Coding towards critical mass

It’s a rare thing to get a glimpse inside of a truly creative organization, to learn how it works and to identify lessons that can be applied elsewhere.

A recent New York Times article on the staggering history of innovation at Bell Labs offers a glimpse inside the mind of the man responsible for the “culture of creativity” there – Mervin Kelly.

Kelly had very specific thoughts about how to create an environment that fostered innovation and new ideas.

“His fundamental belief was that an ‘institute of creative technology’ like his own needed a ‘critical mass’ of talented people to foster a busy exchange of ideas. But innovation required much more than that. Mr. Kelly was convinced that physical proximity was everything; phone calls alone wouldn’t do. Quite intentionally, Bell Labs housed thinkers and doers under one roof. Purposefully mixed together on the transistor project were physicists, metallurgists and electrical engineers; side by side were specialists in theory, experimentation and manufacturing.”

It’s striking how these same principles can be used to explain the success of coworking spaces (the good ones at any rate). Critical mass is everything – too few people and it’s like working at the library; too many and it’s like working at the corner coffee shop during morning rush.

The proper mix of talent and individuals is also critical to fostering a creative environment – homogeneity does not breed serendipity.

I think well organized hackathons operate under the same dynamic.

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Storming the City Walls with Code for America

Last year, I wrote about a civic hacking event that took place in Philadelphia at the office of Azavea.

The event last year was organized by the team of Code for America fellows working for the year in Philadelphia. Exactly one year to the day later, the latest group of fellows working in Philadelphia held another civic hackathon – also at the offices of Azavea, in the city’s Callowhill neighborhood.

I described my observations at last year’s event this way:

“What I was most impressed with was the ability of this event to highlight to those that were there what is truly possible when government data is open to and usable by developers. It provided an object lesson for all those there in the true potential of civic hacking…

Having the Code for America fellows in Philadelphia, and having them essentially kick start civic coding using city data, has accelerated the awareness of what is possible. I think people would have achieved the awareness that was realized yesterday eventually, but the CfA fellows got people there sooner.

I call it “the CfA Effect.” It was pretty cool to see first hand.”

The event this past Saturday provided a good opportunity to gauge the changes that have occurred in Philadelphia since the city embraced open data with gusto under Mayor Michael Nutter, and welcomed it’s first class of Code for America fellows.

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Open Data Needs Champions

If you’ve spent any time on a subway platform or at a bus stop lately, you may have witnessed one of the great success stories of open government data.

All of those people checking the arrival and departure times of trains, trolleys and buses are consuming applications built with open transit data.


It’s a great example of how open data has changed (and continues to change) the way we use public transit, and the role of transit agencies in developing consumer-facing applications.

There is a really interesting post over on the Google “Policy by the Numbers” blog that examines some of the reasons that open transit data has had such a dramatic impact in places where it has been embraced (h/t to O’Reilly Media’s Alex Howard for the link).

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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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