What I Learned While Hacking for Change

 |   Adam J. Hecktman

Chris Whitaker, What I Learned on the National Day of Civic HackingI had the honor and pleasure of speaking at Smart Chicago’s Organize! event. Held at Blue 1647, CfA’s Christopher Whitaker organized a day of civic tech leader training to help leverage the power of technology to organize in neighborhoods, and to widen the number of people participating in this movement. Organize! was a convening of both technology and community-focused attendees. Being on the technical side myself, I learned much about community organizing and came away with helpful insights from the speakers that Smart Chicago brought together, not to mention the great dialogue with fellow attendees.

For example, David McDowell (Southwest Organizing Project) defined “community organizing” in relation to power (itself defined as “the ability to act”).   He framed organizing as building capacity to collectively identify issues, strategize solutions and create positive change for stakeholders in that community.

What I Learned on the National Day of Civic HackingMatthew Topic (attorney at Loevy & Loevy) laid out the basics for making a FOIA request, and then gave some valuable best practices.   Since citizens have a right to records, but not the right to have questions answered, knowing the right way to ask for those records was key.

A venerable Chicago civic tech staple, Josh Kalov gave a “Data Portal 101” discussion, showing data portals at the city, county, state, and agency levels. This was followed by my discussion of how to leverage Microsoft Excel to work with Civic Data.

It was particularly gratifying to see that two non-Chicagoans chose Chicago to spend their #HackForChange weekend. First was Hannah Young from CfA. Hannah was the link and DJ and Hannahresource provider to the more than 106 events going on last weekend. The second was White House Deputy CTO and Chief Data Scientist DJ Patil. DJ was very generous with his time, sharing insights from his role as Chief Data Scientist and dialoging with the attendees.

DJ’s view of how government should work was perfectly in line with the vision of civic technologists. He looks at the country (indeed, the globe) and sees thousands of cities, each an experiment in tech, each an experiment in policy. And he challenged us to bring together these cities and the knowledge amassed from these experience in something of a modern-day barn raising. The government’s role? To be the provider of the data. After all, as DJ said, “it is our data”. Together, we can do great things with it.

Taking the El back home Sunday afternoon gave me a chance to reflect on the whirlwind of a weekend of #HackForChange events. If the goal of these events was for the components of civic tech – technologists, community activists, and government – to learn from one another, then it was a clear win. At the very least, this technologist has a better understanding and appreciation of the thought processes of his counterparts in this space.

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Adam J. Hecktman
Adam J. Hecktman

You may recognize Adam. He’s a regular on TV, you can hear him on the radio, he’s penned numerous articles and is the co-founder of the Chicago City Data Users Group. But some of Adam’s most important work is done behind the scenes in his role as Microsoft’s Director of Technology and Civic Engagement for Chicago. Tech giants, universities and government leaders turn to Adam for guidance on all matters technology, and he happily obliges, helping Chicago overcome challenges and capitalizing on new, exciting opportunities.