​National Day of Civic Hacking Invites Developers to Disrupt City Government Systems

Mark Boyd
May. 12 2014, 05:44AM EDT

Cities are a natural starting point for thinking about app solutions and visualizations that create value for end users. But legacy approaches to data availability and existing infrastructure systems are significant barriers to enabling the next wave of innovation at the human-city scale. ProgrammableWeb spoke with organizers from the National Day of Civic Hacking about how the global event aims to disrupt the way cities and developers can work together.

How to participate

“The National Day of Civic Hacking is an opportunity to leverage the power of technology to improve our communities and the governments that serve them,” Nick Skytland, National Day Organizer and Partner at SecondMuse, told ProgrammableWeb. “Data from governments is the fuel, and the creativity of citizens is the spark. The result is powerful new civic apps and services that can change communities and that collectively can change our country.”

The Hack for Change (National Day of Civic Hacking) website currently lists 105 event in 91 cities, mostly located in the U.S. but this year seeing a growing number of countries around the world participating, including cities in Australia, the UK, and Spain.

Co-organizer, Brandon Barnett, Director of Business Innovation at Intel (who are sponsoring the event) points to the diversity of cities involved:

“We are just at the beginning of a technology trajectory, a variety of cities are handling this differently,” Barnett says, mentioning activities in St Louis (Missouri), Orlando (Florida), Chicago (Illinois) and Portland (Oregon). Cities as far-reaching as Chattanooga (Tennessee), Ashland (Nebraska) and Poolesville (Maryland) are also hosting local events. All aim to unpack their approach to open data, test the waters of making data available via API, and improve their capacity to innovate quickly to address systemic problems at the city level.

“It is not just the cities that we would expect to see embrace technology. There is a real diversity amongst those who see data as a resource for exchange and for participation in economic value creation. How can data allow people to participate in ways they couldn't before? Local participation to assist transformation: this is the most interesting element we are seeing,” says Barnett.

What to build?

Several events have a hackathon-type nature, where participating developers are invited to create any solution using local data sources and available APIs. Others are focusing on specific city challenges. Poolesville, Maryland, for example, are hosting a Food Jam to use data to address food waste and food accessibility issues.

Skytland is seeing several common themes emerge amongst participating cities. They are releasing data to encourage developers to solve problems such as:

  • Food/Hunger
  • Urban planning/Urban development
  • Open data/Open Gov
  • Children (health, education, CPS)
  • Communications/media
  • Local projects
  • Transportation
  • Economic development/startups
  • Internet of Things
  • Education/Schools
  • Health Care/Health Data/EMRs
  • Nonprofits
  • Workforce development/Unemployment
  • Housing/Homelessness
  • Disaster response
  • Narrative of city.

Barnett agrees, but also sees a broader disruptive opportunity:

“We are seeing lots of emerging opportunities around urban planning,” Barnett confirmed. “Our local hackathon on urban planning for Portland is looking at how to build an economic development hub, for example. But what is interesting when I sit back from specific domains, is that this process transforms legacy systems. Developers are participating who don’t come with the baggage around some of these existing systems, and who aren’t held back by ideas of what can or cannot be done.”

New commercial opportunities

There is obviously a strong social good aspect to the event, with challenges goving developers the opportunity to create meaningful products and visualizations that solve local problems. But Barnett and Skytland are confident that for some developer teams participating, this can be the springboard for creating new, commercially viable products.

“It’s great for Intel as a responsible large corporation to be involved in these events,” says Barnett. “But there is also a business imperative as well: this is the cutting edge and is about the way data is manifesting value for users. It is our hypothesis that data is most useful when it is very contextualized, used against a backdrop of local and national data. And that’s what we are interested in: to catalyze that movement. Right now, we are locked into a model that incentivizes data by keeping it restricted, so what we are seeing is the next tier of developers who are looking at a different model where opening up and sharing of data creates a different economic model, and that’s part of the experiment that is the National Day of Civic Hacking.”

Following last year’s inaugural event, Intel created the Data Services Accelerator program to continue assisting winning Hack for Change participants with evolving their products.

ABOVE: From Brandon Barnett's discussion of Intel's Data Services Accelerator

The maturity of APIs in civic hacking

While it is to early in the event’s history to see policy impacts (this year is only it’s second year running), the National Day of Civic Hacking hopes city authorities will awaken to the opportunities that providing data via API can create.

“Maturity of APIs at the local level is somewhat all over the place,” Skytland says. “There are a number of cities that have mature APIs for sure, but the vast majority are just getting started.  We are going to be adding as many resources, datasets and APIs as we can find to this page, which is already populated with 100+ separate entries.  

“National Day was designed in a way to really incentivize governments at all levels to not only release their data, but to see the value in what is possible if they make their data more accessible as well. So although we always encourage governments to continue to put more data online, we hope that we can show them what is possible when they do so in a way that their data is easily consumable by others.

“Additionally, cities and communities really benefit when they embrace open innovation and give permission for civic hackers to help them realize the limitless potential for improvement of their services through technology. The growing, diverse, and strong civic hacker community are masterful at turning ones and zeroes into relevant apps, software, and other new technologies. Their energy is simply born out of volunteerism and civic duty. These technologies can aid in just about anything you can think of, such as a food distribution system that enables excess food to be redistributed to food programs throughout the city by simply texting your shortage or excess to a centralized database.”

Get involved

Developers can sign up for local events - or even host their own event - by signing up at the National Day's Hack For Change website.

"Part of the beauty of civic hacking events like National Day is that you are never totally sure of what will come out of each event,” said Skytland. "You might start out looking at mapping voting patterns by neighborhood, but realize along the way there are tons of resources and documents online that are important to your community, and end up building a user-friendly system to search those documents by topic and neighborhood. While we can’t tell you what hacks will emerge from National Day, we can guarantee that they will leverage open data in new ways that we couldn't have imagined beforehand."

Mark Boyd is a ProgrammableWeb writer covering breaking news, API business strategies and models, open data, and smart cities. I can be contacted via email, on Twitter, or on Google+.

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