Saturday, July 18, 2015

Civic Hacking In The News: July 18, 2015

For your civic hacker enjoyment and edification, below are a couple recent online items relevant to civic hacking. Click on the title to read the unedited and unadulterated source material.

When You Give a Tree an Email Address
"“As I was leaving St. Mary’s College today I was struck, not by a branch, but by your radiant beauty. You must get these messages all the time. You’re such an attractive tree.” 
This is an excerpt of a letter someone wrote to a green-leaf elm, one of thousands of messages in an ongoing correspondence between the people of Melbourne, Australia, and the city’s trees. 
Officials assigned the trees ID numbers and email addresses in 2013 as part of a program designed to make it easier for citizens to report problems like dangerous branches. The “unintended but positive consequence,” as the chair of Melbourne’s Environment Portfolio, Councillor Arron Wood, put it to me in an email, was that people did more than just report issues. They also wrote directly to the trees, which have received thousands of messages—everything from banal greetings and questions about current events to love letters and existential dilemmas.. 
Melbourne’s email-a-tree service is one in a litany of municipal projects aimed at leveraging personal and institutional technologies to keep cities running smoothly. In Chicago, there’s a text-based pothole tracker. In Honolulu, you can adopt a tsunami siren. These sorts of initiatives encourage civic engagement and perhaps help with city maintenance, but they also enable people’s relationship with their city to play out at the micro level..."
Northeast Wisconsin civic hackers should come up with some equally compelling micro-engagement city projects. The Melbourne treemail project demonstrates clearly why we need more than just coding to get the greatest good from civic hacks. Maybe we could dream up a project as engaging as something like Tweenbots, Boxie or BlabDroids.

New EFF Tool Makes Emailing Congress Just a Few Clicks Away
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has created a new tool that makes emailing your congressional lawmakers a quick and easy process. simplifies and streamlines the current fractured system for contacting lawmakers, allowing you to message your two senators and your representative from a single website. “Democracy thrives when the voices of Internet users are heard in Washington. The easier it is for you to reach your member of Congress, the better,” said EFF Activism Director Rainey Reitman...At, you enter your home address, and a quick look-up provides the names of your three congressional lawmakers. You then can choose any or all of those lawmakers, and send them whatever message you’d like...“Being able to contact your elected representatives is a critical component of a healthy democracy...”
Several of the posts I’ve written on this blog related to voting and interacting with elected officials. If I by some unimaginable process became an elected official, I’d be very interested in knowing what the people I represented thought about various issues that I had influence over. This seems like a good basic tool for civic hackers and other people who want to be active participants in our republic / democracy.

In addition to, it would be good to develop (if one doesn’t already exist) a website with a suite of tools for helping our elected officials get an accurate picture of what people in their districts really think about all the issues of the day. Once such a website is available, it should be heavily promoted by civic hackers, politicians, League of Women Voters, media and pretty much everyone else involved with elections and politician-influencing. For skilled coders, a fun place to start might be with a small enhancement of, because, as “EFF Launches Write-to-Congress Tool” says, “...all the code used in the project is licensed under the GNU Affero General Public License, which means people can create new versions of the project with different features.”

How to Pick the Right Tech Stack
What technology stack is best for this [civic hacking] project? That’s always a hard question to answer. During my [Code for America] fellowship year, 10 teams made 10 different decisions about what technology stack to use. For many, the choice was not based on what was easiest for us to use, or what we were most familiar with. Choosing the tools to use was a balancing act. Our apps needed to be easy for government staff to update and also help them improve their programming skills and introduce better project workflows. Sometimes, the code needed to just get out of the way so non-technical teams could inherit our work. In the end, we needed to create long-lasting software that would have a real impact on the cities we worked with...”
This post will appeal most to coders, but some city employees who work with civic hackers might also be interested in some of the comments in the post. One of the lessons in the post appears to be that relationship-building and good communications are at least as important for a successful civic hack project as the tech stack is.

Youth-Led Tech | Summer 2015
“Youth-led Tech | Summer 2015” is a technology mentoring program in five Chicago neighborhoods...The conceptual model for this program is “youth-led tech”, which means teaching technology in the context of the needs & priorities of young people. Youth will learn how to use free and inexpensive Web tools to make websites and use social media to build skills, generate revenue, and get jobs in the growing technology industry. They will also learn about all sorts of other jobs in tech— strategy, project management, design, and so on. We also provide introductory content about game design and app development. At the end of the six-week program, all of the youth will know how to set up a website, will be exposed to sophisticated tech skills, and know how to find real customers and employers for their skills. 
This intensive, six-week program meets youth where they’re at, in their neighborhoods, at their skill level, and takes them through a course of learning on simple & powerful Web-based tools. The program material— the websites and tools they will make— will revolve around their expressed needs and interests...”
This would be a really cool civic hacking project for NE Wisconsin if a philanthropist or organization decided to fund and support it. It would create a ton of opportunities for youth in our region. I’m sure coders in this region from places like Infinity, Skyline, Omni and Zyquest would support it, as well as organizations like NEWDUG, NEW AITP, the DHMN, and Digital Fertilizer.

City of Chicago Tech Plan Update
At Techweek, City of Chicago Chief Information Officer Brenna Berman announced an 18-month update to Chicago’s Tech Plan. Chicago’s first Tech Plan was first launched in 2013 and laid out a strategy to establish Chicago as a national and global center of technological innovation. Since it’s launch, Chicago’s civic technology community has made significant progress towards the goals of the tech plan. As a civic organization devoted to improving lives in Chicago through technology, Smart Chicago is proud to be heavily involved in the implementation of Chicago’s Tech Plan. Here are some highlights from the update...”
The main reason for NE Wisconsin civic hackers to read this article is to learn about how Chicago (not at the top of many lists of best high tech cities) is trying to become a tech leader. In some respects, they are considered one of the top civic tech cities in the US.


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