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Mark Headd and Ryan Resella Talk About the Upside of Civic Hacking

BY Nick Judd | Wednesday, February 13 2013

In response to this post I wrote yesterday, Philadelphia Chief Data Officer Mark Headd and Ryan Resella, a senior engineer at Upworthy and a veteran of Obama 2012 and Code for America, tell me I'm raining on a grand civic hacking parade. I asked them to explain.

Below, one after the other, are their full, unedited responses to my questions.

Ryan Resella

1. I wrote that if a civic hacker's project needs government approval or cooperation, she should just pack up and go home.

Why am I wrong?

Working with governments and getting approval, cooperation or permission can be very difficult. Sometimes it could take years and years or never at all. By telling people to "go home" its saying to just give up and that government will never change. Instead of going home what about talking to others who may have been in a similar situation? Or trying to find others who might be interested in your cause and maybe brainstorming ideas on a way to get government approval. What about just doing it anyway and showing government that something can be built to solve the issue? I would say that innovation doesn't happen because the person was told no and went home. If a citizen were to attend a City Council meeting and pitch an idea, I don't think the City Council would tell the person to go home as their response.

2. How do you sell civic hacking (or open data) to government officials?

This has to do with showing what's possible or doing things in a more innovative way. On an application level showing government that things can be done quicker, better and cheaper really helps drive the point. Even building small prototypes of ways to solves problems can be helpful. On a policy level showing examples of how that policy or idea was implemented in another organization, whether it be in the private sector or government really helps drive the idea across.

Also, there are many people in government that want to see change. They want to innovate and make things better not just for government but the communities they serve. Find these champions of change and they will listen and are open to ideas.

3. I wrote that no agency will take a move that opens them up to political risk. What needs to happen in government for that not to be the case?

Governments are worried about failures and the press they will receive about a botched project rather than how much it will improve something. The biggest change in government to occur is taking a lean start up / agile methodology approach and not be afraid to fail. Try more pilot/beta programs and start them small and see what happens. Take those learnings and iterate to make them better or change them appropriately. Cancel the program if it isn't working. Governments are more worried about a headline in the newspaper, about a project failing. A quote I heard at a conference one time and I can't remember who said it "A government doesn't want to be the first one to try something new but they also don't want to be the last."

4. Why should a technologist or activist deal with all of these hurdles -- what's the payoff, and why is it worth the trouble?

I always relate this to - you can use your skills selling coupons online or do something that makes a difference in the world. There are so many hurdles in the civic space to deal with and its not for everyone. Working on the campaign and issue advocacy you can see the results of your work fairly quickly. Either your candidate wins or loses similarly your issue fails or passes and its obvious. In the civic space it takes much longer to see how your work makes an impact because it may take several years. Change, being a citizen and knowing you're trying to make the world a better place is why it's worth the trouble. Imagine being a citizen in your community spending years working on an open data policy and getting it passed. It's just as important as being an activist in a city and working to get other legislation passed in the city. It's worth the trouble knowing that you can make a difference and make a difference in future generations.

There's also so many other aspects about doing this type of work. I've met so many new people and friends working in this space over the last few years that has been incredibly rewarding.

Also referring to question #1 what if what you're fighting for does end up getting government approval and cooperation. Just going through that process can be incredibly rewarding.

5. What's the best moment you can think of from your time in this field?

There are so many really great moments over the past few years working in this space. If I had to pick one I would say it was in September of 2010. I flew up to San Francisco to interview for the 2011 Code for America Fellowship. We were at O'Reilly Alpha Tech Venters in a meeting room with about 40 other people all interviewing for the fellowship as well. In the room you could feel the excitement of adventure, possibilities, unknowns and how each and every person in that room wanted to not only be part of Code for America but wanted to change things and see change. That's what makes it the best moment to me. It was the start of a new adventure, the start of something that had not been done before in the civic space and I wasn't alone. I was with other people who wanted to be there and wanted to make a difference and it was only the beginning.

6. What did I miss in my piece?

To me it's not about what was missed in this piece rather than how it was framed. This article could easily be titled "5 things that government could change to help civic hackers" or just "5 things government does wrong". However the audience was for new civic hackers and in my opinion it discouraged people from getting involved which is the opposite of what the civic community wants. If I were exploring getting involved in the civic space and read the article and didn't have much opinion I would have most likely got discouraged and looked for something else to work on.

