March 3, 2014

Uncommon Interview: Tom Kompare

By day, Tom Kompare designs websites for the University’s IT Services. In his free time, he uses his technological skills to develop free apps for public use, including one that tracks locations in the city offering flu vaccines, another that helps parents figure out directions to their child’s school and what departure time is best, and one that compiles pothole complaints in the city. The Maroon talked to Kompare about what inspires his work, what it takes to build these apps, and his next project, an app that tracks condom distribution.

Chicago Maroon: On your Twitter, it says you’re a participatory technologist, and I’ve also seen the term civic technologist. In an article about your work, you’re referred to as a civic hacker. Which term do you prefer?

Tom Kompare: I’ve been calling it more of a participatory technologist. I personally don’t like the term “civic hacking” because it portrays just maybe the wrong context of what it is. People see hacking and automatically think bad stuff. But it’s really good stuff. It’s where citizens get more involved in working with their government to have a better outcome for their city or their neighborhood. That’s why I think of it more of like a participatory technologist. We’re helping government do things better for the city, just trying to help out the community through doing some technology.

CM: How did you get your start in technology?

TK: Back in the early ’80s, when I was a kid, my brother got a computer. Being the little brother who’s 11 years old, I was curious, so I started playing around with his computer. And I learned you could make it do things with the basic programming language. So I started to do stuff. The first real program I did made did my mixed fraction homework for me. I hated math. So I made it do my homework for me. That’s kind of where it all started. But my real love is geography. So in college, I got a geography degree with an emphasis on geographic informational systems, which is basically what you might think of as computerized mapping, and spatial analysis. And then my first job out of college was with the state of Illinois. I would help research fuel biologists figure out where they found stuff and find spatial patterns in the types of species they found.

CM: How did you get involved in civic technology?

TK: I’ve always been interested in how government works and politics and everything like that. About two years ago, I became involved in a group called Open Government Chicago. We started a hacknight every Tuesday where we got together and wrote code and talked about how to build different things and use the city’s data portal. At one of these monthly meetings, a bunch of department heads within the city of Chicago came to our meeting to ask us to use their data. One of them was from the Chicago Department of Public Health. And he started talking, and I started researching all the data they had available, and I looked at the website and there was the locations of all the flu shots, the dates and times and all the different places. And I was like, ‘I can map that, I can build something around that.’ So I did and showed it to him, and he was like, ‘Hey, that’s really cool. Let’s use it as part of our plan to do advertised flu shots.’ And through that, a couple of people from other cities saw that and were like, ‘Hey we want to do the same thing for our city. Could we use the code?’ And I’m like, ‘Absolutely you could use my code, go right ahead.’ People from Boston and Philadelphia went ahead and did their own flu shot app based on my code.

CM: How long does it take to make an app?

TK: It all depends on how complicated it is. The ones I do for the city are fairly simple. I do these things at night when I get home—I don’t do it as part of my job. I would say probably spent a good 20 nights on those—maybe a total of 50-60 hours on each one. But they’re fairly simple applications.

CM: How frequently do you make one?

TK: I try to play around with something new every couple of months. There’s one I’m talking [about] with the Department of Public Health again. They have condom distribution points all across the city where you can go to a business and get condoms for free. An app tracking that will look very similar to the flu shot tracker—where are they, where are the businesses, what time of day, what are the business hours, and...where are they located. Like is it at the bar, is it next to the cash register, or do you ask Joe in the back of the store or whatever. So that’s the type of info that if you’re going to be someone who has to pick up a condom. That’s what you need to know. Everything I build is really user-focused. I want to make sure the end user gets the information they need.

CM: Is that why you focus on tracking, with all of your apps being map-based?

TK: I think the maps come back to me loving geography. There are other people that build beautiful things and the data they’re exposing is better exposed in maps and charts. But that’s probably what they like to do. And that’s fine but I tend to love geography more. So I like things that you can put on a map.

CM: What is it about geography that you love?

TK: I like to learn things about different places. One of the things I did with my dad all through my childhood was he’d take me places I’d never been, even though it might’ve been only across the Wisconsin border. I grew up in Chicago, in the suburbs. Even if it was somewhere like two hours away, we’d go on a car trip. Just going to places and learning about different places appealed to me. When I was a kid, some of the books that I loved the most were hardcover books from National Geographic. Just learning about different places and different people is just neat to me.

CM: What issues do you think technology can improve in the future, in the civic space?

TK: In the open government sense, never before could we look at so much data at one time from the city government all at once. Before you’d have to do a series of FOIA requests and you’d get a big pile of paper. There was no way to really analyze that data and really find out good nuggets of information that you’re looking for, find out the bigger-picture way of possibly doing things better. Let’s say there’s a disease outbreak in the city. What is it about those communities that can really help address, say, an outbreak of a communicable disease like a STD? You can pull together census data, income data, demographic data and try to see if there’s a pattern there that is also matching up with disease outbreak. As we get better and better at that, using those skills, I think technology can really help in that area.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been condensed and edited.