2. Civic Hacking By Example

1. The Hacker Communities

“Hacking” has come to mean two quite different things. One is breaking into a computer system. That is the popular meaning, but not the one relevant to open data. The other meaning is a source of pride among programmers and geeks at large, and it means perverting something’s original purpose to solve a problem. Rube Goldberg machines are hacks. The use of the lunar lander to bring the Apollo 13 crew home was a hack. The first computer games were hacks (computers were not meant for games). Open government applications are usually hacks because they are based on information that had been published by the government for reasons other than the problem the open government hacker is trying to solve.

Civic hacking is a creative, often technological approach to solving civic problems.[54] These civic problems run the gamut from voter registration and public education to helping consumers evaluate financial advisors.[55] Civic hackers can be programmers, designers, or anyone willing to get their hands dirty. Some civic hackers are employed by nonprofits, such as Code for America or OpenPlans. Others work for innovative for-profit companies, such as the geospacial software provider Azavea in Philadelphia. Others are civic hackers only by night.

Civic hackers often meet to work on problems collaboratively at “hackathons,” one- or two-day community-run events typically held around a particular theme. While solving real problems often takes years of deliberate effort, these short events strengthen the connections among local hackers and help orient them to the complexities of civic problems. That is especially true when subject matter experts, especially those in government, participate. At a hackathon I ran in Philadelphia in 2009, two analysts from the New Jersey State Police worked over the course of two days with five volunteer programmers to develop a visualization tool for gang activity tracked by the police department.[56] On that same day, nearly 200 developers across the country were participating in the Sunlight Foundation’s call for a Great American Hackathon.[57] On December 3, 2011 hackathons were held in some 30 cities world-wide for International Open Data Day.[58] There have been many, many hackathons in between and since.

Obviously our little gang statistics website in 2009 did not solve the problem of gang violence. That was never the point. Everyone knew that follow-through after the event just to finish up the website would be difficult, and frankly unlikely. Not every weekend has to solve a problem.

And yet the hacker community is stronger and more effective because of it.

Civic hacking has been spurred by contests (typically called “challenges”) as well. The first, back in 2008, was Apps for Democracy in Washington, D.C. Apps for Democracy put up $20,000 in prizes for applications built using the city government’s newly opened data. iStrategyLabs, which worked with the DC government to create the contest, said that the contest entries — including one mobile app to submit GPS-tagged photos of potholes and other city problems to the city’s 311 service — would have cost the government $2 million to build, 40 times the amount of money the DC government actually spent on encouraging the apps to be created (including overhead).[59] (The D.C. government chief technology officer, who led the city government’s side of the contest, was Vivek Kundra, who also created the D.C. Data Catalog the year before and became the federal chief information officer the year after.)

After the Obama Administration’s Open Government Directive, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) really stepped up to the call for engaging with entrepreneurs to turn government data into value for the public. HealthData.gov currently lists 249 data sets and tools from HHS. Healthcare IT News reported in early 2012 about two recent challenge winners:

The winning apps . . . were each awarded $20,000 by [HHS’s] Office for the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC). They are:

Ask Dory! Submitted by Chintan Patel, Sharib Khan, MD, and Aamir Hussain of Applied Informatics, LLC, the app helps patients find information about clinical trials for cancer and other diseases, integrating data from ClinicalTrials.gov and making use of an entropy-based, decision-tree algorithm. . . .

My Cancer Genome. Submitted by Mia Levy, MD, of the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, the app provides therapeutic options based on the individual patient’s tumor gene mutations, making use of the NCI’s physician data query clinical trial registry data set and information on genes being evaluated in therapeutic clinical trials. The app is in operation at MyCancerGenome.org.[60]

These ideas are extraordinary, and often unpredictable from the data they chose to use. HHS is now heading into its third Health Data Palooza in 2012, an annual conference centered on public-private partnerships that have created innovation in public health using data and technology. (Todd Park, HHS’s chief technology officer who launched these initiatives, became the federal chief technology officer in 2012.)

In the case of Apps for Democracy, iStrategyLabs called the $2 million of value created by the contest a 40x “return on investment.” Viewed in this way apps contests are bound to be considered failures. Even if $2 million of man-hours were put into contest entries, most entries don’t yield lasting, useful products. Like hackathons, contest entries don’t usually solve problems.

And yet, the hacking community — and the public at large — is better for it. Not all apps submitted to a contest have to work for the public to benefit, as long as one app leads to a better app a few years later, and maybe from that a whole company that goes on to provide services over the long haul. Unfortunately, I don’t know if this has already happened in health data. There have been too many contests and too many entries for me to have followed Health 2.0 closely so far, but I’ll find out for the next edition of this book! It has happened in other fields, at least. In Chapter 1 Federal Register 2.0 was discussed, a project that came out of the Sunlight Foundation contest Apps for America. We’re only a couple of years into contests. The creative juices are only just now really flowing.

If you are new to civic hacking and want to get involved, start by looking at the work of Code for America (codeforamerica.org). They provide fellowships for civic hackers to work within city governments to help the city work better with technology. Their new Brigade program (brigade.codeforamerica.org) will help you find a project to work on that will help the people of the city you live in. And be on the lookout for civic-themed hackathons in your area on Meetup.com.

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