Illustration by Dan Page
Illustration: Dan Page

It’s just after 6:15 p.m. on the first Tuesday of 2017 when I plop down among the city’s digerati in the hip meeting space of Braintree, an online payments company, on the eighth floor of the Merchandise Mart. Many of the 80 or so mostly millennials in the atrium are pecking away at their laptops and digging into free pizza when Derek Eder, cofounder of Chi Hack Night, steps to the front.

A skinny dude with a mop-top haircut, Eder, 34, and his cohost, Eileen McFarland, a 20-something in an argyle sweater, begin with a laundry list of internet age formalities, like the guest Wi-Fi password, how to join the event’s Google group, and what hashtag to use for live tweeting. “There’s also Flickr,” McFarland says, referring to the photo-sharing site, which, based on the chuckles in the room, must not be cool anymore. “Feel free to bring it back in 2017.”

Chi Hack Night bills itself as a weekly gathering of, well, just about anybody interested in civic tech. That’s the fancy term for when citizens (often volunteers) use digital-era tools—think open-source software and clever algorithms—to address community problems. Over the past few years, Chi Hack Night participants have helped launch a host of apps and websites that do everything from map out the unequal distribution of bike lanes on the South and West Sides to strong-arm Chicago landlords into providing required recycling services. Are they hackers? Not in a shady, WikiLeaks sort of way. The information they access is free and available to everyone, but if you asked most of us to find it, mine it, and apply it … crickets.

I was curious: What motivates these benevolent hacktivists to put their talents toward the greater good while the rest of us sit back and complain? So I pulled myself off the couch to check it out.

According to the Chi Hack Night website, programming skills aren’t required to participate. But when my fellow attendees start tossing around intimidating job titles like “data scientist” and “systems architect,” I begin to feel a little out of place. Finally, a bearded guy stands and introduces himself as a bartender. (Hooray! Someone who speaks my language!) He pauses for effect. “And a front-end developer.” (Really?!)

Derek Eder, 34, is a cofounder of Chi Hack Night. Photo: Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune

“Raise your hand if this is your very first time here,” Eder says. Twenty or so arms go up. Thank God. But what if word gets out that I still use a Yahoo email address?

Leaders of a dozen breakout groups explain their projects, which range from a beginner’s coding clinic to a data analysis of traffic stops conducted by the University of Chicago’s private police force. Eventually, Eder instructs us to “Go forth and hack!” and the crowd of hoodies and plaid shirts splinters into a problem-solving free-for-all.

My first stop: orientation by Chi Hack Night co-organizer Christopher Whitaker, an army vet and bureaucrat who saw firsthand the chasm between the government and its adoption of technology. After recounting some epic tech fails (thanks, dusty DOS-based computer) at his previous job with the Illinois Department of Employment Security, he projects an image on the wall: a dense spreadsheet from the City of Chicago’s data portal, which features minutiae on everything from the number of building permits issued since 2006 to a six-year backlog of graffiti removal requests. “It’s not the most user-friendly thing in the world,” he points out.

That’s where civic hackers come in: They take raw data like this and create something people can actually use. One of Chi Hack Night’s biggest success stories is an analytics tool to better anticipate unsafe E. coli levels at city beaches. Building on weather and water-quality data pulled from lake buoy sensors, plus past reports such as swim advisories and E. coli test results, volunteers identified beaches with the highest “poo score.” (Yes, that’s what they call it.) They expect the Chicago Park District to use the tool this summer to steer swimmers clear of tainted waters. “We’re trying to build a community of people who can work on these types of problems,” Whitaker says, “whether it’s someone trying to start a company, work for government, or do public service in their free time.”

The following Tuesday, I return and meet Tracy Siska, 45, the executive director of the Chicago Justice Project, a nonprofit that increases public access to information within the criminal justice system. For five years, Siska has worked on quantifying media coverage of Chicago crime. Why? Because, according to the data he’s studied, the reporting often doesn’t accurately reflect what’s happening.

Exhibit A: He and his group found that, between June 2011 and May 2012, 96 percent of major newspaper coverage of sexual assaults in this city was about encounters with strangers. But Siska’s group also dug up national research showing that 90 percent of at least one particular type of sexual assault—rape—occurs at the hands of someone the victim knows. “This misinforms public-policy makers, as well as women,” he says of the press coverage. “It’s not about walking home from the bar. It’s about who you met at the bar.”

A policy wonk more than a tech guy, Siska comes to these events for one reason: free labor. Take Kevin Rose, the 24-year-old data scientist sitting across the table from Siska. Rose works with a health care company by day, but while most of us have been Instagramming our weekend brunches, he’s devoted some of his free time to developing an algorithm that categorizes crime articles (by transgression or neighborhood) as they’re published. The ultimate goal: a searchable website that educates the public on the reality of Chicago crime.

On my way out, I recall the words of a software engineer I met the first week. “There are only a finite number of people willing to devote their mental energy and skill sets to [coming here] instead of watching Game of Thrones,” he told me. “But don’t underestimate small groups dedicated to solving problems.”

If it’s true the nerds are taking over the world—and they surely are—at least there’s hope for the future.