Are “Commons 2.0” and participatory urbanism hype or hope?

“…armed with low-cost phones and an Internet connection, people are using civic-minded apps like ForageCity to tackle everything from public safety to potholes. The question is whether the technology will have the long-term effect that some foresee, or whether the “commons 2.0” and “participatory urbanism” will become empty marketing slogans.”

-Angela Woodall, writing in the Oakland Tribune about a new mobile application from Oakland’s Youth Radio that is designed to help people redistribute extra fruit and vegetables to people in need.

Forage City app
[Image Credit: Susan Mernit]

Woodal asks good questions and, as it happens, posed them to me last week in a phone interview. (I’m quoted in the article.)

Here’s a couple of thoughts that didn’t make it in. Mobile applications that civic developers are creating around the world — like ForageCity — are making it increasingly possible for more people to interact more easily and for less cost where ever and whenever they wish. That does lead to giving more power to more people to connect to one another and solve problems, or at least discuss them.

The potential for such apps to connect and, crucially, scale is particularly significant when there is a shared standard for the open government data that fuels, as with the standard for transit data (GTFS) that now exists in 450 different cities. Around the U.S., cities are slowly working with one another to define more such standards — but it’s a complicated process that doesn’t happen overnight, or even years.

The question is whether the technology will have the long-term effect that Code for America founder Jen Pahlka described to Woodall. On that count, I tend to give Pahlka — and my publisher, Tim O’Reilly — the benefit of the doubt.

As I said to the reporter, the potential for civic apps is enormous — but these the tools are only as good as the people who use them and adapt them. The tools can be quite good on their own — full stop — but many network effects will only take place with broad, mainstream adoption.

Smartphones can now be used for finding shelter, improving medical care and documenting riots — but the same devices are also used for gaming, pornography, celebrity gossip and shopping. While the apps used to find city services are generally not the ones used to surveil citizens, in practice the mobile device itself may be an agent of both actions.

Working out how to both protect the rights of citizens and empower citizens using mobile devices will be a difficult and crucial need in the years ahead.

It’s not immediately clear, at least to this observer, that state governments, Congress, regulators and law enforcement are up to the challenge, but it’s hard not to hope that they rise to the challenge.

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.