Lessons Learned From Knight Lab’s Three Hack Days

    by Ryan Graff
    April 24, 2013

    This post was written by Ryan Graff of the Knight News Innovation Lab and originally appeared on the Lab’s blog.

    The Knight Lab recently hosted its third and final Chicago Crime Hack with an event at the Cibola co-working space in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. We drew our largest crowd yet, got to meet a ton of new folks, came up with some new ideas, and ate some delicious tamales in the process.


    A group of hackers works at the Cibola co-working space in Pilsen.

    It felt to us like a success, but it’s fair to say we got better at hosting hacks with a bit of practice. Each of the three events was better attended, more coordinated, and, probably, more fun.

    Today we had a few conversations around the office to figure out what made each day better than the last. We’ve got a few theories and thought we should post a quick recap to share what we we’ve learned.


    First, it’s important to note that our hack days were unique in that the goal of each day wasn’t necessarily to build a prototype. We’d have been happy to have them, of course, but our goals for each day were to inspire people to use the Chicago Tribune’s crime API, get acquainted with the civic hacking community, and generate ideas around civic data.

    We changed a number of variables — location, marketing, structure, and speakers — each week so it’s difficult to suss out the changes that made the most difference, but we’ve got some pretty good ideas.

    We’ll get to the lessons in just a minute, but first let me give you an overview of each of the events:

    Hack One

    We held the first hack at the Medill News Room in downtown Chicago. We issued an open invitation on Meet-up to anyone interested in hacking the city’s crime data via the Chicago Tribune’s Crime API. We scheduled a late start — about 11 a.m. — held a series of five-minute lighting talks at the beginning of the day, broke immediately for lunch after the talks, then spent the afternoon hacking. The day was enjoyable, but some people had WiFi problems, and we didn’t see as many people team up or meet new people as we would have liked. Still, we did see some cool projects, particularly this application of Square’s Crossfilter library, that Adam Pearce built.


    A paper prototype developed at the second Chicago Crime Hack.

    Hack Two

    We held the second hack at the Knight Lab’s space in Fisk Hall on the Northwestern campus. Again, the event was open to anyone, but we focused our marketing on students at the Medill School and McCormick School of Engineering. We had a nice student turnout, in addition to pros from both Chicago and Evanston. It was great to open our space to the tech/journalism community for the day and see the Lab filled with people hoping to learn more about civic data.

    We modified the structure of the event to start at 9:30 a.m., saved the lighting talks for lunch, and dedicated most of the morning to a design thinking exercise, which was a huge and important change.

    The exercise helped do two things: First, it got everyone’s creative juices flowing by asking them to pair up and then design a paper prototype for their partner. Each partner interviewed the other, sketched a few ideas, sought feedback, made changes and iterated on multiple designs before creating a final paper-prototype to present to the rest of the group.

    And secondly, it got people to come together and interact with one another, which we think helped to foster some group work in the afternoon. The hope for the design thinking exercise initially had been that the ideas designed in the morning would provide the basis for some work in the afternoon. That turned out to be the case for a few projects. But even when the morning designs didn’t lead to afternoon development, we think the exercise was a valuable addition, allowing superstar hackers and rookies alike to participate on equal footing.

    We were also joined by crime and data reporters from the Chicago Tribune (Jeremy Gorner) and Hoy (Jeff Kelly Lowenstein) to the Lab to give lunch-hour talks. Both were great and added context to the day. Kelly Lowenstein was particularly insightful and related a story about how Hoy demonstrated a police discrimination problem by looking at jaywalking citations. It was a great lesson that although homicides, assaults and robberies get the most press, something as simple as jaywalking citations can be used to tell a big, important story.


    A paper prototype form the Chicago Crime Hack in Pilsen.

    Hack three

    Cibola in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood hosted the third and final hack of the series. The Pilsen hack didn’t change much from the previous week’s event, but for some reason many more people showed up. We’re not quite sure why the turnout was so great (around 30 people) compared with previous weeks. It could have been the momentum created by the first two hacks, the desire of folks to see Cibola (an innovative community and co-working space in a unique Chicago neighborhood), or the location near the city center, but not right downtown. No matter, we were happy to have folks join us at Cibola.

    We also had two great lunch-hour speakers — Tracy Siska, executive director of the Chicago Justice Project, and Annie Sweeney, a Tribune crime reporter.

    So, what lessons do we think we’ve learned? Here are two:

    • It’s nice to have some structure. Though a traditional hack day is a more of a creative free-for-all, our aims were primarily to generate ideas, promote the Tribune’s API, and create community. We found that giving people a reason to interact and a task to work on made a great addition to our hacks.
    • In the future we’d like to create an artifact that we can show to the world. Most hack days have the goal of building a bit of technology that is the start of something bigger — either a prototype or proof of concept. We were slightly less ambitious, but in the future we’d still like to show the world what we’ve produced — perhaps by publishing the ideas people come up with in the design thinking exercise, hosting prototypes, or compiling links to visualizations.

    As always, let us know if you have ideas or feedback for future events with the Knight Lab. We love collaboration and look forward to teaming up with you. And of course a huge thanks to our partners for this hack: TribApps for providing the API, inspiration and people to run the event; and Knight-Mozilla OpenNews Source for buying lunch for all three hacks.

    Ryan Graff joined the Knight News Innovation Lab in October 2011. He previously held a variety of newsroom positions — from arts and entertainment editor to business reporter — at newspapers around Colorado before moving to magazines and the web. In 2008 he won a News21 Fellowship from the Carnegie and Knight foundations to come up with innovative ways to report on and communicate the economic impact of energy development in the West. He holds an MSJ from the Medill School of Journalism and a certificate in media management from Northwestern’s Media Management Center. Immediately prior to joining the Lab, Graff led marketing and public relations efforts in the Middle East.


    The Knight Lab is a team of technologists, journalists, designers and educators working to advance news media innovation through exploration and experimentation. Straddling the sciences and the humanities the Lab develops projects, prototypes and innovative bits of code that help make information meaningful, and promote quality journalism, storytelling and content on the internet. The Knight Lab is a joint initiative of Northwestern University’s Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science and the Medill School of Journalism. The Lab was launched and is sustained by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, with additional support from the Robert R. McCormick Foundation and the National Science Foundation.

    Tagged: chicago crime hack chicago tribune crime api hack days knight lab medill northwestern pilsen

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