Thursday, June 11, 2015

CivicHacks ResourceCentral v.0.1

So I know what I’m going to work on at the next NE Wisconsin civic hacking event.

CivicHacks ResourceCentral (RC) v.0.1 -- a starting point for people interested in creating civic hacks or using civic hacks others have created or improved.

It would be more efficient, and the initial version of CivicHacks RC would be more useful, if Code for America or some highly-experienced civic hacker built this site than if I build it. But a key concept of civic hacking is seeing something you think needs fixing and beginning to fix it yourself, rather than complaining about it or saying ‘somebody should fix this or build this.’

Because civic hacking is not a mainstream activity and because it’s not primarily a for-profit activity, no one appears to have taken it upon themselves yet to make it easy to find out about civic hacks others have created or improved. It should be easier.

  • It should be easier to find out what civic hacks other people have created.
  • It should be easier to find all the forks or replications of a civic hack.
  • It should be easier to connect with people passionate about a specific civic hack.
  • It should be easier to find out which civic hacks have been most valuable to others.

If civic hacking was more mainstream or mainly for-profit, you’d be able to go to Wikipedia and find a starting point for what you wanted to know about civic hacking and about specific civic hacks. But you can’t.

When I wrote “Civic Hacks For Better Voting,” “New Voting App for Appleton,” and “Examples of Civic Hacks For Better Voting,” I tried to figure out what civic hacks have been done to improve various aspects of the government voting process. I’m a big fan of not reinventing the wheel. I like to know what others have done and either copy or build on that. Or know that others haven’t done much related to my idea but might have worked on stuff I can learn from.

Better voting seems like a prime candidate for civic hacking. Google and I couldn’t find any reasonably comprehensive list of civic hacks to improve voting. I did find lots of posts, articles and GitHub repositories related in some way to voting. So I thought, ‘someone at Code for America (CfA) can probably point me at a list of civic hacks related to voting.’ CfA is the lead organization in the US for civic hacking. The CfA person I contacted about this was not of any help in finding a list of voting hacks or a central point to start learning about them.

Then I thought, ‘someone at the Sunlight Foundation can help me find a list of civic hacks related to voting.’ The Sunlight Foundation is probably the lead US organization for open government, and they’re knowledgeable about civic hacking. So I contacted someone there, and they said they didn’t know of any list or website that was a good starting point for civic hacks for better voting. They were, however, gracious enough to point me at four good areas of activity related to voting hacks.

To fill this unmet market need for civic hacks, it seems like a mashup of Wikipedia, GitHub, StackExchange,, a mobile apps store, and some blend of LiveWork Portland / Omawho / Baltimore Tech is what’s needed for civic hacking.

The wiki component would provide a central starting point for people who want to learn about civic hacks, and it would provide a tool for crowdsourcing the content.

The GitHub component or connection is highly useful because many aspects of civic hacking are code-focused and open source-focused. GitHub is good at managing and sharing coding projects. The best starting point to fork open source civic hack source code is GitHub. The site also lets you see how active the development of the code is and what coders are involved in working on a specific hack. And GitHub has a wiki component built into it. It has many of the capabilities I want for a civic hacks central online resource. However, the civic hacking movement is trying to engage with non-coders. Even though GitHub is being widely used for more than just a code repository, it can still be intimidating to non-coders. So even though GitHub is huge in the civic hack community, CivicHacks RC should be something more than just GitHub.

StackExchange is an awesome model for building and maintaining a community of like-minded people and complementary-minded people who efficiently share and store their collective knowledge. Civic hacking forums would be the most productive if they used the StackExchange model. And StackExchange is expanding their capabilities in ways which would be beneficial to civic hackers. is an effective way to find options for software products that are similar or closely related. Another model that does sort of the same thing, with a little less technical info, is the Amazon feature of ‘people who looked at or bought that also looked at or bought this.’ Other online models could also help show you what civic hacks you might want to consider working on or using.

Since many civic hacks create smartphone apps, it would be nice to have an app-centric community-curated tool to easily learn about the type of apps you’re interested in or might find useful. Those apps would still reside on either Google Play or the iOS App Store. But it would be nice to not have to dig around on either of those to look at and compare civic hack apps.

LiveWork Portland, Omawho and Baltimore Tech are examples of people-centric websites for connecting members of a local or regional TIME community (Tech, Innovators, Makers, Entrepreneurs). Some call those types of people ‘creatives’ or ‘doers’ or ‘people who hate tv.’ This type of site could make it easier for civic hackers to connect and collaborate on projects, both locally and globally.

The websites and tools I mentioned above can be, and are, used separately by many civic hackers. And some of the sites have overlap, or they compete in some areas. But it would be REALLY useful and enjoyable to have the combined capabilities of the above sites applied to civic hacks.

I don’t have the coding skills to build a site like I described above. I don’t know a team of people who will work with me to build a site like that. And I don’t have the money to hire a team of people to build a civic hacks site that will do what I want.

What I can do is work with someone to get a Mediawiki site set up for little to no cost. And I can research civic hacks and create a lot of civic hacking content for the site which provides a publicly-accessible resource to make civic hacks a bit more discoverable. If nothing else, it could be a civic hacking knowledge repository that’s more useful to NE Wisconsin civic hackers than this blog or my current ‘Civic Hacking’ Google doc would be.

If my Mediawiki site is helpful to one or several other civic hackers, they may start contributing content to the site for civic hacks of interest to them. That would make the site useful to even more people. Which could lead to more site contributors. Which could ignite the network effect of Metcalfe's law.

If my Mediawiki site proves useful to a whole bunch of people, at some point in the future a web developer, a group of coders, or CfA might decide to build CivicHacking ResourceCentral v.2.0.

If you want to work on v.0.1 of this civic hack with me, email me at bwaldron (at) gmail [dott] com.


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