Reframing civic hacking

I’m moderating a panel titled Civic Hacking for Self Governance at this summer’s Allied Media Conference .

The idea for this session originally started with Matt Hampel and other members of the 2012 Code for America team working in Detroit.

Matt originally wanted to work on a session bringing together people looking at technological interventions in the civic space that help facilitate government institutions in civic process.  While this is an exciting space, I felt it was important to look at non-technical interventions that still felt like “hacks” as well as interventions, technical and social, that worked as part of governance though perhaps without the sanction of government institutions.

I’m excited about how this framing of “civic hacking” has shaped up and the panel now also includes Joshua Breitbart who works with the Open Technology Initiative at the New America Foundation and is going to talk, if I can do a good job of paraphrasing this, about community self-governance through the lens of mesh wifi networks. Also on the panel will be Maria Hadden of the Participatory Budgeting Project who comes from working on less technical interventions that still feel like they incorporate a lot of the iterative and collaborative elements that are familiar to me in open source technologies.

In trying to come up with a framing that unifies civic interventions that range from technical and non-technical approaches

  • What makes something hacking?
  • What is the different between government and governance?
  • Can we use technical metaphors to describe civic engagement and governance?


I’m going to be writing about these questions on this blog as I prepare for this session at the end of June.

See Click Fix for civic processes

Growing up, I was lucky enough to be able to walk or ride my bike to my school.  When I was a bit younger, and lived farther away, the district had door-to-door bus service.  This isn’t the case in Chicago.  Students who go to magnet or selective enrollment schools have to, in many cases, figure out their transportation.  At O’s school, there is a school bus that picks students up at her school and then drops them off at neighborhood schools closer to where they live.  It’s still a few miles from her house, but slightly more convenient than having to have an adult go to her school for a pickup.

Yesterday, she called her mom to say the bus wasn’t running and she needed a pick up.  I’m picking her up today and called the school to find out if I should meet her at the bus stop or if I have to pick her up from school.  The school said the bus wasn’t running all week, but when I called the bus company, they said it ran yesterday and was running today.  This kind of communication problem, between the bus company and the school and between both entities and families sucks and there are lots of similar problems with big, bureaucratic systems like Chicago Public Schools.

SeeClickFix is a useful platform and idea for engaging different stakeholders in reporting civic problems and getting them fixed.  I’ve heard that a Code for America team will be working with Chicago’s government to implement Open311.
This is also awesome, and ultimately a move in the right direction for not only getting problems identified and fixed, but also helping people living in cities understand how governments work (or don’t work).  However, both these platforms address problems mostly dealing with infrastructure.  For many in the city, the bigger problems are issues with process: how a licensing application flows through the city, how children get picked up to and from school, income verification to get food stamp benefits … EveryBlock sometimes surfaces these issues, but its model is based around conversations and doesn’t have an accountability model or visualization of how a civic system works built into the system.

I’d really like to see a web platform and supporting on the ground community for identifying and fixing problems with the process of civic institutions.  Web platforms are often a panacea for civic problems, but I think its important in this case, just to have a document of “this is how the system is supposed to work”, “this is how it actually works”, “this is who is responsible”, “this is when a problem was identified” and “this is what was done about it.”


Especially with digital products, so many things come into existence quickly, continuously checking in whether something exists or not can take a lot of time and attention.

“Dropping” would be a simple web app/social network that would let people post something like “Trello GitHub Issues integration” or “cheap coworking space in Humboldt Park” and when such a thing drops, another user could click “It’s dropped” and insert a URL to that thing.  Users would get a notification when something they’re waiting for drops and be able to confirm whether it really meets their needs.

Categorized as Ideas


Evanston Total Population 18 & over - Black

This weekend is the Independent Media Mobile Hackathon in Chicago, an event sponsored by The Media Consortium and Hacks/Hackers.  A few of the Knight Scholars taking the  Community Media Innovation Project at Medill were brainstorming ideas for the hackathon.  We talked about collecting public feedback using mobile devices to do citizen’s agenda style reporting of the upcoming Chicago Mayoral race and using Ushahidi to report and track neighborhood safety concerns.

But the idea I’m most excited about is one that comes from looking at interviews with Evanston residents for the innovation project class.  One theme that comes up consistently when talking to people about Evanston is that the community is diverse, with the public schools being a frequently-cited reflection of the community’s diversity.  However, a number of people interviewed also said the community is economically and racially segregated.

