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.

A future of cities fueled by citizens, open data and collaborative consumption

The future of cities was a hot topic this year at the SXSW Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas, with two different panels devoted to thinking about what’s next. I moderated one of them, on “shaping cities with mobile data.” Megan Schumann, a consultant at Deloitte, was present at both sessions and storified them. Her curatorial should gives you a sense of the zeitgeist of ideas shared.

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.

Apps for Amsterdam catalyzes civic hacking in Netherlands

Application contests, data camps and hackathons are showing how civic coding can put open government data to work. In the Netherlands, Apps for Amsterdam has launched to try catalyze the development of software that puts the city’s open data to work. If you’re interested in open government in the Netherlands, here’s your chance to hack the government – for good.

The new competition is backed by the Waag Society, the city of Amsterdam and Public Hack. There’s an upcoming open data hackathon in Amsterdam on March 12th, for those interested. Below is an account of the launch curated by Rolf Kleef using Storify: