Sunday, May 31, 2015

Does Northeast Wisconsin Want Open Data?

Today's post will not give you exhaustive coverage of all the benefits of open data.

The purpose of this post is to get people (who read it) thinking about whether the cost / benefit ratio of open data is high enough to make it worthwhile for all or part of NE Wisconsin.

A valuable outcome of the "DHMN Civic Hackathon/Appleton 2015" will be people discussing and deciding whether they personally feel open data is good for this region.

Even better would be if that discussion was more widely spread throughout the general population of our area. And, if most people involved in the conversations about open data think it is worth pursuing, it will be fantastically fun to have talks with the appropriate city and county government people about making useful government public data available in an easy-to-use open format.

(If you don't know what 'open data' is, see "What Are Open Government And Open Data?" and "Appleton Open Data & Civic Hacking.")

As far as I can figure out, there's almost no public data available from governments in NE Wisconsin in an open data format. The minimal data that's open seems to be mainly GIS data (geographic information systems).

So the obvious answer to the question in the title of this post appears to be "No, NE Wisconsin doesn't want open data."

However, you sometimes want something when you don't have it. Lack of knowledge about the item may be the reason you don't want it. If the region had open data, it might solve problems or bring new opportunities. The catch is, open data won't magically appear. The government bodies who have the public data almost always have the data stored in a computer system that's not available to the public. And they often input or store the data in a format that's not user-friendly for today's coders who are using current programming tools and platforms that work well with open data.

So, if we're going to unlock the valuable potential of public information gathered or generated by the government with your tax dollars, we need to do the following:

  • Figure out what, if any, public data will be valuable when it is available in an open and easily-used format.
  • Discuss with public officials the best way to make that data available in a reasonable amount of time.
  • Develop one or several collaborative teams to develop civic hacks with that open data.
  • Publicize the availability of the open data and promote civic hacking of those data sets.
  • Promote use and improvement of the civic hacks after they're developed.

This sounds like good stuff, right? But what are some of the benefits of open data, since most people in NE Wisconsin don't know what it is? Well, the Forbes article "U.S. Government Data To Be Made Freely Available" put it this way in 2013:
"Interesting news out of The White House this this morning announcing an Open Data Executive Order...Along with the  order is an accompanying Open Data Policy released by the Office of Management and Budget and Office of Science and  Technology Policy. The order states that “going forward, newly generated  government data shall be made freely available in open, machine-readable formats, while  appropriately safeguarding privacy, confidentiality, and security. This requirement will help the  Federal government achieve the goal of making troves of previously inaccessible or unmanageable data easily available to entrepreneurs, innovators, researchers, and others who can use those data to generate new products and services, build businesses, and create jobs. Today’s actions are the latest manifestation of the...commitment to releasing and leveraging data in support of enhanced transparency and accountability, improved government services, and a stronger economy."
I'll do a future blog post that talks more in-depth about benefits of open data from the government. But for now, below are a couple specific benefits.

  • Releasing federal GPS and weather info as open data created new companies valued in the billions of dollars (whose products you've used).
  • Open data saved Canada $3.2 billion in charity tax fraud.
  • A woman in Denmark built a civic hack showing all the Danish public toilets, so that people she knew with bladder problems can now trust themselves to go out in public more.
  • Civic hacks in Germany allow you to find places to live, taking into account the duration of your commute to work, housing prices, and how beautiful an area is.

If you think NE Wisconsin should have more open data from its government bodies, let your elected officials know (although you may have to explain to them what open data is, and they may not want to change the way they are doing things now).

And consider participating in the June 6 civic hackathon in Appleton to meet and work with other people who feel open data would be beneficial for our region.

Click Here To Register Today for the free civic hackathon if you aren't already signed up!


Saturday, May 30, 2015

Civic Hacking In The News: May 30, 2015

This May 30, 2015, post is a few items from recent news about civic hacking. No commentary on today’s articles, just short excerpts (will update post in next couple days if I get extra energy). If they sound like something you want to know more about, click the headline links and read them in their entirety.

