerts

Petcoke Alerts


A text message alert system to inform residents around KCBX Terminals in Chicago’s 10th Ward that windspeed is high, and that they are therefore at increased risk of exposure to petroleum coke (‘petcoke’).

After launching, Petcokealerts.org became a rallying point for the Southeast Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke, who used it as one of many tools to organize for the removal of the petcoke piles.

June 9, 2016, Chicago City Council passed an ordinance mandating that the piles be removed or enclosed and although KCBX tried hard to fight it, in the end they complied. By the time the piles were removed, Petcokealerts.org had nearly 400 subscribers, and had alerted them to high winds on 96 days.

Interview with a project leader

Ben Wilhelm

Project leader
Ben Wilhelm
Web Developer

How did you come up with the idea for this project?

Following a Hack Night presentation by Olga Bautista of the Southeast Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke and Benjamin Sugar of Public Lab, I struck up a conversation with Olga about the petcoke issue and what types of tools could be helpful for the Coalition’s advocacy efforts. We determined that an alert system would serve both the immediate practical need of alerting subscribers to dangerous wind conditions, as well as keeping the issue top-of-mind for affected residents.

How did Chi Hack Night help?

Chi Hack Night provided a framework and guidance for running an open-source civic project. In addition, through its partnership with Smart Chicago Collaborative, we received a funded Twilio account which enabled our broadcast of text messages. And simply put, the project wouldn’t have happened at all if it weren’t for the Hack Night inviting Olga and Benjamin to speak.

What was the impact of your project?

Petcokealerts.org was one tool in the Southeast Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke’s constant advocacy efforts. This advocacy led to a Chicago city ordinance being passed which mandated the removal or enclosure of the petcoke piles by June 9, 2016.

Though KCBX initially appealed, in the end they complied with the ordinance and removed the piles.

What did you learn from this project?

Although big, complicated ideas are the most exciting when brainstorming, the simple solutions are often the most effective. Especially when working with a small group of volunteers, it is imperative to stay focused on a well-defined problem and its solution, rather than spreading yourself too thin trying to implement every feature you can think of. Keeping that focus while still remaining open to shifting priorities or potential collaboration with other groups working in the same sector is a tricky balancing act, and one that I’m still getting the hang of.

More on this project

Petcokealerts.org: Simple tools supporting big objectives, Ben Wilhelm, Chi Hack Night blog

Petcoke alert: Hackers and activists team up on Chicago environmental issue, Kari Lydersen, Midwestern Energy News

Hacktivists Work to Protect Chicago’s South Side, Jenn Stanley, Next City

Website Petcoke Alerts
Tags Issue advocacy
Text messaging
Creators Olga Bautista
Ben Wilhelm
The South Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke
Justin Manley
Jason Wang
Stephen Liu
Rene Paccha
GitHub https://github.com/chihacknight/kcbx-petcoke
Launched May 2015