Tuesday, September 22, 2015

GitHub: Good Reason For Students And Teachers To Be Civic Hackers

Many, if not most, civic hackers are familiar with GitHub as the code repository of choice for civic hack projects. But GitHub is also being used for much more than just a code repository for professional coders and civic hackers.

Education is one of the areas where GitHub is making a significant impact. So in order to be familiar with and become more skilled at using GitHub, students and teachers should consider becoming civic hackers!

I’m not a coder, I'm not a teacher, and I don’t have a CS / IT degree (computer science / information technology). But it seems to me that every student interested in technology or STEAM topics (science, technology, engineering, arts, math) should be introduced to GitHub by their teachers. As it says on GitHub's website, the service provides "powerful collaboration, code review, and code management for open source and private projects."

If students who are serious coders want to use GitLab, Bitbucket or another repository for most of their code repository needs, that’s fine too, but they should at least be familiar with GitHub because it’s somewhat of a defacto standard.

In the post “Embracing Participatory Culture in Education,” Alexey Zagalsky talks about what his university research showed regarding how and why educators use GitHub. I haven’t discussed the use GitHub with teachers and don’t personally use it enough to be able to knowledgeably evaluate Alexey’s research findings. However, I do use it enough that I strongly recommend every STEAM teacher and student take the time to use GitHub and learn enough about it to be able to understand whether it has value for them.

Seriously trialing GitHub to see if it has value for you falls in the same category as making informed decisions about whether to use other 21st century digital services like Google Docs, Dropbox, Slack, Trello, Skype, and a growing list of other tools to manage and enhance our work and our personal lives.

A couple education benefits of GitHub are mentioned in Alexey’s post:
“...our study reveals extraordinary benefits to educators who used it. By using GitHub, educators can share and collaborate on course material. When a fellow educator wants to teach a similar course, all that she needs to do is fork the original course on GitHub. And if she improves it, other educators are aware of the changes and can integrate them back to their courses as well...Suddenly, the course grows beyond the classroom, allowing the exchange of ideas and knowledge among students and external people (e.g., practitioners and experts from the industry). 
Using GitHub as a submission platform also makes it easier for educators to monitor student progress, activity, and participation. GitHub has numerous features that support transparency of student activities, e.g., graphs and the news-feed that aggregates all the activity in one place... 
By using GitHub educators were able to encourage participation. In one case, the instructor used student logs as material for discussion in class. Another example was where students submitted an issue followed by a Pull-Request, mechanisms that are usually used to discuss bugs or code changes, in order to change a deadline... 
GitHub can also be used as a portfolio showcasing the student’s work. It is common for employers to evaluate candidates based on their existing projects and activity on GitHub...”
Two concepts I especially like about GitHub are (1) sharing and forking open source code / ideas and (2) the professional portfolio to showcase and store a person’s work. I’ll probably write a future post about these two aspects of GitHub because they have huge value to both individuals and to organizations.

GitHub is a strong supporter of students and the education sector, with items like the Student Developer Pack, the Classroom Guide, and Classroom For GitHub.

Now, let’s look at a few of GitHub's compelling benefits for NE Wisconsin students and teachers who are civic hackers:

  1. You will learn to use GitHub. The DHMN Civic Hacks webpage is a hub for most of the civic hacking in our area. Students and teachers in NE Wisconsin who work on civic hacks will likely spend time on GitHub. If you don’t already use GitHub or want to learn how to use it better, we’ll be happy to help you set up an account there, learn the basics and help you figure out answers to your GitHub questions.
  2. You will start developing a portfolio on GitHub. Having a portfolio makes it easy to demonstrate your past work, makes it easy for others to work with you on projects, gives you public motivation to improve your portfolio, and might help you get a job. As mentioned in “Show Your Code: Use Github to Maintain Your Code Portfolio,” “Github has been taking progressive steps to making it easier for developers to build and maintain a...code portfolio...With Github, developers can push and pull code from a central repository and also gain a visual representation of the work done on said code repository. If a contributor makes a change, it is completely transparent as to who made the change and exactly what that change was in a very clear manner. Another very cool thing that Github has made easier is contributing to another developer’s open sourced code...Github launched redesigned profile pages for developers...The idea is to provide the developer with a single area to show their development work. [In the screenshot above] we can see all of the repositories that Paul has contributed to since he became a member in 2008...Overall, it is a portfolio for Paul Irish. It’s showing a historical representation of his development work. If you’d like to dig deeper and actually look at the code he’s committed, that is all just a click away.” For more reading on this topic, look at “GitHub Is Your Resume Now,” “Why GitHub is not your CV” and a Google+ post from Gina Trapani.
  3. Your GitHub account makes it easy to work on projects and to start new projects. You won’t have to try to find where your current code base files are or try to manually manage your code versioning.
  4. You can use GitHub for projects other than coding. As mentioned in Alexey’s post, “...Early adopters use GitHub to compose music, to share recipes, and even for legal documents. For example, Stefan Wehrmeyer, a German software developer and activist has posted the German federal government’s laws and regulations to GitHub. Allowing anyone to track changes, see who made the changes, and why...Similarly, the US federal code and the French civil code have been published to GitHub as well...”

Heavy users of GitHub will be able to tell you many more benefits of using GitHub. And some of the civic hackers you’ll meet are GitHub power users. And if you want to talk or collaborate with a fellow student or a fellow teacher, Google can help you find plenty of peer GitHub users.

For more relevant background on GitHub, read my earlier post “GitHub and Civic Hacking.”

You won’t regret checking out the DHMN Civic Hacks GitHub page and coming to the next NE Wisconsin civic hacking meetup on October 24, 2015.

If you’re not already a GitHub user, consider setting up a free account and learning the basics. If you’re not a coder and would rather wait to get an account and have someone help you get started, we’ll be happy to do that on October 24.

Hope to see you in October!

*****

Monday, September 21, 2015

Oct 17 -- Next Civic Hacking Event For NE Wisconsin

Schedule Change: The date for the next NE Wisconsin civic hacking meetup is October 17. The event will be held at the Appleton Makerspace and will run from 9 AM until we drop -- probably going until at least 5 PM, maybe running later if we're having fun and being productive!

The next NE Wisconsin civic hacking event will tentatively happen on Saturday, October 24 October 17, 2015 in Appleton at the Appleton Makerspace.

What Time:  The goal is an all-day event so people can come and hack for a few hours when it fits in their schedule. We’ll start at 9 AM. If you haven’t been to a civic hacking event and can roll out of bed early enough on a Saturday, it would probably work to your advantage if you can show up for the start so you can hear what people are going to be working on. But no worries if you come later as your schedule allows. This will be an informal day of civic hacking; no agenda. No definite end time, either; we’ll go as long as people are having fun, which probably means at least until 5 PM, and maybe until midnight! You can check the #dhmncivichacks channel on the NE Wisconsin Slack website during the day to see if the event is still in progress and what the civic hackers are working on during the event. Click here to join this Slack team if you’re not already a member.

Who Should Show Up:  Everyone who’s interested in civic hacking, or thinks they might be, should come to this event. You should definitely come if you participated in the DHMN Civic Hackathon/Appleton 2015 on June 6 or if you registered for that hackathon but couldn’t be there. Anybody interested in the concept of civic hacking should show up. Maybe Diane and Michelle can organize a crew of civic hackers from Women In Technology to participate in the October 17 festivities!

