Sunday, April 19, 2015

The State Of Civic Hacking In Wisconsin

Civic hacking in Wisconsin, outside of Madison and Milwaukee, appears to be very much in the early stages. Probably 99% of the state's residents outside those two metro areas have never heard of civic hacking or don't know what it is. Almost all of the state's citizens are likely to consider 'civic hacking' a criminal activity.

(For more info on what civic hacking is, see my earlier blog post on the topic or watch this TED video.)

Many people in large tech metro areas like San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, and Austin, as well as other areas with less of a tech focus like Washington, DC, Miami and Minneapolis, see real benefits in civic hacking. A small group of people in northeast Wisconsin are working together to bring some of those benefits to our region.

It's predictable that Madison would already be involved in civic hacking because of UW-Madison, the tech companies located in Madison, and the relatively large population of the metro area.

The Isthmus article "Hacking for the common good" gives an overview of civic hacking in Wisconsin's capitol.
"Data is the fuel that's needed to make the civic hacking engine run. To create SMSMyBus, Tracy got the GPS data he needed from Madison Metro's website using a technique called "screen scraping," which involves converting data from web pages into a programmable format...Tracy says that for years, screen scraping was one of the few ways to tackle problems requiring city data. However, that changed in 2012 when Madison passed an open data ordinance and created an open data portal containing datasets from municipal agencies like the police department and assessor's office...When people are given free rein to play with public data, they sometimes create elegant, useful products without eating up government resources. "The recurring theme I hear, no matter [the source], is that city staff is overworked," says Brad Grzesiak, who is CEO at Madison software development shop Bendyworks and has helped organize civic hacking events. The need to access public data touches all levels of government. Rep. Chris Taylor (D-Madison) says she's planning to introduce a bill that would require all data statewide that's otherwise accessible through an open records request to be electronically accessible and machine-readable. "What I'm really looking to do is spur the creation of applications," Taylor says. "You can't use data that's saved in PDFs or certain other file formats. It needs to be usable so that people can [ask], 'What's the cleanest lake?' or 'What lake has the most of whatever fish you're looking for and what are the best times to fish?' There's a lot of good DNR data in particular that might be very usable for apps." Taylor says citizens would save money if public
documents were more widely available. "You can go get it," she says. "You don't have to do an open records request." Although Madison's city government collects and maintains a treasure trove of data, very little of it is available through the city's open data portal. To date, it contains just 103 datasets, although this number continues to grow..."
Here are some civic hacking websites related to Madison:

It's also predictable that Milwaukee would have had some involvement in civic hacking by now because of it's large population, multiple large universities, tech companies and support of tech groups by companies and government in Milwaukee. However, a Google search didn't reveal nearly as much sustainable, ongoing civic hacking as you can find in Madison, due likely to the more conservative culture of the Milwaukee metro area.

The two primary 'news' items I found for civic hacking in Milwaukee were:
  • Radio Milwaukee article, "Help Make Milwaukee A Better City By Hacking It This Weekend," covers activities planned for the National Day of Civic Hacking 2014 event in Milwaukee. "Beginning on Saturday, Milwaukee Data Initiative will be hosting a Milwaukee Civic Hackathon. The hackathon will be held May 31 and June 1 at Bucketworks inside the Grand Avenue Mall. Participants will include City of Milwaukee Chief Information Officer, representatives from various Milwaukee County and City departments, Local experts on MCTS transit data, UWM App Brewery Founder and others. Some of the projects that the hackathon will work on include: MCTS API Bus Apps and Hardware Hack (with the new MCTS API), Residential Service Data App (listing resources for homeowners in Milwaukee), Adopt-A-Hydrant Milwaukee App (Open Source project to monitor fire hydrants), US Open City Census (cataloging our open data assets in Milwaukee)." 
  • The "MDI: Intro to Civic Hacking" meetup, scheduled for June 6, 2013, had 29 people registered to attend and was described this way: "Combining forces with Milwaukee Tech Engine and Python MKE, MDI is proud to present our first class: Intro to Civic Hacking. This will be an intro to civic hacking (the legal kind) with Python, led by our own @version2beta! This is for the novice or beginner coder, and for novice to intermediate civic
    hackers...These meetups are a chance to showcase how people and organizations are using and producing data in interesting or innovative ways...Anyone can attend (designers, front-end developers, back-end developers, mobile developers, idea folks, social media people)
People in Milwaukee are likely doing civic hacking in 2015, but those activities weren't easily found with a Google web search. The primary Milwaukee open data website appears to be Milwaukee Data Initiative, although I did find a couple Milwaukee civic hack repositories on GitHub.

Here are a few 'open data' webpages for different parts of Wisconsin found via Google searches:
The scarcity of discoverable civic hacking and open government data to-date in Wisconsin means these are (can be?) emerging issues, with much more activity to be seen in the future. It's likely that civic hackers in Wisconsin are in stealth mode and mostly in the early stages of civic hacking, other than a few people like Greg Tracy, Erik Paulson, Scott Resnick, and Paul Kronberger, all in Madison. The Madison activity on this topic and lack of activity outside Madison is because:
  • Open government data and civic hacking are driven by people involved in open source software, people doing tech startups, and people connected with or reading about the tech culture on west or east US coasts
  • Excepting Madison, Wisconsin has a conservative Midwest culture, relatively low level of general population involvement with high tech industry or open source software, lack of critical mass in state or regional tech communities, lack of well-connected regional tech communities, few highly successful tech startup founders, and minimal financial support for tech community by companies and city, regional or state governments.
  • Excepting Madison, there has not been a sustained grassroots effort in Wisconsin to connect and expand the community of civic hackers.
As mentioned before, credible people and organizations see value in civic hacking. One simple example from the US Chamber of Commerce of the value in hacking open data is the Weather Channel, a business built using open government data from the US Department of Commerce. In a Government Technology article Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker said, "Unleashing the full force of our data will be a source of innovation, a cornerstone of economic opportunity for
businesses and entrepreneurs, and a foundation for greater prosperity for millions of families." The US White House endorsed civic hacks and the National Day of Civic Hacking in a White House blog post.

Benefits to northeast Wisconsin civic hackers and their communities to be gotten from connecting and collaborating on open data and open government are:
  • People new to the topic learn civic hacking skills from more experienced civic hackers
  • People learn about new civic hacks they can customize for use in their communities
  • Opportunities to improve our local, regional, state or federal 'communities', making life better for the civic hackers and for their fellow citizens
  • Future in-person collaboration on open source civic data apps or on new startups
Benefits of northeast Wisconsin residents connecting with Wisconsin civic hackers from outside our region:
  • People learn about new civic hacks from outside northeast Wisconsin that they can customize for use in our region
  • Northeast Wisconsin civic hackers can learn from people more experienced in the subject, especially those in Madison.
  • More incentive to work on civic hacks of state of Wisconsin open data
Benefits of connecting northeast Wisconsin with civic hackers outside our state:
  • Learn civic hacking skills from far more experienced civic hackers, especially ones from the west or east coasts
  • Learn about non-Wisconsin civic hacks we can fork for use in Wisconsin
  • Build relationships with other Midwest civic hackers for potential future in-person collaboration
  • Potential future remote collaboration with people outside the Midwest and outside the US
I'm not sure what I'll write about for tomorrow's civic hacking post.

If you're not sure if you want to be a civic hacker, read more about it on this blog, research the topic online with your search friend, Google, then register for the June 6th "DHMN Civic Hackathon/Appleton 2015."


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