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Is This the Rise of the Civic Hacker Hub?

BY David Eaves | Thursday, August 2 2012

Last month Global Integrity announced that it was launching the OpenGov Hub in Washington, D.C. . The hub, which is a joint project with the Development Gateway, aspires to bring together “disparate but likeminded communities of practice under a single shared physical workspace.” In Chicago, too, Tom Tresser is seeking to set up the Civic Lab as a “store front civic hacker space where educators and activists will meet, share, do research, teach and create tools for civic engagement.” These hubs seem to be popping up in tandem with the emergence of an increasingly robust opengov and civic hacking ecosystem.

The tech startup space has a long history of creating work spaces that bring together the various players — VCs, ideas people, business types and developers – necessary to launch new projects. Some of these spaces — the iHub in Nairobi strikes me as the most powerful example — have served as hosts to hackathons and sessions that bring together a similar set of actors in the open government and civic hacking space. It will be interesting to see if efforts to transfer that model to the opengov space develop.

These hubs are also arising at an interesting point in time. My sense is that some key pieces are coming together to create the conditions for an even more robust opengov and civic hacking ecosystem.

Information that can drive applications or projects has become more accessible; DC and especially Chicago have robust municipal open data programs; and DC has the added benefit of being home to data.gov. Search and scraping tools are also improving rapidly (think scraperwiki). We now have better insight into how communities create data, which means there is more information to play with.

There is also a growing talent pool of developers and activists interested in OpenGov issues, as seen in the number of attendees at this year’s TransparencyCamp. As more and more activist groups and non-profits become digitally literate I suspect interest in tech for activism and OpenGov will also expand.

Finally, funding and business models are evolving. The World Bank is showing interest in funding projects that enhance transparency in developing economies. Domestically a number of donors have been interested in funding similar type projects and programs. In short capital is increasingly available to innovators in this space. More broadly I suspect there is also increased interest in exploring new business models, given the continued collapse of traditional media companies — especially print media.

Whether by explicit or reactive design these hubs are bringing together the types of people mentioned above, with the goal of increasing the pace of cross-pollination and innovation. OpenGov Hub is asking each tenant to present on what they are up to at least twice a year.

It is fascinating to see people creating niche permanent spaces where activists, developers, subject matter experts, journalists and others can congregate to share ideas — with luck it will make the larger, less frequent gatherings such as Transparency Camp, Open Knowledge Festival and City Camp more exciting as well, as more lessons and ideas spread out to the broader community.

This post was updated to note that the OpenGov Hub in DC is sponsored jointly by Global Integrity and Development Gateway. Originally we mentioned only Global Integrity.

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