So what IS this concept of Civic Hacking??:  If you are not familiar with civic hacking, listen to the Catherine Bracy TED video below, “Why Good Hackers Make Good Citizens.”



If you want to read more about what civic hacking is, scan through the titles of other posts from past months on this blog for ones that are of interest to you -- see the list of titles in the right column under Blog Archive.

Coders will enjoy the fun at the civic hacking meetup, but non-coders are also encouraged to participate, as discussed in “What Are Some Non-coder Activities In Civic Hacking?” and “Do Non-Programmers Participate In Civic Hacking?” There will likely be at least one designer there on October 17 and at least one person who's neither coder nor designer, so you definitely don’t need to be a coder to participate in civic hacking.

What Will We Do:  Mike Putnam will be there leading the charge again on civic hacks related to the AppletonAPI and the “Is It Recycling Week?” Android app he wrote. We had lots of people working on stuff related to the AppletonAPI at the June 6th civic hackathon. Mike Rosack will be at the October 17 event and will be working on his civic hack API locator or maybe his GreenvilleAPI. Ross Larson built a recycling-related Pebble smartwatch app and will likely work on that. Chris Jaure can fill us in on his progress on Kaukauna and Outagamie County recycling-related matters. I’m hoping some of the Oshkosh crew, the De Pere / Green Bay coders, and others who worked on projects related to AppletonAPI and “Is It Recycling Week?” (IIRW) will show up on October 17 to work on recycling and garbage pickup civic hacks. Maybe this time we can get some local garbage pickup people (cities or private companies) to show up.

It would be great if we can launch, or make plans to launch, a new civic hack project on October 17. For some ideas of what other civic hacks for NE Wisconsin could be worked on at this meetup, read “Seed Projects For Civic Hackathons.”

If you weren’t at the June 6th civic hackathon in Appleton or the civic hacking meetups on July 22 and August 19, no worries. We’ll bring you up to speed and answer your questions about civic hacking, then get you connected with an existing civic hack project or help you get your own project started.

What Should I Bring:  The main things to bring are (1) yourself, (2) friends or acquaintances who might enjoy civic hacking, (3) laptop and charger (or other tools for the type of civic hacking you want to work on), and (4) willingness to either lead a civic hack project or work on someone else’s civic hack project. If you're going to stay all day, you might want to skim through “Last Minute Prep & What To Bring To Hackathon.” Check out “Day-After Report: DHMN Civic Hackathon/Appleton 2015” for some idea of what was worked on during the June 6 hackathon.

As always, if you have civic hacking questions or suggestions, email Bob Waldron at bwaldron (at) gmail [dott] com.

Hope to see you at the NE Wisconsin civic hacking meetup on October 17, 2015!

*****

Friday, September 11, 2015

Hacking Cities With Minecraft -- Part 2

The recent post “Citizen Engagement: Hacking Cities With Minecraft” appeared to generate significantly more interest (pageviews) than other recent posts about civic hacking. In case NE Wisconsin people are seriously interested in this topic, today’s post highlights a couple more potential links between civic hacking and Minecraft.

The article “Digital History students re-creating 1905 Denver in Minecraft” directly connects Minecraft and the layout of a city.
“...For his digital history course, Dr. Robert Jordan is having his students re-create Denver in Minecraft...Jordan, who is in his fourth year as a professor of history at Colorado State University, said that the idea came to him after he saw a professor at a conference who had had her students re-create the Chicago World’s Fair in Minecraft...
Jordan and his students decided on 1905 as the era of Denver they would re-create. 
Jordan said that they wanted sometime far enough in the past that the city looked different, but a time that there were still enough records to work with. Students then used maps and other resources from the Denver Public Library to build the city on a Minecraft map which Jordan had created to match the topography and climate of the city. “You end up using sanborn maps and historic photographs to help get an idea of what (Denver) looks like,” said Sami Slenker, a senior international studies major. “A lot of it is vetting historical documents to really verify and back up the construction.”... 
The final product will hopefully offer a faithful re-creation of 1905 Denver, and also offer information within the game that lets people use the map file as a way to learn history in an interactive way. The hope is that someday students can freely download the file, and then load it and use it to learn about many aspects of the history of Colorado’s capitol. “It’s a slow process to really get it flushed out,” Jordan said. “The concern is whether or not people will still be interested in Minecraft in five years...”
NE Wisconsin Colleges
A group of interested college students and Minecraft players could replicate the Denver project for one or several NE Wisconsin cities. There are 20 colleges in our area, and a project like this would be a good way to get students from those colleges involved with civic hacking in the cities where they'll be creating many memories, as well as drinking a lot of coffee or beer...

Libraries are a nexus for this post, being extensively involved with both civic hacking (see the post “Libraries And Civic Hacking”) and with Minecraft. One of the three resources listed on the Minecraft Louisville website (mentioned in my first post about Minecraft) is the Louisville Library. That library’s website doesn’t specifically mention civic hacking on their Minecraft page, but it does says their World of Minecraft pilot project is in partnership with the Louisville Metro Government Office of Civic Innovation.

The Olean Public Library, Newark Library, and Red Hook Public Library are three libraries who have Minecraft clubs. I don’t know enough about Minecraft to know if those library clubs have their own servers, but at least one library, the Gretna Public Library, established its own Minecraft server for patrons of the library to use. Establishing NE Wisconsin regional Minecraft servers is something libraries in our region might consider.

There appears to be an APL Minecraft Guild (Appleton Public Library) and Minecraft activities at libraries in the Green Bay area. There may well be Minecraft activities at many libraries throughout NE Wisconsin, but it was not easy to find information about them. One fun civic hack for a few Minecraft enthusiasts could be to build a regional library club or guild connecting all the game’s players in the area. Another possibility is to develop a GIS (geographic information system) or mapping-focused Minecraft project for the immediate areas around libraries in NE Wisconsin.

I know that other libraries in Wisconsin are involved with Minecraft, so if someone in our area wants to start building a strong connection between libraries, Minecraft and civic hacking, mining the networks of librarians in the state for resources, ideas and potential collaborators would be a good place to start.

Another type of organization in NE Wisconsin that could help launch civic hacking activities with Minecraft is makerspaces. Sector67 in Madison is the host for Madison Fractal, as described in the article “From 3D printing to Minecraft, summer camps go high tech.” Madison Fractal, founded by Heather Wentler as a way to help kids and teens build self-confidence and life skills through hands on and challenged based learning projects (608.218.4571 or madisonfractal@gmail.com) offers Minecraft classes, as well as other tech activities for young people. Several of those classes are coming up this fall. It would probably be worthwhile to visit one of Heather’s classes or go down to Madison to see if she’d want to collaborate on Minecraft activities or classes in NE Wisconsin. The Appleton Makerspace or Green Bay’s Proto would be good groups to get involved with this type of civic hack.

