Monday, April 20, 2015

Why Good Hackers Make Good Citizens

It's hard to explain what civic hacking is to most people. To start with, the word 'hacker' means something bad to the vast majority of the world. A cybercriminal, someone who breaks into your computer, steals your information, steals money through the Internet.

That negative filter makes it difficult for a person to think about hacking in a good way. It's sort of like you're trying to understand how doing a bad thing can work out well and be good for the general public.

And for most people who aren't deeply involved with technology and familiar with open source software, the terms 'open data' and 'open government' are likewise meaningless, or at least hard to understand.

Today's post is the start of my effort to respond to someone I invited to the "DHMN Civic Hackathon/Appleton 2015." After I sent her an email with a link to a blog post about the event, she told me, 'I read the info, but I still don't get it. What is civic hacking?'

If you don't know what civic hacking is, or what a civic hackathon is, watch the Catherine Bracy video below, "Why Good Hackers Make Good Citizens."


Catherine explains that Benjamin Franklin was one of the earliest civic hackers in America. She says:
"Hacking is really just any amateur innovation on an existing system, and it is a deeply democratic activity. It's about critical thinking. It's about questioning existing ways of doing things. It's the idea that if you see a problem, you work to fix it, and not just complain about it. And in many ways, hacking is what built America. Betsy Ross was a hacker. The Underground Railroad was a brilliant hack. And from the Wright brothers to Steve Jobs, hacking has always been at the foundation of American democracy...Benjamin Franklin...was one of the greatest hackers of all time. He was one of America's most prolific inventors, though he famously never filed a patent, because he thought that all human knowledge should be freely available
He brought us bifocals and the lightning rod, and of course there was his collaboration on the invention of American democracy...He was a tinkerer and a statesman whose conception of citizenship was always predicated on action
He believed that government could be built by the people, and we call those people civic hackers...But before I give you a few examples of what civic hacking looks like, I want to make clear that you don't have to be a programmer to be a civic hacker. You just have to believe that you can bring a 21st-century tool set to bear on the problems that government faces."
In order to try and better explain civc hacking to people who say, 'I read about it, but I just don't get it,' I'm going to ask someone from Code for America to write a short guest post explaining the topic. I'll also do a couple blog posts about how and why specific civic hacks came to be.

If you've got specific questions about civic hacking or about civic hackathons, please send those questions to Bob Waldron at bwaldron [at] gmail (dott) com. I'll answer those questions in future posts.

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