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Civic Hacking

Today, government and public life is being reimagined and reconfigured by a new generation of civic engineers. Only instead of using concrete and steel, they're using data and code. Some come from inside government, where they're opening up public data to outsiders and inviting developers to work with them on new kinds of services and apps. Others aren't waiting for government to act, and they're hacking on the public space using data that they scrape from government sites along with bottom-up data that the public itself generates and shares. Together they're building new ways of identifying problems and solutions, connecting the public and government, and making things work better. Meet the civic hackers.

New York City Has a More Level Playing Field for Access to Real Estate Data

BY Miranda Neubauer | Friday, July 26 2013

New York City's Department of City Planning recently opened up free access to data files that link up maps of individual tax lots with financial data about those lots, following pressure from transparency advocates and media coverage. The data merges together information like owner name, assessed value and even details like floor-to-area ratio, a function of how tall a building is and how big a lot it sits on, which is a useful index of building density. (An area with zoning rules that allow for high FAR is an area that will have more, taller, buildings.) Read More

With Kickstarter Funding, FOIA Machine Wants to Help Fix Public Records

BY Miranda Neubauer | Friday, July 19 2013

(Kickstarter)

FOIA Machine, a platform that aims to streamline the process of tracking of filing and tracking public record requests, has raised more than $29,000 on Kickstarter — exceeding its funding goal by more than $10,000. Read More

Houston to Hire an "Enterprise Data Officer" to Fight Digital Sprawl

BY Sam Roudman | Thursday, July 18 2013

The city of Houston is hiring a new top staffer to fight sprawl — in its databases, not its city streets. Houston has 2.2 million citizens spread out over 627 square miles, but like many municipalities, Houston’s 22 city departments also have their data spread across a variety of formats. A new enterprise data officer would be in charge of consolidating how that data is stored and shared, which officials hope will increase productivity and revenue while opening more information for public consumption. Read More

New Tool Takes You Into the Treasury's Bank Account

BY Sam Roudman | Friday, July 12 2013

A new tool, Treasury IO, is designed to make working with data about federal spending much easier to understand. Read More

Is This How to Breathe Life Into a City's Vacant Land?

BY Sam Roudman | Wednesday, July 10 2013

A new online effort hopes to revive Philadelphia's vacant lots. Photo: Matt Bevilacqua

For urbanites in Philadelphia looking to make a garden from one of the city’s 35,000 or so unused lots, the most common advice has consisted of two words: good luck. That’s because while data on any given parcel is technically open there, actually figuring out who owns it, or if anything can be done with it, can require a spelunking expedition into the dark caverns of city bureaucracy. Organizers and developers have launched a new project to make it easier to find and utilize vacant land. Read More

What "We the People" Petitions Say About the Country

BY Sam Roudman | Tuesday, July 9 2013

Developers are beginning to make use of information included in the White House's API for online petitions. Read More

Will This Volunteer-Built App Help Clean Up New York City Politics?

BY Nick Judd | Monday, July 1 2013

The New York City Campaign Finance Board plans this week to release an early version of a web interface for campaigns to collect and process contributions on the go. "At first it is designed for use by candidates and their campaigns to process contributions in person, [such as] at small fundraisers," says CFB spokesman Eric Friedman. Read More

City Officials Hope Open Data Standard Will Help Fight Slumlords

BY Sam Roudman | Wednesday, June 26 2013

What if your apartment used to look like this and you didn't know? Photo: Forsaken Fotos

San Francisco's mayor, Ed Lee, last week announced a new standard for working with data on buildings and building inspections — a project that has attracted attention across the country. Using this standard, cities can make information about buildings and building inspections available in a format that developers could use to better explain the conditions of urban housing stock. “It enables people to make better decision around their housing,” says Ashley Hand, the chief innovation officer of Kansas City, Mo. Read More

Despite Software Problems, Civic Hackers are Pedaling Bike Share Data

BY Miranda Neubauer | Thursday, June 13 2013

(NYCDOT/Flickr)

Reporters are shoaling around the news that New York City's new bike sharing system, Citi Bike, is benighted with problems stemming from its high-tech software. But that's not putting the brakes on plans to explore what programmers might do with data generated by the system by hosting a Citi Bike Civic Hack Night later this month. Read More

Nancy Lublin on the Problem With Nonprofit Tech

BY Nick Judd | Friday, June 7 2013

Nancy Lublin at Personal Democracy Forum 2013. Photo: Esty Stein / Personal Democracy Forum

Nancy Lublin devoted her PDF talk to opening a conversation about what she sees as serious problems with the way foundations approach funding technology projects that address public policy or social services.

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OpenStreetMap Report Maps New Lands of Growth

BY Sam Roudman | Friday, June 7 2013

OpenStreetMap's map of New York

The crowd is teeming with cartographers. At least according to a (very pretty) new data report from MapBox. The report details the explosive growth of OpenStreetMap, a free global, crowdsourced map, started in 2004, which (not coincidentally) is holding its US conference this weekend in San Francisco. Read More

The New York City Comptroller Built a Fiscal Transparency Website, and Now It's Open Source

BY Miranda Neubauer | Thursday, June 6 2013

Comptroller John Liu Photo: Esty Stein / Personal Democracy Media

The source code of New York City's Checkbook NYC platform is now available for other governments to download, modify and reuse, New York City Comptroller John Liu announced during Thursday's Personal Democracy Forum. Read More

Code for America's Jennifer Pahlka to Take a Year-Long "Fellowship" as Deputy U.S. CTO