Some civic hackers might be interested in a project to put a Minecraft device in the hands of more young people by means of an inexpensive Raspberry Pi. An example project is the one described in “Raspberry Pi 2 projects: The best 15 things you can do with the low-cost microcomputer.”
“...Raspberry Pi projects: Create a dedicated Minecraft machine -- Minecraft is one of the biggest success stories of the indie games world, and was bought from the original creators by Microsoft in 2014. The sandbox construction SIM is essentially an infinite digital LEGO set, and is naturally hugely popular with kids. However, its simplistic, blocky graphics also mean it's ridiculously easy to run, and the latest versions of the default Raspbian OS come with a custom-optimised copy of the game preinstalled. If you have children who play Minecraft and you're tired of constantly having them monopolising your tablet or computer, a Raspberry Pi can be an inexpensive, durable machine that they can use for schoolwork, movies, and all the digital digging they can handle…”
If you’re not sure that spending time on Minecraft is worthwhile, read “Block by block, Minecraft helps build human connections.”
You might think of Minecraft as just another video game, but don't tell that to the legions of parents, teachers and other fans in this area who think it's not only educational but can build social connections among those who have trouble doing so...Sederquist said he and fellow teachers shared concerns about some sixth-graders who were having difficulty transitioning from elementary to middle school. He wondered how some of the students were even going to make it through the school year. "If they weren't plugged into orchestra or theater or sports, they were just really starting to fall through the cracks," Sederquist said... 
He decided to try to pull those kids together, along with others interested in technology, through the Minecraft Club...The club usually meets twice a week for 90 minutes after school. Sederquist said dozens of kids showed up on the first day. As the weeks went on, he began to see things click and the barriers start to break down. "We had kids that I hadn't even heard speak for two months of the year, and they were sharing these ideas," he said...Some students bring their own iPads because the school has only four of them for Minecraft play, but the school's parent-teacher advisory council has ordered about 10 tablets to reduce wait time for the kids...”
As a counterbalance to the unbridled enthusiasm for Minecraft in the above article, you should also read “The Myth of the Minecraft Curriculum.” This article doesn’t totally slam Minecraft, but it does recognize its limitations as well as potential benefits.
Everyone loves to talk about how Minecraft, the popular computer game where players build structures out of blocks, is educational. Indeed, the hype isn’t limited to people who make Pinterest boards, use Minecraft in the classroom, or writers who argue that the game teaches spatial reasoning,  reading, computer programming and/or system administration. The parents I run into on a regular basis have also jumped on the bandwagon...When a parent says, "I hear it's educational," I imagine they are actually thinking, "I hear it’s a video game that I can let my kid play and not feel guilty." Okay, maybe some of them truly believe that their kids might learn something. But, as a popular Reddit user’s comment holds, "Minecraft has about as much inherent educational value as an overhead projector." In other words, Minecraft is not intrinsically educational... 
When people talk about what their kids have learned from Minecraft, my observation is that it's almost never something a child has learned directly from the program; no one ever brags about how many monsters their child fought off, and people rarely gush about the types of structures their kid has built. Instead, they talk about everything Minecraft has inspired their kids to do. They read, they research, they problem solve—activities with real educational value...But the problem isn’t that children would miss out on such learning without Minecraft; kids can glean those skills simply by having interests. The real problem is that parents think every activity needs to be educational to have value...”
If you enjoy civic hacking and Minecraft, there are certainly ways to combine them in worthwhile projects and activities. I hope lots of Minecraft fans come to NE Wisconsin’s next civic hacking activity to discuss, develop, launch or work on a Minecraft civic hack!

*****

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Calling All Civic Hackers -- BarCampMilwaukee 10

On October 3 - 4, 2015, BarCampMilwaukee 10 will be the most fun event happening in Wisconsin!

I urge every NE Wisconsin civic hacker who currently has that Saturday or Sunday (or both) to register today for BarCampMilwaukee (It’s FREE!) and to participate in this tech unconference.

Today I looked back a blog post I wrote before the first BarCampMilwaukee (and before the first BarCamp Chicago). The first paragraph is as valid today as it was nine years ago for tech people who enjoy participant-driven events. That post from 2006 said:
BarCamp Chicago 2006 (15 - 16 July) is explained on its website as "ad hoc un-conference for technology skillz trade." Although not a coder, I'm planning to participate in BarCamp Chicago because I'm going to work with others to organize a barcamp-type unconference in Wisconsin, albeit one that's less focused on hard-core tech. It's probably a good idea to be involved in an unconference before planning one, just to get some experience and figure out some things to emulate and some things
to do a little differently.”
What the last sentence in the above excerpt means is that a group of women from Women In Technology, Wisconsin\ should consider participating in BarCampMilwaukee 2015. The group has expressed high interest in organizing an unconference for their members. BarCampMilwaukee will be a great opportunity for them to get a taste of what’s involved. They can even raise their hands to help prepare for the October 3 - 4 event. I can connect them with Dan and Paul, the two organizers of BarCampMilwaukee. The NE Wisconsin tech women can help Dan and Paul with a variety of preparation activities, including items like (A) making hundreds of women aware of the event, both in the 18 counties of the New North and in other parts of Wisconsin and the midwest, and (B) helping Dan and Paul recruit sponsors to support the event.

Anyone else that wants to help Dan and Paul prep for BCMke 10 should start doing so. At a minimum you should let at least three other tech people know about BarCampMilwaukee. And if your schedule for that weekend allows, you should register today. If you need more ideas on how to help make the event fun and memorable, let me know.

For civic hackers who are just beginning to understand what civic hacking is and are a bit gunshy of a ‘barcamp’ -- no worries. Being a civic hacker doesn’t mean you’re breaking into government databases or the digital vaults of banks. Likewise, being a barcamper doesn’t mean you’re sitting around a campfire and tent with a lot of alcohol.

A BarCamp is a technology unconference. The ‘bar’ part of BarCamp refers to the foo and bar terms used in computer programming examples. The ‘camp’ part of the name refers to the fact that many of the early BarCamps were multi-day events, and lots of people did, in fact, camp overnight in tents. I spent the night in a tent at a number of BarCamps in Milwaukee and other places, although many BarCamps these days are single day events, or multi-day with no tents.

However, this year’s BCMke organizers assured me barcampers are encouraged to bring and use their tents (if you plan to sleep Saturday night, which I do). Contact them if you have questions regarding the details of camping at BCMke 10.

As for understanding the ‘unconference’ part of this event, I’ll just reiterate my 2006 recommendation -- read Dave Winer’s post “What is an unconference?” What he said is no less true today than it was then, including this excerpt:
“...First, you take the people who used to be the audience and give them a promotion. They’re now participants. Their job is to participate, not just to listen and at the end to ask questions. Then you ask everyone who was on stage to take a seat in what used to be the audience. Okay, now you have a room full of people, what exactly are they supposed to do?... 
Real reporters are often the best discussion leaders. Put your DL at the front of the room, with a mike in hand. A couple of people roam the room with handheld wireless mikes to put in the face of the people who are speaking. No one lines up for a mike. Think Donahue or Oprah. The DL’s job is is to craft a story from the expertise in the room. Everyone is a source, about to be interviewed by someone who’s listening. The DL may actually call on people, so no one should get the idea that they can fall asleep or daydream. Pay attention, you might be the next speaker!...”
Sign up for BarCampMilwaukee today! And invite at least three other civic hackers or tech people to participate in the event with you…

*****

Monday, September 7, 2015

Citizen Engagement: Hacking Cities With Minecraft

This post about building citizen engagement looks at two topics which don’t generally get the lion’s share of attention in civic hacking -- youth and gaming.

