Guest commentary: Hacking our way to better government, communities

By Alok Sharma

The National Day of Civic Hacking is June 1 and I'm proud to say that the Detroit technology community is really rallying around the cause.

The day’s events wouldn't be successful, however, if they only consisted of a group of technologists in a room. Civic hacking, like any other community driven event, requires citizens, governments, institutions and hackers to work together.

Historically, the term “hacking” has been associated with bad behavior. Foreign governments hacking into American national defense networks or cartels stealing credit card numbers.

However, like scores of groups in the past, the technology community has now co-opted the derogatory term, turned the definition around and reinvented what it means to be a hacker.

“Hacking" now means working on code or re-engineering electronics.

Need evidence the technology community is turning the word “hacking” on its head? Intel, the microprocessor giant, is sponsoring the National Day of Civic Hacking and even the federal government is getting on board as the White House will be inviting a number of hackers from around the country to help out with their events.

Civic hacking is really about what technologists can do for the good of their communities and governments think technologists (hackers) helping out their fellow man. But how can they do that? What does writing software and building websites have to do with serving the community?

Well, that’s where everyone else comes in. It isn’t difficult for a group of technologists in a room to work together to solve problems that affect other technologists. But to truly serve the community and make a civic impact, technologists need to hear from non-technologists as well.

In other words, the community needs to tell it’s technologists what is broken.

But it’s not even just citizens and hackers that make up the community. Government has a role, as well. Government makes lots of decisions (hopefully) with citizen input. But good (modern) government should also be making decisions based on data -- and if there is one thing that government has, it’s data. Voter registration, business records, zoning information, licensing records, census data, crime reports, permitting, etc. Most governments keep this data in the equivalent of a vault. It’s public data for sure, but citizens don’t know this data exists, don’t know how to request it or are often forced to pay for the data.

What would happen if our governments “opened” this data? Imagine the analysis and tools that could be built around this data if governments created an online list of all of their data sets, let anyone download the data, and not charge anyone to do so.

It’s wonderful theory. But governments are strapped for money, residents are strapped for time and technologists don’t know how to approach either group. So how do we get the three to work together?

In Detroit, the ‘pain pitch’

Logo_Header_BlueandRedWell, in Detroit we came up with “Pain Pitch.” It’s a way for technologists to sit back and listen to citizens, civic organizations and governments give a brief description of their pain.

After hearing the “pain pitches,” the technologists set out to recommend solutions (and maybe even build software). Pain Pitch is just one of the many events planned in Detroit on June 1.

There are a number of short workshops aimed at getting novices started with working on civic data, an expo of civic apps that have already been built that the community might be able to use and, of course, an after party! And all the events are free.

So, on June 1, help us help you help improve our governments, our communities.

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Tue, 05/14/2013 - 11:17am
Someone may think that Hacking has a benign aspect but Hacking and Spam are so prevalent and virulent that literally billions of dollars are wasted in the world every year dealing with the criminal and other aspects and output of hacking. I am strongly opposed to that waste and to try to rehabilitate an awful practice by pretending something else does no good for our us and our communities. This author has missed the point.