May 092013
 

I lamented the other day how the Dallas-Fort Worth area does not seem quite ready for civic hackathons (aka coding events), and how one I was trying to create wound up being scaled down to a workshop.  I want to add that this is not necessarily a bad thing per se: it just means there is more work yet to do here than I had expected.

For those unaware, a civic hackathon combines software developers with engaged citizens of all backgrounds to leverage open data sets into solutions for civic services, lifestyle improvement, etc.  Stakeholders will pitch their ideas to the general attendees in the hope that a team will form around their proposal.  The types of solutions generated could be pothole reporting apps, improved online billing interfaces, emergency notification solutions… you get the idea.  Essentially, government agencies and departments from city to federal stand to benefit from citizens freely helping overcome bureaucracy and modernize public services.

Open solutions require open data, and this is where the greatest challenge lies.  Often, government data sets are designed without openness in mind, to address highly specific needs.  This leads to closed silos of isolated information.  To be fair, this issue is just as common in the corporate world.  The difference is that in civic situations, the taxpayers own the resources.  In an ideal world, they would have at least some say in the development and deployment of these data sets.

Fortunately there’s a growing trend to pry these information stores open, and provide public access via APIs and web services.  NASA and other federal agencies are leading the charge, while state and local governments are seeing the value and working to follow suit.

Many cities are ahead of the curve here, driven often by desperate need to do more with less and solve drastic problems.  Extreme weather damage, water shortages, transit issues and other civic disasters drive desire to open data sets to armies of skilled volunteers.

But for cities wanting to get started with civic coding events when lacking experience, there are some steps to consider:

  • Get informed.  Follow the activities of organizations like Hack for Change and get a feel for what these events entail.
  • Get empowered.  Most cities already have a person or department tasked with public engagement.  Common events include trash pickup days, park picnics, etc.  Civic coding events just become one more to add.  Public liaison personnel need not have a grasp of the technical details; that’s for IT and engineering departments.  And if you don’t have this sort of liaison capability, create it!
  • Get involved.  Chances are you have local citizen groups (hacktivists) already active in necessary components of a civic coding event.  Data experts, programmers, bicyclers, geocachers, urban design enthusiasts, Makers, gardeners… this is just a short list of the clubs you will want to connect, and odds are many exist in your locality.  Check sites like meetup.com to find them.
  • Audit other hackathons.  Odds are there’s a municipality nearby that has one or more civic coding events under its belt.  Sign up, sit in and learn!

There’s more to it of course but there are the fundamentals.  I’ll explore further in upcoming articles.

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