I want to build a mobile app that forefronts the integration or segregation of different spaces in the community.  Users of the app would “check in” to different spaces along with a quick numeric assessment of the racial, gender and/or age integration of the space where they are.  One of the most difficult problems would be to develop this metric, a sort of folk dissimilarity index, and make a widget that would make providing this assessment easy and fun.  Users could then get a weekly/monthly aggregation of the integration of the places where they spend the most time.  They could also see the most popular, integrated and segregated places in their community and see how the integration of places might change over time or be different at different times of day.

In many ways, this is a racially (or more broadly, demographically) aware Foursquare.  But Andrew Paley pointed out an important distinction: while most social apps help users build and share their own idea of their identity (in Foursquare by aligning themselves with certain businesses that likely reflect their lifestyle), this app would compel users to be introspective about their lives rather than expressive.  It would help users be conscious of the segregation or integration of their lives and challenge how values and belief about race and integration match up with their daily routines.  This app could be one example in a broader problem space of introspective apps.

Social media and neighborhood voice on the web

I had a pretty great (and very, very educational) time at Drupal Camp Chicago this past weekend.  I was particularly interested to attend Bec White’s BoF on using Drupal’s Geo data capabilities to implement the MoveSmart website.    MoveSmart provides a neighborhood finder that attempts to help people discover neighborhoods that would otherwise be part of “racial blind spots“.  It’s pretty remarkable that they were able to import, geocode, and weigh more than six different data sets about Chicago neighborhoods to help people discover neighborhoods in Chicago.

One future idea for the site that was mentioned is to include social information showing neighborhood assets as part of the finder results.  Bec noted that this is problematic because social content on the web is so segregated.  She said (I’m paraphrasing), “I live in Humbolt Park and on Everyblock there is a clear line where the restaurant reviews stop and the crime reports start”.

There is a huge disparity between how (or if) different neighborhood residents use their neighborhood voice on the web.  For those who live in well resourced neighborhoods, we take a positive representation of our neighborhood for granted.  Even if interacting on sites like Yelp or posting and geotagging photos of our ‘hood in Flickr seems like a waste of time, we can be sure that someone is creating this content.  For less resourced neighborhoods, creating social media about the neighborhood might also seem like a low priority, but it means that there are far fewer positive or first-person representations of the neighborhood.  Not only does this seem to increase the likelyhood of negative outside perception of the neighborhood, but it also makes discovery of the neighborhood and its assets harder.

Do neighborhood assets (schools, churches, community groups, family) have content that they could put on the web through social media sites?  I’m guessing that they do.  I’m going to assume that taking snapshots is a fairly universal practice.  If this assumption is correct, what barriers exist to these things being shared through social media?  Is it because of lack of time, technological familiarity, computer, broadband, or mobile access?  Or, is it that they are shared, but not through social network platforms that offers easy (or broadly implemented) programatic retrieval of geographically associated data (e.g. MySpace)?

View OurMap of Environmental Justice in a larger map

One possible model for creating more geographically associated neighborhood social media would be to work with community groups to build maps such as Little Village Environmental Justice Organization’s Our Map of Environmental Justice.  While this map, developed by youth in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood largely shows environmental and social hazards (coal burning power plants, gang territory divisions), it also shows some community assets (schools, parks).    Using a platform like Google MyMaps seems like an easy and fun way for people to represent their neighborhood on the web.  Linking to an image in a map seems like it is more conceptually intuitive than geotagging an image uploaded to Flickr.  It looks like you can get GeoRSS out of Google MyMaps and this could be parsed into a database and made available to others through an API.

I think that youth in a neighborhood are probably quicker to adopt using social media than older adults. However, I think that youth media efforts often try to get youth to participate under a centralized project. It’s possible that, posting media on accessible platforms, a free-form, decentralized approach could offer a greater benefit. The project could focus on aggregating the social media rather than trying to guide youth to post certain media, in a certain place, in a certain way.

