Civic Hacking Nostalgia

It’s interesting to hear people describe the experience of migrating away from big tech sites like Twitter and Facebook and moving to Mastodon as a return to the web “the way it used to be.” I have to admit, I share that feeling. I did lots of blogging and writing during the 2000’s and the moment we’re in now reminds me a lot of those times.

So it’s really resonated with me to see what feels like an old school civic hacking project spring up in Philadelphia. In no small part because it is a project focused on telephony software and apps (which I spent the better part of 2000’s blogging about). The PhilTel project is a collective of phone hackers that is using open source software to enable free phone calling from pay phones in Philadelphia. They are doing some very interesting things, and if you haven’t read up on the work of this group you should.

Reading about this project reminds me of the civic hacking movement the way it used to be. Creative, talented people using the skills that they have to make their city better by assisting those that need help. Not waiting for official sanction or support, just applying their skills to solve a problem that they think needs to be fixed. It’s pretty cool to see.

As much as learning about this project strums my civic heartstrings, I don’t want to go back. We’ve learned so much since those early days of civic hacking. We know that we need to think carefully about who gets to decide what projects get worked on, who gets to work on them, and who we build them for (and with) to make cities better places.

But I do think it’s worth remembering what made the early days of the civic hacking movement so special. The sense of community, the sense of possibility, the belief that groups of people outside of government can make a difference in their community. Savvy public sector leaders now understand the importance of harnessing this enthusiasm, of using it help drive innovative solutions. It’s common now to see civic hacking groups working directly with cities and states. It wasn’t always that way.

If nothing else, the PhilTel project is a reminder of the power of civic hacking to highlight ways that cities can be better. To show how innovative thinking can foster creative solutions to complex problems.

Let’s not forget.

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