Chicago Hackers and Activists Team Up on Petroleum Coke Storage

Whenever the wind blows stronger than 15 miles per hour on Chicago’s Southeast Side, more than 400 residents who are signed up for a text messaging alert system get a notification saying: “Wind Alert! Avoid petcoke exposure by limiting outdoor activity,” and a link to learn more.

The alerts are the result of a collaboration between activists on Chicago’s Southeast Side who for several years have been fighting the storage of petroleum coke, or petcoke, in their neighborhood, and Chi Hack Night, a volunteer grassroots program that engages citizens, programmers and government agencies in helping people use public data and open source software around certain policies or issues.

Hack nights usually involve a group presenting about an issue or data set, followed by breakout sessions where teams of attendees brainstorm on how to use data and technology on the issue.

At the March 24 Hack Night, Southeast Side community leader Olga Bautista presented about petcoke and residents’ attempts to raise awareness and demand action from public officials.

Web developer and Chi Hack Night host Ben Wilhelm explained that they decided the text alerts would be a good way to raise awareness about the issue – “Something that would keep the problem in the forefront of people’s minds and also give them tools to be aware of the wind on the most hazardous days.”


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