Miami’s Tech Leaders Ask Mayor Gimenez for a Stronger Open Data Policy
"This week, 59 members of Miami’s tech community signed a letter calling on Mayor Carlos A. Gimenez to introduce a robust open data policy for the county. The letter was sent on behalf of the signers by Code for Miami, a brigade of volunteers dedicated to improving civic technology throughout Miami­-Dade County...This move would help Miami-Dade focus more time and attention on its civic hackers, the developers, analysts, and business people who can use the public data to create solutions to ongoing problems in the city."
City of Edmonton opens door on open data from residents
"After cyclist Tim Bulger started counting how many bikes parked at a bike rack using a smartphone app — which Metro reported on earlier this month — something changed. Not only is Bulger finding a way to make an argument for more bike racks, he’s shifting how the city sees data gathered by its own residents. In short, they’re thinking about accepting it and using it. “It’s definitely something we’re interested in and want to be a part of,” said Jackie Ortiz, spokesperson for the city’s open data sector, of crowdsourced data...Now, city officials are working with him and potentially others to collect information. It’s part of their Open City initiative. Within the next two weeks, administration will decide how the city will accept or incentivize crowd-sourced data...But Zvyagintseva said there’s a green light from the city to accept user-generated data is a huge incentive for new data to be collected – without the city needing to be behind it."
This summer, you can pay for parking with this app
"The Philadelphia Parking Authority announced today that by the end of the summer, Philadelphians will be able to pay for parking with their smartphones, using Pango Parking’s mobile app...For the initial six-month trial, the app will only work for on-street parking in Center City, the Torresdale Rail Station lot and a lot at 8th and Chestnut Streets. The PPA won’t pay anything to Pango for the contract, said spokesman Martin O’Rourke, but Pango will take 1 cent per transaction that goes through the app...The company will also pay for credit card processing fees, the wireless data plan for the PPA’s mobile enforcement devices and marketing materials...With Pango, you’ll be able to add time to your meter remotely, though the PPA has proposed raising parking rates each time a driver re-ups, in order to “encourage parking turnover.” The idea of remotely adding to your meter (and thus, not getting a ticket) concerned the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities, which said that the city should realize this would mean less money for the School District." 
Bus pass: Civic hackers open transit data MTA said would cost too much to share
"Despite promises of transparency and efforts to create "open data" in the hopes of latching onto the "app economy"—words frequently used in government agency press releases—much of the data that would be of the greatest value to citizens often ends up out of reach. For example, if you want to plan a trip on public transportation in many cities (or even just find out when your bus will show up), you often have to turn to Google Maps or another transit-tracking application on your mobile device. In Baltimore, however, that data has been locked behind the firewalls of the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA). But now a civic hacker has made that data available to app developers by doing what the MTA claimed would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to complete—simply tapping into websites that the agency has already built. And the hacker did it without spending a dime of taxpayer money...While the MTA released an early version of its own bus tracking application this month, it's a Web application and lacks tools like geolocation. It has the sort of byzantine interface that most people have come to expect from government websites, it makes accessing the data difficult, and the MTA isn't making the data available to Google or others to make finding the best route any easier...The reason the MTA gave for not doing a mobile app—or opening the data to third parties—was cost...We know in many cases, the information needed to create an application is made public so private firms can attempt to develop an application at their own expense. However, it would cost approximately $600,000 more to be able to format the data from our 25-yr-old CAD/AVL system into GTFS for use by outside developers," the MTA said...within days of the MTA's Web app going live, geo-data developer and open government data advocate Chris Whong had already done what the MTA refused to do...Whong wrote in a blog post that it took a few hours of trial and error to confirm the data feed format, but in the end he and a small team of "civic hackers" were able to construct a framework that would allow applications to pull, for free, the very data the MTA said would cost $600,000 to publish. The team also produced a live tracking site on the Heroku application hosting platform to demonstrate the framework and then posted the whole thing on Github to allow others to use it."
How open data can improve agriculture
"Global food demand will “nearly double” by 2050. GODAN’s report argues that this problem can be solved through open data leading to more efficient decision making, fostering innovation, and increasing transparency...Opening research data leads to “ongoing, collaborative research, while eliminating unnecessary and costly duplication of efforts”, thereby pushing innovation, according to the study. AgTrials compiled and opened data concerning cultivar research for crop varieties, resulting in region-specific crop models to define breeding programs. (A cultivar plant is one that has been produced in cultivation by selective breeding.) This is the kind of practice that encourages collaboration between “governments, businesses, NGOs, and individuals” and consequently improves agricultural practices...Transparency is becoming more prevalent, as evidenced by the fact that “major funding bodies of agri-food and nutrition research are making open access mandatory, requiring research outcomes and research data produced through their funding to be made publicly available,” the study said."


Friday, May 29, 2015

Restaurant Health Inspections & Civic Hacking

Health inspection results for restaurants are publicly-available information. Or, if they're not, they should be...

Being able to easily find out what the public health inspection results have been for restaurants is of high interest to some people. Especially if it's the first time someone is going to eat at a restaurant. Or if they hear bad things through the grapevine about a particular restaurant. The problem is, most public health inspection departments don't appear to make that information available in a user-friendly way. So it seems to me that public health inspections is an ideal field for civic hacking.

Even though health inspection reports are or should be public data, that information may be difficult for Jolene or Joe Public to easily and quickly find for the restaurants they're interested in. That might be because the public health department which does the inspections is still using information systems that were designed and built 30 or 40 years ago, before the Internet made it easy to access public data. Or it may be because negative health inspection results is sensitive data that public officials or the restaurants don't want shared too freely. Or the information may be difficult to get in 2015 for other reasons.

Below are three articles which comment on civic hacking of health inspection results. If you're a citizen of northeast Wisconsin who wants to be able to easily find out the health inspection results for a restaurant you're considering eating at, read these articles and consider participating in the "DHMN Civic Hackathon/Appleton 2015" on June 6, 2015, to work on the issue of health inspection reports.

In "Did That Restaurant Pass Its Health Inspection?," NPR talks about health inspection reports in a few cities being incorporated with Yelp reviews for restaurants.
"Log onto Yelp, and you'll find what all your neighbors have to say about your favorite restaurant. You'll find prices, locations, menus, photos, even parking tips. And if you're in the right city, you'll also find the restaurant's health inspection score. "What we're trying to do ... is reduce foodborne illness [by] warning consumers when they're in the middle of making a decision," Luther Lowe, Yelp's director of public policy, tells The Salt. Now, we should note, it can be a bit tricky to spot those health inspection scores on Yelp. If you're looking at the Yelp website, the information is listed in a box alongside the venue's hours, menu and price range. On the smartphone app, you have to click the "More Info" button. But at least it's easier than reading through the reviews for tales of food poisoning or cockroach infestations, or tracking down the scores on a government website. "We're obviously getting way more exposure to consumers than whatever clunky 'dot gov' that the city has set up," says Lowe."
In the GeekWire article "Here’s your guide to the nastiest restaurants in Seattle," a site called Dinegerous is profiled. The site's name could be a portmanteau of 'dine' and 'dangerouse,' it could be a phonetic misspelling of the British pronunciation of 'dangerous', or it could just sound weird if you pronounce each syllable --- Di-neg-er-ous.
"Navigating Seattle’s burgeoning restaurant scene can be a serious challenge, and, if you’re unlucky, a health hazard too. (I bet I’m not the only one whose had my stomach turn after eating a bowl of clam chowder). But a Seattle geek has figured out an easy way to inform the masses about which dining establishments you’re better off avoiding, putting together a Google Map showcasing which restaurants in the city have accumulated the worst health inspection scores. The site is called Dinegerous, and it is the brainchild of Gist employee and frequent restaurant-goer Stephen Becker. He came up with the idea after a recent lunch outing with friends at Pyramid Alehouse — which actually scores pretty well. The conversation turned to health inspections, and Becker wondered if he could pull data onto a Google map to showcase those restaurants with the best and worst scores. When Becker discovered that his favorite lunch hangout scored a miserable 110 (the higher the score the more health violations), the coder decided that it was time to spread the word. “After having my coworkers test it out, we just kept talking about it,” said Becker, who only started working on the mashup about two weeks ago. He pulls the data from the King County Health Department weekly..."
For a Wisconsin article that mentions health inspection civic hacking, "Hacking for the common good" from the Isthmus (not the Wisconsin State Journal) talks about putting public health inspection data online and about a restaurant health inspection civic hack called
"I think the portal would be a lot more powerful if city employees actually used it themselves," says Erik Paulson...I asked, 'Did you use the open data portal to create these?' And the answer was, 'No, we use the same data that's in there but we use different tools.'..."I think Erik has a good point," says Sarah Edgerton...She confirms that her colleagues used geographic information system (GIS) tools, rather than the portal, to make the maps...Edgerton says the city has put more data online recently, such as restaurant and retail food store health inspection reports, which are now available through a lookup tool on the Public Health Madison & Dane County website. However, this information not being on the portal makes it cumbersome for civic hackers to incorporate into, say, a smartphone app. That's exactly what Max Stoller did in 2010, when he was a junior computer science major at New York University. His app notifies users when they've checked into a New York restaurant that the eatery has a poor health code grade or is in danger of being shut down. Stoller developed for NYC BigApps, an annual app-making competition using New York City's cornucopia of public data. won an honorable mention in the contest. "That is a great example of open data and the potential for collaboration with the developer community," says Rachel Haot, who at the time was the city's chief digital officer (CDO) and is now New York state's CDO and deputy secretary for technology."
So other cities in the US are letting their residents see the health inspection results for their cities, some in a user-friendly manner, some not so friendly. That seems to indicate that the public should also be able to see restaurant health inspection results from northeast Wisconsin in a user-friendly way if one or several civic hackers are willing to create the code to do just that. As guides to creating that code, or as potential starting points, below are links to GitHub repositories of health inspection civic hacks.

