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[BackChannel] Three Problems With Civic Hackathons

BY Mike Mathieu | Wednesday, June 6 2012

techPresident's Backchannel series is an ongoing conversation between practitioners and close observers at the intersection of technology and politics. Mike Mathieu is a founder of or investor in many civic and political tech startups, including Walk Score, Upworthy, NationalField, and He is also a founding board member of New Media Ventures, a political tech angel network. We're pleased to repost this essay from Mathieu's blog at In it, he raises some valuable questions on the eve of this weekend's PDF:Applied hackathon.

This weekend in New York, I’ll be a judge at the two-day PDF:Applied civic hackathon (June 9-10), along with Anne-Marie Slaughter, in advance of PDF 2012. The focus is ideas that enhance our electoral process, engage citizens in their communities, or facilitate online activism, and the attendee list looks like it’s shaping up to be an all-star cast. (Get tickets, or weigh in with ideas.)

As a judge at the first Startup Weekend GOV event 6 weeks ago in Seattle, and now PDF:Applied, I wanted to write about the kind of innovation I’d love to see come out of PDF:Applied and all of the other civic-minded apps contests and hackathons.

Broad Distribution

Poor distribution is a chronic problem for civic apps. To have impact, we need new ways to get the right apps into the hands of the right citizens, at the right time. For example, the awesome transparency efforts of the Sunlight Foundation will only achieve their true potential when that open data is put in the hands of citizens right at the moment when they can use it to make an informed decision — whether it’s voting or making a purchase.

In the 1960s when the U.S. wanted to provide distribution to civic broadcast media, we passed the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, which leveraged 250 FCC broadcast licenses that had been set aside for educational purposes. This led to the establishment of brands like PBS and NPR that provided editorial voice. Now that’s a lot of distribution!

What’s our 21st century solution for distribution of civic software? Steven VanRoekel, the Federal CIO, knows that it’s not about adding new .gov domains. At Walk Score we invested millions of dollars and years of effort to build a network of more than 15,000 real estate web sites that distribute services that “help apartment renters and homebuyers find neighborhoods where they can drive less and live more” 6 million times a day. But what about the rest of the civic software ecosystem?

I’m hoping that the all-star cast at PDF:Applied will have more innovative ideas here.

App Roaming

It’s not as sexy for politicians as a new iPhone app, but for techies, it doesn’t get any more foundational. Simply put, civic apps don’t roam across political jurisdictions. It’s like cell phones before McCaw Cellular/Cellular One first brought nation-wide roaming to the U.S. in 1990.

The reasons are many — missing standards for schemas, semantics, data dictionaries, naming conventions (think data balkinization); lack of universal directories for programmatic data access, authentication, metering; incomplete, disparate, non-scalable licensing agreements; export and post models rather than interface-level access to transactional data and methods. And plenty more. Data hosting services like Socrata, even with API access, are promising but only scratch the surface.

Michael Porter would call this a fragmented industry, and fragmentation hurts. Not only is it a major pain for end-users, but developers lose the economies of scale that make the commercial internet so powerful. Instead of one app that can take the world by storm, you get a series of one-off IT projects with no chance of going viral, let alone providing financial incentive to make a living doing this stuff. It’s why you see the same apps, time and again, when different cities host app contests.

Code for America is doing some great organizing work with The Brigade, a sort of hand-crafted, barn-raising approach to standing up their local apps in new cities. And My Society in the UK has a similar volunteer-driven approach to porting their apps. But what are the new civic innovations that can take this artisanal approach and industrialize it to gain scale economies across cities, counties, transit areas, states, and countries?

Meaningful Problems

Software is empowering. It’s magic. Even after 20 years of the internet. An unemployed developer can spend a month and build something with the potential to change the world. But developers need context. They need exposure to meaningful problems. Walk Score’s CTO, Matt Lerner, was inspired by ideas from a local sustainability think tank. Then he used his own creativity and teamed up with Jesse Kocher to build a seminal piece of civic software in just two weeks.

A developer without context who is pissed off politically will rely on the only context they know – as an ordinary citizen. In a tech-infused fit of rage, they’ll write one of two iPhone apps: the “who was my representative again?” app, or the “where do I go to vote again?” app. They’ve been written dozens of times, and I’m sorry to say, the true problem here is distribution, not tech. And they’re not the biggest civic opportunities either.

We need to organize the civic hackers, sure. But we also need to organize the domain experts who can shed light on how the world really works. The Presidential Innovation Fellows program, launched last week, sets a new high bar in this direction. Rather than a call for ideas, it lays out 5 specific digital government innovation challenges that the White House wants solved and makes an open call for applicants to rise to the challenge. True, they’re not the 5 largest problems facing government. But they’ve been carefully selected both for their impact on government priorities, their potential for completion within 6 months, and their ability to help show the way forward for digital innovation in government.

It’s time to end the hollow calls to “create innovative apps” using our “high value data sets” and to usher in a new era of curated problem statements. Save the Ideascale pages for sharing and voting ideas for technical solutions, not for crowdsourcing problem statements.

What’s the innovative new platform for locating the domain experts, and then collecting and curating the problem statements they produce?

The Future

There’s no doubt it’s fun to open up a new data source. Whether it’s the handy new work of the Voter Information Project, the mind-bending scale of‘s 300,000 data sets, or the rigorous independent aggregation efforts of GTFS-Data-Exchange for public transit feeds, opening data brings a strong sense of accomplishment. But the future of civic software rests not purely in the data. Challenges like distribution, roaming, and the knowledge and technical infrastructure to enable scalable, high-impact systems have become more central.

Developments like NYCFacets by Ontodia, the winner of the NYC BigApps 3.0 competition, give a hopeful glimpse of the future. Their service builds on the NYC open data catalog to provide searchable crowdsourced and algorithmic metadata services. This makes undigestable data catalogs like those in many major metro areas, suddenly much more useful for developers. Expanding their federated search model to include multiple governmental jurisdictions is an obvous and welcome next step. By itself, this isn’t a sexy end-user app. But like Socrata, it’s a piece of the infrastructure that should enable many more high-impact apps in the future.

My hope for PDF:Applied and other apps contests and hackathons like it, is to start moving beyond the feel-good apps (that die in short order), and the useful community building (that offers promise, but not significant impact), and into a new era of high-impact civic software infrastructure that enables national distribution of scalable, roaming solutions to important problems.

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