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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.

Online Civic Engagement: Hey, Folks, It's Harder Than It Looks

BY Sam Roudman | Friday, January 11 2013

Budding interest, mixed results in city-backed online volunteer organizing. Photo: Eric Kliff

City officials enticed by the oft-repeated promise of the web for increased citizen participation, beware — if you build it they won't necessarily come. Read More

From Fire Box to Future Box: Boston's Looking to Repurpose an Old Standby

BY Sam Roudman | Monday, January 7 2013

Photo: ericodeg

With the expansion of digital communications, the still-telegraph-enabled(!) fire alarm box is dying a slow death. But a recent initiative of the Boston Fire Department is looking to save the city’s 2,200 red sentinels from the flame, soliciting proposals to update a technology invented in the Boston area over 160 years ago, and whose upkeep costs the city $2 million annually. Read More

WeGov

Israeli Transparency NGO Shows Voters How to Cast Informed Ballots

BY Lisa Goldman | Thursday, January 3 2013

Screengrab from Open Knesset website

As Israelis prepare to cast their ballots in national elections on January 22, the country's only transparency NGO has launched a campaign to encourage voters to educate themselves by consulting their Open Knesset website, where they can find previously unavailable information about how their legislators are doing their jobs and whether they are representing their constituents as they would wish to be represented. Read More

WeGov

To App Contest or Not App Contest

BY David Eaves | Thursday, November 15 2012

Ever since the City of Washington DC did Apps for Democracy there have been a running series of skirmishes — that from time to time bubble up into a larger debate — about whether or not app contests, or even hackathons in general, are worthwhile endeavor. I've never been a huge fan of app competitions, but I do think there exist a set of specific conditions under which they can make sense. Ultimately, everything rests on your goal. What do you want to achieve? Read More

From SeeClickFix to Citizinvestor, Five Years of Internet-Enabled Urbanism

BY Cody Lyon | Wednesday, October 17 2012

Can technology help citizens make their cities better? Photo: Myrtle Avenue Partnership

Exclusively for Personal Democracy Plus subscribers: In 2007, SeeClickFix drew wide attention for the way it put all a city's civic problems — graffiti, potholes and the like — out in the open for anyone to see. It wasn't the first or only tool to do something like this, but it made people notice what would become the emerging field of civic software. In the five years since, that field has grown and changed. SeeClickFix is still alive and kicking, but now it's joined by a host of companies, platforms and experiments that don't just map problems — they now map solutions. Read More

New Tool Tracks Blight in New Orleans

BY Miranda Neubauer | Friday, October 12 2012

Code for America New Orleans has released an online application to track the spread of blight in the city, incorporating data from across multiple city departments.

Code for America explains that the city uses a legal process to prosecute blighted properties, sell them or demolish them with the eventual goal of putting them back on the market. The application is meant to collect information about blighted properties in one place to save time for engaged residents, activists and nonprofits, the organization explains in a blog post.

Read More

WeGov

[OP-ED] Are Innovation Hubs the Future of Open Government In Africa?

BY Chris R. Albon | Tuesday, September 18 2012

Members of Accadius, a project at the iHub in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo: Courtesy of Juliana Rotich

Set alongside one Nairobi’s main roadways, the Bishop Magua Centre looks on the exterior no different than any other mid-rise office building. However, inside its drab khaki walls are some of the most innovative technology projects in Africa. Why this building? Because the Bishop Magua Centre’s fourth floor is home to what has been named the “unofficial headquarters of Kenya’s tech movement,” less grandiosely called the iHub. More than simply a space to build the next Instagram, these hubs could be home to the next wave of open government innovation in Africa. Read More

WeGov

In Georgia's Troubled Border Region, Text Messaging is Fostering Community Safety

BY Micah L. Sifry | Tuesday, August 28 2012

Screenshot from Elva homepage

On the troubled northern border of Georgia, next to the disputed territory of South Ossetia, where two wars have been fought in the last two decades, an NGO has been quietly pioneering a new kind of distributed reporting system, one that uses SMS text messaging and the web to combine the data-rich mapping of Ushahidi with the meticulous requirements of human-rights researchers. In a region where few people have internet access, they've come up with an ingenious solution for data gathering via text. Read More

WeGov

Is This the Rise of the Civic Hacker Hub?

BY David Eaves | Thursday, August 2 2012

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. Read More

Three Kickstarter-Inspired, Civically Minded Crowdfunding Sites

BY Miranda Neubauer | Tuesday, July 31 2012

The idea of public-private partnerships to fund projects like parks or public transit has been on the upswing. In New York City, for example, non-profits work with the city to fund programming in three major parks, and a public-private partnership allowed the city to fund the construction of its now-famous High Line park on an old elevated rail spur. A team hoping to pitch the city's Metropolitan Transportation Authority on turning an unused section of its underground subway network into another park raised initial funding on Kickstarter.

