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.”