Civic Data Hacking and Government Open Data Initiatives

This is an initial post thinking through the implications of “civic data hacking” as part of an ongoing collaborative research project.

James Crabtree positioned civic hacking in 2007 as “not primarily about representation, participation, or direct access to decision makers.” Rather, it’s about “mutual-aid and self-help.” The central idea is that reciprocity and knowledge aggregation on the internet can be leveraged to improve community well-being through work on shared projects. This is a personal, thick and impactful form of participation, in Ethan Zuckerman’s terms. More recently, civic hacking has been used to describe efforts working within government efforts, particularly the Obama administration’s alignment with “Gov 2.0,” which includes leveraging social media and transparency for social change. Governmental organizations have taken to using hackathons to increase citizen involvement with data, working within limited resources to accomplish complex tasks in a short period of time. To government entities, “hackathons” can be a way to employ data sets, involve outside participants, and serve as PR. In this reading, civic hacking is a seamless melding of government goals for efficiency and community improvement and hackers’ relishing of a challenge and venue to demonstrate technical prowess. I’m calling this practice “civic data hacking” to differentiate itself from other ways hackers become civically engaged, such as activism (hacktivism), and encounters with different types of materials (hardware hacking, bio-hacking).

Hackers have a long history of using technology to develop expertise and bring about change. While the term refers to many different types of motivations and affiliations, code is their primary voice, and they are united in a belief that “information should be free.” This gives meaning to Lawrence Lessig’s coining of “code is law” to describe how computer programs are a powerful mode of regulation on the Internet. Through Gabriella Coleman’s perspective, the politicization of hackers is a relatively new development and doesn’t fall neatly along a traditional left-right axis. Hacker subcultures have come to understand the importance of code as free speech through legal conflicts that criminalize activities of members. From quite a different place, hundreds of hacker and maker spaces (HMSs) have emerged worldwide to provide a physical space for tinkering and collaborative learning. Here there is – as with hackers more broadly – a wide range of types of civic engagement. Some HMSs closely align with local organizations and donate effort to charities, while others exist mainly as for socialization. Still, I would argue that even these HMSs serve as significant spaces for members to connect with technical knowledge and collaborative possibilities. These shifts in hacker culture have reduced barriers to entry, encouraging possibilities for political awareness and self-expression.

Government players imagine hackers as interested in solving pressing social dilemmas by sorting through and crunching piles of data. Indeed, hackers have always been interested in organizing around causes that threaten a free flow of information. However, this redefinition clashes with hackers’ distain of authority and enthusiasm for openness during the current cultural moment. In the aftermath of Aaron Swartz’s suicide, widely viewed as stemming from an over-zealous prosecution, the government is seen as an unreliable steward of the people’s interests. Because the government can use sufficiently vague laws such as the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) to prosecute individuals, they are able to define acceptable uses of information in various ways to suit political goals. This makes hackers and F/OSS enthusiasts nervous, as “open access” is a radical and complete transparency, not just a convenient way to crowdsource work. Transparency is a political imperative and the rules are non-negotiable. In response, many hackers have dismissed civic hacking as a move to co-opt the term. However, this neglects what could be beneficial outcomes. Hackathons can reach outside the scope of groups who would traditionally consider themselves hackers, which tend to be closed and paranoid. Results of hackathons include code, functional apps, and other assets that be instructive to more diffuse, internet-based publics. The term “hacker” has already been repurposed to describe various types of groups that don’t share much in the way of common lineage. If anything, the term “hacker” has proven to be infinitely mutable and slippery.

Might civic data hacking’s invitation to participate and code serve as a meaningful form of “thick and impactful” civic engagement, despite these conflicts? Government entities see hacking as a motivation and opportunity to partner with various local organizations to promote various open data initiatives. As Kevin Driscoll points out, government has a long history of taking an interest in amateur technical cultures. Yet, hackers have political perspectives of their own, even around many of the same terms such as open-access, and many bristle at the attention. While it’s clear that the government won’t permit embarrassing information to come out of hackathons, working with code and data is a qualitatively different type of civic engagement. It seems reasonable that hackathons could lead to positive effects to citizens such as learning and more direct relationships with government entities. Apps are currently a buzzword tied to hackathons (there is even a “Civic Apps Competition Handbook”) but are really no more than mobile software that can be easily developed and deployed to increasingly popular mobile devices. Government entities can lack forethought about the last mile of open access, and put information online in obscure locations or locked in formats like PDFs. Perhaps civic data hacking is best framed as a kind of investigative journalism, where participants are free to uncover more effective ways for citizens to view data and access government services, even if they retain a certain cynicism about the endeavor.