The Civic Hacker Hacked

“The countercultural trickster has been pressed into the service of the preppy tech entrepreneur class. It began innocently, no doubt. The association of the hacker ethic with startups might have started with an authentic counter-cultural impulse on the part of outsider nerds tinkering away on websites. But, like all gentrification, the influx into the scene of successive waves of ever less disaffected individuals results in a growing emphasis on the unthreatening elements of hacking over the subversive ones.”

— The Hacker Hacked, by Brett Scott

Ever since I read Brett Scott’s engrossing piece on what he refers to as the “gentrification of hacker culture” I’ve been thinking about how this idea might apply to the world of civic hacking. The lament about the loss of the subversive nature of hacking resonates – Scott repeatedly uses this word in describing the origins of hacking and its focus on being antiestablishment and decentralized.

Civic hacking became popular in the last several years via municipal app contests like Apps for Democracy and NYC Big Apps, and then by community-focused events organized by local groups. Often these local events have benefited – and continue to benefit – from the direct participation of local governments and other government entities.

Back in 2011, one of the first civic hacking events I helped organize in Philadelphia was focused on transit data, and the event ultimately included the participation of the local transit authority. I even talked about the benefit of having representatives from the transit authority on hand at the event in subsequent interviews.

Participation in civic hacking events by government employees is something I helped to advocate for after I joined the City of Philadelphia as Chief Data Officer. I regularly attended civic hacking meetups and weekend hackathons, and encouraged others in city government to do so as well. I’d say it’s pretty common now in most cities with a developed civic hacking community to have regular, visible representation from government at civic hacking events.

But civic hacking did not always have such a cozy relationship with government.

Many early civic hacking projects grew out of frustration with the quality of public services and the lack of available data from governments. One of the earliest civic hacking projects in the Philadelphia area – which helped to inspire the transit hackathon I would later organize – was born out of frustration over the lack of easy to access transit schedule data from the regional transportation authority.

These early civic hacking projects often used FOIA requests or web scrapers to obtain data that governments were reluctant to open up, and some even drew the ire of the government lawyers.

The “subversive” nature of civic hacking continues to this day through the work of people like Carl Malamud and others. It would be unwise to forget the many institutional barriers that still exist to releasing open data from government, and collaborating effectively with outside parties.

A little subversion is still necessary.

There is much to be gained by building bridges between the world of civic hacking and government. There is a long history of volunteerism to help government in this country, of which civic hacking can be viewed as a contemporary extension. Engaged civic hackers can help build solutions that help governments deliver services more effectively, and increasingly the civic hacking community has been looked at as fertile ground for recruiting new government employees.

But is there a risk that the civic hacking community will become gentrified? Has it already become so?

Do civic hacking groups that work regularly and closely with government officials feel empowered to ask tough, direct (often uncomfortable) questions about data releases and procurement practices? Do groups that collaborate regularly with government feel that they have standing to hold public officials’ feet to the fire when needed?

How do we balance the relationship between civic hackers and governments in a way that can realize the potential benefits of “government as a platform” and that is also true to the subversive roots of civic hacking?

I don’t have the answers, but I hope others are open to having this discussion.

4 comments

  1. Steven De Costa (@starl3n) · August 18, 2015

    Good article Mark.

    I generally view civic hackers as similar to public artists. Both have outputs which provide a social good. Both are driven by the passion of individuals or groups acting in concert.

    There is an establishment surrounding many forms of art and I think we are seeing the formation of such establishment around groups involved in civic hacking. It isn’t a bad thing that state, corporate and philanthropic sponsorship supports the creation of social goods – but it does add to the weight of that potentially oppressive ‘establishment’.

    I’ve certainly been guilty of smoothing out behavior that might make some of our Government supporters here in Australia uncomfortable. Usually this is about educating folks that there is always a wider perspective to consider but I can see how it could become something which works against the creative disruption of old ideas and methods.

    However, in response to your article I don’t think we’ll see the gentrification of civic hacking. Rather, we’ll likely start identifying some as mainstream, some as alternative, some as anti-establishment, etc.

  2. mheadd · August 18, 2015

    Thanks, Steve – appreciate the insights.

    I’m convinced that there is an appropriate balance between collaboration and confrontation, though not always sure of the best way to strike it.

  3. Andrew Nicklin · August 18, 2015

    I somewhat agree with Steven. I suspect that many civic hackers start out with great, creative ideas, but over time (and particularly with government engagement) gain a deeper understanding of the challenges they want to tackle. Having that context may cause them to self-censor or limit their own creativity in favor of directing their energy at problems which seem more solvable.

  4. Phil Wolff · November 9, 2015

    You raised a few questions; let’s start with being coöpted through close alliance with City partners.

    OpenOakland made a rule that we would avoid new projects until a City partner signed on. This grew from the experience of our founding brigade captains; they were embedded in cities during their CfA fellowships. The benefits have been strong, sometimes: improved access to data, to City experts, and support at product launch; credibility with the public and other partners.

    But it’s also meant that we’ve turned some volunteers away because their projects didn’t lend themselves to a City partnership. A few potential City partners couldn’t find enough of a following among our members for a team to form. And one time we abandoned a project because our City partner had drawn us into a situation where our success would create more harm than good.

    You asked if civic tech volunteers are at risk for being “gentrified”?

    I’ll interpret that in a few ways (correct me if I’m off topic for what you intended).

    There’s gentrified as in a group displaced by people with more money/resources/status. I can’t speak for other brigades but OpenOakland started being mostly male, mostly white, and mostly well-paid tech professionals. After conscious effort, the group is larger, has more balanced mix by gender, race, sexual orientation, age, and, with an almost even balance of tech pros with subject matter volunteers.

    There’s also gentrified as in softened, less-street, less confrontational. Ahem. Oakland is one of those places where agit-prop is a subculture, an art form, a hobby, and so frequent that Oakland’s police note about 150 public marches, rallies, protests, and other passionate demonstrations each year. And yet quiet diplomacy, respectful advocacy, educating staffers and elected often work better than packing a hearing with protesters.

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