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!


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