Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Part 1: Civic Hacks For Better Voting

Today's post is about how civic hackers can improve the voting process and various aspects of elections. If you want to work with others for better voting as it affects government organizations that impact you, consider participating in the "DHMN Civic Hackathon/Appleton 2015" on June 6, 2015.

[Check at the end of this post for links to my future posts about voting. As other Parts in this post series about voting are published, I'll update with links to those Parts.]

If you've read about civic hacking elsewhere on this blog or in other places, or if you've been involved with civic hacking, you realize the types of civic hacks can be as varied as the people who are involved with civic hacking. Some civic hacks are fairly simple, like an app that sends you an email or tweet telling you it's time to put the garbage container out by the curb, and, oh yeah, this week is a recycle week. Others civic hacks are more complex, possibly tracking the real-time position of mass transit and telling you when the bus will get to your stop (or if you already missed it...).

Other civic hacks can start out simple but have complex and ambitious plans for future development.

An example of the 'start simple and grow to greatness' approach is civic hacks for better voting (CHBV).

If a civic hacker builds a CHBV app, they might start with a map-related hack that just pops up a map of where they have to go to vote. That could be the MVP (minimum viable product) for their hack. On voting day, people who are new to an area, or really busy or upset about problems at work and home, might not know or remember where they're supposed to vote. They pull up the CHBV app, hit the "Where Do I Vote" button and, voilà, a map pops up showing where they vote and the name and street address of the polling place.

After the civic hacker, or the team of hackers, has the CHBV app working well with that one basic feature, they can add a second feature, such as having the app also tell its user what time the polling place opens and closes. Then they can add other capabilities, such as sending the user a text or email reminder to "Vote Today," giving them information about what propositions or issues will be on the ballot, or even allowing them to see who the candidates are, or maybe providing a comparison of two candidates to help choose between them.

Hacks related to voting have been a strong focus of the civic hacking movement for a long time. An example of the activity around this topic was the Hacks For Democracy multi-day event in Philadelphia, PA, in 2012. The hackathon was focused on 'hacking elections and politics in the United States.' Not all the discussions and work done during the event was on voting issues, but a significant portion was. Examples include the Philly Vote Check app, the Social Vote app, and the Camparison app that were developed by civic hackers at Hack For Democracy in 2012. That Philadelphia tradition has continued through the years, with the latest iteration being the Apps For Philly Democracy 2015 held in March. If you want to know details of the 2015 event in order to learn a bit about what others are doing in this space, check out the Technical.ly/Philly post about six new open data sets released specifically for the event and "A civic hacker’s highlights from Philly Hack For Democracy 2015."

Another aspect of government voting relates to the voting done by elected officials on new legislation. Many civic hacks have addressed this issue. Two examples of this are the civic hacker app for votes in Argentina's National Congress and the Capitol Bells app created to improve voting in the US Congress. A techPresident post talks about how and why the Argentina app was developed.
"Civic hackers have built an application to help Argentinian citizens and journalists track the voting records of Congress members. The app, called Década votada (A decade in votes), was the winning project at a Hacks/Hackers Buenos Aires hackathon in April 2013. The idea behind the app was to help people understand the party dynamics of congressional members...According to the team: Watching other visualizations that allowed users to group and regroup individuals with different attributes, we realized we could show the positions of legislators in each vote as a “game” in which the winner was the one who was able to add more people to his pie slice. We were inspired by a few parliamentary voting-systems and the US primary election caucuses in which each participant shows his position by physically positioning himself on one side of the room."
In the Fortune article "Meet The Civic Hacker Making Congress More Accountable," you can read the details of a twenty-something civic hacker creating what sounds like an awesome CHBV.
""You don’t get many tech people in politics,” says Ted Henderson, a 29-year-old self-confessed ‘nerd through and through’ who’s been programming since kindergarten. The ex-staffer started ‘hacking’ Congress in 2013, reverse-engineering a radio signal which alerts congressmen that it’s time to vote in the House. He built out an app around it, Capitol Bells, which became a popular go-to for congress members and their staffers, giving them a quick and easy snapshot of what bill was being voted on when and where without having to be glued to CSPAN 24/7. Now he’s gone a step further, creating a platform allowing the public to voice their opinions on bills and see how they compare to their congressman. You can review the bills within the app that Congress are voting on and upvote and downvote them, like on reddit, instantly creating an anonymous, visible record of your position. You can also tap the bill number or title to follow the hashtag on the bill to a conversation about it on Twitter. Henderson hopes the app will bring voters back into a decision-making process he feels has squeezed them low on the priority list. When congressmen vote, they hear from their colleagues, lobbyists (who were probably also at one time colleagues), party leadership and trade and advocacy groups, he says."
The above CHBVs address only a few of the aspects that could be improved by concerned, knowledgeable and engaged civic hackers. There might be a voting issue of concern to you that's totally different from the ideas described in this post.

One item on my To-Do list is to contact the League of Women Voters (LWV) offices in Appleton, Winnebago County, and Madison to let them know about the June 6 hackathon and to invite them to participate. People involved with LWV are good potential participants for civic hacking on this topic. Plus they'll know about a ton of resources that can be used to build CHBVs. They also may already be aware of relevant apps or other voting process hacks. An example is this LWV-Austin announcement about partnering with the ThinkVoting app.

The main purpose of this post is to get people thinking about whether they want to work on civic hacks for better voting. If you do think voting is a civic hack subject that's worth your time and energy, spend some time with Google researching the topic. Then show up at the DHMN Civic Hackathon/Appleton 2015 (here's a link to the event agenda).

One of the people already registered to hack on June 6 wants to work on a CHBV. Show up at Lawrence University and talk with that civic hacker -- maybe you'll want to collaborate with him on improving voting in Appleton or other places in Northeast Wisconsin.

REGISTER TODAY if you didn't already sign up for the June 6 civic hackathon. It'll be worthwhile, fun and free...

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For other posts related to an improved voting experience, read:

"Voting Hacks Part 2: New Voting App for Appleton"
"Voting Hacks Part 3: Examples of Civic Hacks For Better Voting"
"Day-After Report: “It’s a LOT of work to be an informed voter”"

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