Hotspot 4 – Turf Wars: What is a Civic Hacker?

(See also the series overview for this Hotspot on astroturfing.)

Author’s note: this piece view into “civic hacking” was in response to the National Day of Civic Hacking last summer. It’s kind of snarky in parts so sorry for that. I’m generally optimistic about the possibilities here for civic engagement and am currently involved with tracking the organizations, government entities, and participants involved in civic hacking. 

– Andrew Schrock

Over 11,000 people took part in the Nation Day of Civic Hacking (NDoCH) on June 1-2, 2013. Government organizations made their data and APIs available, delivering statistics about the economy, health care, crime, and education. Community organizations, cities and corporations networked with the government and filled rooms with people interested in building a better society. People organized into groups, created mobile apps and used tools that revealed patterns embedded in data.

“Civic” has rarely been connected with hacker culture, which often implies working outside rather than within established legal and ethical boundaries. Many participants in this ethical spectacle didn’t previously identify as hackers. Was the government astroturfing hackers? The broader picture is complex; civic hackers emerged from a confluence of monitorial citizenship, corporate speculation, and interest in data-driven regulation by federal and state governments. As an inroad to this longer story we might start by asking: how did national, state and local governments connect “civic” with “hacker”? Why were they interested in making this connection?

The Popular Turn in Hacker Culture

Describing a coherent whole to hacker culture is becoming increasingly difficult, but one broad move seems to be toward a greater pluralism. This spread differs from historical positioning of hacker groups as stigmatized and imagined as separate from other groups in society. In 2004 Helen Nissenbaum argued that legislation and media portrayals had made the activities hackers engaged in “inimical to the interests of established corporate and government powers.” Chris Kelty (in 2008) described the term hacker as “semantically overdetermined” and noted its tendency to “exclude geek-sympathetic entrepreneurs.” In the current day there is far more public acceptance of “hacking” and cozier relationship between hackers and corporate and government entities, even as many of the images that Nissenbaum observed still remain in collective memory.

In part I’m picking up on Doug Thomas’ prescient observation that hackers reflexively emerge from and engage with popular culture. In Hacker Culture he discussed an interplay between a popular Hollywood film with an exaggerated style (Hackers) and an underground video that was more celebratory (by Minor Threat) in the 1990s, concluding that “hacker culture, in shifting away from the traditional norms of subculture formation, forces us to rethink the basic relationships between parent culture and subculture” (p. 171). Thomas didn’t much dwell on this idea, but it remains a valuable entry point for thinking through how hacker culture has become embedded in new places, even those you might think are contradictory to hacker culture, such as large corporations.

Google paired with Code for America, perhaps the most recognized NGO in civic hacking, to incubate “civic innovation” projects. Facebook invokes hacking as a way to buttress its corporate structure while retaining a certain gutsy image. Mark Zuckerberg advocated for hacking in no less a high-profile venue than a letter to investors before Facebook’s $5 billion IPO. He defined hacking as “an approach to building the involves continuous improvement and iteration” through hands-on work. This is not simply astroturfing, but part of ongoing relationships between dot-com corporations and geeks. In corporate circles, 24-hour hackathons are a way for corporations such as AT&T to recruit the best talent. The last programmer standing is the one you hire. If you think five-figure prizes sound unreasonable, consider that finder’s fees for HR companies landing new talent can run much higher.

Re-Branding the Hacker

Civic hackers have been around for years, but the NDoCH was the most high-profile event yet for linking civic engagement with hacking. The most prominent image seen on publicity was taken from a poster produced by the Westinghouse company and (apocryphally) referred to as “Rosie the Riveter.” The image was created in 1942 during world war II but remained relatively unknown until it was discovered in the late 80s and interpreted as a feminist icon. This image of Rosie situated the event as both civic and of national importance. An alternate definition of hacker was even promoted to cut out the dubious interim period of the last 60 years: a member recalled how his grandfather fixed planes during world war II with a hacksaw, which was referred to as the “hacker details.” Civic hacker, a term without much meaning previous to the last few years, was handily connected to American ingenuity and blue-collar DIY-ness.

There’s good reason for activists and hackers to be wary about this re-branding. The United States federal government has its own open data initiative while it aggressively prosecutes those branded as hackers or information leakers. The most prominent example was the overzealous prosecution of Aaron Swartz under the computer fraud and abuse act for a dubious “crime.” Being deemed a “white hat” or “black hat” hacker is mostly a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Federal law enforcement and the judicial system are selectively aggressive towards those who believe in freedom of information even as other government entities claim that public information is vital to democracy.

From Monitorial to Algorithmic Citizen

The involvement of citizens with code and data sets taps into a larger movement of “gov 2.0” and openness. In The Metropolitan Revolution, Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley connect civic hacking to cities and metropolitan areas and describe the federal government as “partisan, hopelessly fragmented and compartmentalized, frustratingly bureaucratic, and prescriptive.” Though this is an exaggeration, much of the action in civic hacking has happened on the city or metropolitan level, in cities like Washington DC and Chicago. Eric Garcetti, now Los Angeles Mayor, attended Boyle Heights hackathon at the NDoCH and last week he unveiled an open data initiative “Control Panel L.A.” Garcetti places these two efforts under the same umbrella of improving community life even though they are quite different — one a large-scale openness initiative, the other an effort to involve youth with technology at a grassroots level. What’s going on here beyond typical election promises to do more with less?

Michael Schudson suggested that we are moving away from a model of informed citizenship that requires an unrealistic amount of political knowledge. Replacing it is a model of a monitorial citizen which is “defensive rather than pro-active” and “scans… the informational environment in a way so that he or she may be alerted on a wide variety of issues.” Schudson’s notion of the monitorial citizen has typically been applied to activities such as citizen journalism that can lead to problems being addressed as they arise. Beyond optical metaphors, “scanning” is a way to think about the civic hacking world of public APIs, open data sets and mobile apps. Civic hacking entails viewing code and open data sets as a public good.

