Practical Hackathons: Free is not Always Better

This is the first in what I hope will be a series of posts with practical advice for organizing and running hacking events, particularly those focused on building civic apps and using open government data.

These posts will lead up to, and (hopefully) follow a talk I’m giving at SWSWi in March discussing the outcome of two civic hackathons I helped organize in 2011 – one in Philadelphia and one in Baltimore.

One of the lessons I took away from my own experience in helping organizing these events (and participating in many others) is that “free” does not always mean “better.”

It’s a widely held belief that civic hacking events should be free of charge, to encourage wider participation and to make it as easy as possible for people to join an event. There is some logic to this belief, and in some cases making an event free to attend is the best approach.

However, there are some cases where I believe charging people to participate in a civic hacking event can increase turnout.

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Practical Hackathons: Free is not Always Better

Open Gov, Open Data, Open Doors to New Business

Great article in TechPresident today about San Francisco’s efforts to start a civic accelerator with Code for America, and what other cities are doing to implement the same idea in their own way.

Government 2.0 geeks will no doubt find the news exciting and look to San Francisco as a beacon illuminating the way forward in a year when more local governments contemplate leveraging their work with the tech sector — not just being a booster for their local tech industries, but actually doing business with the companies within it — an economic development tool.

“I think a lot of people were afraid of looking a little crazy, but now San Francisco has gone ahead and done it and made the idea legit,” says Mark Headd, a civic hacking advocate who is former chief policy adviser to Delaware’s tech and information department.

Headd has been urging local governments to think of open data as an economic development tool for some time. In particular, he has argued in the past that financially strapped states could leverage the data in lieu of loans and grants to stimulate the creation and growth of small businesses.

Expect to see some cool stuff on this front from Baltimore (mentioned in the article) and Philadelphia in the near future.

Open Gov, Open Data, Open Doors to New Business

E-Mail Makes a Comeback

As a communication medium, I think e-mail is making a comeback.

Don’t call it a comeback; I’ve been here for years.
– Ladies Love Cool James

I realize this seem patently ridiculous to anyone working furiously towards a state of inbox zero, or that struggles to maintain a reasonable number of unread e-mails in their account.

Let me explain.

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E-Mail Makes a Comeback

Will A Lack of Procurement Reform Smother Civic Startups?

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post listing five things that governments can do in 2012 to encourage and foster civic startups.

Though the month of January is not yet over, we now an interesting case study developing in the City of Chicago that highlights the overwhelming importance of one of these five items to the future success of civic startups – government procurement reform.

Continue reading “Will A Lack of Procurement Reform Smother Civic Startups?”

Will A Lack of Procurement Reform Smother Civic Startups?

The Next Big Thing: Open311 Inquiry API

Earlier this month, Philip Ashlock of OpenPlans published a nice Open311 “wish list” for the new year.

There is a lot of exciting stuff on this list, and Phil’s thoughts are sure to be the basis for lots of innovative and interesting work in 2012.

311 Contact Center

When people think about the “Open311 standard” they typically think of the GeoReport V2 specification. This is the spec that details the interface for submitting non-emergency service requests to municipalities.

Reporting potholes, graffiti, garbage on the streets, etc. is often what people envision when they think of municipal 311 service. But this is only part (actually, a relatively small part) of the types of contacts that 311 centers receive.

For most 311 centers, the majority of contacts involve not the reporting of an incident, but an inquiry – a question about government services or a request for information.

Continue reading “The Next Big Thing: Open311 Inquiry API”

The Next Big Thing: Open311 Inquiry API

Civic Hacking and Unconference Events

This is a busy week in the world of civic hacking and unconferences, with events going on from the Mid-Atlantic to the South Pacific.

This Saturday in the Washington DC – Baltimore area, there is Transportation Camp (put on by the good folks at OpenPlans) and CreateBaltimore 2 (put on by the Greater Baltimore Tech Council).

In New York City, the Hackathon for Social Good will take place this Thursday, and the CleanWeb Hackathon will take place on Saturday.

And in Honolulu, a hacking event sponsored by CityCamp starts this Friday.

