Can the Internet help disrupt the power of Chicago Lobbyists through transparency?

Civic coder Derek Eder  wrote in this week to share his most recent project: Chicago Lobbyists. “This is probably the biggest, most impactful project I’ve worked on to date,” says Eder.” It has a lot of potential to inform and change people’s perception of government and lobbyists, and best of all, the city is cooperating with us do it.”
Eder and Nick Rougeux, working in collaboration with Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey, have earned well-deserved recognition in the open government community for LookAtCook, a beautiful approach to visualizing budget data. Now Eder is onto something new: making the actions of lobbyists more transparent.
“Chicago Lobbyists” visualizes all of the interactions and activities of Lobbyists with the City of Chicago in 2010. Each lobbyist has a profile page that lists clients, fees, expenses, and what they lobbied fo in front of city agencies, including the city council. Eder explains more:
Every company or organization that hired lobbyists (we call them clients) has a profile showing the lobbyists they hired, the actions they hired them to make, and the amount they paid them. Interestingly, the Salvation Army is the number one spender on lobbyists for 2010 at $380,000. All of their money was spent on just 2 lobbyists, and they look to mostly be regarding zoning and land transfer.
Each city agency on ChicagoLobbyists also has a page summarizing the activities of lobbyists them. According to the site, City Council is the most lobbied agency with 152 lobbyists seeking a total of 587 lobbying actions on a wide range of subjects.

Opening Chicago

In 2011, working to open government, the Chicago way now means developers collaborating with the city.
One of the most exciting parts about this project has been our interaction with the city, says, Eder, specifically chief data officer Brett Goldstein.
“After making a rough version of Chicago Lobbyists in late July, we found that a lot of lobbying data was missing from the datasets the city had published,” he said. “We met with Brett and his staff, explained what was missing, and by the end of August, they had updated their data with the pieces that were missing. We then took that new data and updated our site accordingly. With it, we are now able to tie clients to specific lobbying actions and show how much clients paid each lobbyist.”
More information about the project is available on the ChicagoLobbyists blog in “An Open Data Story: and “Chicago Lobbyists V2 Is Here.” Eder
notes that they’ve submitted Chicago Lobbyists to the Apps for Metro Chicago Grand Challenge. If you’re interested in examples of civic coding for cities, there’s no shortage of inspiration there

Chicagobuildings.org maps vacant and abandoned buildings using open government data

One of the minds behind the Look at Cook open government data visualization app is at it again. Derek Eder wrote in this week to share another Web app he just launched (ChicagoBuildings.org) and a reminder about what’s happening in Chicago in this space.

This Web app takes 311 reports about vacant and abandoned buildings from the Chicago and visualizes them onto a searchable map. “It’s specifically set up to pull data from Chicago’s data portal,” said Eder, linking to the 311 service requests of vacant and abandoned buildings dataset.

Eder shared more about how mapping Chicago’s vacant buildings in a blog post earlier this week. The results are unsurprising: there are many more vacant buildings in areas with high poverty rates.

Eder said that the app could be used by other cities, depending on how they store or format their data. The code for
Chicago Buildings is on Github. On that front, he says that Chicago “isn’t using Open 311 yet, so this site isn’t either. That being said, it wouldn’t be too hard to hook up the same interface to a different data source.” Code for America will help Chicago to implement Open311 in 2012. Eder shared that he wrote a script that converts Socrata to Google Fusion Tables that could be modified for this purpose.

ChicagoBuildings.org is one of a growing number of civic applications that have come out of Chicago’s open government initiative. As Eder made sure to point out, his app is a finalist in the Apps for Metro Chicago contest, along with 9 other apps, including iFindItChicago and Techno Finder.

In the video below, Elizabeth Park, the creator of IFindit Chicago, talks about how she was inspired to build the team that created an Android app to help homeless and lower income citizens find resources like as shelters, medical clinics,and food pantries.

Voting for the winners ends this Friday, October 14th, so check out the community round entries and weigh in.

As a reminder: If you have open government news to share, you can always find me at @digiphile on Twitter, where I share my email address, alex@oreilly.com.

Think Different About Hacking?