Open Health Inspection, Hampton Roads, VA
Hampton Roads has three health inspection repositories on GitHub. One for scraping the health inspection data, since it's not available in an easy-to-use open data format, one for the health inspection API, and one for the actual health inspection application to see results for different restaurants. One thing that could be made more convenient for the user of this civic hack is allowing the user to just search for a specific restaurant. Right now you have to search by zip code or GPS, and then sort through all the results that pop up to find the restaurant you're interested in.

Open Health Inspection, Chattanooga, TN
Chattanooga is building on the work done in Hampton Roads, with Chattanooga forks of the Open Health Inspection Scraper, the Open Health Inspection API, and the Open Health Inspection App.

Lex_to_LIVES, Lexington, KY
Lexington appears to have made the beginnings of a civic hack for restaurant health inspections, with their GitHub respository here. One issue with the Lexington hack is that it forces the user to download a file. Nobody wants to download a file to see the health inspection results for a restaurant. The second issue is that it appears to only have the most recent inspection. That could give a skewed impression for the restaurant. If a particular establishment has repeatedly had poor inspections, that's much different from having a single bad result. And a similar concern applies to a single good or ok result. It would be much more helpful to see at least three or four previous inspection results.

Restaurant Inspection Data, Houston, TX
The Houston situation is a slight twist on the health inspection hacks. In this case, the city of Houston seems to be the one leading the charge, rather than non-government civic hackers. In the post "Houston Hackathon Idea Series: Restaurant inspection data" by Niki Varani, the city of Houston is promoting the development of some way to more easily look up health inspection information. This city of Houston post even points at their current interface for restaurant health info and says they "think it could be a lot better." I was able to find two Houston health inspection repositories on GitHub that appears to be related to Houston civic hackathons, Food Inspection Map HTX and Zindler, for restaurant inspection reports.

If you want to work on a health inspection civic hack, read this post from Accela, "Data Standards, Restaurant Scores, SMS and 50 Lines of Code." ** warning ** The post will primarily be of interest to coders...

For those interested, click here to go to the Appleton Health Department restaurant inspections webpage. And this is the Outagamie Public Health Division webpage.

Next week I'll do another post on government-related public data that might be of high interest to citizens, but which isn't easily available to the public for one reason or another. Part of the value of a civic hackathon is to start community discussions about which government-related data is worthwhile to make easily available to the general public and to develop a plan on how to convert that information into open data that's in a user-friendly format.

If a health inspection results app is of interest to you, come to the June 6th hackathon and help build that app for northeast Wisconsin.


Thursday, May 28, 2015

Voting Hacks Part 3: Examples of Civic Hacks For Better Voting

This post is a sampling of some of the civic hacks that have been created to improve the government-related voting process, primarily in the US.

I tried to find a list of currently active and widely used civic hacks for better voting, so that participants in the DHMN Civic Hackathon/Appleton 2015 could use that list as a starting point if they want to work on some aspect of the voting process. I was unable to find such a list, but Nicko Margolies from the Sunlight Foundation sent me links to several of the projects below. Apologies for this blog post -- consider it a first draft. I'm on pain medication and antibiotics, and my brain seems to be on vacation right now. I'll update this post in a couple days to correct errors and maybe add a few more voting hacks.

The Knight Foundation had a recent Knight News Challenge highly relevant to improved voting. The Challenge question was: "How might we better inform voters and increase civic participation before, during and after elections?" It is highly likely a couple high-quality civic hacks will come out of the $3 million dollars in grants that the Knight Foundation will award in June 2015 for people to improve the voting process. 1010 entries were submitted to this Challenge and 45 of them made it to Finalist status. Check out the website if you're interested in this, and consider learning more about grant programs from the Knight Foundation, an organization which believes that "democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged."

Voting Information Project
The Voting Information Project (VIP) is a long-running collaborative open source effort to help citizens see where to vote and what’s on their ballots. As such, it is something civic hackers who want to work on voting issues should learn more about before they design and start building the hack. If you're a coder, you should check out the VIP GitHub page. There have even been hackathons dedicated to working on VIP, such as the San Francisco Voting Information Project Hackathon and the Pew Voting Information Project Hackathon.

TurboVote is a project to get citizens registered to vote, track rule changes and election deadlines. To find out more about the project, read the post "OpenGov Voices: How TurboVote is Shaping the Future of Voting," written by Kathryn Peters, cofounder of TurboVote.. TurboVote had enough success and was seen as having a bright enough future that the Knight Foundation gave it a $1 million grant, the purpose of which was to help increase citizen participation in elections through new technology and outreach, while enabling TurboVote to develop a sustainable funding model.

"Launched by the League of Women Voters Education Fund (LWVEF) in October of 2006, is a "one-stop-shop" for election related information. It provides nonpartisan information to the public with both general and state-specific information on [many] aspects of the election process. An important component of is the polling place locator, which enables users to type in their address and retrieve the poll location for the voting precinct in which that address is located. The League has found that this is among the most sought after information in the immediate days leading up to, and on, Election Day."

