Mid-Atlantic Osmosis

I had the pleasure of attending the UnWIREd conference in Baltimore this past weekend, and got a chance to watch people that love their city engage in a productive dialog about how to make it better.

Dave Troy and Beth Blauer of Baltimore

I have lots of friends in Baltimore, and attending civicly-focused events there is always fun because of the passion and dedication of people in the community. I estimate that I knew more than half of the attendees at the event from previous hackathons and similar events.

I attended the event mainly to serve my own purposes – I’ll soon be taking a new position with the City of Philadelphia, and I wanted to get a sense from those attending UnWIREd of how they see open data from their city being a key ingredient in building solutions to urban problems.

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Great Cities and the Shadow of Teotihuacan

Great cities have always had an influence beyond their borders.

This is true not only of contemporary cities like New York, Paris and Beijing but also of ancient cities. The influence of Rome can still be seen today in the form of ancient roadways and aqueducts.

Teotihuacan Pottery Mask

But whether exporting engineering or religion like ancient Rome, or artwork and pottery like the ancient Mexican city of Teotihuacan, it’s important to understand that cities have always been – and still are – vital centers of commerce, science, art and culture that have an impact far broader than their municipal footprints.

At a recent summit in Philadelphia sponsored by the Knight Foundation and Delaware Valley Grantmakers, and organized by TechnicallyPhilly’s Chris Wink, participants discussed the social and urban challenges facing Philadelphia, and considered the possibility that such challenges might present unexpected opportunities.

Wink’s thoughts on this subject are well worth the read, as evidenced by the impressive turnout at this recent event.

I had the pleasure of attending this summit, and one of the most profound realizations I took from it was sparked a comment made by one of my fellow participants.

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A Tale of Two City Hackathons

I had the pleasure of traveling to Austin, TX last week for the SXSWi festival and to present on civic hacking events in Baltimore and Philadelphia.

The presentation I gave can be viewed below.

A tale of two city hackathons

There’s also a storify covering my session here (courtesy of @sam_piroton)

I had a lot of fun preparing this presentation as well as giving it in Texas last week. I learned a lot from the two events covered in this presentation, and I think a lot of valuable lessons on how to effectively run civic hacking events can be gained from the experience of these two events.

Looking forward to applying the lessons learned in Baltimore and Philadelphia to future civic hacking events!

Practical Hackathons: Free is not Always Better

This is the first in what I hope will be a series of posts with practical advice for organizing and running hacking events, particularly those focused on building civic apps and using open government data.

These posts will lead up to, and (hopefully) follow a talk I’m giving at SWSWi in March discussing the outcome of two civic hackathons I helped organize in 2011 – one in Philadelphia and one in Baltimore.

One of the lessons I took away from my own experience in helping organizing these events (and participating in many others) is that “free” does not always mean “better.”

It’s a widely held belief that civic hacking events should be free of charge, to encourage wider participation and to make it as easy as possible for people to join an event. There is some logic to this belief, and in some cases making an event free to attend is the best approach.

However, there are some cases where I believe charging people to participate in a civic hacking event can increase turnout.

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Civic Hacking and Unconference Events

This is a busy week in the world of civic hacking and unconferences, with events going on from the Mid-Atlantic to the South Pacific.

This Saturday in the Washington DC – Baltimore area, there is Transportation Camp (put on by the good folks at OpenPlans) and CreateBaltimore 2 (put on by the Greater Baltimore Tech Council).

In New York City, the Hackathon for Social Good will take place this Thursday, and the CleanWeb Hackathon will take place on Saturday.

And in Honolulu, a hacking event sponsored by CityCamp starts this Friday.

Keep your eyes on the Civic.io events page for new event listings so that you can join in a civic hacking or unconference event near you.

Happy hacking!

Interview on Gov 2.0 Radio

I had the pleasure of talking with Allison Hornery of Gov20Radio this weekend on civic hacking, civic startups and open government data.

Government 2.0 Radio

You can listen to this interview here.

2012 is going to be a big year for civic hacking and I make some fairly strong assertions about what we’ll see this year in terms of hacking, open data and civic startups.

Take a listen and leave a comment below if you want to follow up on any specific points.

I hope you enjoy it.

Do Hackathons and Civic Hacking Matter?

There are lots of smart people asking tough questions about civic hacking and hackathons as the new year begins – a new year that promises to see lots of action on the civic hacking front.

I think this is a good thing. The more we examine how civic hackathons work and the more we evaluate what they produce, the better we’ll get at running them and the more we’ll all get out of them.

A lot happened in the world of civic hacking, open data and hackathons in 2011. But does all of this activity matter? Are the events and activities we are seeing in the civic hacking space making a lasting difference? Is the civic hackathon a construct that we will see used in the long run to promote new ideas and lasting civic change?

In a word, yes. Let me explain.

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Five Things Governments Can Do to Encourage Civic Startups

2012 is shaping up to be the “Year of the Civic Startup.”

With the growth of the open government movement and more and more governments embracing open data, we see an increasing number of useful civic applications being developed.  Every weekend hackathon spawns multiple projects that could potentially live on as a successful venture or company.

Some hackathons are specifically geared toward producing viable companies – this is exactly the approach that was taken at last November’s “Education Hack Day” in Baltimore.  At that event, the idea was to set up winners with as much expert advice and opportunity as possible to launch a business around their weekend project to help teachers.

Generally speaking, a “civic startup” is a startup company with a focus on civic improvement or social good.  They look and act just like other kinds of startups, but their aims are somewhat loftier.  ElectNext and SeeClickFix are a good example of a civic startups – their aim is to become profitable and viable (just like other startups), but if these ventures are successful they will impact people far beyond their direct customer/user base.

Everyone benefits when voters are more engaged and participate more regularly in elections, or when city neighborhoods are cleaned up.  We all get something out of the success of civic startups like ElectNext and SeeClickFix , whether we use them directly or not.  In this sense, we can describe these kinds of startups in economic terms – civic startups are those that generate a positive externality.

Some civic startups are direct consumer of open government data, like RailBandit which uses data published by public transit agencies.  Other civic startups – thought this type seems especially rare – might potentially offer goods and services directly to governments through the standard procurement process.

There are ways that state and local governments can help startups and encourage the startup community.  Some governments (usually at the state level) provide early-stage funding for technology companies – the Maryland Venture Fund is a good example of this.  State and local tax policy can also be used foster and encourage high tech startups.  But these options have become more challenging for governments in recent years because of financial strain and tight budgets.

In 2012, I believe that state and local governments will connect the dots on open data and begin to see it as a viable economic development tool for encouraging the development of new businesses and the creation of civic startups.

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