civic hack night

Civic Hack Night Helps City Employees Connect and Create Solutions

Each month our community partner, Sketch City, hosts a Civic Hack Night. These events help the City connect with the local technology community in order to increase cooperation and create innovative solutions to pressing problems. Civic Hack Night works because it allows for City employees to interact with members of the technology community in a friendly, informal environment in order to describe problems, broaden perspectives, and introduce new technology solutions.

Sometimes the collaborative environment provided by Civic Hack Night works so well that City employees are able to help other City employees overcome obstacles and advance projects forward. In fact, a couple months ago City of Houston IT extraordinaire Jim Cole and I experienced just that.

Jim and I started talked while chomping down on pizza at the November Civic Hack Night. Jim mentioned he recently sat in a meeting on a records retention project that had been happening "on-again-off-again" for about a year. The project team, consisting of stakeholders from multiple departments, was attempting to categorize employees by their job code in order to determine how long to retain e-mails. The City retains all e-mails for a default of two years and there are other e-mails we tag by keywords in order to retain longer. To be extra safe, the project team wanted a methodology based on job code to change the default retention period from two years to four years for certain employees. The project team needed:

  • An automated way to pull employees from our enterprise resource planning (ERP) system;
  • A way to tag the employees by their job code; and,
  • A method to send that stratified list to the Outlook server.

Over the course of the hour, Jim and I developed a go-forward. I showed Jim that we had a reporting environment that received the employee roster regularly from our ERP system, so we could use it instead of starting from scratch. Jim already had the list of job codes we needed to tag, so we added this as a look-up table to our reporting environment; we also enhanced the list based on our subject area knowledge. Finally, Jim knew he could use PowerShell to add the users we tagged to a Windows Active Directory group that could then be used by the Outlook server and our e-mail retention software to handle the retention periods.

The next day, we presented our plan. After a couple hours of work, we had the solution in place. We also developed a data visualization in Tableau to help our records management staff see how employees are being tagged. You can click on the thumbnail below to open a screenshot of the dashboard we developed.

Civic Hack Nights are for city employees too, and Jim and I learned it firsthand. The collaborative environment provided works when City employees are present to interact and share ideas. I would encourage any employee on the fence about attending a Civic Hack Night to come out and see what it's all about. You can learn more about Hack Night by visiting

Frank C. Bracco is a Senior Staff Analyst for the City of Houston Finance Department and is a member of the Performance Improvement Division. Frank holds a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Economics from the University of Florida and a Master of Public Administration from the University of Georgia.

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