While those looking to discover neighborhoods across racial blind spots would certainly benefit from a broader set of geographically discoverable neighborhood social media, it is ultimately up to individual neighborhoods to decide if they benefit from voicing neighborhood identity and experience on the web.

nonlinear digital music narratives

As the start of my graduate program grows nearer.  I feel like I need to talk and think about what I want to do with journalism more concretely.  Last night in conversation, I mentioned that I was interested in exploring how the web and other new media could tell stories outside of the linear narrative structure of a news article or a video documentary.  How does the producer’s or audience’s bias get subverted when the audience can pick multiple paths through the narrative? , Unfortunately, I couldn’t think of any examples of this, but Josh referenced Hyperfiction as a way that this is done with creative writing and how it creates a different, intensly immersive experience for the reader.

Working on a mix tape lately, and getting my record player working again, I’ve been thinking about the linear path through which albums or mixes are constructed.  Sometimes this can be narrative like a concept album, for example Prince Paul’s Prince of Thieves, or it could be more subtle in a record like Springstein’s Nebraska.  While you could certainly play songs on an LP or CD in a different order, digital audio files make this even easier.  Unfortunately, it seems like much of the focus on the benefits of digital audio has been with regards to distribution instead of the possibilities for constructing sets of connected songs with multiple paths through them.  I often read something years later that makes me re-think a Defiance, Ohio song or the songs in relation to each other.  Also, the Allied Media Conference’s recent call for track proposals has made me think about grouping and connecting information.  I also think of the recommended EQ diagram in the In Utero liner notes.  I think it would be pretty cool to release an “album” of songs digitally, with separate recommended orders of the songs and liner notes that describe the different paths through the songs.

Photo by Great Beyond via Flickr.

Open affiliate program framework

I don’t really like the idea of sites that I contribute content to having a ton of banner ads.  However, I’ll often mention a book or a record, something that, even if I’m not pushing it for a sale, I would feel pretty good about people buying.  It would be nice, if they buy it on my recommendation, if I could get a little kickback from the sale.  Certainly, many big retailers like Amazon (and independent ones like Powell’s and Insurance Revenue) have affiliate programs.  The problem occurs if I don’t want to send people to one of these larger retailers or if the retailer where I want to send them doesn’t have an affiliate program.  It seems like it would be awesome if there was an open affiliate program architecture that would let retailers easily track traffic from and pay people who send customers their way.  Furthermore, if there is a centralized architecture, it might even be possible for people to systematically direct people to brick-and-mortar stores (possibly with some kind of printable coupon).  I could see a food blogger using this to mention the new cheese at their local food co-op.  If the system was easy enough to use, and to pay mentioners, it seems like it would benefit small businesses because they could more easily track how people were sharing their products on the web.  While content providers can have their wares tweeted or shared via social media, local stores dealing in tangible goods might enjoy being able to have more metrics about which products have a lot of interest.  Perhaps a local retailer would get more value from affiliate based advertising rather than traditional broadcast or newspaper advertising.

Photo by Thomas Hawk via Flickr.

Is the web suburban?

I’ve been reading Suburban Nation (thanks Sherri) and it made me look at new media ecologies with a city planning eye.  I wonder, is the web suburban?  Do we have memorable, open commons or digital cul-de-sacs?  Certainly, many government sites like the Illinois Tollway site quickly feel like I’m getting lost or running into dead ends.  Are online retailers generally becoming more like mom and pop stores or big boxes?  While the architecture of the web certainly allows for multiple routes through and across sites (akin to traditional city streets), typical navigation structures tend be tree-like which seem more like the disorienting and disconnected street patterns of subdivisions.  Are big infrastructure centers like Google or Amazon like suburban collector roads?  Is this city planning model even a capable metaphor for thinking about information ecologies?

Subdivision photo by via Flickr.

random post travel ideas

I always feel like I get this burst of inspiration from travel.

Rawny != Geoff Press Conference

After the youtube video where a commentor wondered if the band was my side project (because Rawny was playing in it) and being mistaken for me by the waitress at Wee Willies, I think it would be an interesting statement to have a press conference (and website, pamphlet, other mirrors of public education campaigns?) to “publicize” that Rawny and I are not the same person.


  • What’s the medium for this – youtube? ksm? an actual live event?
  • Who should ask the questions?  Should they be preformated, or try to get actual ones?

Defiance, Ohio tour show and tell

Get proposals from people in all the cities where there are tour dates for 5 minute presentations that could be something they’ve made, a skill they’re sharing, info about a community project, sharing an idea, presenting a question to a group of people …