The words “hacker” and activity of “hacking” have been receiving a great deal of attention over the past few years, in the wake of data breaches, Wikileaks, the Anonymous and LulzSec groups, and now the “Shady Rat” cyberespionage revelations. Given that it’s being reported as the biggest hacking attack ever, the attention is merited.

As journalism professor Adam Penenberg highlighted last month in Fast Company, however, the term hacking and hacker are frequently misused in the mainstream, and it’s nearly always used with a negative connotation.

Maybe it’s time to revisit that interpretation, or at least broaden it. I’ve been a fan of Lifehacker since its launch, after all.

Earlier today, Kara Swisher reported that Randi Zuckerberg is leaving Facebook to start a new social media firm. In her resignation letter to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and communications head Elliot Schrage, Zuckerberg wrote that “I am thankful for the strong mentorship, guidance, and support, which is empowering me to follow my dreams and show that you don’t have to be an engineer to be a hacker.”

New York Times social media reporter Jennifer Preston highlighted that line from Zuckerberg’s letter on Twitter and, when asked if she believes it to be true, tweeted “sure.”

An hour ago, I wasn’t convinced. Great hackers have historically been venerated for legendary technical skills and creative approaches to solving problems, as writer Steven Levy chronicled in his canonical book of the same name, “Hackers.” Do you have to be a doctor to be a surgeon? Or a lawyer to practice law? Being a hacker does imply something specific in terms of your ability, if not credentials, as you can read in the Jargon File. In the programming community, hacking can be a technical term of art.

There’s also more to “hacking” than lawbreaking, despite today’s headlines.

Around the globe, there’s now a genuine movement of civic hacking afoot, which adds to the etymology of hacking “efforts that put technology, and particularly Internet technology, to work solving the problems of civic life,” as Nick Judd writes at techPresident. “Civic hacktivists” (also known as favorably called “civic developers) now gather together around the globe. Code for America is inspiring a new generation of civic coders.

Even with reasons to support hackathons, the negative connotation of “hacking” lingers. As the New York Times reported, when New York City chief digital officer Rachel Sterne proposed hosting a hackathon to generate ideas for redesigning NYC.gov, “she had to explain to colleagues that it would not pose a security threat.”

Think different

That said, it may be time to think more broadly about the term “hacking” itself. Matt Lira, director of new media for House of Representatives Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VI), agreed with Preston, suggesting that Thomas Jefferson, JFK and the GratefulDead were all hackers. Can hacker be a metaphor applied to government, rhetoric or music?

“I believe that is how the phrase was intended, or at least what it means to me,” tweeted Lira. “People who do things their own way.” He shared one of the iconic Apple commercials from the company’s turnaround in the late 1990s, after Steve Jobs returned, by way of interpretation:

To echo the final words of the ad, hackers could be described as “the people who are crazy enough to change the world are the ones who do.” On that count, I’ve now met many people who are hacking on open government since I became the Gov 2.0 correspondent for O’Reilly Media, both from the inside and outside of the system.

With support, luck and a lot of effort, maybe more modern day hackers will be “just crazy enough” to make the government work better.

Happy July 4th! (There’s a patriotic app for that, too.)

Civic developers at Code at America created a Web application in honor of this year’s Independence Day that features a number of patriotic values around: creativity, technical expertise and interest in the public discourse of their fellow citizens. Flag.CodeForAmerica.org aggregates Twitter avatars from users who tweet using the hashtag #July4th and mashes them up into a mosaic representing the Stars and Stripes. The first flag of the United States of America had a star and a stripe for each state. This flag has a tile for each human’s account.

“I have had the idea to do this for a while,” writes in Abhi Nemani, director of strategy and communication at Code for America, “soon after last year’s binary art campaign, but had to wait until we got the code infrastructure in place to be able to execute it at scale.”

Fortunately, Nemani said, the Mozilla Foundation worked with a development shop, Quodies, to create a similar mosaic when they launched Firefox 4 – check out their Firefox Tweet Machine.

“Given that it’s Mozilla, the code was open source of course,” said Nemani.”We rewired it some to get it working for us and added in some documentation so it should be easier for the next deployment,” said Nemani. Tyler Stadler was the development lead and Karla Macedo the designer.

If you want to check out the code for Twitter Collage, you can find it at Github. There’s no cap on #July4th responses, so tweet away.

