Thursday, August 27, 2015

Tech Tools For Civic Hacking

Smart Chicago published an article about tech tools for civic organizers which talks about tools that I don’t think are used by the NE Wisconsin civic hacking community. It seemed worthwhile to mention them in a post in case any of the region’s civic hackers see particular value in the tools listed in this article or any other ‘tech tools’ they have used which might be relevant to our civic hacking.

On their website, Smart Chicago is described as “a civic organization devoted to improving lives in Chicago through technology. We are guided by our principles and we stay focused on access, skills, and data.” That indicates a bit narrower focus than civic hacking in our area, because we’re saying civic hackers don’t need to be coders and civic hacks don’t necessarily require a significant component of technology. Per this previous blog post and this other post, we want people who aren't coders or highly technical to be involved in civic hacking. In addition, the article talks about citizen surveys and email campaigns, and I don’t think NE Wisconsin civic hacking is at the stage where we’re ready to do citizen surveys or email campaigns. I’m not saying those two activities are bad, but I’m not going to spend a lot of my time on them or strongly encourage someone else to spend time on them. If somebody can be an effective civic hacker by doing one or both of those activities in our region at this point, I’ll just ask them, “How can I help you with surveys or email campaigns?”

The tech tools Smart Chicago uses, as listed in “Tech Tools for Civic Organizations,” are:

As far as I know, Slack and Google Drive are the only tools from this list that NE Wisconsin civic hackers use. And neither tool is used regularly by every civic hacker in the region. Quite a few of the more active civic hackers are in the NE Wisconsin Slack #dhmncivichacks channel but some of the people who’ve been involved with civic hacking in this area are not in that Slack channel. A few local civic hackers have collaborated with Google Docs / Drive, but it has not yet become a frequently used tech tool for the majority of this area’s civic hacking community.

We use Blogger instead of WordPress as the website tool / content management system (CMS) for the public face of NE Wisconsin civic hacking. WordPress is more versatile and powerful than Blogger, but I’ve used Blogger more than WordPress. So it was easier for me to just set up a Blogger hosted site than to spend time figuring out how to do the same thing or more on WordPress. I’d love to have a more versatile website for NE Wisconsin civic hacking, as well as a website for the related-but-larger TIME community (Tech, Innovators, Makers, Entrepreneurs). But that will only happen if someone with website development skills decides that a civic hacking / TIME community website is worth their investment of time and energy to build and maintain the website.

I don’t think NE Wisconsin civic hacking is anywhere near ready for Mail Chimp and email campaigns. Wufoo, Textizen and Twilio might be useful for us, but using them probably won’t happen until someone highly familiar with them decides to incorporate one or more of them into a civic hack project, either as a tool to help build the civic hack or as an integral component for the users of the civic hack. might be a valuable tech tool for civic hackers to use in NE Wisconsin. The first step is deciding whether it’s worth the cost to use I think that cost would be $180 per year.

The second step for using effectively is to have someone take responsibility for managing the site / group in a way that helps maintain or increase the number of people participating in civic hacking events. If the right message, content and timing aren’t part of how this tool is used, it would be a waste of money.

The third factor to evaluate is whether the group will be using to sign people up for events that require registration. could be used just for free monthly meetings that don’t require registration, and Eventbrite or another registration service could be used for major events. For bigger events, like the National Day of Civic Hacking, you often need to know how many people will show up, as well as information like what size t-shirt the registrant wears and if they have special meals needs. You sometimes may require payment of a registration fee. I think can do most or all of those tasks, but I’m more familiar with Eventbrite for that type of event management. I think most civic hacking groups (and probably most community groups) use either or Eventbrite, not both. (Eventbrite is free.) could be helpful because it automatically reminds members of the group about upcoming events, and we currently notify and remind people manually via email, this blog, Slack, in-person or via-phone conversations, and maybe a few social services like Facebook and Twitter. is also useful from the standpoint that many people know the brand, so if someone is looking for a civic hacking group, they might check on

You should be able to find the NE Wisconsin civic hacking community by Googling for civic hacking in NE Wisconsin or in Appleton, but some people who look on might not Google for us. I didn’t Google for every city in NE Wisconsin, but when I searched for civic hacking Green Bay, civic hacking Oshkosh, civic hacking Fond du Lac, civic hacking Sheboygan and civic hacking Manitowoc, each search found DHMN Civic Hacks in the first page or two of searches. So people who are really interested in civic hacking will find us. Maybe a future blog post will address the topic of civic hacking in cities in NE Wisconsin other than the six listed above, such as Black Creek, Brillion, Chilton, Clintonville, Combined Locks, Darboy, Egg Harbor, Elkhart Lake, Fish Creek, Florence, Grand Chute, Green Lake, Greenville, Hilbert, Kaukauna, Kewaunee, Keshena, Kimberly, Kohler, Little Chute, Marinette, Menasha, Neenah, New London, Oconto, Peshtigo, Plymouth, Ripon, Seymour, Shawano, Shiocton, Sturgeon Bay, Suamico, Two Rivers, Washington Island, Waupaca, Waupun, Wautoma, Winneconne and the other several hundred others in our region that I didn’t list here.

One tech tool not mentioned in the Smart Chicago article is GitHub. Even if a civic hacker isn’t a coder, I think it’s important for them to feel comfortable looking around on GitHub and finding useful information about civic hacks that are on GitHub. At all three civic hacking events held thus far in NE Wisconsin, we’ve made sure to mention the common use of GitHub for civic hacks, and we’ve helped people new to the service register an account and learn a few of the basics.

The last tech tools I’ll mention for today’s post are personal computing devices, which mostly means laptops, smartphones and tablets. Even if you’re not a coder, it’s worthwhile to bring a laptop or a large tablet to civic hacking events because so much of the event will involve information or sites that are on the web. At the June 6th hackathon, I wanted to have five or ten Linux desktop computing setups for people who participated in the event but didn’t bring a laptop or a tablet for easy web access. I plan to make that a priority for our next large event and will publicize the event as providing those tools for people who don’t have a computer but want to do civic hacking. Owning a laptop or tablet shouldn't be a requirement to have fun as a civic hacker.

It’s also good for at least some of the people at a civic hacking event to have smartphones, preferably both iPhone and Android. Some civic hacks are smartphone apps, and it’s good for people to be able to install and use those apps so they can give feedback regarding improvements.

If you know of tech tools that are useful for the NE Wisconsin civic hacking community, please send an email to bwaldron (at) gmail [dott] com, and I’ll add them to this post.


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