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Your Friendly Neighborhood Hacker

by Travis Korte
A "hacker" speaks with members of the community at a Tulsa, Oklahoma event for the National Day of Civic Hacking.

When local news editors across America received tips that hackers would be gathering in their town over the weekend, they must have been alarmed. The events of the first National Day of Civic Hacking (NDCH) – held June 1-2 in 95 locations around the country – were benign, as anyone who has ever attended a similar meet-up might imagine, but that didn’t stop the flood of references to malware, identity theft and other computer security breaches in the news coverage.

In reality, the mission of the NDCH couldn’t have been more “white hat”:

“The event will bring together citizens, software developers, and entrepreneurs from all over the nation to collaboratively create, build, and invent new solutions using publicly-released data, code and technology to solve challenges relevant to our neighborhoods, our cities, our states and our country.”

This wasn’t the sort of “hacking” that captured the popular imagination in the ‘80s and ‘90s; the NDCH events looked more like community service jamborees, with visits from small-town mayors and a few boxes of free pizza on the tables. The participants weren’t there to break laws, and in fact collaborated with local government officials, who supplied data sets and objectives for the weekend’s activities.

The projects were largely wholesome as well; some highlights included a program to coordinate open spaces in homeless shelters in St. Louis, a website to help victims of Oklahoma tornadoes offer and request rides and temporary housing, an app to trace high school students’ progress toward attaining the Pittsburgh Promise higher education grant and a map to track car accidents and identify problem intersections in Bangor, Maine.

The fact that “black hat” hackers are still the point of reference for many individuals in the communities that held NDCH events points to a need for greater awareness among the public of the important contributions these civic-minded programmers are making. The NDCH in particular contributed to this cause in its efforts to host events in areas that don’t have access to the nation’s large tech communities. The events were open to the public, and gave non-technical people a chance to sit with software engineers and get a brief glimpse of what it really means to write code.

In the same way, the local government officials who were enlightened enough to offer up their data got a chance to observe the practice of data science as a legitimate mode of inquiry into municipal problems. Even if many of the apps created during hackathons do not ultimately influence policy or even survive in the long term, the events provide an opportunity for government officials to draw inspiration from the data science on display.

This may be a no-brainer in big cities that already have open data policies and successful analytics departments, but it’s far from trivial at a national level. In a 2010 Socrata survey, approximately 40% of government respondents agreed with the statement that “Unless my organization has an executive or legislative mandate, we can’t start an Open Data project.” The same survey reported that only about a quarter of states had launched a dedicated open data site. A vicious cycle is apparent: government officials unaware of the power of data science to address the concerns of their constituencies may not see the need to encourage their departments to pursue open data initiatives, which in turn keeps public-minded hackers from interacting meaningfully with state and local data and helping demonstrate the types of civic remedies data analysis can provide.

The cycle won’t change overnight; although 39 states have open data initiatives, only four states participated in the NDCH in an official capacity. But events like the NDCH offer policy professionals an up-close experience of what hackers actually do. And it turns out that it’s not so scary after all.

Photo: Terri Woody-Weaver, Creative Commons

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