Civic hacking: Building better city governments

Civic hacking: Building better city governments

Editor's Note: To learn more about making data actionable to support smart city strategies, be sure to register for VERGE Virtual: Cities 2.0 starting Wednesday, July 18th, 11:30am EDT / 8:30am PDT

Code for America helps cities use technology to effectively address civic issues. With more than two dozen citywide programs, the non-profit organization has developed crowd-sourced municipal solutions including apps to uncover snowed-in hydrants in Chicago and help the city of Honolulu track and monitor tsunami sirens.

Recently, the organization launched Code for America Brigade (CfA Bridage) soliciting citizens directly to "help governments work better for everyone using the people and the power of the web."

Luke Fretwell, founder of GovFresh, sat down with CfA Brigade's Program Director Kevin Curry to talk about its mission and how you can bring ‘civic hacking’ to where you live.

What is the significance of a Code or Brigade?Kevin Curry

Citizens taking responsibility for fixing government where it is broken. When it comes to the web and information technology government is definitely not doing things right. I'm talking about antiquated IT systems, poor user interfaces and experiences, wasting taxpayer money on IT that never ships, closed government data, and all of the unrealized potential that both the web and the people who power it can provide to make government work better for everyone.

Brigade is a new form of citizen engagement. One thing I know all governments want is more engaged citizens. Well, geeks are citizens too, and we can help. We want to help. We're going to help, whether government officials recognize the need or not. CfA Brigade means that anyone can code for America, anywhere.

How does the new website help citizens start their own "civic brigade?"

The site emphasizes two things: 1) connecting with other civic hackers, through online forums and in-person events, and 2) the activities that anyone can do to code for America where they live. Behind the site is a support team who acts as "concierge service" to help people navigate the network, find civic hacking projects and connect with other civic hackers.We have a main forum for Brigade (brigade@codeforamerica.org) that any member can use to message the entire network. There are also dozens of email lists that we track. These are local groups all over the U.S.

When we find out where someone lives we try to connect them to a local forum. We use MeetUp Everywhere so members can organize local events and there is a calendar where we track civic hacking events around the country. Most importantly, the site helps civic hackers understand what they should be doing to improve the way their local governments use the web to communicate, deliver services, and engage with citizens.

Through the site members can find out how to open civic data, advocate for open government, commit to open source, civic software, deploy and maintain civic apps, and captain a brigade.

Deploying and populating open data platforms first comes to mind. Opening civic data is a vital need for open government and there is momentum behind fulfilling that need. Opening government data was the first thing Vivek Kundra did after President Obama issued the Open Government Directive. Since then open data platforms have not only appeared at the federal level in the form of data.gov but have also sprouted up in dozens of cities and counting.

Brigade members can help us find out where open data exists and where it is needed. They can help us learn more about how open data is used, abused, and where it matters most. Members can even deploy their own open data platforms. While we aim to collaborate with government, Brigade members don't have to wait on their city to launch an open data portal.

What advice do you have for those who want to build a successful, sustainable "civic hacking" community where they live?

Join the Brigade. I know I'm biased but one thing I've learned in my career and as a volunteer is that connecting to a network of practitioners is easier, more efficient, and more effective than starting in isolation. Anyone who wants civic hacking to succeed and be sustained where they live needs to learn from and share in the experiences of others who have done it.

eGovernment word cloud photo by S.john via Shutterstock