BY Nick Judd | Thursday, May 30 2013

Jennifer Pahlka. Photo: transportationcamp

Thursday, Code for America and the White House announced that Jennifer Pahlka will take a leave of absence from her organization to become the next deputy U.S. chief technology officer for government innovation, working for the limited term of one year under current CTO Todd Park. Read More

Code for America Launches International Partnerships in Mexico, Germany and the Caribbean

BY Miranda Neubauer | Friday, May 24 2013

Code for America today announced the launch of its first official international partnerships in Mexico, Germany and the Caribbean. After several years of recruiting technologists to spend a year in city halls across America, the organization will bring programmers and designers into close contact with governments in each of those three places to work on a specific problem area. Read More

In San Francisco, Accelerating a "Civic Technology" Industry

BY Sam Roudman | Thursday, May 16 2013

Code for America's San Francisco headquarters. Photo: mk30 / Flickr

Exclusively for Personal Democracy Plus subscribers: What does "civic technology" look like as a new subset of the software industry — a collection of startups that challenges existing heavyweights in government technology, or creates completely different tools? The Code for America Accelerator program invests seed money, time, and free food into a few new companies to find out. It's accepting applicants for its second year of operation. First-year participants tell Sam Roudman why they feel their year in Code for America's San Francisco headquarters was time well spent. Read More

Can TurboVote "Disrupt" Voter Registration? Knight Gives $1 Million to Find Out

BY Nick Judd | Thursday, May 2 2013

Photo: Chris Phan / Flickr

A New York-based non-profit will announce Thursday a new $1 million investment, part of a "sustainability round" its founders hope will raise the cash it needs to build a solution to America's voter registration problems. Thursday, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation will announce that it is investing $1 million in TurboVote over three years. The money will go to help TurboVote develop a new line of business working with elections officials in counties across the country — and a platform to help officials manage the millions of data points they must track to make sure citizens can cast their vote. Read More

NYC BigApps Refines the Civic Hackathon

BY Sam Roudman | Tuesday, April 30 2013

Is this the fuel that will power civic innovation? Photo: Sethw

Just opening up a city’s data doesn’t make it decipherable. And just because an app wins a prize at a civic hackathon doesn’t guarantee it’s going to find an audience, or become useful for the public. In response to the customary criticisms of civic hackathons and app contests, those running NYC BigApps, an app contest centered on utilizing civic data now in its fourth(!) year have reconfigured their contest this time around to guide entrant projects towards maximum social impact. Read More

TechPresident Podcast: "Open Government"

BY Nick Judd | Friday, April 12 2013

Can technology improve communication between citizens and government? We've been closely watching the Knight News Challenge, a $5 million experiment that aims to find out. Micah Sifry, Nick Judd and David Eaves talk through our recent reporting on what's been tried and tested where technology and government meet. Read More

Optimism, Fear, and the Knight News Challenge

BY David Eaves | Tuesday, April 9 2013

Reading through the list of Knight News Challenge semi-finalists I was left feeling both optimistic and concerned. Optimistic because there are a number of great ideas people have put forward. Indeed the sheer number of submissions to the challenge - 828 - itself speaks to a deep well of people that want to find ways to improve the interaction between citizens and government. As a serious policy and government geek it is always nice to find peers. On the flip side I get a little depressed because programs like the news challenge remind me of the problems of both money, and scale, that plague any change initiative, but particularly in government. Read More

WeGov

Geeks Gather for India's First Government Sponsored Hackathon

BY Jessica McKenzie | Monday, April 8 2013

Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Deputy Chairman of the India Planning Commission, opening the hackathon (image: Flickr/Mcenley)

The Indian government held its first ever official hackathon on April 6 and 7. The event, which took place at 10 educational institutions across the country, was organized to communicate the 12th five-year-plan, India's strategic and economic plan, to the public. More than 1,900 participants collaborated on apps and infographics, tackling problems such as healthcare opportunities and the difficulties faced by farmers. Read More

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In Mexico, A Wiki Makes Corporate Secrets Public

Earlier this year the Latin American NGO Poder launched Quién Es Quién Wiki (Who's Who Wiki), a corporate transparency project more than two years in the making. The hope is that the platform will be the foundation for a citizen-led movement demanding transparency and accountability from businesses in Mexico. Data from Quién Es Quién Wiki is already helping community activists mobilize against foreign companies preparing to mine the mountains of the Sierra Norte de Puebla.

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NY Study Shows How Freedom of Information Can Inform Open Data

On New York State's open data portal, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation has around 40 data resources of varying sizes, such as maps of lakes and ponds and rivers, bird conservation areas and hiking trails. But those datasets do not include several data resources that are most sought after by many New York businesses, a new study from advocacy group Reinvent Albany has found. Welcome to a little-discussed corner of so-called "open government"--while agencies often pay lip service to the cause, the data they actually release is sometimes nowhere close to what is most wanted. GO

Responding to Ferguson, Activists Organize #NMOS14 Vigils Across America In Just 4 Days

This evening peaceful crowds will gather at more than 90 locations around the country to honor the victims of police brutality, most recently the unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, who was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, on Saturday. A moment of silence will begin at 20 minutes past 7 p.m. (EST). The vigils are being organized almost entirely online by the writer and activist Feminista Jones (@FeministaJones), with help from others from around the country who have volunteered to coordinate a vigil in their communities. Organizing such a large event in only a few days is a challenge, but in addition to ironing out basic logistics, the National Moment of Silence (#NMOS14) organizers have had to deal with co-optation, misrepresentation, and Google Docs and Facebook pages that are, apparently, buckling under traffic.

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