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Hacking for the planet

In Chicago, civic hackers are working to improve local life with data and technology. Their environmental work involves unique challenges to creating clear solutions. But the civic space these hackers are exploring might benefit cities just as much as any technologies they create.

When a storm hits Chicago, it’s too late to prepare. Rain pours down, washing through the streets and filling up the pipes that weave beneath the city. It has to go somewhere. This is an old city and the same pipes that carry storm runoff from the streets also carry sewage out of peoples’ homes.

Eventually the system overflows, and the city must make a choice. Will the excess sewage flow into homes, or into the river? For most, the choice is obvious. That is why, on a regular basis, the city of Chicago dumps shit in its river.

Dumping sewage in the Chicago River is a time-honoured tradition. In January 1900, after decades of infrastructure-testing population growth, the city reversed the direction of the river, sending it away from Lake Michigan, the city’s source of drinking water. Journalist Roman Mars noted: “Chicago’s biggest design achievement isn’t a building at all—it’s the Chicago River itself.”

Today, these combined sewer overflows (CSOs) continue. Since 1 January 2007, raw, untreated sewage has overflowed the city’s water treatment system on 484 days. In 2014, there were more than 1,000 overflows. We know this thanks to a small group of locals who created the site IsThereSewageInTheChicagoRiver.com.

These are the techies, tinkerers, designers, data analysts, activists and other civic-minded folks who work together at Open Gov Hack Night. These hackers combine open government data with their diverse skills in programming, design and local issues, hoping to improve local interactions with government services and information. Among other data sources, Chicago’s Data Portal is a treasure trove for these curious minds, with almost 1,000 up-to-date spreadsheets detailing everything from the salaries of city employees to crimes across the city.

The hackers who created Is There Sewage are part of the environmental breakout group at hack night. I spent the past month meeting some of their members and exploring their work, trying to find out how civic hacking can address environmental issues in Chicago, and beyond.

Creating the space

By six o’clock every Tuesday night, 50 or more people are milling around an 8th floor office of the Merchandise Mart in downtown Chicago. The evening usually starts with a delivery of pizza from Lou Malnati’s.

Once the crowd gathers into a central atrium with plates of pizza and salad, hack night co-founder Derek Eder moves to the front. Eder, 32, opens the evening comfortably without presumption. After introducing himself, he invites everyone to do the same - no matter how many are present. Some are programmers or designers. Some are activists or social service providers. Some say they are just there for the pizza. Announcements follow introductions and most nights someone presents a project, describes some interesting data, or talks about a problem they want to solve.

Some are programmers or designers. Some are activists or social service providers. Some say they are just there for the pizza.

It is easy to imagine how hack night evolved from a group of friends sitting around and working together. In 2011, Derek connected with other programmers at a Google hacking event and helped create ChicagoLobbyists.org, which displays information about where lobbying dollars flow in Chicago. The group continued to work on similar projects and started meeting weekly to get more work done. The first official hack night was on 22 March 2012.

“That’s really what the first hack night was,” Eder explains. It was four programmers working on projects together in their spare time. “We made sure to open it up to anyone who wanted to show up. We shared it on our network.” Word spread and it grew. Today, hack night regularly hosts between 70 and 90 attendees. The largest in 2014 had 120.

As more joined, the event became more structured. Last year brought some major milestones, such as greater sharing of leadership, and permanent breakout groups that focus on topics of interest, such as environmental issues or transportation. No matter how much hack night has changed over the years, Eder says the focus has remained the same: getting work done. “The real focus is to get your hands dirty and to work with people.”

The growth of hacking in Chicago has been organic, but it has not been by accident. Hack night is part of a vibrant ecosystem of technology and innovation in Chicago. In 2007, the Chicago Community Trust, the MacArthur Foundation and the City of Chicago outlined plans for what is now the Smart Chicago Collaborative. The Collaborative creates a lot of civic technology and has the resources to invest in projects created at hack night. It has also hired hackers from the event to focus on hacking full time. DataMade, a civic technology company Eder founded, has also offered support to hack night, hiring hackers, and sponsoring pizza.

“I get to do civic hacking type stuff as my 9-5 job in large part because the Smart Chicago Collaborative pays me as a consultant,” Christopher Whitaker explains to me. “So I’m not trying to do this in my spare time like my colleague in Boston is. We have a vehicle to be able to pay people to go full-time. Because we have so many people working on civic innovation as their full-time job, we’re able to produce a lot more than some of the other cities that may have strong brigades, but they’re all volunteers.”

Those other brigades are using a hack night type model in a lot of other cities, nationally and internationally. But Chicago stands out for its level of institutional support for hacking.

Who’s hacking?

The focus of hack night has not changed over the years, but who comes to do that work has. The event welcomes many more non-coders than in the early days. And considering that programmer culture has its own issues with sexism and racism, the increasing diversity of the group is encouraging.

Whitaker, 31, another hack night organiser, indicated that reaching out to Chicago Women Developers was one factor that has brought more women to hack night. “There’s a lot more to accomplish in terms of race, gender, sexual orientation,” he says. “But generally we have seen the balance of men versus women improve a lot over the past couple of years.”

I am not a coder. I started out from the other direction.

One element of diversity that is both critical and invisible is the presence of non-coders. Whitaker is the first to point this out. “I am not a coder. I started out from the other direction.” That other direction was working in an Illinois state field office processing unemployment insurance with a computer system from 1975. This motivated him to bring better technology into government.

Whitaker believes some of the best products from hack night have been the partnerships where non-coder experts in a subject have taken the lead. In order to orient non-coders and newcomers, he leads a Civic Hacking 101 session every week. “We wanted to make sure that when people came in, they weren’t intimidated by the code, and GitHub, and Ruby and Python. We wanted to make sure that the people were comfortable.”

“I think policy people are really useful,” says Claire Micklin, a participant in the environmental breakout group. “I always thought it would be kind of nice to have someone who’s an insider in city politics, and kind of understands how decisions are made, or how best to approach policy-makers.”

The policy types and subject-matter experts are coming. Some presenters are non-coders with an idea. Some social service providers have spoken up about their interest in projects.

Chantel Miller, 24, has been coming to hack night for a few months. A recent graduate in political science, she embodies what seems to be a growing presence at hack nights. “I’m interested in learning about how people are using technology in a civic space,” she said. Diverse perspectives and expertise among the ever-growing numbers of attendees are crucial in keeping hack night projects grounded in the needs of Chicago’s diverse communities.

Different questions, different answers

Scott Beslow realised he could do something creative with the public data about sewage overflows a little over a year ago. It was one of his first hack nights, in autumn 2013. The presentation that evening was about a few unique, hard-to-find datasets that might be useful for a project, and it included the sewer overflow data. Incidentally, Beslow studied Chicago stormwater management for his Masters in Environmental Engineering. He knew this data was public. But it was not very public, buried in the clunky website of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, where it was difficult to explore. The sewer overflow portal on the site presents warnings about raw human waste in the river with all the fanfare of a bureaucrat applying a rubber stamp.

Beslow, 37, now works as a programmer. Before absorbing the hacker mentality, he never thought to create an entire site that made the information easy to understand and share. That changed at hack night. Inspired to make the sewage overflow data more relevant, he returned home and made a tool for exploring historical sewage overflows. At the same time, others from hack night were building a tool that could tell visitors whether there was currently sewage in the river.

“So we had both heard about the dataset and we had both approached it from a different perspective. I looked at it from historical. They looked at it from right now,” Beslow explains.

Beslow merged his efforts with other hackers (Eder, Eric Van Zanten and Forest Gregg), and the group created Is There Sewage, which went online in December 2013. This is exactly how projects at hack night come together, as products of diverse interests and types of expertise. They are based not on the strategic decisions of a project manager, but the different questions individuals ask and the different ways they look for answers.

Today, Beslow facilitates the environmental breakout group. With a day job and a newborn at home, he has not been very hands-on with recent work on the sewage project, but just as he brought his own unique questions, others are now bringing theirs. Lately, three or four regulars at the environmental group have been asking when sewer overflows might happen in the future. Using weather data, the group hopes to create a tool that can warn Chicagoans when sewer overflows are imminent.

“Right now, it’s very exploratory,” says 24-year-old Jackson Kontny, who has only been coming to hack night for about two months. But already the self-taught programmer with a background in civil engineering is working with the group to find reliable weather data for the model.

Civic apps like theirs can make people aware of solutions to reduce excess water in the sewer system.

It is debatable how the site might offer solutions to the problem beyond awareness. Kontny believes that sites like Is There Sewage can empower people to make better decisions. The site gives residents and decision-makers up-to-date evidence of the consequences of their water use. Sewage overflows happen when too much water is in the sewer system and Kontny speculates that civic apps like theirs can make people aware of solutions to reduce excess water in the sewer system.

“You can alleviate that by having green roofs, or by having more permeable surfaces,” Kontny says. “With pavement, all of that water goes to runoff. If that were just open grass, you could significantly cut down on the amount of water that the system has to handle when you have these extreme weather events.”

But the site offers no such suggestions explicitly, and Beslow sees the project as more of an educational tool to make people mindful of water- use issues. He’s not sure it will drive everyone to take shorter showers, “but at least they are now making a more educated choice by understanding the consequences,” he says in an email exchange. “It sure beats the norm, where people don’t really understand where their water comes from, where it goes and why it matters.”

Larger political solutions are progressing glacially. The massive project designed to solve the sewage overflow problem has been under construction since the 1970s and is not scheduled for completion until 2029. The Tunnel and Reservoir Plan, or TARP, which would hold sewage overflow until the water treatment system could catch up, is buried just as deeply in bureaucracy as it is in earth.

