Civic Hackers Want You

Group Offers Cash for App Testing

Chicago’s hacking community has been churning out civic-minded apps and websites with gusto, harnessing a deep database of city, county and state data. There are weekly meetups for open data junkies, creating sites on everything from the city’s built environment to the County budget.

But Daniel X. O’Neil, co-founder of EveryBlock and executive director of the Smart Chicago Collaborative, says the current relationship between government agencies and coders is incomplete.

“[D]ozens of developers looking at each other in conference rooms over pizza is never going to lead to making lives better in Chicago without the active involvement of real residents expressing real needs and advocating for software that makes sense to them,” O’Neil wrote on his blog last month.

That’s why Smart Chicago is launching a “Civic User Testing Group,” to involve citizens from all over the city in testing, and eventually conceptualizing, new apps and tools. Participants will become the beta testers for developers looking for feedback on their latest work. Testers will both submit feedback through the group’s site and be a part of “mildly scientific” focus groups through the city, O’Neil says.

“We make an app, we go out and show it. That’s a big step if we can get a lot of people to show up,” he says. “But the step after that is the moment of creation, at the moment of pizza consumption, that everyone’s there. That it’s a resident-led process for the creation of technology innovation.”

Testers get $5 for signing up and $20 (plus bus fare) for each session. Giving out cash before testers do any work is O’Neil’s way of recognizing participants’ civic commitment.

“I’ve learned in my life that people like money,” he says. “That’s the flip answer. But $5 for an e-mail address, for someone that raised their hand and said, ‘I care about what you care about,’ that’s worth it.”

Some developers are already thinking about ways they can take advantage of the user testing. Open City co-founder Derek Eder says one of his most popular apps is CPS Tiers, which shows parents how their neighborhood is classified by CPS and how that affects their child's chances of enrollment at selective schools.

“During enrollment, traffic spikes, but we haven’t had a chance to talk to a lot of parents to see what would make it more useful,” Eder says. “It’s a service you normally have to pay for--that’s the beauty of it. We don’t have to take on that burden.”

Smart Chicago is partially funded by the city, and Chicago’s Chief Technology Officer John Tolva says he was with O’Neil when the sign-up site launched Friday morning. The city is open to having some of its own apps tested through the service.

“I consider this the best kind of gateway drug,” Tolva says. “The impact here is we can have an answer when community groups that have very little technical skill ask how they can be involved in a meaningful way.”

In the first few hours after launching, Smart Chicago got 18 testers across 14 wards. Developers, the city and O’Neil all say North Siders are far more likely to use civic apps. To realize his goal of getting citizens involved in the concept stage of development, O’Neil hopes to engage with all areas of the city, and wants at least 20 people from each ward in the program.

“We may have to cut off sign-ups on the North Side wards, let’s be honest,” O’Neil says. "Everybody needs to sign up for this."

Eder measures the traffic coming into his groups’ sites. “Pretty much every app we built shows the same map: the North Side and Hyde Park,” he says. “Part of that is the digital divide in those areas, but it’s also an effect of our network. I live on the North Side, I have a certain network, and I’m broadcasting to that network.”

Universal involvement has the potential to improve and inspire the next stage of civic hacking, Tolva says. He referred to Mi Parque, an app that gathers suggestions for an upcoming park in Little Village.

“You can’t design that from 1871, necessarily,” he says, referring to the digital startup center downtown. “The killer app has not been produced for the South Side. [Civic User Testing] could potentially set up a new wave of development.”