Civic HackNights: Of the People, For the People, By the People

Jan 31, 2016 • Radhika Nair

“Life’s most urgent question is, what are you doing for others? ” - Martin Luther King Jr.


This profound wisdom sums up so much when it comes to my new year resolution—develop a sense of belonging to the place I live in. It has been almost two long years since I stepped into the Land of Opportunity. Yet, I hardly know anything about the community I am part of.

My quest for the right opportunity to make sincere community connections brought me to Code for San Jose. Kyle Falconer, an IBMer and active member of Code for San Jose, told me about the vibrant community at Code for San Jose and suggested that I attend the first Civic HackNight of the year. Being an avid FOSS follower and a civic enthusiast I resolved to attend.

About Code for San Jose and Code for America

The Code for America Brigade Network is an international network of over 40,000 civic hackers in 133 cities. The volunteer groups are known as Brigades. Code for San Jose is a local brigade of society-oriented folks who invest their free time to make positive changes in their community using open source technology tools and data. The codebase of these projects are available on GitHub for anyone to pitch in. The volunteers are of varied expertise from development to writing, from designing to public policy.

My First Civic Hack Night

The Civic Hack Night was held on January 14th evening in The Tech Museum’s Design Challenge Learning Institute, in the heart of bustling San Jose downtown. As soon as I arrived, I came across a sign-in station that even printed a name tag for me and was immediately impressed with the organization, but this was just a prelude.

The pleasant faces in the conference quickly put me at ease. The first person I met was Shivani Aurora, a Civic Fellow at Microsoft, who is part of the leadership team. She gave a brief introduction to the activities of the Code of San Jose Brigade. “You will hear more about it from Michelle Thong,” she concluded and grabbed a slice of pizza.

Very soon I heard a chirpy voice, greeting the 40 plus gathered in the room. It was Michelle Thong, one of the co-founders and veterans, of Code for San Jose. “Folks, how many of you are new here?,” in her bubbly voice, she continued. Quite a few hands were raised in the air while the regulars looked around to see the new faces. After giving an overview of the projects, she led the neophytes to an adjacent conference room. The regulars continued with brainstorming ideas and their respective projects.

Orientation Session for the Newbies

Evan Kroske and Vivek Bansal, two veterans of Code for San Jose, conducted the orientation session. Evan started with an introduction and then quickly ran through the Code for San Jose Getting Started Page. “We provide opportunities for learning, expanding, making community connection while addressing community needs by way of technology,” Vivek summed up.

As it was my first day, I decided to listen to the hackers around me to see if I could identify a pressing need to fill. With a hidden agenda of picking up the right project to work on, I wore the hat of a Tech Journalist, touring the room and talking to hackers. I was taken by surprise by the energy with which they talked about their projects.

The Code for America Logging System

The first group I spoke with were working on the Code of America sign-in system. I spoke to Kenny Spade, a Technical Evangelist at Microsoft. The Logging System tracks and generates a report of the number of attendees at each hack night. The attendance reports are shared with the leadership team, as well as Code for America and sponsors. “Many members don’t sign up on Meetup. They walk in, do the work, and leave. There was no mechanism to track how many members attended the meetup. Signup papers are too obsolete and we wanted something foolproof and started working on the Logging System,” Kenny elaborated. “We are soon launching the product to rest of the Code of America Brigades too,” he continued. Being a Technical Evangelist, Kenny also articulated the benefits of contributing to Code for San Jose: Have fun while making an impact, learn new skill sets, and experiment with newly acquired skills.


Open311 team is working on an app to report and track non-emergency issues such as trash dumping, abandoned vehicles, graffiti, street debris, sidewalk defects and tree maintenance. As a resident you can report and track community problems; as a government official, you can search and track the problems in your jurisdiction and update residents on progress. The intent of the project is to consolidate the 311 Request Services through a single gateway, addressing problems such as lack of clarity about where to report problems, abandoned or misrouted requests, and lack of follow-up notification.

“It’s an opportunity to make a big difference in your life and in the lives of those around you. It offers you a chance to apply your skills and ideals toward helping others and meeting critical needs in the community,” Hassan Schroeder, an Open311 contributor, expounded on the advantages of contributing to the projects.

Mobility Map

Zack Pallin is developing an innovative app that allows transportation organizations and citizens to discuss concerns on transportation in their area. You can sign up by using Facebook or Twitter to the Mobility Map form and start posting “Hints” about transportation issues on the map. Choose appropriate categories to narrow down the purpose of the Hint and allow others to easily search the map for relevant discussions. Try it yourself at Mobility Map


This project targets the pressing need of the moment: California’s drought. CaliDrought is an API platform to aggregate data the drought. The developers aim at eventually developing a full-fledged data visualization and analytics tool. Tyler Hampton seemed to be deeply involved in fixing some defects; so, without bothering him much with questions, I moved on to the next team.

The Code for San Jose Website

Finally, I spoke to Kyle Falconer and Anusuya Roy who work on the Website project. Their aim to to make a one-stop website for the Code for San Jose activities: GitHub, Event Management, and New Member Login.

As we were wrapping up the Hack Night, another famous quote by Martin Luther King Jr. crossed my mind: “Everyone can be great, because everyone can serve”. Being great implies that you find a way to give of yourself to something that you believe in. Meeting a bunch of civic hackers dedicated to changing the place they live in compounded my sense of purpose. Above all, my exposure and time to make friends with shared interests have been expanded.

What a way to begin the new year!