That last success, and others like it, have spurred several entrepreneurs to develop Kickstarter-like websites devoted specifically to funding civic projects. They're not the only ones looking online to renegotiate the relationship between cities and citizens — over the past year, a piece of software called ChangeByUs has evolved over time into a platform for cities to help introduce citizens to one another in the hopes that they'll organize around smaller-scale projects — but they're certainly among the most ambitious.

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WeGov

Succeeding Means Letting Go: A Response to David Eaves

BY Tom Steinberg | Thursday, July 26 2012

Responding to David Eaves, mySociety Director Tom Steinberg pulls the lid off of a project in the works: a new open-source component for civic hackers, built by Chile's Ciudadano Inteligente, that will fit into mySociety's new Components framework. "It's because we believe," Steinberg writes, "that the only way that the Components can really thrive beyond our organizations is if they are truly interoperable over the web, truly owned by different people, and if they can handle massively varying political and cultural contexts. It is our goal that in the future any of the Components being used to underpin a website or app can be out and replaced by a clone that speaks the same API, but which may be built by a different group, in a different language. Interoperability and flexibility are everything." Read More

WeGov

Is Civic Hacking Becoming 'Our Pieces, Loosely Joined?'

BY David Eaves | Wednesday, July 25 2012

David Eaves writes: "So far, it appears that the spirit of re-use among the big players, like MySociety and the Sunlight Foundation*, only goes so deep. Indeed often it seems they are limited to believing others should re-use their code. There are few examples where the bigger players dedicate resources to support other people's components. Again, it is fine if this is all about creating competing platforms and competing to get players in smaller jurisdictions who cannot finance creating whole websites on their own to adopt it. But if this is about reducing duplication then I'll expect to see some of the big players throw resources behind components they see built elsewhere. So far it isn't clear to me that we are truly moving to a world of 'small pieces loosely joined' instead of a world of 'our pieces, loosely joined.'" Read More

[BackChannel] Three Incredible Things About Civic Hackathons

BY Jake Levitas | Tuesday, June 19 2012

In our latest installment of Backchannel, an ongoing conversation between practitioners and close observers at the intersection of technology and politics, Jake Levitas from the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts steps up in defense of the civic hackathon. Read More

UK's MySociety Releases How-To Guides, Source Code for Open Government Activists

BY Miranda Neubauer | Monday, March 26 2012

MySociety.org, the group behind several civic and democratic websites in the United Kingdom, this year is stepping up its effort to help people in other countries build websites based on its model with a project called DIY mySociety.

While in the past, the group has spread the word, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe, through the CEE.mysociety.org project, and Tony Bowden, international agitator for mySociety, speaking at conferences and meetings, it is now aiming to reach a larger audience online by sharing the code of its sites, publishing how-to guides and engaging with the community through social networks and mailing lists. There are already projects based on mySociety's WhatDoTheyKnow model in Kosovo, Germany, Brazil and the European Union.

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An Effort to Bring Open Source to Government Faces a Major Change

BY Nick Judd | Monday, February 13 2012

One of a very few large-scale experiments in how to apply open-source technology into government will largely be put on hold. Read More

A New York City Transparency Project Will Open-Source a Look Inside the City's Checkbook

BY Nick Judd | Thursday, February 9 2012

An early rendition of what the next NYC Checkbook website might look like. Courtesy NYC Comptroller's Office

The office of the New York City Comptroller has begun coding up a revamp to a site that already gives a comprehensive look, updated daily, at nearly every check issued by the city. For the first time, the city will also offer software developers direct, programmatic access to a comprehensive trove of information about New York's fiscal health. And within a few weeks after the updated site launches, city officials say, the source code will be released online under an open-source license. Read More

San Francisco's Plan: Open Government, Open Data, Open Doors to New Business and Better Services

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Tuesday, January 24 2012

In San Francisco, city officials have pulled together a core nexus of driven leaders, civic hackers, and big-name investors in the hopes that greater access to the city's inner workings can spur more web 2.0-style startups that solve problems government has, or maybe that citizens have because of government. Is this enough to make local government work better? Read More

Open-Source, Real-Time Bus Tracking Is Coming to All of New York City

BY Nick Judd | Wednesday, January 11 2012

New York City's public transit provider, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, is set to pour millions of dollars into a high-tech project that will give New Yorkers a real-time view into the exact location of every bus in the city. Read More

A Guide to California's Civic Hacking Projects

BY Nick Judd | Friday, October 21 2011

From Nook e-Readers on loan at the Sacramento Public Library to San Francisco's open data initiatives, California's cities are turning online in the hopes of saving money and improving services, according to a report by ... Read More

'Through the Wall:' Code for America, One Year On

BY Nick Judd | Monday, October 17 2011

Image courtesy Code for America

Code for America launched last year to see if coding talent and information-technology knowledge could help big municipal governments make their cities better without spending a whole lot of money, modernizing city hall ... Read More

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