Voter's Edge
"Voter’s Edge is your one stop for the 2014 election. Our website provides nonpartisan voter information for US elections. We make it simple for you to see a customized view of who and what is on your ballot, which we generate based on your address." I couldn't find anything that discussed whether Voter's Edge was a one time effort for the 2014 elections or whether they expected to update their database for future elections.

Philly Vote Check
Social Vote
The blog post "7 Code for Philly ‘DemHack’ apps that could inspire civic engagement" talks about how the Philly Vote Check and Social Vote civic hacks came to be. The Philly Vote Check webpage also gives a bit more info about the project, which is "designed to help voters identify and locate their polling place based on their district, ward and/or address."

Election Protection
"The nonpartisan Election Protection coalition was formed to ensure that all voters have an equal opportunity to participate in the political process. Throughout the election process, our volunteers will be entering data and information into Our Vote Live, an interactive environment painting the most comprehensive picture of election irregularities from the perspective of the voter available anywhere. Unique in the excitement of this political season, Election Protection focuses on the voter - not on the political horse race - and provides guidance, information and help to any American, regardless of who that voter is casting a ballot for." The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights created an Election Protection smartphone app which might be worth looking at if we want to make an Appleton voting app. Many of the other voting civic hacks also have smartphone apps.

Keep Calm And Vote On
Keep Calm and Vote On is an example of relatively simple civic hacks that could be done for new voting issues that come up. The real challenge to the usefulness of a hack like Keep Calm and Vote On would be publicizing the website so people knew where to go for that information. To make this type of a civic hack worthwhile, people need to be working on marketing and promoting the app to the voting-age citizens for whom the information is intended. If almost nobody looks at a website like this, it probably wasn't worth the time and effort to build it.

Vote ATX
This is a map-based voting hack; if you're interest in something like that, check out the Vote ATX GitHub page.

I'll wrap up this post with the article "Hack the vote: how open data is giving elections back to the voters." The article gave this look at how open data in elections was having a big impact.
"In Argentina, in October last year, Hacks/Hackers Buenos Aires with political analyst Andy Tow set up this site, which brought together official data from the provisional counts and candidate details. In addition, a university project provided biographical information and the policy platforms of each presidential ticket. They then incorporated census socio-economic data too. The team of 30 hackers began work the day before the election and carried on through. They used the best free tools available to create something dyadic and interesting: Google Fusion Tables, Google Maps, and vector graphics libraries. The data itself can be used to compare previous election results too and was merged with demographic data. They became the official source of information: maps from the project were used by media platforms during the elections and afterwards."
If you're interested in civic hacks for better voting, show up at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, USA, for the June 6th civic hackathon. You can work with other like-minded people to create or modify a civic hack to improve the voting process in northeast Wisconsin. If you didn't already sign up to participate, do it TODAY!

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Community Coding Project Ideas

[Today's guest post is by Heath Anderson]

As the DHMN Civic Hackathon/City of Appleton 2015 soon approaches, June 6, 2015, a few project ideas have been tossed around to get the creative juices flowing for the day of the event.  Some are a modification to existing civic hack projects and some potentially newer projects.

VolunteerHub – allows all local nonprofits to advertise, approve, coordinate, and track volunteers for their project needs.

MaconMakers – Open barter market where no currency is allowed. Participants can only trade goods for goods with community members.

Adopt-A-Hydrant – Community members volunteer to shovel snow away from hydrants after major snowstorms.

Pet Alert ATX – City of Austin animal shelter found animals info for lost pets.

Neighborhood projects - help organize neighborhood projects and contact information.  Projects could range from book club gatherings to park revitalization efforts and anything in-between.

Eat Appleton – Map trending restaurants from twitter, yelp or other consumer based ratings.  Continue by creating a walking/biking route to said establishments. The site could be geared toward restaurants, craft brew pubs, and the like.


[For ideas on what civic hacks you could consider working on at the June 6 civic hackathon, also read "DHMN Civic Hackathon/Appleton 2015: Top 10 Hacks." Lots of other civic hack ideas are discussed in other posts on this blog. See the list of post in the right column of this webpage.]


Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Voting Hacks Part 2: New Voting App for Appleton

[Today's guest post is by David Kieffer]

Hey All,

I’m David Kieffer, designer/cofounder at Kieffer Bros. (we make small puzzles games -, and I am also a volunteer community manager at The Avenue HQ (The coworking space, downtown Appleton - I’ve been getting excited about the DHMN Civic Hackathon coming up on Saturday, June 6th, and I wanted to share a proposal for something we could work on.

An important part of being involved in the civic process is being an informed voter. I’ve been voting for over a decade now, and ever since I’ve always found the research process to be quite time consuming. One of the obstacles is figuring out what specifically will be on your ballot before you vote.

This process can be tricky and off-putting. Depending on what neighborhood you live in, your ballot may be slightly different from your neighbor’s across the street. Finding this info on the city website, then having to remember the correct ward and district is the first roadblock. Then downloading a PDF image of the ballot and trying to understand your choices with a hard-to-read, clunky layout is even more frustrating. This all adds up to a time consuming process and really gets in the way of researching and understanding what you are voting on.

The whole process could be optimized with a simple webpage or app that let’s you type in your address, and out pops your ballot in a well-designed, readable format that is easy to use for reference and research. I have no idea whether the ballot data would be easily parseable, and how and when the city releases the data for each election, but I am personally excited about working on the UX side of this idea.

We could eventually take it a step further and show you a map of your ward, let you know who your alderperson is (with contact info), and show you your polling location. Listed candidates could be linked to web searches making the research process even more accessible. We could even build a voter alert email signup.

Ultimately this idea is about harnessing the ballot info that is already available and making it more accessible — making civic involvement in Appleton an easier, friendlier process. Anyways, that's the idea. I'm not sure if it's practical or doable, but if we can build it, it'd be really cool. I'm looking forward to hearing other ideas too. Come to the DHMN Civic Hackathon at Lawrence University on Saturday, June 6th.


Monday, May 25, 2015

DHMN Civic Hackathon/Appleton 2015: Top 10 Hacks

So what civic hacks could be created or improved on June 6, 2015, at the DHMN Civic Hackathon/Appleton 2015??

There are hundreds or thousands of interesting and worthwhile projects hackathon participants can work on, depending on their skills, knowledge and interests and the type of project. I don't know what people will be interested in working on, and for many of the participants, I have no idea what skills and knowledge they'll bring to the event.

