Civic Hacking In The News: September 05, 2015

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This September 05, 2015, post has four items from recent news related to civic hacking. If they sound like something you want to know more about, click the headline links and read them in their entirety.

Reframing the Conversation About Technology and Government

When the conversation turns to government and technology, all too frequently the narrative becomes one of hopelessness…After all, when it comes to the digital world, there are laggards and leaders in both government and business…And the proficiencies around technology adoption and data-driven decision-making in industry vary just like they do in cities, counties, states, and countries. There are actually many governments—or, at least, parts of governments—that quietly use technology very effectively. 

The challenge for everyone in both the private and public sector is that consumers expect the level of service and responsiveness of government technology to rival the very best of what they experience in consumer technology…When a company fails to deliver technology that measures up, it loses market share, revenue and margins—and eventually puts itself out of business. When a government can’t deliver technology that improves the quality of life for citizens, there’s a crisis of confidence… 

With voters used to a steady stream of technology breakthroughs or services that feel intuitive and easy, there’s a strong sense that the public sector is either unable to effectively deliver digital services or can’t do so at a pace that the public is increasingly accustomed to…This isn’t a hippie revolution based on values; it’s a boring and slow-moving rebellion based on expectations. 

So, how can the digital laggards in the public sector catch up? The same way that the digital laggards in the private sector can—by recognizing the tremendous sea change that technology and data-driven decision-making represents and shifting their culture and organizational roles to meet modern technology demands…”

There are likely aspects of government in NE Wisconsin that don’t live up to many residents’ technology expectations. Millennials especially expect to be able to do most of their interactions digitally. If governments in our region want to not fall further and further behind technology-wise, they need to be seeking more citizen engagement and need to develop plans for city and county digital innovation over the next five years.

Making websites more like M&Ms

Aaron Gustafson was working with a major drug store chain when he discovered they only tested their website on iPhones and iPads…did the chain know what their site looked like on the $50 tablet they sold in their own stores? The store’s response was, “we sell tablets?”… 

Gustafson…underscored the issues that arise if we consider sites only through the lens of expensive technology — the nicest objects with excellent processors. “It gives us a myopic view of what the mobile web is like for people,” Gustafson said. “The reality is a lot more messy.” 

He challenged designers to improve user experience across browsers and devices. That means thinking about more than 1,000 different screen resolutions and a plethora of devices…designers who think first about upscale cellphones and computers are forgetting about the web experiences of most Americans…Pew research shows that smartphone users who make less than $30,000 a year encounter app errors 52 percent of the time. That means these users can download apps, but they often won’t open or don’t work. 

Gustafson’s solution is progressive enhancement…“Progressive enhancement offers the user a customized, a la carte experience,” Gustafson said. “A dynamic web page can never break, it can only become a web page.” As an analogy, Gustafson compared progressive enhancement to a peanut M&M. The text is the peanut, a fine snack on its own. But with chocolate (CSS), it’s tastier. And it’s best with colorful candy coating (Javascript). Ultimately, you can enjoy it at whatever step you get it...”

Progressive enhancement design and testing with both high and low capability devices is something civic hackers as well as government website designers and testers should keep in mind. Designing primarily for the latest and best devices means that many citizens will have a bad or less-than-ideal experience on websites and apps that take a lot of time or money to build.

Hacking away at poverty

Bread for the City’s social workers are using technology to cut down on red tape to better serve impoverished DC residents. At Bread for the City, a routine task delegated to a student intern more than a decade ago has now sparked a national movement. Stacey Johnson was instructed to update a listing of the resources the Shaw nonprofit could direct to impoverished D.C. residents. The directory in 2002 was unwieldy and unreliable…“It was really inefficient.”…

Because the nonprofit has its hands in so many different service areas – from health care to legal assistance and hunger relief – its social workers are well positioned to spot larger inefficiencies in need of repair. Consequently, the nonprofit is becoming a breeding ground of sorts for civic hackers, those next-generation activists who are turning to technology to solve community ills throughout the DC community… 

During his four years at Bread for the City, Greg Bloom…and Johnson began talking shop about the directory. “I was observing that other organizations were coming to us and asking for that data,” says Bloom. “It was gathered in a lot of different silos and none of them were perfected or up to date.”… 

Bloom brought other community groups, along with the District’s Department of Human Services and the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services, to the table. They launched Open 211 —  a project to make the disparate databases of local community resources speak the same language. Bloom now works full time on the project, which has spread throughout the country, from San Francisco to Miami and beyond. The new movement, called “Open Referral,” has even formed partnerships with civic technology groups in Canada and Spain…addressing their most pressing needs with medical clinics, legal assistance, job training, a food pantry and a number of other programs…”

As I mentioned recently in the post “Civic Hacking To Help Those In Need,” civic hackers in NE Wisconsin ought to consider spending more time making a positive difference for residents who need help interacting with governments and social services. Bread for the City shows one model of helping those in need.

Inside a weekly ‘Hack Night’ at AL.com

It’s Wednesday night. You walk into the AL.com building on the Huntsville courthouse square, and you can almost feel the 1s and 0s flying through the air. The dress code – mainly shorts or jeans and T-shirts…tell you that the people gathered here aren’t AL.com reporters or ad salespeople working late. No, on Wednesday nights, it’s “Hack Night,” and the AL.com downtown Huntsville hub becomes software nerd central for local developers and code writers working on side projects and looking for people to collaborate on their work. About 40 hard-core programmers unload their backpacks, grab a slice of pizza and hunker down over laptops to create the next great software package, website or app. 

The group, now more than 40 strong after four months of word-of-mouth growth, is called Hack Huntsville…Most of the projects are community-oriented and non-profit, like the just-launched #openHSV, a free directory of Huntsville “freelancers, moonlighters and consultants,” that gives local small businesses links to experts in everything from accounting and legal work to marketing and video production. 

Code for Huntsville…is getting its feet off the ground with a civic app called “Frontier.” Once up and ready, you can input your location and Frontier will use open databases to give you a list of the nearest restaurants, public restrooms, wifi-hotspots, and even the nearest open mechanic or tow truck service… 

To facilitate the “together we are better, alone we fail” credo, the organizers open the evening with a round-robin of introductions, giving their name and technical specialty. Then they break off, some in groups of people with complementary skills, some to a quiet corner to write long strings of code away from distraction…”

‘Hack Night’ at the local newpaper offices in Huntville, Alabama, is sort of Civic Hacking+. The Code for Huntsville brigade is a civic hackers group, but the weekly hack night event invites non-civic hacker coders to also participate. Their Meetup.com webpage says:

“…Anyone of any skill level or background is welcome to attend, however we ask that you 1) bring a laptop, and 2) try to be productive throughout the evening! This group is a collaboration between HACK_HUNTSVILLE, whose focus is personal projects, and Code for Huntsville, whose focus is civic projects. Both groups maintain the same goal of fostering an always-free community space where software and hardware hackers can come together to work on fun, commitment-free technology projects…”

Maybe the NE Wisconsin civic hackers should promote their periodic gatherings like Hack Night at AL.com — inviting coders from across the region to join them for coding, camaraderie and comestibles, regardless of whether they work on a civic hacking project or a personal project. It would also be encouraging to have community organizations show support for the tech and civic hacking community by sponsoring food for the evening and a large venue with robust wifi, similar to how Huntsville is supporting their coders and civic hackers.

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