Minecraft is a video game that many young people enjoy. In “Hacking Cities With Open Data and Minecraft” David Eaves talks about using Minecraft to build cities and to build citizen engagement with young people.
“...I'm interested in both tools and organizing structures that lower costs to letting citizens hack their cities — not in the literal sense — but in the participatory sense. If the tools become more accessible, then maybe...we'll have more people become smart citizens... 
I remember being 12 years old and playing SimCity, trying to figure out ways to make my city better, more enjoyable...It is one of the reasons why I'm so excited about how a new set of low cost tools — Minecraft and open data — seem to be increasing the opportunity space for people to rethink their city...That's where Minecraft comes into play; giving people a tool to visualize their ideas of how they want to change their part of town... 
...these tools may could be getting easier still, thanks to intrepid developers and open data. Over at TopoMC Jack Twilley has built tools to help recreate real world geographies in Minecraft using United States Geological Survey data. And Max Ogden, a 2011 Code for America fellow, has created voxel.js, an open-source clone of Minecraft that renders entirely in the browser. More intriguing, however, was a module Ogden created that allowed you to use Google maps to recreate a city block, including building outlines, in his Minecraft clone. While still crude this development could eventually eliminate the chore of recreating your neighborhood in Minecraft. 
It is not hard to imagine a future where a seven-year-old shows up at city hall and demos his alternative version of what a development or rezoned project might look like...”
There are five issues to consider when hacking cities with Minecraft:

  1. Youth
  2. Young Women
  3. Open Data
  4. Civic Engagement
  5. Connecting Tech / TIME Community

Youth -- Minecraft is popular with many young people. I’m not a Minecraft person, and I don’t know if its popularity has decreased over the last year or two, but there are many youth who still spend a lot of time in the Minecraft world. Having Minecraft-related activities would probably be a good way to get young people involved with civic hacking events.

Young Women -- Several moms I know have said their daughters really enjoy Minecraft, which seems to be one of the few video games with cross-gender appeal. In addition to being a novel way to involve young women in civic hacking, it can be a great way to get some of them involved with computer programming. Women In Technology, Wisconsin, might be interested in collaborating with civic hackers to explore Minecraft civic hacking as a useful activity for involving more NE Wisconsin young women in technology.

Open Data -- Using GIS open data to create Minecraft cities and regions could result in a new civic hacking GIS platform. There might also be ways to mash up these Minecraft creations with OpenStreetMap to create useful civic hacks or entrepreneurial opportunities. This application of open data may do more to convince some people of the value of open data than any other application could.

Civic Engagement -- As the David Eaves article above mentioned, having young people create and modify parts of their city might be an effective way to create citizen engagement. It could also allow young people’s creative ideas to be translated from half-formed imaginative ideas in their brains into a viewable-by-everyone vision of what they think is possible for their neighborhood or city. It’s even possible for stodgy and over-the-hill adults to use this tool to show others their vision for the city or a portion of it.

Connecting Tech / TIME Community -- Along with the benefits mentioned above, civic hacking with Minecraft might be a way to connect people in the NE Wisconsin tech and TIME community (Tech, Innovators, Makers, Entrepreneurs) who might not otherwise meet. It also gives one more reason for local organizations and national companies to support the tech / TIME community in our region.

Minecraft Louisville and Lakecraft are two examples of civic hacking projects involving the Minecraft gaming world.

Lakecraft, is a free Minecraft world model of the Lake Champlain Basin built with real-world data. As it stated in the Lakecraft project for the National Day of Civic Hacking,
Our goal is to gamify learning about the Lake Champlain basin/watershed. To do this we integrated open GIS data into the Minecraft game framework at the first NDoCH. The virtualized Lake Champlain basin has been used in summer camps at our local science center and aquarium to engage youth with a medium they understand, and a topic that is relevant. Work continued throughout the year. For the 2nd NDoCH, we recruited a developer to help us create a plugin to the Minecraft server that will allow us to, eventually, send/stream GIS-based data updates to a running version of the world…”
In addition to the two Lakecraft links above, click here for the presentation “The Potential of Lakecraft.”  Learning from Lakecraft, in NE Wisconsin we could model the entire region, individual watersheds in the region, Lake Winnebago, Green Bay or other ecosystems.

Minecraft Louisville was a project started at a hackathon on the National Day of Civic Hacking, using raw GIS data to automatically create a Minecraft world. Here’s the NDoCH project description:
Inspired by Denmark, we used GIS data as the first step for recreating Louisville within the game Minecraft. We used Kentucky state open GIS 5-foot contour data (Louisville data not open yet) and modified open source Python scripts to automatically create an accurate representation of Louisville, including bedrock, dirt, and grass layers. One square mile by the Ohio River was used as a test, and we will be working to get all 380 square miles into an online Minecraft server in the coming weeks. After Louisville opens more geodata, we will layer on roads, water, trees, buildings, property outlines, house numbers, and parks for the public to explore (and build or demolish) the city in 1:1 detail.”
More info related to this Minecraft city project can be found at:


Civic hackers could start out by recreating one NE Wisconsin city in Minecraft, while at the same time developing the process for later modeling other cities in the area. People from different cities in the region all working on building one city would be a great way to create new connections between those cities.

If you’re interested in leading a Minecraft-focused activity at the next civic hacking meetup or at the next major civic hackathon in NE Wisconsin, feel free to contact me or just start the ball rolling and launch the activity with young people you know.

*****

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Hosted Blog Instead Of Wiki For CivicHacks Resource Central v.0.1?

Two days ago I wrote a blog post about my plan to use DokuWiki as the website platform for the CivicHacks Resource Central (CHRC)  directory I wanted to compile. Well, that plan is currently being re-evaluated...

To launch a DokuWiki directory, I wanted to have assistance from someone who had already set up a DokuWiki site. It didn’t seem worthwhile to ask someone to figure out setup and maintenance of a website technology new to them, and I didn’t want to spend my limited time on figuring out how to set up and maintain the site. However, the only DokuWiki user I know suggested I use the GitHub wiki rather than create a new site that would require much more time to launch and maintain.

After receiving the recommendation to use GitHub’s wiki component for the civic hacks directory, I spent several more hours poking at both DokuWiki sites and GitHub wikis. There may be robust, multi-featured, up-to-date wikis out in the wide world of the web, but I was unable to find anything meeting that description for either GitHub or DokuWiki. GitHub wikis seem to be primarily or exclusively used by coders for the purpose of documenting their work for their own future understanding or as a user manual for the code in the wiki’s repository. The coders probably don't want to spend any more time creating wiki content than is absolutely necessary, so complex GitHub wikis are probably few and far between. GitHub is reportedly increasingly used for non-coding projects, but I didn’t find any multi-featured and robust websites for such projects. GitHub wikis don't appear to be focused on making their use and content creation particularly appealing to non-coders.

The more I looked at DokuWiki, the more it appeared that potential DokuWiki sites to model mine after were not easily findable, due likely to the small community involved with that platform and the fact that most users speak German. If you know of a few GitHub wikis or DokuWiki sites with WYSIWIG editing for font, color and size, photo or graphic embedding with easy resizing, captioning, linking and placement, easy video embedding, and similar capabilities of modern wikis and blogs, please send me links for those sites.

Until I find a wiki ninja coder to help me with GitHub wikis, DokuWiki’s or another wiki package, I’ve decided to also evaluate using a hosted blog, such as Blogger or WordPress, for CHRC. I might still go down the path of a wiki options for CHRC v.0.1, but until I find that person familiar with a capable wiki platform who has the time and interest to work on this with me, I am probably better off using a website platform familiar to me. I'm more interested in tracking down civic hacks and creating entries for them in a directory than I am in becoming proficient at setting up, maintaining and using a website platform that's new to me. If you know of full-featured Blogger or hosted WordPress sites that would be good models for a hacks directory, please send me links.

I started using Blogger more than ten years ago, and I’ve played around with WordPress (WP) sites enough to consider using either of them for CHRC. The two advantages, from my viewpoint, for a wiki rather than these hosted blog platforms, is that (a) wikis are designed for many content contributors and editors, and (b) multi-level navigation seems easier to build into a wiki than a blog. I realize that huge, complex and robust websites have built with WP, but I don’t currently have the level of knowledge to create and securely maintain a complex WP site.

Over the next couple days, I’ll looked for Blogger and hosted WP sites that might be good models for CHRC v.0.1. I’ll let you know if I find anything useful or if I move forward on a civic hacks directory using one of the four website platforms mentioned in this post.

*****

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Civic Hacking In The News: September 05, 2015

This September 05, 2015, post has four items from recent news related to civic hacking. If they sound like something you want to know more about, click the headline links and read them in their entirety.

Reframing the Conversation About Technology and Government
When the conversation turns to government and technology, all too frequently the narrative becomes one of hopelessness...After all, when it comes to the digital world, there are laggards and leaders in both government and business...And the proficiencies around technology adoption and data-driven decision-making in industry vary just like they do in cities, counties, states, and countries. There are actually many governments—or, at least, parts of governments—that quietly use technology very effectively. 
The challenge for everyone in both the private and public sector is that consumers expect the level of service and responsiveness of government technology to rival the very best of what they experience in consumer technology...When a company fails to deliver technology that measures up, it loses market share, revenue and margins—and eventually puts itself out of business. When a government can’t deliver technology that improves the quality of life for citizens, there’s a crisis of confidence... 
With voters used to a steady stream of technology breakthroughs or services that feel intuitive and easy, there’s a strong sense that the public sector is either unable to effectively deliver digital services or can’t do so at a pace that the public is increasingly accustomed to...This isn’t a hippie revolution based on values; it’s a boring and slow-moving rebellion based on expectations. 
So, how can the digital laggards in the public sector catch up? The same way that the digital laggards in the private sector can—by recognizing the tremendous sea change that technology and data-driven decision-making represents and shifting their culture and organizational roles to meet modern technology demands...”
There are likely aspects of government in NE Wisconsin that don’t live up to many residents’ technology expectations. Millennials especially expect to be able to do most of their interactions digitally. If governments in our region want to not fall further and further behind technology-wise, they need to be seeking more citizen engagement and need to develop plans for city and county digital innovation over the next five years.

Making websites more like M&Ms
Aaron Gustafson was working with a major drug store chain when he discovered they only tested their website on iPhones and iPads...did the chain know what their site looked like on the $50 tablet they sold in their own stores? The store’s response was, “we sell tablets?”... 
Gustafson...underscored the issues that arise if we consider sites only through the lens of expensive technology — the nicest objects with excellent processors. “It gives us a myopic view of what the mobile web is like for people,” Gustafson said. “The reality is a lot more messy.” 
He challenged designers to improve user experience across browsers and devices. That means thinking about more than 1,000 different screen resolutions and a plethora of devices...designers who think first about upscale cellphones and computers are forgetting about the web experiences of most Americans...Pew research shows that smartphone users who make less than $30,000 a year encounter app errors 52 percent of the time. That means these users can download apps, but they often won’t open or don’t work. 
Gustafson’s solution is progressive enhancement...“Progressive enhancement offers the user a customized, a la carte experience,” Gustafson said. “A dynamic web page can never break, it can only become a web page.” As an analogy, Gustafson compared progressive enhancement to a peanut M&M. The text is the peanut, a fine snack on its own. But with chocolate (CSS), it’s tastier. And it’s best with colorful candy coating (Javascript). Ultimately, you can enjoy it at whatever step you get it...”
Progressive enhancement design and testing with both high and low capability devices is something civic hackers as well as government website designers and testers should keep in mind. Designing primarily for the latest and best devices means that many citizens will have a bad or less-than-ideal experience on websites and apps that take a lot of time or money to build.

Hacking away at poverty
Bread for the City’s social workers are using technology to cut down on red tape to better serve impoverished DC residents. At Bread for the City, a routine task delegated to a student intern more than a decade ago has now sparked a national movement. Stacey Johnson was instructed to update a listing of the resources the Shaw nonprofit could direct to impoverished D.C. residents. The directory in 2002 was unwieldy and unreliable...“It was really inefficient.”...

Because the nonprofit has its hands in so many different service areas – from health care to legal assistance and hunger relief – its social workers are well positioned to spot larger inefficiencies in need of repair. Consequently, the nonprofit is becoming a breeding ground of sorts for civic hackers, those next-generation activists who are turning to technology to solve community ills throughout the DC community... 
During his four years at Bread for the City, Greg Bloom...and Johnson began talking shop about the directory. “I was observing that other organizations were coming to us and asking for that data,” says Bloom. “It was gathered in a lot of different silos and none of them were perfected or up to date.”... 
Bloom brought other community groups, along with the District’s Department of Human Services and the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services, to the table. They launched Open 211 —  a project to make the disparate databases of local community resources speak the same language. Bloom now works full time on the project, which has spread throughout the country, from San Francisco to Miami and beyond. The new movement, called “Open Referral,” has even formed partnerships with civic technology groups in Canada and Spain...addressing their most pressing needs with medical clinics, legal assistance, job training, a food pantry and a number of other programs...”
As I mentioned recently in the post “Civic Hacking To Help Those In Need,” civic hackers in NE Wisconsin ought to consider spending more time making a positive difference for residents who need help interacting with governments and social services. Bread for the City shows one model of helping those in need.

