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Civic Hackers in the U.S. and Russia Asked to 'Code4Country'

BY Nick Judd | Friday, September 9 2011

In the past few years, groups of civic-minded programmers have shown that when they get together to write code, they can build things that change anything from the way people respond to natural disasters to how they figure out what train to catch. But can computer geeks getting excited and making things actually change foreign relations?

Within the framework of a Russia-U.S. bilateral presidential commission, a group of Russian and American organizations will this month host a weekend-long, international coding event for civic hackers in Moscow, Russia, and Washington, D.C., to collaborate on tools for openness and transparency. International coding events are new-ish but not new; late last year, for example, the international group Random Hacks of Kindness held an International Open Data Day event that drew in thousands of people from 73 cities, with results as diverse as an app to find the nearest public toilet in Galway, Ireland, and a new tool to visualize presidential speeches in Argentina. But an event focused on uniting programmers from two countries created under the geas of a presidential commission — that's new.

Called Code4Country and announced yesterday, the event is hosted by Yandex, which will provide space for the event beginning on Sept. 24 in Moscow; American University, which will be the venue in Washington, D.C.; Google; and the Skolkovo Foundation, a Russian nonprofit established to provide "socially useful results in the development of innovations" that is backed by state corporations and funds.

The general idea is to attract people in civil society and software development during the run-up to the event, and get them to identify issues that software built during Code4Country might help to address. Then, using the troves of open government data available in the U.S. and Russia, programmers at the event in both cities will hack across time zones — with the coding to start in Moscow and continue in D.C. as one city goes to sleep and the other cracks its first Mountain Dew of the morning — creating applications to do things like make it easier to find your local public school or the nearest bus stop.

There are some pretty country-specific problems to tackle as well. One of the proposed issues coders might help Russians work on, for example, is adoption.

"There is a strategic goal in Russia to limit international adoption and foster domestic adoption," reads one proposal on the project's website. "There is a public database with information on children available for adoption, but there is no way for prospective parents to tell where those children are. If parents could find out how many children were available for adoption in their own town or province, it may encourage them to act to foster or adopt the children within their own communities."

People who request accounts on the project wiki and are approved can suggest new ideas or improvements on old ones, point out problems, or adopt issues as their own to work with developers on creating possible solutions.

"This is a great opportunity," said Emily Parker, a policy planning staffer in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's office. Parker handles technology innovation and 21st century statecraft. "The codeathon aims to harness the skills of programmers and the ideas of citizens in both countries to improve government openness and transparency."

That's right — "codeathon." These events are usually called hackathons, as the infinitive "to hack" in tech parlance means creatively re-using something meant for another purpose, as with open government data initially created for internal use. Apparently, there's worry that people will take "hackathon" the wrong way, think it's a party for the Internet group Anonymous and show up in Guy Fawkes masks, or something. Perhaps that's one of the travails of working within the "framework" of a bilateral presidential commission — nothing with a name that long can take itself too seriously.

Commissions like the one between the U.S. and Russia seek to create bilateral working relationships up and down all levels of government, Andrew McLaughlin, a former Google head of global public policy and a former deputy U.S. chief technology officer, explained to me. In that context, a hackathon is a perfect fit.

"They try to cook up something to do together," McLaughlin told me, meaning officials from two countries working together on bilateral commissions. "In science and tech, this is appealing, because it's usually possible to do that without creating too much controversy."

Hackathons are kind of an "in" thing right now that governments at lower levels have already tried, and enjoyed success. Coders, project managers and data providers all get in the same rooms and build stuff together; occasionally, resulting projects might spin into a business, or people who meet could start a partnership; and while people are still figuring out how to get the most out of them from a community-building perspective, there's an established format for hackathons themselves. Follow the format and there will usually be at least one or two interesting projects coming out of the weekend.

A team handling the Code4Country website and helping to make the event happen has a lot of experience with hackathons — it's Second Muse, the firm that did much of the operational heavy lifting for Random Hacks of Kindness.

Cruising around the site, I can already spot one open data advocate from Russia taking interest: the list of users checking out the Code4Country website includes Ivan Begtin, who was part of the team that launched the Apps4Russia apps competition to solicit software built on Russian government data and who hosts an index to Russian open data.

So: An interesting group of participants, a lot of institutional support, a model that's worked in similar contexts before. Is the event going to be a success?

That's not clear, McLaughlin said — after all, it's rooted in two presidencies trying to work together, which is untested territory.

"But it seems like they're trying to be a little bit experimental in a positive way," he said, "and try something that could foster more discussion and dialogue between Russian and American coders."

This article has been updated to correct the event date.