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High Tech Volunteering Blooms With National Day of Civic Hacking

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Friday, May 31 2013

It's almost upon us: The National Day of Civic Hacking -- well the national weekend of civic hacking really. It's a series of co-ordinated events across the country that asks civilians to get together to create useful civic engagement applications, often using public data.

More than 90 hackathons are scheduled to take place this week-end, all the way from the smallest burgs to the White House (which partnered with Code for America, Random Hacks of Kindness and Innovation Endeavors to organize this festival of sorts.)

In short, there will be an explosion of civic hacking this week-end with endless projects and ideas on how to use information technology and public datasets to address issues specific to both government departments and their missions and local communities.

The organizers' Web pages lists dozens and dozens of ideas that look extremely useful if executed properly. On the federal level for example, the Departments of Labor and the Treasury want coders and designers to help them think through ways of presenting all the information they collect about retirement plans to the public. The Department of Health and Human Services, for its part, wants help with building maps for access to community health resources, data visualization for 100 of the most common hospital inpatient procedures, and with a downloadable data catalogue. These are just a couple of the many challenges that have been posted online. The organizers have provided access to data from more than 20 federal agencies and local governments.

One the local level, suggestions for projects range from mapping homeless shelters to building informational tools for public school parents in New York City.

As this person declares in a Department of Labor video soliciting participants: "Hackers! Volunteering isn't just about building houses and planting gardens anymore."

All this is a culmination of a movement that seemed to begin around 2009 with the founding of Code for America, and the beginning of the Obama administration, which committed to the idea of open data early on. CfA recently published a timeline trying to track key developments in the movement, which actually preceded this time period. The first event in their timeline is on September 19, 2003, the day that Philadelphia signed a memorandum of understanding with Penn State University to release Geographic Information System datasets. From 2009 on however, more events crowd the timeline, as the White House started to hold hackathons and New York City and San Francisco signed new open data laws codifying many of the ideas and best practices that have developed over this short space of time.

With the National Civic Day of Hacking, the timeline might have to become more selective, as the idea of civic engagement through coding becomes a norm rather than a novelty.