Civic Hacking In The News: August 22, 2015

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For your weekend reading pleasure on August 22, 2015, several recent online items relevant to civic hacking are presented herein. Click on the item headlines to read any whose excerpt is of particular interest to you.

The Civic Hacker Hacked

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 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 

Many early civic hacking projects grew out of frustration with the quality of public services and the lack of available data from governments…These early civic hacking projects often used FOIA requests or web scrapers to obtain data that governments were reluctant to open up, and some even drew the ire of the government lawyers. The “subversive” nature of civic hacking continues to this day through the work of people like Carl Malamud and others. It would be unwise to forget the many institutional barriers that still exist to releasing open data from government, and collaborating effectively with outside parties… 

There is much to be gained by building bridges between the world of civic hacking and government. There is a long history of volunteerism to help government in this country, of which civic hacking can be viewed as a contemporary extension. Engaged civic hackers can help build solutions that help governments deliver services more effectively… 

But is there a risk that the civic hacking community will become gentrified? Has it already become so? Do civic hacking groups that work regularly and closely with government officials feel empowered to ask tough, direct (often uncomfortable) questions about data releases and procurement practices? Do groups that collaborate regularly with government feel that they have standing to hold public officials’ feet to the fire when needed?…”

Civic hacking has probably been gentrified at the local and federal level, and it absolutely is gentrified at the state level. That can be detrimental in situations where there are big problems that civic hacking could fix.. If the civic hackers become afraid to ask hard questions, are reluctant to push for faster changes or don’t work on certain useful projects because government employees are resistant to change, then it’s the hacked civic hackers who need to be hacked! That situation seems most likely to happen in the larger cities (200,000+?) that have bigger problems. Maybe I’m not looking in the right places or at the right things, but I’m not aware of any big problems in NE Wisconsin that aren’t being worked on because civic hackers in the region are too gentrified.

The only civic problem I’m aware of in NE Wisconsin is that city officials and others are too satisfied with the way things are to want to change the way things have always been done. Because there is very little change to the status quo, our region makes small changes and minor improvements while more innovative regions race off to the future. By not making major changes, we get further and further behind. Unfortunately, that’s a cultural attitude that the civic hackers of NE Wisconsin don’t have the funding, tools and support to change…

130 Chicago Youth Learn Web-based Tech and Earn Microsoft Laptops

Smart Chicago Collaborative in partnership with Get In Chicago and Microsoft will celebrate 130 student’s completion of the 6-week Youth-led Tech Program…“Youth-led Tech | Summer 2015” is a pilot technology mentoring program in five Chicago neighborhoods…This program is funded through Get IN Chicago, whose mission is to support programs that lead to a sustainable reduction in violence for individuals and communities most affected by violence and poverty. Youth who completed all of their learning hours will earn the Microsoft based laptop used during programming at the certificate ceremony. 

The conceptual model for this program is “youth-led tech”, which means teaching technology in the context of the needs and priorities of young people. Youth learned how to use free and inexpensive Web tools to make websites and use social media to build skills, generate revenue, and get jobs in the growing technology industry. The youth also learned about other jobs in tech— strategy, project management, design, and so on. Additionally, the youth were provided introductory content about game design and app development. 

All of the youth now know how to set up a website, have been exposed to sophisticated tech skills, and know how to find real customers and employers for their skills.”

NE Wisconsin doesn’t have as much need for programs that “lead to a sustainable reduction in violence for individuals and communities most affected by violence and poverty” as Chicago does. Thank goodness! But our region can still learn valuable lessons from the Youth-Led Tech program. It would be awesome if NE Wisconsin pulled together corporations, foundations, educators and civic hackers to do a multi-city version of Youth-Led Tech in the summer of 2016. Click here to  download the Youth-Led Tech curriculum set.

Why Govenment APIs Are Essential To The US Economy

Data is playing an increasingly-prominent role in business as more records are made more easily available through open data portals and public APIs. Writing for DigitalGov back in April, Bill Brantley discussed the importance of government data to the US economy…Combining data in innovative ways can provide valuable informational products and services, and this is a solid argument for encouraging the DOC to release more data via APIs…This information could be used to determine commercial opportunities or environmental impacts, or to track any series of metrics to determine the health of the industry…”

Government data is fuel for job creation, says Commerce Department CDO

“…government agencies publish data about labor, energy, health, transit, telecommunications, criminal justice, and just about everything else than can be measured, managed, performed, or regulated by state entities. The 12 bureaus that make up the US Department of Commerce are among the most important collectors and publishers of data in the nation, and thus on the planet… 