But I have learned a little bit about civic hacking over the past few years, and I do know some of the people who will spend at least a couple hours on June 6 working to make some aspect of their city, county, state or national government-related experience better. So I'll make a few recommendations for people to consider working on.

If any of these recommendations catch your interest, Google them and learn more. Or send me, Bob Waldron, an email at bwaldron (at) gmail [dott] com. I'll answer any questions I can and send you more info about the hack(s) you're interested in.

My top 10 recommendations for civic hackers to consider forming a team around and working on at the June 6 hackathon are:

(1)  AppletonAPI
AppletonAPI Phase 1, Garbage Day Reminder
  • This is the first civic hack created for northeast Wisconsin and for Appleton.
  • The person who created this hack, Mike Putnam, will be participating in the hackathon.
  • AppletonAPI is currently a relatively simple hack, but worthwhile and interesting improvements can be made to it in the future
  • Mike has an Android app partially developed for the hack; it would be great to have a beta smartphone app done by June 7.
  • After the hackathon starts, Mike will likely explain or pitch his hack to hackathon participants who might consider working on it with him.
  • For more info on this hack, see Mike's blog post, "AppletonAPI: Appleton & NE Wisconsin's First Civic Hack".
(2)  Adopt-A-Hydrant
  • Adopt-A-Hydrant is a robust and proven civic hack that's been successful and used in many communities.
  • Its source code is on GitHub so it can be easily forked (customized) for Appleton or other northeast Wisconsin cities.
  • There are lots of resources (online info and people) to help a hack team as they work on Adopt-A-Hydrant.
  • This hack platform can and has been customized for items other than fire hydrants, such as storm drains, trees, and tsunami sirens.
  • If civic hack teams form for AppletonAPI and Appleton Adopt-A-Hydrant at the hackathon and make decent progress during the event, that will be an excellent base for continued civic hacking in Appleton and a good starting point for civic hacking activities in other northeast Wisconsin cities.
  • For more info, see the blog post about Adopt-A-Hydrant.
(3)  Civic Hack for Better Voting
  • One of the people who will participate in the hackathon said he's interested in working on a voting hack.
  • There are lots of existing civic hacks related to voting, so we should be able to either customize another hack for Appleton, or at least be able to use code from the other hacks or learn from the way they're built.
  • Creating or adapting a smartphone app that results in a better voting experience seems like a fantastic way to use 21st century technology to improve a classic part of an American's interaction with their government.
  • There should be a high level of interest and willingness from the city of Appleton and from other relevant government organizations to develop open data sets that enable a better voting experience.
  • The League of Women Voters and other local, regional or national organizations are likely to be highly suppportive of a civic hack for better voting. It might even be possible to get a grant to cover costs of improving this type of app.
  • Some civic hacks would be used by very few people, but a voting app will be useful for every voter who has a smartphone.
  • For more thought on this topic, see the post, "Part 1: Civic Hacks For Better Voting."
(4)  Civic Hack Using Appleton GIS Esri Open Data Set
  • The first civic hackathon in Appleton really should have at least one civic hacker working with open data from the city of Appleton. Since the only open data sets the city of Appleton has are Esri GIS files, one or several hackathon participants should work with Heath Anderson, the city's GIS rep at the event, to create some type of civic hack using one of those files.
  • The Esri GIS files can be found at
  • If interested in this type of a civic hack, read "GIS Guide for Honolulu / Appleton Civic Hackers" and "Esri: GIS, Civic Hacking & Open Data Initiative."
  • If reeeeally interested in a civic hack which uses an Appleton Ersi GIS data set, call the Esri regional office in St. Paul, MN, at 651-454-0600, ask for the regional manager, and ask them to send an Esri rep to the hackathon to help your hack team.
(5)  OpenStreetMap Project
OpenStreetMap downtown Appleton
  • Many civic hacks use OpenStreetMap (OSM), so we can use those as a starting point (fork someone else's hack from GitHub) or a learning reference.
  • An OSM hack is something non-coders can enjoy working on. They might also enjoy using OSM for personal projects that have nothing to do with civic hacking, so people working on this could benefit in multiple ways.
  • After northeast Wisconsin civic hackers learn how to use OSM for one hack, they'll be able to use that knowledge on many future civic hacks and be able to show others how to hack OSM.
  • There are a ton of resources on the web related to working with OSM.
  • If interested in an OSM project, check out the Mapping America challenge and the Introduction to OpenStreetMap challenge from Code for America as part of the National Day of Civic Hacking.
  • For more ideas re hacking OSM, see "Part 1: OpenStreetMap And Civic Hacking," "Part 2: OpenStreetMap and Civic Hacking" and "Civic Hacking: Web Mapping Overview."
(6)  Little Free Library
  • Many people who have never heard of civic hacking know what a Little Free Library is.
  • There are already a bunch of Little Free Libraries around Appleton and around other parts of northeast Wisconsin.
  • Madison already worked on a Little Free Library hack and put it on GitHub. Mike Putnam forked the Madison code, and you can see that on the DHMN Civic Hacks GitHub webpage.
  • Working on a Little Free Library hack may inspire more Appleton residents to put up a Little Free Library.
  • Appleton could develop a physical hack (something for non-coders to work on) using 21st century tools (like 3D printing or CNC mills or microcontrollers and wireless networking) to create new types of Little Free Libraries.
  • The Little Free Library is itself a civic hack.
  • The Little Free Library concept is a Wisconsin idea.
  • If you want to work on this one, look at what Madison has done for Shareabouts / Little Free Library and figure out how to leverage their work for a Little Free Library hack in Appleton.
(7)  Health Inspection Reports App
  • The purpose of this hack is to let you look at Health Department inspection reports for restaurants.
  • This NPR article, "Did That Restaurant Pass Its Health Inspection?" talks about integration of health inspection results into Yelp in a few cities in the US.
  • The Hampton Roads, VA civic hacking webpage has hacks for an Open Health Inspection API and an Open Health Inspection App.
  • I think health inspections reports are available from the Appleton Health Department and the Outagamie County Public Health Division.
  • I think there would be a lot of interest from the general public in this civic hack, but I don't know how much progress a team will be able to make on it during the hackathon.
  • This is a hack that's most worthwhile if civic hackers form a team with the commitment to continue working together on the hack after June 6.
(8)  Open Water or Open Air Project
  • I'm including this one on the top 10 list because I'm interested in citizen science, and I like clean air and clean water.
  • These are established projects, so hackathon participants can research them online and decide if it's a topic of interest.
  • If one or several people are interested enough in a citizen science project to work on it before the hackathon, they can acquire the hardware parts needed to build sensors during the hackathon to monitor the air or water.
  • June is a perfect time of the year to start working on this. A team would have all summer to get outdoors and get a great start on this hack.
  • If you like the sounds of a citizen science project, whether it's Open Water, Open Air or a different one, read "Part 1 Citizen Science + Civic Hacking: Overview," "Part 2 Citizen Science + Civic Hacking: Fifteen Projects" and "Part 3 Citizen Science + Civic Hacking: Clean Water & Clean Air."
(9)  Visualizing Nutrients: National Challenge Hack
  • The national challenges are an official part of the National Day of Civic Hacking (NDoCH) that other people around the US will also be working on. It would be fun to see what Appleton comes up with and to see what civic hackers in other cities develop for the same challenge.
  • If you want to work on a hack with definite guidelines rather than having no been given no directions and a totally clean slate, a national challenge might be your cup of tea.
  • I'm suggesting Appleton civic hackers consider the Visualizing Nutrients Challenge because it's well organized, it will be worked on by lots of people around the country, it would tie in well with the Open Water citizen science hack, and it's applicable to most Americans.
  • If Visualizing Nutrients isn't something of interest to you, there are a whole bunch of other challenges to choose from, with most of them listed on the NDoCH challenge webpage.
  • This would be an excellent civic hack for a coder who enjoys working with big data.
  • For more info about national challenge civic hacks, read "June 6th Challenges For Civic Hackers" and "Hack Challenges: National Day of Civic Hacking 2015."
(10)  Guerrilla Civic Hack
  • There was a lot of interest in the guerrilla civic hack concept based on how many people read the "Are They Right To Stop Guerrilla Street Repairs?" post on this blog.
  • We'll do at least one more blog post about guerrilla civic hacking before the hackathon, but if you like the concept of guerrilla civic hacking, recruit one or more fellow guerrillas to register for the DHMN Civic Hackathon/Appleton 2015, and connect with other guerrilla civic hackers at the event. I'm sure a team of pothole activists, DIY urban designers or urban repair squads can come up with a fun project that will benefit the citizens of northeast Wisconsin.
  • This type of civic hack may be more enjoyable for someone who enjoys working with their hands and seeing something at the end of the day that they can touch and watch others get benefit from it.
  • A guerrilla civic hack would probably make a much more interesting video than a civic hack where most of the work consists of thinking hard, discussing ideas with the hack team, and pounding out the code on a laptop.
There they are -- Bob's Top 10 Recommended Civic Hacks for June 6, 2015, and I'm betting that two of them get worked on.

