Coding for community: the story of an ideahack in Chicago

If you’re following the intersection of citizens, technology and cities in the United States in 2012, the story of Chicago is already on your radar, as are the efforts of Code for America. This month, Code for America rolled out its brigades to start coding across America, including the Windy City.

These “brigades” are an effort to empower civic hackers to make apps and services that help their own communities. In Chicago, they’re calling themselves “IdeaHack.”

Below, I’ve embedded a story of their second meeting.

International Open Data Hackathon on December 3, 2011

It’s time to think different about hacking.

Building upon the success of an international civic hackathons around the world in 2010, there will be Random Hacks of Kindness and International Open Data Day hackathons on six different continents on December 3rd, 2011. If you’re interested in volunteering for a different kind of public service, check out the wiki to see if there’s an event near you.

The International Open Data Hackathon in DC will be held at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. The organizers encourage attendees to “bring ideas, your laptop, and help create solutions to make data more open and make better use of open data.” The list of attendees is already filling up with interesting people, including members of Washington’s open government and technology communities. The DC open data hackathon is hosted by Wikimedia DC and sponsored by civic startup PopVox. 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 ( 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. 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,

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.

Clay Johnson on key trends for Gov 2.0 and open government in 2011

As dozens of freshmen Representatives move into their second week of work as legislators here in the District of Columbia, they’re going to come up against a key truth that White House officials have long since discovered since the heady days of 2008: governing requires different strategies, skills and approaches than campaigning. “House 2.0” may include an e-transition but the political realities that existed before new media are still very much in session.

Clay Johnson
Clay Johnson, by Joi Ito

Few people have as much insight into the intersection of technology, campaigns, politics, open government and transparency as Clay Johnson, founder of Big Window Labs, former director of Sunlight Labs, co-founder of Blue State Digital and author of the InfoVegan blog.

This correspondent caught up with Johnson yesterday to talk about what he sees as the big trends for the intersection of technology, government, politics and citizens in 2011, along with his own plans for the future. On the latter, Johnson would only say on the record that he’s enjoying seeing how the work of the people within Big Window Labs is evolving, he waiting to hear back from the Knight Foundation on his proposal for a “community news kit,” and that he might have more to share about “what’s next” later this month. He was much more forthcoming about his perspective on key trends for 2011.

Transparency as Infrastructure

Given the sharp focus that Sunlight Labs puts on government transparency, it’s no surprise that Johnson sees the need and the movement towards smarter systems that “bake it in” to legislatures, the executive branch and the judiciary. He anticipates more built-in alarms for certain changes in drafted bills, regulations or meetings, with more intelligence that correlates how or who was responsible for that alteration.

Competition between the White House and the House on new media and open government

Yesterday, Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the Cato Foundation and webmaster of, wrote that the GOP can eclipse Obama on transparency. “House Republicans can quickly outshine Obama and the Democratic Senate,” wrote Harper. “It all depends on how they implement the watch phrase of their amendment package: “publicly available in electronic form.”

The GOP House leadership must make sure that this translates into real-time posting of bills, amendments and steps in the legislative process, in formats the Internet can work with. It’s not about documents anymore. It’s about data. Today’s Internet needs the data in these documents.

There are no technical impediments to a fully transparent Congress. Computers can handle this. The challenges, however, are institutional and practical.”

Johnson identified this moment in history as an important inflection point, and one that, if the White House rises to the challenge, could legitimately be seen as an open government win for the American people and a smarter, more accountable government. The White House may hold the considerable advantages of the bully pulpit and the largest followings of any federal entity or politician on Twitter, for now, but that has to be balanced against the considerable new media prowess that the GOP has built up over their Democratic counterparts in Congress. There are many early signs to watch and weigh as the year begins. Along with new rules, the House leadership support for the creation of open, online video archives, with Representative Issa solicit advice from the public on video platforms. Others projects cast some question on commitment in the rank and file to open government principles, as set out, with the GOP bending new House rules.

Investigations for accountability

Investigations will be significant in 2011 and 2012, says Johnson, and will go beyond simple political attacks or embarrassment for the administration. The new House Oversight Committee appears determined to play the role of inspector general for the federal government, not just White House programs. Considering the vast scale of potential waste, fraud and projects that are overdue, over budget or ineffective, that’s a legitimate big deal. It’s also in-line with the White House’s IT reform proposals, which have included cutting major IT projects. Keep an eye on how the tech that can make government better is applied to fraud detection, as efforts to apply open government data to dashboards and new technologies are coupled with oversight.

Federal CIO Vivek Kundra has said that the White House IT team is working with Congress on S.920, the Information Technology (IT) Investment Oversight Enhancement and Waste Prevention Act of 2009 introduced by Senator Carper (D-DE) that passed the Senate. The Obama administration will have to work with the incoming Republican majority to achieve similar legislation in the House. Given the emphasis on enhanced oversight and waste prevention, such legislation has at least a decent chance of being considered.

Given the scale of the federal government and the yawning budget deficit, investigations that actually identify waste and fraud would be timely. As a senator, President Truman saved the nation billions of dollars with hearings during war time. As 2011 begins, it’s still unclear whether the current Congress will able to follow his example.

Smart citizenship

There’s an ever increasing amount of data available to citizens, and applications to help them understand it, said Johnson. There are an emerging class of social entrepreneurs and civic hackers working to help citizens with the digital literacy they need for both. The information needs of citizens in a democracy are considerable. For open government and Gov 2.0 to go forward, this is a critical area, founded upon the a conception of smart citizenship that involves interaction with government on a weekly or even daily basis, not just on election day.

Rural broadband access

Internet access is fast becoming as important to citizens as other basic utilities, like water or electricity. According to the Pew Internet project, 79% of Americans are now online. Simply put, not being online in 2011 is a substantial impediment to the smart citizenship that Johnson describes. “It’s about data and information literacy, rather than just access,” said Johnson. “What you want is for people to be able to use the Internet at will, to tell fact from fiction, and find source data.”

The success of the FCC’s broadband plan will be critical to watch here. The digital divide that Johnson describes goes beyond broadband or dial up access. It’s between the digitally literate and those who are unable to benefit from full access to an Internet increasingly populated with bandwidth-intensive applications, is a crucial issue for governments everywhere, not just in the United States. The FCC’s new open Internet rules and their bearing on mobile broadband access will be important to watch in this area is well.

The future of government platforms

The White House is currently taking public feedback on designing democracy with “ExpertNet,” a proposed citizen consultation platform. Citizen engagement platforms grew in 2010. There will be more coming from top, through open government, and from the bottom, as citizens create and use their own communities.

Below, Clay Johnson talks with the GSA’s Sonny Bhagowalia at the 2010 Gov 2.0 Summit about “the future of the government platform.”