Late last year, I wrote a book devoted to civic hacking based on my experience working in state and local government, and inside civic tech communities.
It’s a book meant for public servants and people working inside government who want to connect with innovators and technologists outside of the bureaucracy. The premise is simple – governments need to find more effective ways of collaborating with members of their local civic tech communities:
Governments must develop strategies for engagement that can help direct the efforts of outside technology experts to issues or challenges that will have the broadest impact and the largest potential payoff. They will need to learn how to rally people with special talents to a particular cause or challenge, and then to turn those outside efforts into tangible outcomes for government agencies. They must learn to view the technology community as a potential talent pool from which they can draw a new generation of public servants who possess unique expertise in digital service creation.
It’s open source and available on Github. If you have a suggestion for how I can make it better, send a pull request or open a new issue.
I hope you enjoy it.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Bart Heird.
The term “civic tech” gets used a lot, and it often means different things to different people. To me, this has always meant that the work being done in this area is dynamic, growing, and evolving rapidly – all good things that suggest the impact of civic technology will ultimately be broad and durable. I’ve never been prone to excessive handwringing.
I believe very firmly that the most important thing about civic technology has nothing to do with technology at all. Real people – with empathy and a desire to make their community better – are the most important kind of civic technology. A recently released report on civic technology by Omidyar Network entitled Engines of Change underscores this idea, and helps emphasize that the connections between people – both inside the civic tech community and outside it – are what’s most important to its future growth.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user fallsroad.
The most important thing about civic technology has nothing to do with technology at all.
The term “civic technology” gets used a lot, and it may mean different things to different people. I think this highlights the fact that the work being done in this area is dynamic, growing, and evolving rapidly — all good things that suggest the impact of civic technology will be broad and durable.
For me, the term civic technology is inextricably related to the world of civic hacking. I began my career in government in what I would describe as the “old fashioned way”: graduate school to study public administration followed by work on political campaigns. Having now worked for three different state and local governments in both the legislative and executive branches, I consider civic hacking and civic technology to be the future of how governments will deliver services.
Civic Hack Day in Baltimore – February 12, 2011
In early 2012, I had the opportunity to present at the annual South by Southwest Interactive Conference in Austin, TX. The focus of my presentation was the lessons learned from two civic hacking events in late 2011 that I had helped organize in Philadelphia and Baltimore.
This was an exciting time for me professionally. After leaving government to become a professional software developer and technology evangelist in the early 2000s, I had been drawn back into the world of government a few years prior through the open data movement. By 2011, I was working regularly with budding civic tech communities in two different but geographically close cities. I was able to collaborate with groups of people who cared deeply about the future of their cities and who were committed to making a difference.
It was also an exciting time for civic tech—Code for America was launching its Brigade network at the 2012 SXSWi conference and while there I had a chance to meet and talk with Jen Pahlka, Tim O’Reilly, and Kevin Curry (who went on to build out the Code for America Brigade program and scale it nationally). I was so moved by Jen’s vision for civic tech that I ended up leaving my job with a telecommunications startup and joined Code for America myself a few short weeks after SXSWi ended.
Thinking back on this time, it strikes me that the experience of the two cities I got to talk about then can tell us a lot about what it takes to build and grow a civic tech community. I think it’s exciting that there are places where leaders have essentially figured out how to nurture and sustain civic tech. But I would argue that there are many places where this issue has not yet been resolved, and even some places where civic tech groups once flourished by have have since gone dormant.
Of interest to me personally, there are also a great many places—particularly small and mid-sized cities—where civic tech organizing has not yet begun.
Photo courtesy of flickr user SalemSaugusNPS
Unshoveled sidewalks during the winter months are a persistent problem for cities in the snow belt.
For places with significant snowfall, unshoveled sidewalks pose a challenge to public safety and mobility for those that rely on walking (or public transit), and present an especially acute problem for those that have physical impairments. Uncleared snowfall on other kinds of public infrastructure – like fire hydrants – also poses dangers for city residents and public safety workers.
This is a sometimes daunting issue for cities that government officials, community groups and civic technologists perennially struggle with. Over the past several years, a number of civic technology projects have been initiated with the goal of mitigating the problem of uncleared sidewalks and other public infrastructure in cities. Few have been widely adopted, and – if we’re being honest – the impact of these efforts on reducing the problems associated with uncleared snowfall has been minimal.
Certain aspects of the problem seems relatively straightforward, and would appear to be a pretty good fit for a properly designed civic app. But despite several different efforts, there is not yet a widely adopted civic tech solution that most people would agree has had a meaningful impact on the problem.
In many ways, unshoveled sidewalks help highlight both the potential and the limitations of civic technology. For those that care about civic tech, this issue is worth understanding more fully.
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.
Designing simple systems is one of the great challenges of Government 2.0. It means the end of grand, feature-filled programs, and their replacement by minimal services extensible by others.
— Tim O’Reilly, Open Government
The original idea of Government as a Platform is now almost a decade old. In the world of technology, that’s a long time.
In that time, people working inside and outside of government to implement this idea have learned a lot about what works well, and what does not. In addition, we’ve seen some significant changes in the world of technology over the past decade or so, and the way the we develop solutions (both in the world of civic tech, and outside of it) have changed fairly dramatically.
The power of the original idea for Government as a Platform continues to echo in the world of civic tech and open data. I have no doubt that it will for a long time to come.
But in 2015 what does Government as a Platform actually look like, and what should it look like going forward into the future? What are its component parts? How does it manifest in terms of actual infrastructure, both inside and outside government?
And, most importantly, who controls this infrastructure and has a say in how it is shaped and used.
Who uses civic technology, and why should we care?
A new study from mySociety – a non-profit based in the UK that focuses on civic tech – helps us answer these questions and provides some invaluable information for the civic technology community, and for governments.
mySociety surveyed civic technology users in four countries to understand the characteristics of civic tech users and their attitudes toward the solutions they are using. This is an important study that will no doubt be discussed in great detail in the civic tech community, but I see two key takeaways that bear some immediate discussion.
“Systems are broken because they exist to sustain themselves, and the people who run the system rely on the system to stay the same. Why should they change it? It works well for them.”
— Chris Guillebeau
My friends at Technical.ly Philly ran an interesting piece yesterday about the long road to the release of an important data set on property valuations and ownership in the City of Philadelphia. It’s definitely worth a read.
The story is compelling for many reasons. It details the interactions of a small group of people (myself included) moving into and out of government and employing different strategies to win the release of property data – a resource much sought after in the journalism and civic hacking communities in Philadelphia. Throughout the story an interesting dichotomy emerges.
“Buck the system” or “work the system” – which approach works better?
“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.