Inside a weekly 'Hack Night' at AL.com
It's Wednesday night. You walk into the AL.com building on the Huntsville courthouse square, and you can almost feel the 1s and 0s flying through the air. The dress code – mainly shorts or jeans and T-shirts...tell you that the people gathered here aren't AL.com reporters or ad salespeople working late. No, on Wednesday nights, it's "Hack Night," and the AL.com downtown Huntsville hub becomes software nerd central for local developers and code writers working on side projects and looking for people to collaborate on their work. About 40 hard-core programmers unload their backpacks, grab a slice of pizza and hunker down over laptops to create the next great software package, website or app. 
The group, now more than 40 strong after four months of word-of-mouth growth, is called Hack Huntsville...Most of the projects are community-oriented and non-profit, like the just-launched #openHSV, a free directory of Huntsville "freelancers, moonlighters and consultants," that gives local small businesses links to experts in everything from accounting and legal work to marketing and video production. 
Code for Huntsville...is getting its feet off the ground with a civic app called "Frontier." Once up and ready, you can input your location and Frontier will use open databases to give you a list of the nearest restaurants, public restrooms, wifi-hotspots, and even the nearest open mechanic or tow truck service... 
To facilitate the "together we are better, alone we fail" credo, the organizers open the evening with a round-robin of introductions, giving their name and technical specialty. Then they break off, some in groups of people with complementary skills, some to a quiet corner to write long strings of code away from distraction...”
‘Hack Night’ at the local newpaper offices in Huntville, Alabama, is sort of Civic Hacking+. The Code for Huntsville brigade is a civic hackers group, but the weekly hack night event invites non-civic hacker coders to also participate. Their Meetup.com webpage says:
“...Anyone of any skill level or background is welcome to attend, however we ask that you 1) bring a laptop, and 2) try to be productive throughout the evening! This group is a collaboration between HACK_HUNTSVILLE, whose focus is personal projects, and Code for Huntsville, whose focus is civic projects. Both groups maintain the same goal of fostering an always-free community space where software and hardware hackers can come together to work on fun, commitment-free technology projects...”
Maybe the NE Wisconsin civic hackers should promote their periodic gatherings like Hack Night at AL.com -- inviting coders from across the region to join them for coding, camaraderie and comestibles, regardless of whether they work on a civic hacking project or a personal project. It would also be encouraging to have community organizations show support for the tech and civic hacking community by sponsoring food for the evening and a large venue with robust wifi, similar to how Huntsville is supporting their coders and civic hackers.

*****

Friday, September 4, 2015

A Wiki For CivicHacks Resource Central

Time to get to work on a directory of civic hacks like I described in “CivicHacks ResourceCentral v.0.1” and mentioned in “What Are Some Non-coder Activities In Civic Hacking?” The first step in building CivicHacks Resource Central (CHRC) is to create a new wiki website.

Having a CHRC will do two things. First, it will make it easy for people to find civic hacks to use or to work on. We can put "Is It Recycling Week?" in the wiki as our initial civic hack entry! As far as I know, there is currently no civic hack directory you can use to find what apps or projects civic hackers in the US and around the world have created. Second, a wiki directory of civic apps will give non-coders a great way to get started working on civic hacking.

We can include a Civic Hacking Basics section in the wiki and put the Civic Hacker Onboarding info in there. That will be an easy way for new civic hackers to become part of the hacking community and will also give them a way to easily improve the onboarding information for the next newcomer. They can read through the wiki to get an understanding of what civic hacks have been built by others and what those hacks do. The non-coders can also do Google searches for civic hacks not listed in CHRC. When they find new hacks, they can add them to the wiki.

The first step in creating the wiki for CHRC is to choose a type of wiki to use. My criteria for choosing which wiki to use are:

  1. Open source; free as in speech AND free as in beer. 25 open source wiki packages were listed on Wikipedia as of today, September 4.
  2. Initial and periodic assistance from an experienced wiki setup and maintenance person. I’m not a coder, so I’d prefer to have a wiki-knowledgeable coder make this project more fun for me.
  3. Wiki package that has been used by experienced person mentioned in Criteria 2 above.
  4. Wiki package that makes content creation easy for people new to wikis.
  5. Reasonable way to link the wiki with other components of CHRC such as GitHub.
  6. Wiki package with reasonable level of digital security.

Since I’m the lead person on this project, the three wikis that seem to best fit my criteria are DokuWiki, MediaWiki and the GitHub wiki.

DokuWiki was recently chosen as the wiki package for the Appleton Makerspace. It has the advantage over MediaWiki of not needing a database, which can help greatly in terms of keeping things simple. According to the review on MediaWiki Testers Wiki:
This wiki engine is an excellent choice for stability and security, though it's markup is not very beginner friendly and it requires a lot of customization to include certain features which are usually taken for granted on other wikis. However, if security is the highest concern, then this wiki engine is a very good choice.
Similarly, CMS Critic gave DokuWiki a pretty good rating:
If you are in the market for a fast, powerful and easy to use Wiki with tons of options that requires minimal work to get up and running, look no further than DokuWiki. It's an incredibly fast and fun to use Wiki that's very easy to customize. In a world where we are exposed to so much software that is overly complicated and confusing, DokuWiki is a breath of fresh air and we strongly recommend checking it out.”
Based on the above criteria, DokuWiki seems like a better choice than WikiMedia. My primary hesitation about DokuWiki at this point is that because of integration with GitHub and the other non-wiki components I mentioned in the CHRC post, I’d be tempted to try the GitHub wiki if I was a coder or if I had someone to help me who is a GitHub wiki ninja. Several of the Code for America brigades have nice looking websites deeply integrated with GitHub, like Miami, San Diego and others, so if I could help build a site along those lines, while incorporating a GitHub wiki that has all the desired capabilities of DokuWiki, that should end up to be a much more effective CHRC than a plain-vanilla DokuWiki site would be.

Two other considerations for DokuWiki are the fact that it appears to be popular primarily in Germany (the founder of DokuWiki is German), and the non-German community activity with DokuWiki seems to have been strong from 2005 - 2012, but much less between 2012 and 2015. Maybe I'll need to brush up on my German...

At this point, I’ve decided to go with DokuWiki for v.0.1, while keeping the GitHub wiki as an option for v.0.9 or v.2.0 of CHRC.

Next Steps For CivicHacks Resource Central Wiki:

  1. Confirm with a current DokuWiki maintainer that they have the time and interest to help me set up a DokuWiki instance for a civic hack directory.
  2. Read more online info about setting up, using and maintaining DokuWiki.
  3. Figure out hosting and domain issues, and set up any needed accounts.
  4. Set up the CHRC DokuWiki.
  5. Start creating content on the wiki.

A journey of a thousand steps…

*****

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Civic Hacking To Help Those In Need

The concept of civic hacking to help those in need has been mentioned in several posts on this blog, but this is the first post focused on that topic.

For the most part, civic hackers tend not to be from the segments of society who would be considered “in need.” In many cases that’s because the people in need are too busy dealing with their problems to consider being civic hackers. Because people tend to focus on what they know and on what’s important to them, there may be too little focus on civic hacks that would most improve people’s lives.

Examples of helping those in need from one of my earlier blog posts are Food Pantry Helper and Snapmap, two winning civic hacks from the 2015 AT&T Tech Valley Civic App Challenge.
Aimed to connect and engage citizens with government and demonstrate how mobile technologies can lead to the next generation of tech jobs and investment, the 2015 AT&T Tech Valley Civic App Challenge was a partnership between AT&T and area universities, businesses and technology organizations...The grand prize of $10,000 went to Food Pantry Helper...This mobile web app assists non-for-profit food pantries in managing their operations more efficiently and cost effectively to better serve the community’s most needy. It includes services such as client, inventory, grant, volunteer and donor tracking. In addition, the app reduces the need for paper, provides real-time data and reporting to management and compliance oversight entities, and provides an overall structure for a food pantry operation...The third place prize was presented to Snapmap...a mobile web app that helps New York state families get the most out of their SNAP benefits, the USDA’s supplemental nutrition assistance program designed to ensure that all Americans, regardless of income level, can purchase and consume healthy food on a regular basis...”
A starting point for NE Wisconsin civic hackers to make a big impact on someone’s life by helping those in need is to consider what those needs might be. I’m an engineer, not a social worker, so I probably left a few important needs off the list below, but I’ll update this list with other needs as people point them out to me.