Actionable information

Claire Micklin is not a programmer. The 35-year-old Michigan native has a Master’s in Human Computer Interaction and works during the day as an interaction designer. “It’s sort of like a combination of computer science, psychology, and design.” Interaction designers plan websites to create the best user experience. These skills helped Micklin address a challenge that has frustrated her for years.

“I’ve lived in Chicago for 10 years. My buildings have never had recycling.” Micklin tried a failed blue bag programme that the city phased out. She reached out to a contact who had worked with the Department of Streets and Sanitation. “I pressed her on it because I never heard back and she’s like ’Actually the law has no teeth. Try starting a recycling programme in your building or polling residents to see if they’d be willing to pay extra money for a recycling dumpster’.” She remembers thinking: “That just doesn’t seem right. There’s a law, but it’s not enforced. But what would happen if the law was enforced? Then people could report it.” So she designed MyBuildingDoesntRecycle.com, which was then coded by Ben Wilhelm and Alex Kahn.

My Building Doesn’t Recycle could not be simpler. It explains that Chicago law requires recycling to be provided for buildings with five or more residential units. Visitors can enter their addresses and report their non-compliant buildings. They can also click on “Get involved” for advice about contacting city leaders to demand enforcement of the law, a guide to starting a recycling programme and a link to drop-off locations for recycling.

I know that I’ve been guilty of stopping at awareness. With ‘My Building Doesn’t Recycle’, I really tried to have an action component.

For Micklin, civic websites like this can do more than simply spread awareness. She also tries to make the information actionable. “I know that I’ve been guilty of stopping at awareness,” she says. Often, we don’t know how we can affect environmental problems; they’re so large or nebulous. “With ‘My Building Doesn’t Recycle,’ I really tried to have an action component in there, so while you’re here, write a letter to your alderman. Also, I think just the action of reporting your building is something.”

If nothing else, awareness might move the needle on recycling. “I feel like if we can get more media coverage, maybe people will start talking about it more. We have all these reports here, so obviously something’s not working with the status quo.”

The spokesperson for the department of streets and sanitation did not return my request for comment.

A new civic space

Civic hackers exist in a unique political space. Their ability to contextualise data and make it useful to the public with such accessible tech tools is unprecedented. They do the work of journalists, but they also seek to make changes in society, not to simply report on them. They are more active than journalists and follow more rules than activists.

The products of the environmental breakout group are impressive, but they face unique challenges. With environmental issues, information accessibility can be a limited solution. For some apps, awareness or information is the solution to a problem. mRelief is a site that helps users discover their eligibility for public benefits in Chicago and Illinois, while Clear Streets shows which streets in Chicago have been ploughed after it snows. The information on these sites has immediate, tangible benefits to users. But can a web app improve water quality, or increase recycling? In a time when climate science has little sway in political debate, what good is knowing about a problem?

Getting the right people together is more important than patching the right code together.

The answer depends not on the app itself, but the people behind it. Whitaker explains that partnerships are key to a successful civic hacking ecosystem. “Getting the right people together is more important than patching the right code together. That’s one of the most important things to understand about this movement. This is not a bunch of coders coming in on white horses going ‘I can fix this with code!’, but rather people with technology skills partnering with non-profits, government agencies, community activists, to build something together that solves problems in our cities.”

My Building Doesn’t Recycle has been live since 27 January. In one month, it has collected about 1,000 reports of buildings that illegally fail to provide recycling to their residents. To create the site, Micklin partnered with programmers who had skills she did not. And to turn the site into a more powerful political solution, she may need help from others with another different skill set. But these partnerships, not the brilliance of any single individual, are what give hack night the potential to deal nimbly with a wide variety of local challenges.

Civic hacking is defining a new civic space in Chicago. The data is important in creating that space, and bringing people together around material with which to work. But the real story of hack night is the way that it brings people together who give a damn about their community and want to think critically about its challenges. It’s about residents working on tangible local issues and developing leadership and expertise that has its own value beyond the products they create. They can’t solve climate change, and they’re not going to try. But they might try to showcase the disparities in bike path access across Chicago communities, partnering with other organisations to advocate for more bike paths in parts of the city that could use them.

The hackers will be tested sometimes. They will be challenged to figure out the extent to which they are content creators and the extent to which they are movers, shakers, or troublemakers. The government institutions that are so willing to share (some) data may not always be as pleased when that data is used to demand change to the status quo. What is the role of hackers in the community? Does a responsibility to inform translate into a responsibility to act on that information - especially after becoming something of an issue-expert from so much research? Who can they partner with to move an issue forward? Wrestling with questions like these are some of the exciting challenges inherent in exploring a new civic space.

“I don’t think data can save us,” says Micklin, when we discuss what happens when society relies too much on data without context. “I think it can be used for good and bad. It doesn’t tell the whole story sometimes.”

Perhaps that’s why the smallness of civic hacking projects is so important. Because the easiest way to tell the whole story is to tell a small story. One that contextualises issues we can know and see at the local level. One that can deepen our understanding of the water, air, land and people of a place. And, maybe, one that can help us learn to better take care of that place.

Photo by Christopher Whitaker

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