Civic Hacking In The News: August 29, 2015

This August 29, 2015, post is excerpts from a few recent items relevant to civic hacking. If they sound like something you want to know more about, click the headline links and read the source articles.

What We Learned from Launching the City Accelerator Guide

In January 2015, we packaged our early lessons from the first City Accelerator Cohort into a Guide for Embedding Innovation in Local Government, and learned “what works” about sharing knowledge in real-time. One of our key objectives at Living Cities, is to help cities across the country apply some of the most promising practices bubbling up in places like Boston’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, or the Albuquerque Mayor’s Office and Innovation Teams from New Orleans to Tel Aviv… 

The City Accelerator Guide for Embedding Innovation in Local Government (the Guide), authored by Nigel Jacob…articulates our evolving thinking about how to build an enduring culture and practice of local government innovation. The content…offers practical action steps and helpful examples for local government officials to adapt and adopt…we saw the guidebook as a tool which could make it easier for cities to build an enduring culture and practice of innovation…”

For many reasons, NE Wisconsin will never have the level of tech innovation found in northern California or in large cities like Seattle, Boston, Austin, or even Kansas City. But there is no good reason I know of that cities in our region shouldn’t learn from areas that are working hard to build “an enduring culture and practice of innovation.” If you’re interested in this, you should look at the City Accelerator Guide linked above.

If the community and regional leaders in the 18 counties of NE Wisconsin want to work toward that type of culture and practice of innovation, there are lots of things they could do that wouldn’t cost much money. A starting point could be to organize and promote a series of regional meetups for people around the 18 counties who are interested in a culture and practice of innovation, followed by several NE Wisconsin innovation unconferences to bring interested people together for prioritizing, developing and launching regional innovation Next Steps. The only cost for all this would be providing the venues, a few office supplies like name tags, Sharpies and flipcharts, and the food and beverages for event participants. No paid speakers, no paid event managers, no expensive registration fees for participants. All that’s needed are visionary leaders in the region and interested ‘civic hackers’ who want a NE Wisconsin that is building a culture of resilient innovation. If those leaders decide that’s worthwhile, they should let us know they support it. We’d be happy to start things rolling…

No Assembly Required

Consider all of the work being done to provide recommendations for governments to use technology more efficiently and to become more open and transparent. There are countless examples where individuals that have developed expertise over many years of working to improve how governments use technology and data share their learnings and recommendations freely and openly. We don’t have a shortage of good ideas for governments to use to start making changes to how they use technology to build services and engage citizens. I think the primary [problem] is that not enough governments are using these recommendations, or they’re not using them quickly or effectively enough. 

I’ve spent a lot of time lately wondering why… 

I’m starting to think that much of this information is not in a format that is actionable by those in government who will need to make these changes. What seems to be missing are recommendations that are formatted for immediate action by legislators and other officials – policies that can be adopted by governments to become more open and more agile that require no assembly…Maybe its time for the civic technology community to more directly tailor its policy recommendations and advice for those in government that need to adopt them.”

There is no doubt in my mind that Mark Headd, the author of “No Assembly Required,” has defined one of the top reasons that cities aren’t more enthusiastically embracing open data and civic hacking. City employees and officials who can make open data and civic hacking happen don’t have enough time or money for the other things they were supposed to do before these new things came along. Many of them probably feel they don’t have time to figure out what open data and civic hacking are, much less whether it’s worth the cost. Others haven’t even heard of open data and civic hacking. Civic hackers of NE Wisconsin need to combine easily understood cost/benefits with effective marketing to make it easy for our city people to say yes to open data and civic hacking.

Map It: State of the Cities 2015

The National League of Cities…annual “State of the Cities” report…analyzes the content of mayors’ annual State of the City speeches. The report comes from 100 cities representing “a diverse cross section of population sizes and geographic regions…the NLC put its findings into a searchable dataset, topped with mapping visualization…clicking on individual cities gives you access to a link to the mayor’s speech (when available) and relevant quotes, as well as a detailed breakdown of the percent of the speech devoted to each of the 10 major issues…The hot-button economic development subtopic…was jobs: Seventy-three percent of speeches gave notable talk time to unemployment and jobs creation… 

Data and technology ranked seventh in the top ten issues addressed by the mayors. Open data got a lot of attention, including from open data champion Sly James, mayor of Kansas City, Missouri. Mayor James noted the ease with which citizens can now find the public data they need: “An information search that used to mean a trip to City Hall is now available online from anywhere in the world, virtually instantly.” He also celebrated the transparency gained from cities’ open data portals, pointing to the increased efficiency of democracy and greater citizen engagement…”

To me, this article points out two things regarding civic hacking. The first point is that civic hacking isn’t anywhere near the top of the US mayors’ priority lists (at least for political speeches, which means they don’t think citizens are interested in open data, technology or civic hacking). The second point is that open data and technology ARE in the top ten issues mayors are talking and thinking about. If this issues is important and being worked on in other cities around the country, cities in NE Wisconsin should at least be trying to understand if civic hacking has value for them. And maybe civic hacking in our area should spend some time on the issue of unemployment and jobs creation.