  • Health and dental care
  • Hunger and poor nutrition
  • Homelessness
  • Unemployment
  • Domestic abuse and neglect, including child care services
  • Disaster victims
  • Suicide prevention
  • Depression
  • Addictions
  • Mental illness
  • Prison -- legal aid, children of inmates, etc
  • Physical handicaps
  • Legal assistance
  • Landlord problems
  • Transportation
  • Internet access and computer access
  • Digital divide issues
  • Learning disabilities and struggling students
  • Getting a GED (general educational development), aka high school equivalency diploma
  • Discrimination

To get an understanding of some of the civic hacking being done on this topic, check out the “Safety and Justice Primer” post from Code for America. It takes a brief look at civic hacking in the areas of criminal justice, public safety and reform efforts. Another good read for legal needs is “Notes from Hackcess to Justice 2014.” For a couple hunger-related items, read “Announcing the Food Data Jam!”, “Code for Boston launches Pantry Pickup site,” or the Western Massachusetts “Food Finder.”

Everybody who works on a civic hack project has their own reasons for choosing which issues are worth putting their time and energy into. As someone told me recently, “it’s hard to say what motivates people.” Two good ways to choose a need category to work on are (1) figure out which need has the most potential for civic hacker impact or (2) select the need which you are familiar with and have a strong personal reason to address the need.

Most Potential Civic Hacker Impact

My guess is that to identify which need can most be impacted by civic hackers, we ought to have some city, county, and maybe state employees involved in our discussions about Helping Hacks. Some of the people who are already participating in civic hacking events in NE Wisconsin might know a lot about which needs are greatest in our region, but I’d just be guessing if I tried to say where we can best apply our time and knowledge.

The social service providers in our area should have statistics about what the most pressing needs are. They can also tell us what programs are currently addressing those needs. My personal approach to new projects is to not replicate something that’s already being done, especially for a topic about which others are much more knowledgeable than I am. For example, when looking at the issue of hunger, rather than trying to launch a new food pantry, I’d try to find a way to help make the existing pantries more effective (which is what Food Pantry Helper seems designed to do).

If you know social service providers or social agency directors, invite them to the next civic hacking meetup. We could have a great discussion about what they see as the biggest problems and where they think we could contribute to current efforts in the community.

Personal Desire To Address Need

Some civic hackers will choose to work on Random Hacks of Kindness for personal reasons such as having experienced that need themselves in the past, having a relative or close friend who is or was experiencing that need, or having personally seen the impact of that need on people in their community. Or they might want to help those in need because they (a) are trying to live what their religion teaches, (b) have had others help them and they want to pay it forward, (c) have had a good life and want to give back to the community or (d) just want to make the world a better place.

In addition to the Food Pantry Helper and Snapmap hacks mentioned above, what other people-in-need civic hacks have already been worked on? If you’re aware of any, please send me links to those hacks at bwaldron (at) gmail [dott] com.

Regardless of whatever got you first involved with civic hacking, consider working on a project that helps those in need in NE Wisconsin.

*****

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Scraping Data From A Reluctant PDF

PDFs and civic hackers are not good friends.

The post “My First Hackathon: Learning to Extract” explains the civic hackers' animosity toward PDFs (portable document format computer files) this way:
Over the weekend of January 16-18 [2014] the Sunlight Foundation sponsored a PDF Liberation Hackathon which I participated in as a non-developer. The event focused on the problem that many organizations have reams of data in PDF. This is an issue because PDF does not allow the user to interact with the document in word searches and other ways; the data they contain is essentially locked up and difficult to manipulate. This means that a lot of data, including congressional financial disclosures and non-profit expenditures, is not easily viewable, and cannot be used to create tables, graphs, diagrams, and apps. The goal of the event was to make progress in unlocking these documents by testing and tweaking different software to convert documents into more usable formats...”
This excerpt from “Beyond Transparency: Open Data and the Future of Civic Innovation” describes a specific case where civic hacking needs to be able to work with public data that is only available in PDF format:
“...to realize the full potential requires more than simply declaring a dataset open and putting a PDF version on a website. First of all, the data must be not only open and available, but also in a useful (and preferably machine-readable) format... a list of crime reports in an Excel format is not that helpful for a parent trying to understand whether the route her child takes to school every day is safe. But when that list of crime incidents is mapped, the information becomes much more consumable. The data become even more useful when the parent can input his child’s route to school and a system displays only the crimes reported within a five block radius of that route...”
Getting information or data from PDFs for civic hacking is a subset of the ‘scraping’ issue I talked about in “Intro To Data Scraping For Civic Hackers.” But because of how much government information is tied up in PDFs, getting data from PDFs is, for many civic hackers, synonymous with ‘scraping data’ Scraping PDFs is so important for open data and civic hacking that the Sunlight Foundation and others organized the PDF Liberation Hackathon in 2014.

Two blog posts from the Sunlight Foundation, “PDF Liberation: Why it matters and how you can help” and “PDF Liberation Hackathon and the need for more civic innovation,” cover the 2014 hackathon activities and planned future work. That hackathon generated a few worthwhile projects, but even more importantly, it connected many people around the US and around the world who are interested in scraping PDFs. If you want to know what’s happening with PDF liberation tools or want to work on improving those tools, check out the PDF Liberation GitHub page.

If you’re interested in the specifics of converting PDF information into a usable format, do a Google search with the keywords specific to your situation or check out the following resources:

  1. "Five tools to extract "locked" data in PDFs" -- this is from 2013, but I couldn’t find a more recent list of data-from-PDF tools. 
  2. "How to Extract Data from Tables in PDFs with Tabula and OpenRefine" -- one of the five tools mentioned in the previous item was Tabula. In addition to showing how to use Tabula, this post highlights data quality issues caused by scraping PDFs and shows how to use OpenRefine to improve the data quality.
  3. PDF Liberation Hackathon website -- scroll down on this website and you’ll find scads of tools listed.
  4. ScraperWiki blog -- search for PDF on the ScraperWiki blog and you’ll find lots of info related to digging data out PDFs, such as “The four kinds of data PDF.”
  5. Get Started With Scraping – Extracting Simple Tables from PDF Documents” -- this post is for coders; it has lots of details about using ScraperWiki / Python for scraping a PDF.
  6. Last chance saloon: Manually converting a PDF to .csv format” -- This post walks you through the painful process of manually building a csv data file (comma separated values) from a PDF that is resistant to all the scraping tools you try.

In my mind, future civic hacking work on the issue of PDFs has two aspects. The first aspect is working with government agencies to move toward making more data available in a standard open data non-PDF format. If the government has specific reasons for using the PDF format, they should also provide information that’s agreed to be important for civic hacking in an open format on an ‘open data’ webpage.

The second aspect of working on PDFs is for civic hackers to become skilled with PDF-scraping tools and to continue  improving tools for extracting data from PDFs. We’re likely to see some interesting or useful government data available only in PDF format for many years, so skill in using these tools and better tools are both important.