In Washington, DC, Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker hired Ian J. Kalin in March 2015 to be the agency’s first CDO, tasking him with improving the quantity and quality of data available to the public he serves. Our interview with Kalin…follows, lightly edited for length and clarity… 

My job is to help create jobs with information. That’s what I do. Information helps people. Data is one way to talk about it. There’s a lot of great data from the government that can help people create jobs and services. My job is to insure that there is a great quantity and quality of that information so that they can create those fantastic products…”

A participant at the August 19 civic hacking meetup in Appleton asked me if anybody makes money doing civic hacking. The two items above address the issue of figuring out how to provide and use federal public data to power or assist a business. Government open data and APIs can be translated into multi-million dollar businesses. Some civic hackers have converted successful civic hack projects into for-profit companies. Other people have paid their dues by civic hacking for a couple years, then leveraged their skill and knowledge into a job in the govtech sector. Civic hacking, govtech and government jobs will never pay as much as for-profit companies, but civic hacking has led some people into a full-time job they truly enjoy.

Keep plugging away

BallotPath founder Jim Cupples sent me a follow-up note (see below), and it hits home two important points. 

First, if someone is excited about a civic or government technology idea, and they reach out to you for advice or feedback, take the call and listen. Don’t be dismissive or unload your cynicism. Be encouraging…It’s easy for those of us who’ve been doing this for a while to be cynical, but we’re the ones that should be the most helpful… 

Second, if you’re like Jim and are excited about changing how civics works, don’t let the curmudgeons bring you down…With his permission, here’s the full email from Jim… 

Hey Luke,
A long time ago I emailed you through LinkedIn and you encouraged me to keep plugging away at my project of building a national database of all elected officials. I was new to civic tech and didn’t know anyone and rarely received any support. Most people said to me (unnecessarily aggressive and condescendingly) “How are you going to make money with that?” but I didn’t care because I had this need to continue working on it. 

Fast forward 18 or so months later and I’ve: received funding from the Sunlight Foundation, completed the entire state of Oregon and 50 of the Top 100 Counties in the US, found a permanent position with NationBuilder working on the project with their tech resources, and have a network of universities around the country that help me recruit political science interns to do the candidacy filing procedure research (almost all of the UC schools, U of Oregon, U of Washington, Boise State, U of Hawaii, CUNY, and others). Thanks for responding to me when you didn’t know who I was and probably seemed like a lot of other people who have a passing thought on a project…”

This item highlights the value of persistence for civic hackers who identify a significant civic need, believe deeply in their project, and continue reaching out to people affected by the civic hack and people who may be interested in collaborating on or supporting the civic hack project. It would be fun to meet with Jim Cupples and hear about his two-year journey to get to where he is now.

Collaborative Project Management

Collaboration is at the heart of the Smart Chicago Collaborative and is essential to achieving the goals of the civic technology movement. The hard problems that need to be solved can not be solved in isolation. 

There is an art to collaboration. Being in a collaboration means that you’ve agreed that your partner or partnering organization is already highly capable at what they do. It means that you’ve agreed upon a common goal and a plan of action to achieve that goal. Being in a collaboration means that you’ve opened up the lines of communication for the duration of the project. 

Working collaboratively isn’t always easy – particularly when the project involves multiple partners or complex problems. Things can get exponentially more complex each time you add a moving part.  Here’s some thoughts on how I’ve approached collaborative project management in my consulting practice and in my work at Smart Chicago…”

The author of this post is a leader of Chicago civic hacking, and it seems likely he wrote this post because Chicago civic hackers need to do better on their collaborative project management. It’s easy to see why that might be the case.

  1. Civic hackers are, for the most part, volunteers. That means the leaders of various civic hack projects need to have even better people skills than managers in companies, because the volunteers can quit working on the project any time they don’t feel they’re being listened to or aren’t enjoying the project work. And there is no ‘paycheck leverage’ to help keep project contributors accountable for their portion of the work.
  2. Computer code is a significant aspect of many civic hack projects. It’s hard enough to find effective project managers for coding projects when you’re paying them $100K+/year. Can you imagine the odds of finding an effective project manager of a coding project when you’re paying them nothing, and you’re paying the coders working on the project nothing?
  3. Civic hacking is a relatively new trend. As a result, few civic hack project leaders have much experience with it, there aren’t many examples showing how it’s done, and the tech platforms and tools have not yet been standardized. These aspects make project management both more difficult and more needed.

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