The (Hidden) Cost of Open Data

Los Angeles County announced this January the creation of an open data website…to find information on a host of county government programs…While the data will be free to the public, the county will spend $319,000 in startup costs, and annual expenses are expected to cost an additional $287,000… 

Open data has become a big movement in state and local governments…Adoption of open data [policies] is linked to two powerful benefits. First, it makes government more transparent and understandable at a time when trust in the public sector has plummeted. Second, it has the potential to generate significant economic benefits. The consulting firm McKinsey has estimated open data’s economic potential at more than $3 trillion globally. 

Arnaud Sahuguet…wrote a blog post in which he listed some of the factors that can hide the true cost of open data: unexpected startup costs if data is kept in a legacy computer system that requires reformatting; quality-related costs to keep open data fresh and up-to-date; legal costs to comply with open data legislation; liability costs in case something goes wrong, such as publication of nonpublic information; and public relations costs that can occur when a jurisdiction generates bad press from open data about poor performance metrics or workforce diversity problems… 

Some jurisdictions…have focused on data that has high user participation rates and useful information, which can deliver economic value for startups and established businesses when they reuse data. Cities and states that do a careful analysis of which data sets have the most impact, both in terms of transparency and economic value, are less likely to be burdened by hidden costs down the road…”

Because I think transparency, open government, and civic engagement have worthwhile benefits, I feel civic hacking and open data are good things. Because I’m a fiscal conservative, I feel wasting taxpayer dollars is a bad thing. That means I don’t want NE Wisconsin to waste tax dollars while making more government data open and available for civic hacking.

Two ways to minimize budget waste on open data are (1) have three or four cities in the region be leaders in developing open data and collaboratively develop Cost-Effective Open Data guidelines for other cities in the region to use as a blue print, and (2) create new open data sets one at a time, in a prioritized manner, while also developing a policy for how to set up new or updated data sets in open format. If those new and updated data sets are created in an open format, that will be much more cost-effective than later converting them from closed to open format.

‘Coding for community good’

NIU will host Huskie Hack from noon Saturday, Sept. 26, to noon Sunday, Sept. 27, in the Holmes Student Center. This free and interactive event is devoted to experiential learning, collaborative brainstorming and fun…Register now to become part of an interdisciplinary student team competing for prizes by creating mobile apps and developing web-based tools for local nonprofits and important social and service organizations. 

Civic hackathons provide a venue for self-expression and creativity through technology…For 24 hours, 350 students from around the world will use tech creativity to solve community issues while engaging in activities such as laser tag, a silent disco, yoga and more. Plus, plenty of energy drinks and lots and lots of food await. 

A variety of technologies will be available, such as Pebbles, Sparkcores, Leap Motions, Muse, Arduinos, Oculus Rifts, Myos, Amazon Fire Phones, Fitbits and other cool tools that students can check out and use in solving important social challenges…those who normally run from coding and technology should not worry: This event will bring the experts and encourages participants to learn, try, touch, participate and engage in active problem solving in a fun, non-threatening way…”

The Northern Illinois University ‘Huskie Hack’ civic hackathon in DeKalb, Illinois, sounds like an awesome time — makes me wish I was a college student right now.

The NIU Huskie Hack participation requirements are: “You can participate as long as you’re a college (Grad or Undergrad) or high school student.  A valid student ID is required at check-in. High school students will need to fill out a waiver prior to the event and bring a high school ID.”

I think NE Wisconsin should put together a road trip of college and high school students to compete in the 24-hour hackathon (Appleton to DeKalb is about 210 miles, 3 ½ hours). If a couple high school and college people want to quickly organize that road trip and need any help, I’d be happy to work with them as a way to build the civic hacking community of our region. If there’s no interest in an organized NE Wisconsin road trip, individual college and high school students should still consider heading down there on their own. You can indicate you’d like to catch a ride from UW Madison on an NIU-provided vehicle, but that’s sort of sketchy, since they don’t guarantee you a ride. Just something to consider…

It’s probably too late for NE Wisconsin college students to organize a trip to the University of Pennsylvania for PennApps, the world’s largest collegiate hackathon, which expects to have over 2000 participants. The reason I’m mentioning PennApps is that this year they’re incorporating a track focused on civic hacking, highlighting the growing awareness of civic hacking as something both college students and government officials are interested in.

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