Heath Anderson will likely also write an upcoming blog post for the hacks he thinks would be good for people to consider working on during the hackathon. I'll revise this post with a link to his recommendations when they get published.

I have no idea what hacks will catch people's interests and actually be worked on other than AppletonAPI and a voting hack. Come to the civic hackathon (it's free...) and work on a civic hack that you think is important and worth your time and energy.


Sunday, May 24, 2015

Civic Hacking: Web Mapping Overview

A recent comment on the DHMN mailing list about civic hacking with web maps prompted me to do research on the general topic of web mapping. This post will attempt to give a short overview of web mapping for those considering doing civic hacks with one or several of the available tools for this fascinating Internet technology.

If you're seriously interested in learning more about web mapping, check out the Web Mapping and Comparison of Web Map Services entries on Wikipedia. Those are a good source of basic knowledge and links about this topic. This post presents just a tiny bit of info from those two entries. The contributors on Wikipedia explain web mapping this way:
"Web mapping is the process of using maps delivered by geographical information systems (GIS). Since a web map on the World Wide Web is both served and consumed, web mapping is more than just web cartography, it is both a service activity and consumer activity...The advent of web mapping can be regarded as a major new trend in cartography. Until recently cartography was restricted to a few companies, institutes and mapping agencies, requiring relatively expensive and complex hardware and software as well as skilled cartographers and geomatics engineers. With the rise of web mapping, a range of data and technology was born - from free data generated by OpenStreetMap to proprietary datasets owned by Navteq, Google, Waze, and others. A range of free software to generate maps has also been conceived and implemented alongside proprietary tools like ArcGIS. As a result, the
barrier to entry for serving maps on the web has been lowered."
All the leading web maps appear to use a combination of source data, some proprietary, some government-based, and some from volunteered geographic information, public participation geographic information, and collaborative mapping, with those three GIS terms apparently meaning slightly different things. A knowledgeable cartographer would be able to more accurately or definitively draw us a map of the companies involved, but it seems that the most widely used web mapping source services include:
  1. Google Maps (MAPIT, TeleAtlas?, DigitalGlobe, MDA Federal)
  2. OpenStreetMap (OSM)
  3. Bing Maps (HERE, Intermap, Pictometry International, NASA, Blom, Ordnancy Survey, SK Planet)
  4. Yahoo Maps (HERE, TeleAtlas, i-cubed)
  5. Here Maps (Nokia/Navteq)
  6. Apple Maps (TomTom, OSM)
There are other web map services in addition to those above, and some people may prefer using the smaller or niche alternatives, or a proprietary GIS platform such as Esri. In addition to those smaller alternatives, there are specialized web mapping services like CartoDB and Mapbox.

Based on my research into Civic Hacking and GIS, CartoDB has been a pretty strong supporter of civic hacking events. This 2012 article explains that at that time, CartoDB was a data visualization company headquartered in New York that seeks to be the "Instagram service for maps." An NYT article talks about CartoDB's recent multi-million dollar VC funding round and some of the applications for its mapping service.

Mapbox is another service I've often seen mentioned with regards to civic hacks involving mapping. "Roam the World in (Almost) Real Time" says "It's always summer on Google Earth. But a landmark Mapbox project uses satellite imagery to show the planet as it is now." The post also talks about a mapping service involving drones that's cool but sort of scary.
"That's also the philosophy behind this other, truly astonishing experiment in cartography—a moving California coastline. "That's actually drone imagery," Loyd says nonchalantly of the video that's layered on the satellite image map. Five years from now, real-time maps might be as ubiquitous as YouTube videos—but for now, they feel as futuristic as movies might have to Victorians."
If you want to start doing some online mapping customization, "Survey of the Best Online Mapping Tools: The Roadmap to Roadmaps" is a good post to read. It doesn't cover all the bases, such as the OSM native editor, but it does compare the options the post author (a Croatian software engineer with a passion for GIS and mapping) thinks are top quality.

