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GARY | A small group of residents and computer programmers from Northwest Indiana met recently for the first Gary Hack Night at Indiana University Northwest.

The hack night is part of a partnership project between the city of Gary and the Legacy Foundation called Gary Counts. The project will to use data as a community resource to deal with abandoned buildings.

The group received $80,000 from the Knight Foundation Community Information Challenge Grant, with the Legacy Foundation paying for the 50 percent local match.

"It shows how many people are interested in government data as an asset or tool," said Richard Leverett, Gary's Chief of Staff. "It's a valuable asset that a lot of cities are sitting on, and opening that data up can help improve government, improve quality of life, and even start local businesses."

Derek Eder, a web developer from Chicago, showed a number of different websites built through Chicago's open data portal.

Eder worked on Chicago-based websites like Look at Cook and School Cuts. Look at Cook allows Chicago residents to compare Cook County's spending to its budget over the years. School Cuts allowed parents to interact with information and learn how each of the 129 schools in Chicago Public Schools would be impacted.

"Citizens can get a view into what's going on within their city," Eder said.

While Gary hasn't released an open data portal, Leverett said those involved are working on a process and policy, and have other projects released and in the works to increase civic activity.

Along with Gary Counts and the Gary 311 mobile app, the city plans to digitize city processes like business licenses online and tracking building code violations digitally.

Leverett said the local effort may never be able to provide the level of information a metropolitan like Chicago or Boston has, but every city operates with data that can engage and inform the public. 

Tracking crime incidents through 15 police departments in Northwest Indiana lets the Center for Urban and Regional Excellence at IUN create a database that can illustrate crime statistics on a map.

"You can filter this information in a number of different ways," said Joe Ferrandino, criminal justice professor at IUN. "You can check by break-ins, hot spots, time and date. You could filter it down to everything that happens on Sundays at midnight."

Police departments then have the ability to decide how much they're willing to share. They may want to provide incident reports, but keep parolee addresses out of public view.

In cities that have been hit hard by economic changes, the lack of resources inspires creative ideas.

"Cities like Gary and Detroit are becoming a testing ground for civic hacking," said Jocelyn Hare, a fellow from the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy. "They can't do things the old way because it's too expensive, so they try to find new innovative ways to solve problems."

The Legacy Foundation and the city of Gary plan to make the Gary Hack Night a regular get-together.

"Regionally, a project like this could be a stepping stone," said Tina Rongers of the Legacy Foundation, "to think about other ways tech and government could come together to advance Northwest Indiana."