Civic Innovations

Technology, Government Innovation, and Open Data

The Year That Civic Hacking Changed Everything

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.

2 responses to “The Year That Civic Hacking Changed Everything”

  1. I tweeted that I disagree with an assertion or two but that I am strongly aligned with this post. Civic hacking is the way coders, makers, designers and web natives participate in society and government. We can keep observing and lamenting that no one (but the elderly) goes to public meetings anymore, not even the reporters. We can also observe that civic hacking is the participation. I think we should participate more “in real life” – in person – but i also recognize and support the value of civic hacking for more reasons that any counter-argument could ever…portend. Civic hacking need not even be constrained to the app discussion. As you’ve heard from me before, what we did with Hampton Roads Transit wasn’t about an app. It was about transforming the way HRT delivers data & information. The app is a stooge. Any movement like this is multi-faceted and will have its share of proponents and detractors. I appreciate that you speak out against the naysaying. I disagree with this point as I read it, but I wonder if you entirely meant what I read: “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.” We do need guidance from experts. I’ll look the other way on the blanket stereotyping of professional consultants and allow that many IT environments have been utterly spoiled by the professional consulting model. To reduce the requirement to “more open data from governments. Period.” is a bit like declaring randomness necessary and sufficient. Even if we allow that some blind hacking on detailed, domain-specific data by programmers who are at best amateur subject matter experts has value – which I do – we still benefit and *need* domain experts. We civic hackers learn when we talk to them. Our insight, approaches and solutions are informed when we communicate with domain experts. Understanding a process to which information technology will be applied requires understanding the process. That requires communicating with the actors. When coding for scientific visualization one cannot become an expert in the science being visualized without becoming that scientist. The reverse is also true. Neither are too practical. I’ve worked with scientists who coded their own stuff. That’s the gray side of hacking, i.e., was ugly…and ultimately why I was hired at ODU out of grad school. Non-programmers programming is part of what created the status quo. Programmers and experts need to collaborate. Think of it as classic separation of concerns.

  2. I should have been a little clearer when I referred to “experts” – I meant people outside government who have never been to a hackathon. There are a surprising number that feel qualified to talk about innovation in government. It incites my nerd rage. 😉

    I do agree tat we need domain expertise at hackathons – I posted recently about a RHoK event we had in Philadelphia that had tremendous participation from public sector folks.

    These are domain experts I’d like to see more of at civic hacking events.

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About Me

I am the former Chief Data Officer for the City of Philadelphia. I also served as Director of Government Relations at Code for America, and as Director of the State of Delaware’s Government Information Center. For about six years, I served in the General Services Administration’s Technology Transformation Services (TTS), and helped pioneer their work with state and local governments. I also led platform evangelism efforts for TTS’ cloud platform, which supports over 30 critical federal agency systems.

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