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.

Code for America Summit showcases civic innovation [LIVEBLOG]

What began as an idea just over two years ago is now a reality: a citizen corps of designers and programmers who committed to a year-long fellowship to Code for America. Today in San Francisco, the inaugural Code for America Summit will highlight the year past, look to the year ahead and convene a conversation around four core topics that will be familiar to people who have been following the story of Gov 2.0: citizen participation, data-driven decision making, co-Creation and co-stewardship, government as a platform. The SPUR Center is packed with civic innovators from all around the country and buzzing with energy. My liveblog is below.

Day 2

Day 1

Jennifer Pahlka: Do more than leave or speak up. Make open government work better.

In the face of existential challenges that test the national character of the United States of America, including long wars abroad and high unemployment at home, citizens may be tempted to tune out or voice their displeasure. With the growth of the open government movement, people now have another option: take the future of government into their own hands and try to make it work better. Today, Jennifer Pahlka, the founder of Code for America, highlighted why she believes the time for that choice has come. (If you’re following the open government movement, you’ve likely come across the work of Code for America, whose fellows have been trying to help cities work better across the country.)

…in the past twenty years, a solid chunk of American society has subscribed to the notion that the Internet was the new frontier, and a limitless one at that, and so the disgruntled could simply draw their own map, create their own circles, and be done with it. And it’s the Millennials who have brought us back down to earth and reminded us that the lesson of the Internet is that shared endeavor has value, that pooling resources is a good idea, and that government is the way we do things together that we can’t do individually. Which is why Millennials are the most pro-government generation in decades, however disgusted they would be by the debt ceiling brinksmanship, if they looked up from their laptops and smart phones long enough to notice. They are tapping into another innately American tradition, one of fundamental optimism, invention, and practicality. They’ve never met a system they couldn’t participate in, hack, mash-up, add value to or improve. And government is already meeting their expectations, providing data, enabling the creation of apps, and slowly adopting the tools of the Internet to make it easier for us to do the important work of governing ourselves together. – Jennifer Pahlka, founder of Code for America, “Exit or Voice? How About Neither?

For more on this front, watch Pahlka’s talk from the Future of Web Apps Conference, where she makes the case that civic startups are the next disruption.

Jennifer Pahlka – The Next Disruption: Government from Code for America on Vimeo.

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…”

Ignite Philly: Code for America’s Pete Fecteau on being the “dumbest guy in the room

Last week, Code for America Fellow Pete Fecteau gave a great five minute talk at Ignite Philly 7. Fecteau about why he’s participating in the program and what he’s hoping to accomplish.

Code for America IgnitePhilly talk from @peterfecteau from Uploaded by: Tyler Stalder on Vimeo.

“Code for America is not about building some shiny piece of technology. It’s about spreading both collaborative and cognitive knowledge. As many questions as we hope to ask in Philly, we hope to answer that many questions,” he said. “”What we build in Philly we share with the rest of the nation’s struggling cities. We’re opening data, plugging it in, and releasing it as an open source platform.”

[Hat tip Code for America]

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.

Civic developers gather to code for America at data camps

Today in Seattle, over 50 civic developers have gathered at Socrata to work on coding applications from the city’s open data repository at data.seattle.gov. