Saturday, July 4, 2015

4th of July & US Civic Hacking

For US citizens, the 4th of July is a widely celebrated holiday, commemorating ratification of the United States Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. For today’s post, it seemed appropriate to take a look at aspects of US civic hacking that are relevant to the 4th of July.

While very few people will have civic hacking on their minds today, I thought this paraphrased comment from the Sunshine Foundation highlights a great connection between the Fourth of July and civic hacking:
Patriotism gets a technological upgrade from civic hackers.”
You can look at July 4th civic hacking in three primary ways:

  1. Immediate Impact -- hacks that have a direct effect on your 4th of July activities, helping you and your fellow citizens enjoy the holiday.
  2. Topical Issues -- hacks that address the mechanics of issues relevant to national independence, how federal, state and local officials are elected and how we’re governed, how citizen’s voices are heard by the government.
  3. Big Picture -- hacks that affect the fundamentals, freedoms, and future direction of your city, county, state and country, how the county’s founders and other past ‘civic hackers’ affected the big picture and how you can impact the course of America.

Immediate Impact

Below are a few civic hacks that can have an immediate impact on what you and other residents of NE Wisconsin do on July 4th. While you’re at the park today, at a patriotic parade, watching a fireworks display, or just enjoying a special activity out of the ordinary, consider what civic hacks would make your day better. Here are a couple ideas to get your mind thinking about relevant hack topics:

  • WhereToGo -- as detailed in “WhereToGo: A Local Info Civic Hack,” a civic hack that collects and organizes local info will be highly valuable for planning your holiday schedule. It will help you figure out what events to check out, which places you should visit to have fun. A few places or activities to find on WhereToGo are fireworks displays, holiday festivals, live music, brat fry and pig roasts, or your other favorite red, white and blue activities.
  • Picnics, Parks and Outstanding Outdoor Outings --  it’s summer and most people aren’t working today, so if it’s not raining too hard, a lot of us will be enjoying outdoor activities. What hack might make those outdoor excursions more enjoyable?
  • Mapping customization -- GIS (geographic information system) is one popular focus for civic hackers. Would improved map tools help you more quickly find the location of holiday events, look at detailed park and outdoor recreation info, or learn more about transportation options to get to holiday events and places? Maybe you could design and lead the work on an OpenStreetMap hack to help people Go Forth For a More Fun Fourth in 2016.
  • Scraping web info -- because no one website is likely to have all the holiday info you’re interested in, civic hackers can use their scraping skills for a July 4th hack to make that info more easily available. If you’re not already a scraping ninja, maybe you want to spend the rest of 2015 acquiring super-scraping skills so you can build an awesome 2016 hack. A local-info scraping hack built for July 4th might also be handy for other holidays. 

Topical Issues

Four of the topical issues that connect civic hacking and July 4th are voting, civic engagement, communicating citizens' concerns and desires to politicians, and protesting government laws and actions.

The right and responsibility for each adult American to vote, determining who is elected to run our cities, counties, states and country is a basic and important feature of life in the United States. It follows, therefore, that civic hacks to improve the number of people who vote, the knowledge of voters about candidates and ballot issues, and the fairness of all issues related to voting are worthwhile hacks to work on. Read “Voting Hacks Part 3: Examples of Civic Hacks For Better Voting” for a look at voting hack examples, or Google for specific aspects of voting that you think need to be improved.

In the words of Nick Skytland, who was manager of NASA’s Open Innovation Program and director of the agency’s Open Government Plan and digital strategy in 2013, Forbes gives us one view of civic hacking’s connection to civic engagement:
“ to feel that government is accessible to our ideas and talents. “Only very recently, you couldn’t participate government except to vote or to protest,” he says, and then goes on to point out “the role technology is playing in changing the way we approach government. The government needs to open up challenges and data sets,” says Skytland, so that citizens can get involved in the problems of governance. He sees the younger generation as being very altruistic and looking for, “something to do on weekends to contribute back...”
Keep civic engagement in mind while you’re enjoying July 4th city celebrations. Think about civic hacks you’d like to develop or improve that will help improve city celebrations or promote civic engagement in other ways.

An important aspect of hacking our government is creating more effective ways to communicate citizens' concerns and desires to politicians. This will help politicians decide how to craft legislation, how to vote on legislation, and in which direction they should push or pull the government. Politicians may create or vote on legislation contrary to the desires of their constituents. Sometimes that might be because of an elected official’s experience, personal opinions, or relevant facts they know but constituents don’t, but at other times not aligning with the desires of their constituents might be simply because the politician doesn’t actually know what the majority of their constituents think. So if you can build or improve a civic hack that gives elected officials a better understanding of the opinions of people who elected them, that will benefit everyone.

Nick Skytland mentioned that, in the past, citizens could only affect their government by voting or by protesting. Protesting is another area to consider for your civic hacking. Protesting could be looked at as just a subset of communicating with elected officials, but it can also be looked at as something with a larger purpose.

In addition to letting politicians know they’re not happy, protesters also want to make sure media and their fellow citizens are aware the protesters are very upset with a situation the government has gotten them into, or a mess the government hasn’t done anything about cleaning up. The protesters may also want to create meaningful incentives for politicians to address and fix the situation being protested. In addition to having their voices heard, protesters may want to consider other actions that will raise the importance or resolving the issue. The original Boston Tea Party was one of America's best-known early protests. The slogan for the first American student protest was "Behold, our butter stinketh!" A Wisconsin example of citizen protesting from the recent past is the Occupy movement and 2011 protests and physical occupation of the capitol building in Madison. Civic hacks to make protests more effective are often built quickly to address the specifics of a particular unpopular law or government action.

Big Picture

Although many civic hacks have limited scope, maybe only affecting one city or neighborhood, other hacks have far-reaching impact, with some even affecting the course of the country. Catherine Bracy talks about how the founding fathers of America were some of our earliest civic hackers in the TED video below:

I wrote a few posts about early American civic hackers, such as “Civic Hacker Profile: Alexander Hamilton.” As exemplified by Hamilton, in the early years of America’s history, it was much easier for someone to create or lead a civic hack that impacted the whole country, or at least affected a huge number of Americans. But even in modern times, it’s still possible for one person to lead the charge on important civic and government issues. An example of 20th century civic hackers is Representative John Moss, as captured below with excerpts from the Wikipedia entries for Representative Moss and for the FOIA (Freedom Of Information Act). I highlight Moss and the FOIA for two reasons; (1) the FOIA was signed into law on the 4th of July (same day as the Declaration of Independence), and (2) the FOIA was a significant hack, in my view, that improved how American citizens and the government interacted.
Moss served in the US House of Representatives for California's 3rd congressional district for 13 terms from 1953 until he retired in 1978. He was nominated by both the Democratic and Republican parties in 1958 and ran unopposed in 1960. Moss earned the distinction of never being defeated in an election for public office. Representative John Moss thought it was necessary for government information to be available to the public. Others, though -- most notably President Lyndon B. Johnson -- believed that certain types of unclassified government information should nonetheless remain secret. Notwithstanding the White House's opposition, Congress expanded Section 3 of the Administrative Procedure Act as a standalone measure in 1966 to further standardize the publication of government records, consistent with the belief that the people have the “right to know” about them. This expansion of the APA became the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), signed into law by President Johnson on July 4, 1966. The Privacy Act of 1974 was passed as a countervailing measure to ensure the security of government documents increasingly kept on private citizens...”
If you look at events and media stories of the past year or two, you can probably come up with an example of a high-visibility topic related to improving how the federal government and its agencies interact with American citizens. It is still possible for one person to initiate a national conversation and be the catalyst that gets many smart and dedicated Americans working together to improve some civic aspect of life in the US. You could be that one person!

What hack can you work on to impact and improve the course of America?


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