If you decide to use CartoDB, consider looking at the CartoDB Map Academy course, "Online Mapping for Beginners", which covers basic concepts of online mapping. I'm sure there are online tutorials, classes and videos for every online mapping service, but the CartoDB Map Academy showed up first on one of my Google searches, so I included it in this post.
"The Map Academy is an open source project, which serves as a resource for people creating maps on the web. Being open source means that the content that is here, will be free for everyone to access and build upon. Although is an initiative of CartoDB, it is not only a guide to this specific software. While we do think that CartoDB is a great tool to start learning online mapping, it is only one part of a growing network of mapping tools. It is our hope that as the program expands, you will find more and more content that is not related directly with CartoDB, and that will allow you to build your skills as a mapper. This means that at the Map Academy we will start to teach you skills you can use in other technologies such as ESRI, Google Maps, or Mapbox."
Because the primary (only?) Appleton open data sets are Esri GIS data sets, I'm also including this link for Esri Story Maps, which may be of interest to civic hackers who want to do something interesting with Appleton open data. There may be other free Esri data tools for civic hackers to use. I tried to contact Esri to invite them to participate in the June 6 "DHMN Civic Hackathon/Appleton 2015," but my emails to them kept bouncing, so they apparently didn't care for my email address or the content in the emails.

Lack of participation from Esri isn't a showstopper for mapping civic hacks, though, because we have a city of Appleton GIS Wizard who is experienced with Esri data and is participating in the June 6 hackathon. We also have lots of free and open source web mapping options, as described above.

Additionally, we may get some mapping help from the Wisconsin State Cartographer's Office. AJ Wortley, a senior outreach specialist, said he'll connect us with some mapping ninjas who might participate in our civic hackathon.

Bottom line for civic hackers interested in web mapping:
  1. There is a lot of cool free web mapping technology you can work with at the June 6 civic hackathon.
  2. If we get a few people at the hackathon who are interested in future mapping events or workshops in northeast Wisconsin, I'll be happy to help organize at least one follow-up activity and will plan it when we can get participation from a GIS / mapping organization.
Bottom line for all potential civic hackers in northeast Wisconsin (and any interested people from outside the region):

  • If you haven't yet gone to Eventbrite to sign up for the free June 6 hackfest in Appleton, Wisconsin, USA,

[This blog also has previous posts about GIS (geographic information system) and web maps; "The GIS and Civic Hacking Interconnection," "GIS Guide for Honolulu / Appleton Civic Hackers," "Esri: GIS, Civic Hacking & Open Data Initiative," "Part 1: OpenStreetMap And Civic Hacking" and "Part 2: OpenStreetMap and Civic Hacking."]


Saturday, May 23, 2015

Civic Hacking In The News: May 23, 2015

This May 23, 2015, post is a few items from recent news about civic hacking. No commentary on today’s articles, just short excerpts. If they sound like something you want to know more about, click the headline links and read them in their entirety.

Census Bureau to Participate in National Civic Day of Hacking, Issues City SDK Challenge to Developers
"The U.S. Census Bureau is participating in this year's National Day of Civic Hacking by launching the "City SDK Open Data Solutions Challenge." This challenge encourages developers to use the Census Bureau's new City Software Development Kit (SDK), a new tool that makes the bureau's API (application programming interface) easier to use. As part of this national event, the Census Bureau will also participate in the 2015 Urban Sustainability Apps Competition, where developers have the opportunity to create apps using the City SDK."
"These 7 legal hacks are providing greater access to justice"
"For many, the law and its institutions are unapproachable, unaffordable and impenetrable. We’d much rather avoid the law than ever risk engaging with it. However, around the country, lawyers, advocates and technologists are changing the way that we (and they) interact with the legal system. We’re not just talking about e-filing either. Code is being harnessed to provide better oversight of the Supreme Court and improve the efficiency of lawyers providing legal services to indigent clients. The law is vast and its adoption of technology is slow, but the types of projects cropping up are as varied as they are innovative. To get a snapshot of this evolution, we took a look at seven legal technology and data innovations. Some of these projects emerged from the Without Their Permission ethos, while others are created because lawyers are growing tired of the redundancy of their work. Either way, these projects are in many cases foregoing precedent to see what happens when you tackle the law with technology."
"Why some local authorities are missing the point of open data - and what to do about it"
"Dan Hubert was driving into London’s West End to see a show. He circled the roads around the theatre trying to find a parking space. The only one available was on a single yellow line. He looked for a sign showing whether the bay was residents’ parking only, and if not, what the time restrictions were. Finding nothing, he assumed he’d have to move on. Fortunately, he spotted a traffic warden who said he was, in fact, able to park there. It was then Hubert realised London must be full of parking spaces thatare underused because people are confused about the rules for each street and are cautious about getting a ticket. Their confusion is understandable. There are 1,800 individually controlled parking zones across the capital, each governed under different rules by the 32 boroughs. Hubert’s revelation led to him creating AppyParking, an app that gives users all the information they need about available parking spaces anywhere in the capital. To build it, he contacted each borough to ask for data on their street parking restrictions. After considerable negotiation, he sourced the information he needed. But it was here the problems started."
"Moving the food system forward with open data"
"Every day, unprecedented volumes and types of data are generated from new technologies that most people could not have imagined even two decades ago. At the same time, the world is facing the challenge of global food security: Many of the solutions to food security and malnutrition may lie in innovative use of data relevant to the agriculture and nutrition sectors. It is also more important than ever that decision-makers, at all levels of the agricultural system — from the farmer to the policymaker — have access to all relevant information to make informed decisions. Opening up agricultural and nutritionally relevant datasets has the potential to impact lives through more effective and transparent government, improved government services, better target development programs as well as improved research, science and innovation. A lack of open data and institutional, national and international policies limit the effectiveness of agricultural and nutritional data from research and innovation."
"Open data and what it can make government do better"
"In March 2014, Tom Marshall — who at that time was still new in the premier's office — unveiled what was called the open government initiative. One of the pillars was identified as "open data." But just what is open data? According to the provincial government's website, open data is defined as "the release of government datasets in accessible formats for use and re-use by anyone for any purpose." That sounds pretty vague, and I needed real examples to understand just what open data looks like in the real world. To find out more, I got in touch with James Flynn of Code NL — a local organization promoting greater computer programming education in the province. James told me about a panel discussion Code NL held on Feb. 17 all about open data, and put me in touch with some of the people that attended and presented. After speaking with some of them, here are three things I learned about open data and how it could look in practice in Newfoundland and Labrador."
"How can government support open data without doing it all itself?"
"While not the only source of open data, government can play an important wider supporting role, no matter who manages or provides the information beyond the General Election...Government collects, maintains and provides access to a whole range of data. It manages information to aid decision making, including geospatial data, the census and crime surveys. The day-to-day business of government also produces data, such as spending information, transport timetables or car registrations. Ten to fifteen years ago, government maintained most of the data it produces solely for its own benefit, making the information available in the minimal ways required by law, such as providing paper copies at local council offices. Within this time we have seen several technological changes, particularly a shift in recognising the importance of data. We have also experienced social changes; we now have far higher expectations about both the transparency of government and equality of access to information for a fairer and more competitive marketplace. Now governments are expected not only to use data themselves but also to make it available for others to reuse, often as open data."