I’m going to propose to the Appleton Makerspace Coder Cooperative and the Fox Valley Python User Group that the two groups do a collaborative PDF-scraping session to walk people through the process of extracting data from a PDF. If that topic is of interest to a significant number of people, maybe we can even do a session where we use several different tools to extract the same data from a PDF and document pros and cons for each tool. If those PDF-scraping sessions are held, I’ll work with the coders at the sessions to write up one or several posts documenting our work.

For NE Wisconsin civic hackers and other people interested in extracting data from PDFs, let’s reserve March 5, 2016 on our schedules for an Open Data Day Hackathon (this seems to be the successor to the 2014 PDF Liberation Hackathon). Before March 2016, we should also schedule a couple data-scraping workshops and meetups to develop an 'Intro To PDF Data Liberation' session. We can have a March 5 hackathon track with that Intro session for participants who want to learn PDF data-scraping, as well as offering the session at other times if there’s interest.

Many journalists are interested in extracting information from PDFs, as mentioned in the DHMN Civic Hacks post "More Civic Hackers In NE Wisconsin." So one of my goals for the March 5 hackathon will be to make sure NE Wisconsin journalists are all aware of the opportunity to learn more about scraping PDFs!

People who read all the way through this post may look at PDFs differently now and wonder how hard it would be to scrape its data!  :)

*****

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Guerrilla Civic Hacking: Portable Artist Workspace & Street Made By People

It’s been a while since I did a post on guerrilla civic hacking, and I recently saw a couple intriguing articles about DIY urbanism type hacks. So today you get a look at two potential community projects for NE Wisconsin that don’t involve coding or computers. Or at least that’s not the main focus of these projects.

The first article is from Meeting of the Minds, “Artist Workspace Prototype Rolls Down Market Street.” Meeting of the Minds is 'a global knowledge sharing platform dedicated to bringing together a carefully chosen set of key urban sustainability and technology stakeholders and gathering them around a common platform in ways that help build lasting alliances. MotM believes that such a platform is a vital ingredient for smart, sustainable and equitable urban (re)development strategies. They focus on the innovators and initiatives at the bleeding edge of urban sustainability and connected technology.'
Meet Studio 1, San Francisco’s 2nd Living Innovation Zone and mobile art studio. Studio 1 is a 65 square foot “off the grid” solar powered studio, public art project, and micro-residency center...Studio 1 brings artists to the streets to interact with the public – allowing the community to be part of the design and exhibition process... 
“In the past few years, the City has worked with the community to revitalize Market Street by attracting new jobs to the area...keeping our community-oriented arts organizations in the neighborhood and activating the street with initiatives like Living Innovation Zones,” said Mayor Edwin M. Lee. “This Living Innovation Zone is a forward-thinking prototype that creates affordable space for artists to engage directly with the public on one of our City’s busiest thoroughfares… 
Built on the back of a flatbed trailer, the Studio is made primarily of reclaimed and salvage materials with features including an integrated video projection screen and motion activated undercarriage LED lights. 
The Studio is a mobile LIZ, sited at NEMA and Mechanics Plaza during the summer of 2015. The project is one of several structures Szlasa has built for artists and creative people in response to the need for alternative models for artist work space in growing economies like the Bay Area. According to the creator...“Studio 1 is a prototype for a scalable, sustainable solution for art spaces in under-resourced areas.” 
For a week at a time from June 17th to July 25th, artists curated by Szlasa and the San Francisco Arts Commission are occupying the Studio. Each artist-in-residence represents a mix of disciplines and will develop programming schedules to complement the natural traffic patterns of the location, scheduling open studio hours and exhibitions on a regular basis...”
I’m not an artist or a frequenter of downtown areas, but I think something like Studio 1 would be a fantastic guerrilla civic hack for Green Bay, Appleton, or one of the other NE Wisconsin cities that has a reasonable amount of downtown foot traffic during the day and evening.

It also seems like something that the art community would be enthused about. Getting more exposure and personal interaction with people while you’re working seems like a great way to get a new perspective on your art.

We’d have to check on ordinances and get city permission for the space(s) where Studio 1 would be located, but it doesn’t take up much real estate, and it seems like the downtown associations in the cities would be eager to help get permitting or city bureaucracy issues figured out.

We could have the design and building of Studio 1 be a collaborative project between Proto GB, the Appleton Makerspace and several other groups. We could do concurrent discussions this fall with downtown associations in Green Bay, Appleton, and other NE Wisconsin cities that indicate strong support for the Studio 1 concept to figure out which city is most receptive to the first instance of this portable artist workspace. During the winter we could recruit sponsors and artists and start building the first Studio 1. And when the weather gets nice enough in 2016 for artists to work in the studio without heat, we could launch our first major guerrilla civic hack for the region.

Click here for a PDF with more info about Studio 1, and click here for a San Francisco Chronicle article about it.

If this sounds like the perfect civic hack project for you to work on, let me know, and we’ll figure out Next Steps!

The second DIY urbanism article was “Streets Made By People.” This one seems a little more challenging to do than the portable artist workshop, but it would be interesting to try to create Living Streets in a few NE Wisconsin cities for at least a couple weeks (the article talks about keeping them vehicle-free for several months).
In recent years, more and more initiatives try to counter the important role of the car in urban streets. Projects like PARK(ing) Day and Neighborhood in Motion show how the removal of cars affects the urban space and the mindsets and lifestyles of the residents. Ghent has another bottom-up approach where 16 residential streets were transformed into collectively created spaces for no less than 2.5 months... 
In order to make people feel what a difference it makes when streets are used by people instead of cars, they came up with the idea of ‘Leefstraten’ which translates as Living Streets. Leefstraten is an experiment that enables inhabitants to transform their street into a place they’ve always dreamed of. By removing the cars and finding other places for parking, new space came available that were turned into places with slides, hen houses...and a lot of astroturf and picnic benches. 
One of the most interesting elements is that the process is led by the inhabitants themselves. All the locations have a different outcome resulting in a different use or no use at all. The inhabitants all have their own ideas on how to use the street, which makes up a very local decision making process... 
When everything comes together and a street is turned into a living street, there is hardly anyone who doesn’t feel satisfied!...”
A Living Streets project in our area would be valuable simply for the conversations and citizen engagement that it initiated. First there would be discussions with city officials about whether they’ll go along with the concept. If the government approval was secured, then comes the process of selecting which of the available areas would be turned into a Living Street. After the location is decided on, the biggest challenge arrives, which is getting the residents of the Living Streets to agree on what will spring up on their streets.

If someone wants to start the process of working toward a Living Streets project, it might make sense to begin with several PARK(ing) Days (if that’s not already done in our region), with one-day or weekend experiments of turning parking spaces into mini-parks. The 'official' PARK(ing) Day is the third Friday in September.

If decreased dependency on cars and increased interaction between neighbors is something you can get excited about, maybe becoming the PARK(ing) Day Queen or King of NE Wisconsin is something you should tackle. You could be the key person in creating a new tradition for our region. Like the article said, “When everything comes together and a street is turned into a living street, there is hardly anyone who doesn’t feel satisfied!

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The previous two posts about Guerrilla civic hacking were:

Are They Right To Stop Guerrilla Street Repairs?

Guerrilla Civic Hacks: Onomatopoeia & Tweeting Potholes, DIY Urbanism

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