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Two Civic Hackers On Why Open Government Isn't That Hard

BY Nick Judd | Wednesday, February 13 2013

Civic hacking — using technology to improve or subvert anything that's wrong, broken, or just not good enough about the way politics and government work — is hard. It can be frustrating.

But it's often also fun, two civic hackers told me today, and just because it's hard doesn't mean it's not worth doing.

Yesterday I offered five pieces of advice for civic hackers, and they drew a very mixed reaction. After covering the field of civic hacking for three years — watching it grow from the province of a few motivated coders patiently working away on esoterica into a force for change embraced by the White House — I've seen a lot of projects fail, sucking up talent and funding along the way. I've seen many projects fail for the same reasons. And I've also seen some opportunities for change — like using technology to find groups of people who are talking about issues, but don't realize they're also talking about politics and government — go untapped. It's a fairly uncontroversial position to take to suggest that more Americans should be better informed about, and involved in making decisions on, the policies their tax dollars are funding. The same goes for the elected officials they're paying to form and execute those policies. That core information problem — for the average citizen, not for the smaller circle of politics obsessives — seems to me to be one that technology might be able to help solve.

On the eve of the Knight News Challenge launch, it didn't seem to me that civic hackers were hopeless. On the contrary, we've covered many examples of how civic hacking can make changes both large and small.

It's just that civic hackers can get more results if they avoid mistakes their peers have made in the past. So I decided to point out areas where, in contrast to other lines of inquiry, work was consistently inefficient or fruitless.

Some people thought it was useful advice:

And more than one civic coder implied that he'd learned the hard way some of the lessons I was trying to pass on from the experience of others.

But I also heard from civic hackers who said I was being too harsh. It's not that I was wrong, they said — it's that I wasn't talking about the many examples of civic hacking success. Some of the biggest cities in the country, like Philadelphia, Boston, New York and San Francisco, have champions of innovation inside of government who want to work with technologists. There are wide open spaces where government has no objection to releasing information, even potentially problematic information — Philadelphia and Seattle, for example, release crime data in a developer-friendly format.

Given these advances, they said, I was presenting a fatalist view of a welcoming and optimistic community. I was discouraging people from getting involved in any civic hacking work by pointing out just a few examples of civic hacking projects that end in torment.

Mark Headd is the chief data officer for the City of Philadelphia, a position he acquired last year, and has spent years working on the idea that coders can make cities better. Ryan Resella is a senior engineer at Upworthy, was a Code for America fellow in 2011 and served as an engineer on President Barack Obama's re-election campaign in 2012.

Was I harsh? Yes. But I stand by what I wrote. In a tweet, Resella even called my post "brutally honest." People like Resella and Headd don't need to be reminded of the challenges that change-makers face because they have lived that experience. But outsiders or newcomers to civic hacking are often greeted with more triumphalism than tough love. There's a lot of writing out there that offers an uncritical look at the new nexus of technology, politics and civic life, or offers critique that is woefully underinformed. This kind of propaganda is all in the service of promoting a community that is genuinely out to fix things, sure. And especially in technology, one needs to fail a few times to learn what works and what doesn't. But creating a tolerance for failure is more harmful than helpful if that community does not also deliver an honest accounting of mistakes and acknowledges failure as evidence of something that's broken and needs fixing. There's really no need to repeat past mistakes. I'm not saying don't try. I'm saying don't try something that's not going to work — do something else!

Resella and Headd both think I'm raining on a grand civic hacking parade. I asked them to explain why, and I think they largely admit that I'm right. Their main problem is that I framed obstacles as obstacles, not challenges, and do nothing to explain why these challenges are worth confronting in the first place. So I decided to let them do that for me. Below is an edited and condensed version of our email exchange. Their full answers are over here.

NCJ: 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?

Ryan Resella: 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" it's saying to just give up and that government will never change ... 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.

Mark Headd: Two reasons. First, you assume 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 ... 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.

NCJ: How do you sell civic hacking (or open data) to government officials?

MH: 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.

RR: Even building small prototypes of ways to solve problems can be helpful ... 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.

NCJ: 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?

MH: 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 ...

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.

RR: 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."

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

RR: 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 ... 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 ...

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.

MH: 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.

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

RR: I flew up to San Francisco to interview for the 2011 Code for America Fellowship. We were at O'Reilly Alpha Tech Ventures 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.

MH: 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.

NCJ: What did I miss in my piece?

RR: 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 at documentation, good at graphics or good at connecting people. Telling people to "go home" is saying to just give up and it's 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.

MH: 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.