Friday, May 22, 2015

Prep For 1st NE Wisc Civic Hackathon: Lessons From A Civic Hacker

If you registered to participate in NE Wisconsin's first civic hacking event, the "DHMN Civic Hackathon/Appleton 2015," you might be wondering if there's anything you should do to get ready for the hackathon.

The answer is, YES, you should take a little time to prepare for your June 6 activities.

I'll do a couple other posts about what you might consider doing to make the civic hackathon as fun and worthwhile as possible. But today's post will look forward to the hackathon in Appleton by using the retrospective viewpoint of a civic hacker who has been totally immersed in civic hacking for several years.

In "Five Pieces of Advice For New Civic Hackers" on, Nick Judd suggests a couple points people new to civic hacking should keep in mind.

1. Every story has already been told.
2. If you're building a new "social network," just go home.
3. Bring people to government and to politics.
4. If you need government approval, just go home.
5. Doing anything meaningful will also be picking a fight.

The author's first point is that most civic hacks (although not 'every' one, IMO) have had a similar hack developed to some extent by other civic hackers (or by commercial software developers as company projects) over the past ten years.

He is correct in that, before you spend a lot of time designing and developing your civic hack from scratch, you should spend at least an hour or two researching what other people have done along the same lines. You may have something completely new, or you may have a new feature or approach to an existing or dormant civic hack, but if you can learn from what others have done, it may save you a lot of time. The great thing about open source code is that, if it makes sense, you can start from their existing code base and improve it. That was the origin of the term hacking, from MIT in the early days of computing. Or you can see how they wrote their code and totally re-write the code because you know or want to try a 'better way.' Or you can do practical code re-use, and just borrow the best sections of their open source code from GitHub for your mostly-new app.

To understand Judd's second point about a "social network," it works best for you to read his article, rather than me commenting on it.

The last three 'lessons' are the ones I like best. (To me, his first point isn't really a lesson. It's a starting point for anything I do. Don't reinvent the wheel. Or at least don't reinvent the wheel because you didn't look around to find out the best way to transport stuff around.)

Lesson 3 -- Bring people to government and to politics.

Judd says, "It's safe to assume there is no army of civic-minded altruists just itching for a website that will let them interact with government." And he's right. If he was wrong, we'd probably already have 100 people signed up for June 6 hackathon. We would have had civic hackathons in northeast Wisconsin for at least five years by now.

If you want to create civic hacks that will be used, you need to figure out what people are interested in. Create an MVP (minimum viable product) for you civic hack, then do user validation. Show it to people. Have them try it out. Ask them if they would use it, either the way it is or if it had other features or changes.

Judd mentions DiscoverBPS, a Boston civic hack. He says, "DiscoverBPS took an arcane and frustrating aspect of every parent's school experience and made it more accessible." We should find something that frustrates or irritates every parent in Appleton or every resident of Appleton, and create a solution for that problem. Or at least create something that is less frustrating and less irritating.

Lesson 4 -- If you need government approval, just go home.

This one will, OF COURSE, raise a few (or many) eyebrows and hackles amongst the government employees and elected officials. Nobody likes to feel 'their stuff' is being messed with unless they approve your messing with it. Well, the origins of civic hacking were people taking responsibility for making things better without waiting for a long approval process. The early civic hackers (and some civic hackers today) just take public data (or non-data public situations) that affect them and their neighbors, and start working to improve things. No approval process needed when it's public data. Not all data that governments collect or generate should or will be public, but much of it is publicly-available, and much more should be made easily usable by the public, as long as it's done in a cost-effective manner.

As Judd puts it:
"Even champions within government have a hard time navigating bureaucracy...You will get more done more quickly if you assume that government actors will get onboard late in the game, if at all, and not necessarily because of any misbehavior or incompetence. Bureaucracy is slow and risk-averse, laws are outdated and cities are struggling to cope with 21st-century living. This, in part, is the problem you are trying to solve. Code for America learned that in its first year."
Lesson 5 -- Doing anything meaningful will also be picking a fight.

Judd's comments on #5 can't be improved in the least by anything I write. He says:
"Get comfortable with the fact that anything that would be transformative to government will create enemies for you. Internally, there's already a whole industry feasting on government IT needs that is wholly unapologetic about using personal connections and political savvy to edge out any new competition. Externally, any project that frees up more information or allows people to organize will create political risk. No one who makes a living by getting elected every two or four years wants more political risk. No bureaucrat in a culture habituated to bring swift punishment for failure wants more political risk. But people who accept that government could be working better believe that government must change, and change requires risk."
If you're new to civic hacking, these five lessons are not meant to discourage you. They're meant to prevent you from being discouraged by discovering them for yourself. If your eyes are wide open to these lessons and challenges, you can put your efforts in the best direction, you can understand why things happen the way they do, and you can take responsibility for improving the way things are!

REGISTER TODAY, if you're not already signed up for the DHMN Civic Hackathon/Appleton 2015.

And join the other civic hackers who are taking responsibility for improving the way things are in your community, region and country!