Civic Innovations

Technology, Government Innovation, and Open Data

Blood, Sweat & Civic Hacking

Photo courtesy of flickr user Kheel Center.

The recent article “Open Data and Civic Apps: First-Generation Failures, Second Generation Improvements” by Melissa Lee, Esteve Almirall and Jonathan Wareham looks at early efforts to build civic applications through government-sponsored app challenges. 

The article evaluates the outcomes of some of the early government app challenges like the District of Columbia’s Apps for Democracy Contest and offers observations on several new approaches being employed by governments to derive “greater civic benefit” from open data programs.

I was a participant in several early civic app challenges – including the Apps for Democracy Contest, in which I won a silver medal in one of the challenge categories – and I’ve been involved with open data and civic hacking since early 2008. I’ve helped organize and sponsor lots of civic hacking events in multiple cities, so I’ve feel like I’ve had a chance to see how these events have evolved over the last several years from different perspectives.

This article by Lee, Almirall and Wareham does a decent job of highlighting some of the shortcomings of the early government app contests – many of which have been discussed by other observers. However, I think it misses some things that both governments and open data advocates should keep in mind if we’re going to realize the full promise of open data.

Civic Hacking: Beyond the App Contest

First, though the article mentions Code for America, it does so only in the context of the organization’s fellowship program. Completely overlooked in the article is the Code for America Brigade – groups of local civic hackers that have spread across the United States and to other countries.

Dozens of these groups have formed to bring together hackers and others to connect, collaborate and work on projects. Meetings take place monthly and sometimes weekly. Some groups boast membership in the hundreds and have been holding regular meetings for several years. I think it’s fair to say that the majority of civic hacking currently happening in the U.S. (and likely in other counties as well) is taking place outside of government-sponsored app contests and is being done through the efforts of groups like CfA Brigades and other local groups.

The members of these groups are not paid for their work – it’s almost entirely a volunteer effort, with members donating their time and skills to work on projects that they care about. This raises an important point about these community-driven civic hacking efforts that may distinguish them from the efforts fostered through government app contests that promise more finite timelines and cash prizes.

The Gift Relationship

In a now classic 1970 book entitled “The Gift Relationship: From Human Blood to Social Policy,” social researcher Richard Titmuss contrasted the blood donation programs in the United States and the United Kingdom in the hopes of shining a light on the power of altruism and volunteer efforts.

In his study, Titmuss observed that the quality of blood donated in the U.K. (where donors were not compensated) exceeded the quality of blood donated in the U.S. (where donors were paid for their donations). Donors in the U.K. were most likely motivated to give blood out of a sense of public duty, while those in the U.S. were motivated (at least in part) out of out a sense of personal gain. Titmuss reckoned that the U.S. system motivated less than optimal donors to give blood less regularly, which impacted the quality of blood and caused the supply of blood to be much less predictable.

The takeaway from Titmuss’ work? Volunteer efforts where participants are motivated out of a sense of public duty and altruism can produce better outcomes than efforts where people are paid (or rewarded financially) for their efforts. Needless to say, the debate around these findings has raged for many years.

But if we look at the world of civic hacking – the state it’s in currently and the road we’ve traveled to get here – we can see how Titmuss’ idea about the power of altruism might apply. Many questions remain about the viability of government sponsored app contests, and some governments (e.g., Chicago) seem to have abandoned them altogether. In contrast, the world of volunteer civic hacking is healthy, vibrant and growing.

This post is not meant to suggest that government sponsored app contests can’t be run successfully or don’t provide benefits to governments. They can and do. It’s also not meant to suggest that successful civic technology projects can’t generate revenue or work toward becoming profitable. A growing number are.

But I think that the ideas of Richard Titmuss are relevant in contemporary discussions of civic hacking. They underscore the power of altruism and help us understand that civic hacking is – in some sense – the digital age manifestation of a long tradition of volunteerism that has benefited governments for many years and enabled them to provide higher quality services.

When we look at the future of open data, it seems clear that the most significant benefits for governments might be realized with the help of groups of volunteers working to make their communities better.

And that’s a gift no government should overlook.

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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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