The real power of civic hacking lies in the delicate balance

As many of you know, I recently became the editor of EngagingCitiesan online magazine that focuses on the intersection between internet technologies and public engagement in government planning and decision-making.  This piece is excerpted from an opinion piece I recently published over there.  I’m sharing it here because I think it’s relevant to the work that many of you do, and because I’d like to invite you to be part of the EngagingCities conversation if you’re interested.

 

If you want to read the whole piece, you can check it out here. Thanks.

I met Josh Kalov and Elnaz Moshfeghian, two of the founders of schoolcuts.org,  at the American Planning Association Unconference in April 2013.  Over the meetings and dinner, I learned two things that continue to impress me about their efforts– points that I think are critical for us to understand if we want civic hacking efforts to truly make a difference in our communities and countries.

First:  the power of their work lies in its transparency– and it’s apparent  lack of predetermined agenda.

Here’s the part that surprised me most when I met them: these guys, at least these two out of the seven listed collaborators, do not have children in the Chicago Public School system.  I don’t exactly remember the story of how they got started– I seem to recall that they were turned on to the issue by someone who was more of a local politics insider, but I probably don’t have that quite right.  The point is, they didn’t start  doing this because they had a specific axe to grind– like people who have been around local governments for a while typically expect to see.  People who get involved in school district politics usually consist almost exclusively of folks who either have kids in that system, or used to have kids in that system.  And the people who get up in arms about school closures are almost always people whose children will be directly affected.

Why, the conventional wisdom goes, would anyone else take the time and invest the effort?  Why would you bother?  But it’s that assumption of a predetermined agenda that makes real engagement, real collaboration between government and citizen, impossible in these emotionally charged contexts.

In a sense, this is the paradigm that civic hackers frequently turn on its head.

Here’s the second element of the Chicago story, and the one that I think presents the deepest challenge to people who want to use technology to improve democracy:

As the story alluded, building an app is nowhere near enough.

Since we’re just at the beginning of this movement, much of what civic hackers are doing still falls into the category of Proof Of Concept.  In many cases, the greatest impact coming out of civic hacking efforts can be less what the new app actually does, and more about trying out new tools and techniques for dealing with the data or communicating with people.  The data set you get to work with, or the amount of time you have to work up something, can be minimal.  But the nature of hacking culture is to try, test, adjust, borrow, try again, repeat.  I get that, and I see the value.

But here’s the lesson from Chicago – and the challenge for those of you who got into this to make a difference in the places you care about:

Making a difference takes more than making an app.  If you truly want to move the needle, you have to stay with it.  You have to refine, shift focus, adjust….And communicate.  Communicate a lot.  As I often tell people who run local government programs, the greatest program you can think of won’t change anything if no one knows it’s there.  The same goes for apps.

The real power of civic hacking lies in the delicate balance that schoolcuts.org is starting to show us.  On the one hand, the great potential– and the thing that can make civic hacking so much more powerful than conventional advocacy– is that objectivity, that trustworthiness, that comes from the emphasis on transparency and open data.  Frankly, that’s a power, a level of standing, that those of us who have been advocates wish we could claim.

The other side, though, is that enabling that change to happen, living up to that potential, is going to require determination and consistency– and an internal personal or organizational answer to a tough question:

How do I sustain this effort, keep investing my limited time and energy, if I don’t have a personal stake in the outcome?

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