The tech community is being hit right now with it's gender inequality issues. Many people in the tech community are trying to remedy this issue. Communities should be more inviting for anyone that's willing to get involved and not put people down for trying to help. If you look at campaigns there are always ways to get involved by volunteering: one can knock on doors, make calls, etc. In the civic space there is so much for people to do as well. They shouldn't get discouraged because they don't know how to code or don't know technology. Maybe they are good and documentation, good at graphics or good at connecting people. Telling people to "go home" is saying to just give up and its not worth the effort. It could be that these people you are telling to go home can make a real impact if they had the right chance and opportunity. If someone wants to help change and do good for their community then they should get support and help from others.

Mark Headd

1. I wrote that if a civic hacker's project needs government approval or cooperation, she should just pack up and go home. Why am I wrong?

Two reasons. First, you assumes that every government entity is unwilling to encourage outside developers to build solutions that may benefit that government or further its mission. This is clearly wrong - consider for example the City of Chicago that embraced a web application for locating flu shot locations built by an outside developer and incorporated this application into its official city web site. Or take the transit authority in Philadelphia that posted advertisements on it's regional rail trains for two software applications built by outside developers. This is an unprecedented level of cooperation between government and civic hackers. Granted, the number of governments doing this is still small. But I believe it will grow quickly and we'll see more of this soon.

Second, you seem to miss the whole point of open data programs that are popping up all over the country. When governments release open data, it frees outside developers to build what they feel is important and valuable for their communities. Publishing open data decouples the creation of useful civic software from the typical government approval process. The more open data we see, the more opportunities there are for civic developers to build useful solutions.

2. How do you sell civic hacking (or open data) to government officials?

It can be difficult, primarily because many of the advocate of civic hacking speak in the language common to the civic hacking culture. Its not unreasonable to expect civic hacking advocates to clearly articulate to government officials why they should leverage the efforts of outside developers. Publishing open data and leveraging the efforts of civic hackers is a major paradigm shift for government and an abdication of control - changes like these take time in any bureaucracy, not just government.

The best way to "sell" civic hacking to government official is to clearly articulate how it can help address pain points that they may feel or how it can help further the mission of their department or agency. To be fair, if civic hacking advocates can not articulate these things clearly then we have a problem.

3. I wrote that no agency will take a move that opens them up to political risk. What needs to happen in government for that not to be the case?

In a way that's true, but not all that surprising or revelatory. This is why political leadership at the mayoral or gubernatorial level is needed as the foundation for open data and government transparency efforts. In cities that are leading the charge - Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, San Francisco - we see municipal leaders at the highest levels embracing these ideas. This is instructive for the rest of the organization and can help ensure that agencies and department understand that they are expected to be open and release data. Culture change starts at the top, and in these cities Mayors have sent clear signals to the rest of the bureaucracy that openness is a virtue.

But I think this point needs to be reframed. The issue is less about governments releasing data "that makes them look bad" and more about governments releasing data that allows citizens to hold them accountable. This is a feature of many types of data that are commonly released by governments - budget data, crime data, transit data, tax collection and spending data. When we evaluate open data efforts we should do so with an eye towards how impactful data releases are to citizens ability to evaluate how effective a job their government is doing.

4. Why should a technologist or activist deal with all of these hurdles -- what's the payoff, and why is it worth the trouble?

I don't think most people engaged in civic hacking (or those interested in doing it) see the hurdles you see. In almost every city that has a civic hacking community, the number of events and the number of attendees at these events is increasing. People aren't burned out or frustrated - they are more motivated than ever to lend their efforts to the cause.

The "payoff" for civic hacking is not unlike the payoff for volunteering to clean up a local park, joining a neighborhood watch, running a blood drive or just helping someone who has lost their way find the street they are looking for. Civic hacking is a way that people can apply their skills and energy to a problem in their community that they think is important.

It's also fun. I can not think of one single hackathon or civic hacking event where I have had a bad time.

5. What's the best moment you can think of from your time in this field?

Mayor Michael Nutter slipping quietly into a hackathon held in Philly early last year. He arrived without fanfare and without escort, and left without even making a speech to attendees. The Mayor of one of the largest cities in the country taking time on a Sunday afternoon to visit a bunch of civic hackers in a small neighborhood coworking space, and all he wanted to do was ask each team what they were working on and then thank them - personally - for their efforts.

This experience played a large part in my decision to go to work for the City of Philadelphia.

6. What did I miss in my piece?

I know a lot of civic hackers, and I meet more every day. Most people that engage in civic hacking do so because they want to build something that is useful to them or people in their community. They are motivated by a desire to make their city and their community work better. They are not looking to win a prize, start a business or collect accolades. Some of the best civic apps I have ever used have been those built by people that felt it was their civic duty to help other people. We need to encourage more of this sentiment.

Fixing cities is hard, but then anything really worth doing is. Telling people that they should just "go home" because they may get frustrated in trying to do something they believe is important is not great advice. We need more civic hacking, not less.