Civic Innovations

Technology, Government Innovation, and Open Data

The Hacker Ethos and Better Cities

The thing I’ve always loved about hackathons is how they make it possible for anyone to build something that can help fix a problem facing a neighborhood, community or city.


Going to a hackathon isn’t like going to a government-sponsored meeting, or legislative hearing – those are places where people offer testimony to others, who may or may not take the advice given and implement some policy or legislative action. Hackathons are where people go to build actual solutions that help fix real problems.

The hacker ethos attracts people who don’t like layers of bureaucracy between the problems they see around them and the solutions that want to implement. We live in a time when it has never been easier for people without title, station or office to affect real change in the lives of people in their neighborhoods – to build solutions to fix problems they care about. This is an attractive draw for people that want to make a difference and its why the number of hackathons has grown in recent years, and continues to grow.

I see these same sentiments in an exciting project developed by Kristy Tillman and Tiffani Bell. They built the Detroit Water Project to help Detroit residents in danger of having their water service cut off get paired up with people that can make a payment (or partial payment) on their behalf.

This is the kind of project I would expect to see at a hackathon – it has very few rough edges but looks like it was put together rapidly. It effectively leverages powerful, cheap online tools like Google forms and social media to engage with people that want to get involved.

And it is absolutely brilliant in its simplicity and effectiveness.

Here’s the elevator pitch – there are folks in the City of Detroit (a city facing significant challenges) in danger of having their water service cut off because they are unable to pay their bill. This is an issue affecting thousands of people in real need and galvanizing a movement to help prevent it. The Detroit Water Project enables people anywhere in the country to help with just a few mouse clicks and at the cost of a night out on the town. Boom.

This is how people with the hacker ethos want to invest their time, talents and energy. They are surfacing the question that more people need to step up and help answer – are we going to sit by and let cities like Detroit crumble, or are we going to get off our asses and pitch in?

This project wasn’t built at a hackathon, but it’s everything a hackathon project can be (and should be). Kristy and Tiffani are hackers – and I mean that as the highest compliment I can pay someone.

This is how our cities are going to get better.

[Note – water icon courtesy of the Noun Project.]

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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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