Keep your eyes on the Civic.io events page for new event listings so that you can join in a civic hacking or unconference event near you.

Happy hacking!

Civic Hacking and Unconference Events

Interview on Gov 2.0 Radio

I had the pleasure of talking with Allison Hornery of Gov20Radio this weekend on civic hacking, civic startups and open government data.

Government 2.0 Radio

You can listen to this interview here.

2012 is going to be a big year for civic hacking and I make some fairly strong assertions about what we’ll see this year in terms of hacking, open data and civic startups.

Take a listen and leave a comment below if you want to follow up on any specific points.

I hope you enjoy it.

Interview on Gov 2.0 Radio

Do Hackathons and Civic Hacking Matter?

There are lots of smart people asking tough questions about civic hacking and hackathons as the new year begins – a new year that promises to see lots of action on the civic hacking front.

I think this is a good thing. The more we examine how civic hackathons work and the more we evaluate what they produce, the better we’ll get at running them and the more we’ll all get out of them.

A lot happened in the world of civic hacking, open data and hackathons in 2011. But does all of this activity matter? Are the events and activities we are seeing in the civic hacking space making a lasting difference? Is the civic hackathon a construct that we will see used in the long run to promote new ideas and lasting civic change?

In a word, yes. Let me explain.

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Do Hackathons and Civic Hacking Matter?

What Does A Civic Startup Look Like?

In my last post, I made reference to some of the qualities of civic startups – the special and important things about these kinds of small, agile companies that set them apart from other startups.

I think clarifying what civic startups are (and what they are not), as well as what we expect them to achieve is important.

Let me be clear, I have great respect for anyone who creates a startup. I have many friends in the technology community who either have, are or will work for a startup company. I do not mean to suggest that civic startups are, generally speaking, “better” than other kinds of startups.

What I mean to emphasize is that civic startups have particular qualities that make them attractive to both governments and citizens. Both parties have an interest in seeing these kinds of startups succeed because both will realize benefits when they do.

Let me explain.

Continue reading “What Does A Civic Startup Look Like?”

What Does A Civic Startup Look Like?

Five Things Governments Can Do to Encourage Civic Startups

2012 is shaping up to be the “Year of the Civic Startup.”

With the growth of the open government movement and more and more governments embracing open data, we see an increasing number of useful civic applications being developed.  Every weekend hackathon spawns multiple projects that could potentially live on as a successful venture or company.

Some hackathons are specifically geared toward producing viable companies – this is exactly the approach that was taken at last November’s “Education Hack Day” in Baltimore.  At that event, the idea was to set up winners with as much expert advice and opportunity as possible to launch a business around their weekend project to help teachers.

Generally speaking, a “civic startup” is a startup company with a focus on civic improvement or social good.  They look and act just like other kinds of startups, but their aims are somewhat loftier.  ElectNext and SeeClickFix are a good example of a civic startups – their aim is to become profitable and viable (just like other startups), but if these ventures are successful they will impact people far beyond their direct customer/user base.

Everyone benefits when voters are more engaged and participate more regularly in elections, or when city neighborhoods are cleaned up.  We all get something out of the success of civic startups like ElectNext and SeeClickFix , whether we use them directly or not.  In this sense, we can describe these kinds of startups in economic terms – civic startups are those that generate a positive externality.

Some civic startups are direct consumer of open government data, like RailBandit which uses data published by public transit agencies.  Other civic startups – thought this type seems especially rare – might potentially offer goods and services directly to governments through the standard procurement process.

There are ways that state and local governments can help startups and encourage the startup community.  Some governments (usually at the state level) provide early-stage funding for technology companies – the Maryland Venture Fund is a good example of this.  State and local tax policy can also be used foster and encourage high tech startups.  But these options have become more challenging for governments in recent years because of financial strain and tight budgets.

In 2012, I believe that state and local governments will connect the dots on open data and begin to see it as a viable economic development tool for encouraging the development of new businesses and the creation of civic startups.

Continue reading “Five Things Governments Can Do to Encourage Civic Startups”

Five Things Governments Can Do to Encourage Civic Startups