Civic hackers scan their informational environment; manipulate and interpret data; and produce digital tools to encourage participation in civic life, particularly more direct participation in urban environments. They seek to positively influence society using technology at the fringes or outside of the realm of electoral politics. However, civic hacking is a relatively new coinage. Compared to hacking’s traditional relationship with politics through activism, participants view their contributions to society in the positive. Civic hacking as a term unites a disparate group of participants in government, corporations, and neighborhoods. They are connected and cohered through events (e.g. hackathons), organizations (particularly Code for America), and community groups (like hacker and maker spaces) interested in improving society through technology. The uniting vision is of providing more direct, responsive and efficient services for communities. Amidst these noble efforts stands a good amount of pessimism.

The Language of Efficiency

Evgeny Morozov claimed that Tim O’Reilly’s served as a ringleader in a transition from “Web 2.0” and “algorithmic regulation,” where algorithms lead to more efficient outcomes through data measurement, frequent reporting, and adjustments of code. Morozov overstated O’Reilly’s control and the coherence of Silicon Valley’s various factions, but outcomes and efficiency do seem to be the central themes. In Beyond Transparency (released by Code for America) O’Reilly writes that, “regulations… should be regarded in much the same way that programmers regard their code and algorithms… as a constantly updated toolset to achieve the outcomes specified in the laws.” As Lessig put it, code is law. This language of efficiency through software leaves the role of citizens in a representative democracy hazy. However, improving efficiency is easy to communicate and for participants of a variety of political stripes to get behind.

In Coding Freedom, Gabriella Coleman observed how such a pragmatic perspective enabled political activism in free and open-source software (F/OSS) communities of hackers. She argued that F/OSS’s “political ambiguity and replicable nature facilitate its ability to captivate a diverse audience, which is then provoked into action because it has confronted a living piece of evidence and a model for organizing similar endeavors.” This same semiotic flexibility unites disparate groups and processes under an umbrella of increased efficiency in specific events such as the National Day of Civic Hacking. can view civic hacking as a way to improve community life in Boyle Heights through grassroots organizing while Palo Alto pushes for-profit civic services without cognitive dissonance.

Are Hackathons an Assembly Line?

“Rosie’s got a boyfriend, Charlie
Charlie, he’s a Marine
Rosie is protecting Charlie
Working overtime on the riveting machine
When they gave her a production “E”
She was as proud as a girl could be
There’s something true about
Red, white, and blue about
Rosie the Riveter”
The Four Vagabonds, Rosie the Riveter, 1942

Songwriters Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb crafted a hit song in 1942 describing yet another incarnation of Rosie. They praised her as an exemplar of women’s dedication during wartime. Rosie’s American-ness is defined by her ability to work overtime to support a war abroad. She’s so good at it that she wins a coveted “production E” pin for her efficiency. Like O’Reilly, the process doesn’t so much matter to Rosie, only the outcomes. From this perspective, the use of wartime imagery of Rosie employed during the National Day of Civic Hacking seems ill-suited. If less emphasis is placed on its implementation or secondary outcomes, hackathons risk being a rush to create a product that nobody is quite sure what will happen to. Marxists would call such these work conditions alienated labor. At worst, hackathons can be throwing money at apps that are unlikely to address systemic problems, or even be used in a meaningful way by community members.

A persistent question when talking about social capital is the importance of process. Robert Putnam focused on declining involvement in local organizations and civic groups — hence “bowling alone” — which critics have used to argue that he was missing new forms of civic engagement online. Civic hacking’s promises of improving efficiency unites groups that have a variety of goals such as giving voice to participants and improving community life. This uniting has led to tentative successes for promoting education, civic engagement and technical literacies. Indeed, community organizations that put on events during the NDoCH were often keenly interested in improving community health.

The rub is that, as these organizations are well-aware, maintaining a strong community is often profoundly inefficient. Trusting relationships between residents, non-profit organizations, and government agencies take a long time to foster and are difficult to detect with metrics. There are also valid concerns of whether civic hackers are an elite group that imagine all problems as solvable using technology. Hackathons, like hacker spaces, purport to be radically open. But unlike Jane Jacobs’ “eyes on the street,” which involves anyone and benefits everyone, “scanning” requires equipment and technical literacies that are difficult to obtain. Returning to Schudson, it wouldn’t be appropriate to substitute “technical backpacking” for “political backpacking.” Then there is the question of privilege embedded in civic hacking itself. A snarky website lampooning the NDoCH, describing participants as “a bunch of pallid millenials” could solve systemic socio-economic problems problems in a single day using software. Hacker culture does like its lulz.

The story of the National Day of Civic Hacking is entwined with the civic hacker arising from a confluence of monitorial citizenship, corporate interests, and data-driven government regulation. This occurred against a backdrop of increasing popularity and pluralism of hacker culture, broadly considered. The civic hacking world is a messy space where key players are evaluating and speculating on organizational and citizen involvement with data. If possibilities are enormous, so are the risks. The effects of open data initiatives and motives for government entities to participate are still unclear. Civic hacking has further blurred the non-profit and for-profit worlds as companies get interested in the public sector. Our communities are the test beds for civic hacking as software and open data sets increasingly become commonplace methods to regulate activities between citizenry and government.

Thanks to Ben Stokes, Meryl Alper and Kevin Driscoll for participating in the National Day of Civic Hacking and for several helpful discussions. Thanks also to the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism for providing a small research grant backing the project.