Back in January, I predicted that 2012 could turn out to be the year of the civic startup.
And while I think that civic startups and other businesses built around open data and government innovation made great strides in 2012, more than anything else what happened this year demonstrated to me the real transformative power of open data and civic hacking.
The number of civic hacking events taking place across the country has never been higher. A partial list of events from this past year – just those events I was aware of or able to find out about – is here. I’m most certainly undercounting. And 2013 is sure to see even more events.
And yet, civic hacking is still not without its detractors – the usual group of professional contrarians, and those that continue to wring their hands over the longevity of civic apps. These critics typical make the same flawed observation – that a lot of civic applications (solutions developed at weekend hackathons or by the enthusiastic corps of volunteers that are surging in numbers in cities across the country) aren’t sustained “long term.” This argument always has been – and still is – pure nonsense.
Building Successful Civic Apps
A recent article in the New York Times detailing the new “app economy” being driven by developer friendly platforms like the iPhone and Android devices noted a similar phenomenon in the broader app ecosystem:
Despite the rumors of hordes of hip programmers starting million-dollar businesses from their kitchen tables, only a small minority of developers actually make a living by creating their own apps, according to surveys and experts.
Developing successful, sustainable apps of any kind is hard and only a small minority of them will ever be deemed “successful”. Why are we surprised then that the ecosystem for civic apps is also characterized by a small minority of successful apps.
This is the nature of app building.
But no one questions the benefits when companies like Apple, Google, Facebook and others deploy APIs and woo developers to help create the new app economy. Reasonable people can disagree about the magnitude of the real economic impact, but everyone should acknowledge that there has been some economic benefit from the rise of the app economy. Certainly those companies that have turned themselves into platforms for app builders are benefiting.
Governments can also reap benefits by pursuing actions that help implement the idea of government as a platform. Many cities across the country are working hard to transform themselves into the public sector equivalent of these app platform companies. And yet, the same tired arguments against civic hacking are brought up time and again. Why?
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – civic hacking is about more than just apps.
What Hath Civic Hacking Wrought?
It is impossible to imagine the open data movement as it exists today in cities across the country and around the world without civic hacking.
In cities like New York and Philadelphia, it was civic hackers that drove the eventual passage of formal open data policies and the adoption of structural changes that include the creation of positions like Chief Data Officer.
It was civic hackers – people that wanted to build useful applications for their cities – that first demonstrated that there was an appetite for public data outside of government. In both New York and Philadelphia, civic hackers scraped transit data from public websites to build apps like StationStops and iSepta and incurred the wrath of the transit agencies.
Both of these cities are now among the most progressive in the country when it comes to open data. The reason? Civic hacking.
Civic hackers more than any other group have demonstrated the need for formal open data policies in cities by showing people what can be built with open data. There is no doubt in my mind that cities like Chicago and Philadelphia have Chief Data Officers because of civic hacking, or that cities like San Francisco, New York and others will soon have them as well.
The idea that the work of civic hackers is largely trivial – a charge made by some critics – is laughable. I have personally been involved in more hackathons than I can remember, as a participant, sponsor, organizer, mentor and judge – in multiple cities. To a person, the people that take part in these events care deeply about their communities, and the vast majority are acutely aware of the problems their cities face.
Many of the participants in these events have already invested considerable time in pursuing the issues they choose to take up at a civic hacking event. And many others are busy professionals with little time to waste on a weekend event if they don’t believe that it will be of value.
Remember, some of the first civic hackers were transit riders that wanted a more convenient way to get information on transit options. Most other attendees at civic hacking events are similarly situated – they have direct exposure to a government service or a problem facing their own community that they want to help improve.
Almost a year ago I listed 5 things governments could do to nurture the civic app ecosystem – I stand by those suggestions, particularly my assertion that more open data is needed. The biggest impediment to fostering and sustaining more civic innovation through civic hacking is a lack of relevant open data to use to build apps.
Civic hacking events do not need better “guidance” from experts or input from the class of professional consultants cum contrarians – they need more open data from governments. Period.
There are a few notable examples of cities that are actively working to promote apps built by civic hackers, as a way to drive traffic to them and help sustain them going forward. The City of Chicago posted an app for finding flu shot locations built by a civic hacker on it’s website, and the transit authority in Philadelphia is promoting apps built at civic hacking events to riders on its regional rail service. We need more of this.
Not only are civic hackathons important for generating innovative new solutions, stretching the traditional notions of public service delivery, I believe they are an example of how we will deliver government services in the years ahead.
The Future of Government Service Delivery
I talked about this a bit in a previous post and I also presented this idea during an Ignite talk at a recent Government Technology event in New York (see video below). I think that we’re seeing a shift in how government services are being delivered. The change is small now, but we’re just at the beginning.
Open government data and civic hacking are the foundations on which this change will be built.
In a recent report from the Center for Technology in Government looking at the dynamics of opening government data, the authors observed:
“Open data initiatives disrupt government’s traditional role as ‘holder’ or ‘owner’ of the data. In thinking about open data governance, we need to re-think government’s role in relation to the entire set of new stakeholders. One possibility is to characterize government, as well as all other stakeholders as stewards [of data].”
I couldn’t agree more. It’s time for governments to stop self identifying as solution developers and start thinking of themselves as data stewards.
This requires governments to partner with outside developers, technologists and entrepreneurs to help build the applications that will provide governments services and deliver information to citizens.
Open data will be as disruptive to how governments provide public services in the next 20 years as the Internet has been in the last 20.
Civic hackathons are where this change started, and they are where we will get a glimpse of the road ahead.
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