The avatar mosaic is a 21st century update that captures some of the diversity and unity of that first flag by featuring some of the many voices that now can be heard on the public square of our time, the Internet. Not all of the tweets captured are positive. Some include strident political messages, divisive rhetoric or commercial promotions. It’s the public, in all of its uncensored, unvarnished, raw glory. The republic that the founding fathers fought and died for included the freedom of speech for its citizens. Over two centuries later, we’re seeing it today, coalesced around a national holiday.

“We hold these tweets to be self evident, that all humans are created equal…”

Civic coders for America gather in DC for a Presidents’ Day datacamp

This past weekend, civic developers gathered at a Seattle data camp to code for America. This Presidents’ Day, the day before George Washington’s Birthday, dozens of government technologists, data nerds, civic hackers and citizens from around the District of Columbia, Virginia and Maryland will join Code for America fellows for a datacamp at Big Window Labs.

The attendees of the Washington datacamp can look to the Seattle Data Camp for inspiration. The civic hacktivism on display there led to engaged discussions about Seattle’s South Park neighborhoodmobile damage assessment appstransit apps, mobile / geolocation appsdata mininginformation visualization.

Perhaps even more impressive, one of those discussions lead to the creation of a new smartphone application. Hear Near pushes alerts about Seattle events nearby to iPhone or Android device users using text messages. Hear Near is now available from iTunes and Android.

Joe McCarthy published a terrific post about Data Camp Seattle that offers a great deal of insight into why the event worked well. McCarthy helped the HearNear team by identifying and defining mappings between the GeoLoqi API and the iCal feed.

McCarthy describes how a creative discussion amongst talented, civic-minded people enabled them to donate their skills to putting the open data from Seattle’s data repository to work for its citizens. He also explored what inspires him about Code for America:

I wasn’t sure what to expect going into the event, but was greatly impressed with the interactions, overall experience and outcomes at Data Camp Seattle. I’ve admired the Code for America project since first learning about it, and have been a proponent of open data and platform thinking (and doing) on my blog. It was inspiring and empowering to have an opportunity to do more than simply blog about these topics … though I recognize the potential irony of writing that statement in a new blog post about these topics.

I suspect that one of the most durable outcomes of the Code for America project will be this kind of projection or radiation of civic empowerment through – and beyond – the efforts of the CfA fellows and their collaboration partners. In The Wealth of Networks, Yochai Benkler writes about how “[t]he practice of producing culture makes us all more sophisticated readers, viewers, and listeners, as well as more engaged makers”. In Program or Be Programmed, Doug Rushkoff warns against “relinquishing our nascent collective agency” to computers and the people who program them by engaging in “a renaissance of human capacity” by becoming programmers ourselves.

While many – or even most – of the specific applications we designed and developed during the Data Camp Seattle civic hackathon may not gain widespread traction and use, if the experience helps more of us shift our thinking – and doing – toward becoming co-creators of civic applications – and civic engagement – then the Code for America project will have succeeded in achieving some grand goals indeed.

This example of directed action at an unconference has fast become the next step in the evolution of camps, where a diverse set of volunteers come together to donate more than money or blood: they exchange information and then apply their skills to creating solutions to the needs defined by a given set of societal challenges.

This model of directed civic involvement has became a global phenomenon in wake of the crisiscamps that sprung up after the earthquake in Haiti last year. The cultural DNA of these camps has evolved into CrisisCommons, which has acted as platform for volunteers to donate their skills to help in natural disasters and other crises.

As the role of the Internet as a platform for collective action grows, those volunteers are gaining more ability to make a difference using powerful lightweight collaboration tecnology and open source data tools.

From the towns of the United States to cities in Denmark, Brazil, Kenya, Illinois and India, people interested in local Gov 2.0 have been gathering to to create applications that use open public data. In December, Around the world, the International Open Data Hackathon convened participants in over 56 cities in 26 countries on 5 continents.

As Seattle CIO Bill Schrier put it this past weekend, they’re turning data into information. Federal CTO Aneesh Chopra has praised these kinds of efforts “hacking for humanity.” An event like Random Hacks of Kindness “brings together the sustainable development, disaster risk management, and software developer communities to solve real-world problems with technology.”

On President’s Day, another datacamp will try to put that vision into action.