At Civic Hack Night, Hackers Try to Solve Houston's Social Issues

Attendees of Sketch's March Civic Hack Night, which focused on democracy, listen in.
Attendees of Sketch's March Civic Hack Night, which focused on democracy, listen in.

The word “hacking” might conjure up images of crashed computers, identity theft and leaked documents, but hackers are no longer just anarchy-loving rebels. (Never forget the '90s film Hackers, with Johnny Lee Miller's inane cry, “Hack the planet!”) In fact, if you happen to like both computers and making an impact on society – instead of just trying to burn it down – check out Civic Hack Night, this Wednesday from 6 to 9 p.m., at Station Houston.

Every month, Civic Hack Nights are a chance for Houston locals to collaborate on and create different projects based around solving social issues. Using the magic of computer coding, hackers are able to build everything from apps to video games to robots to try to improve the city and its government.

Each month's event also centers on a different theme – for July's theme, education, the event will include half an hour of three to four quick talks by various speakers. “We ask our community members what they want to sink their teeth into, and we had a lot of people who were very interested in education,” said Jeff Reichman, founder of Sketch City, the nonprofit that organizes the Civic Hack Nights.

The speakers are a blend of Civic Hack Night regulars and experts from around Houston. For example, Tim McCasland, the now-interim director of Houston's Housing and Community Development Department, spoke at last month's meeting on housing. This month, Sketch City community member Shiroy Aspandiar – a former Teach for America teacher who's founded a Houston start-up that helps connect kids to summer opportunities – is among the speakers.

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“What's really cool about these hack nights is that we have nonprofits and representatives from the government coming to them,” Reichman said. “They're all part of our community. So what we really try to do is curate subject matter experts with technical experts, so that they can start solving projects and they can hack right away, rather than trying to guess what might be helpful. They can actually know what's helpful.”

After the talks, people break into teams. They might work on a new project related to that month's theme, or they might continue work on a previous project. “There's literally like three dozen active projects at any given time,” Reichman said, adding that the Sketch City community is about 2,000 strong. “We tend to produce a new project every week or two.”

In between Civic Hack Nights, programmers often stay in touch and keep working together. Right now, Reichman said, members are tracking sex trafficking demand in Houston, reading Harris County data to tweet out air-quality violations and identifying areas where people are most likely to get evicted so that the Salvation Army can find vulnerable homeless populations – to name just a few.

While those projects might sound complex, you don't need to be a Python wizard or a C++ genius to help out at a Civic Hack Night. You don't even need to know what Python and C++ are.

“Probably the biggest misconception is that you need to know how to code,” Reichman said. “You don't. All you need is a passion for a subject, and it can be a technical subject or it can be a public sector, civic subject…There's a lot of beginners and there's a lot of advanced people, but they mix and mingle really well. Because you might be a beginner at coding but you might know a lot about recycling. Or you might know a lot about graphic design but know nothing about, I don't know, the budget.”

The Hack Nights evolved out of Sketch City's annual City of Houston Hackathon, a 24-hour-long event usually held each May. Just as its name suggests, a hackathon is a marathon – but instead of running for nearly 26.3 miles, tech geeks code for a set time limit. (For instance, the popular group messaging app GroupMe was developed at a New York hackathon.)

Of course, not everyone's free to attend an all-day event held only once a year. So in 2014, Sketch City co-organizer Sarah Rigdon suggested that the group also start holding the monthly Civic Hack Nights. This year is the first time that Sketch City has themed the nights. Future months' themes range from criminal justice to “kittens and puppies” (also known as animal control).

The event is open to all, with food, drink and Wi-Fi provided. Don't forget to charge your computer beforehand.


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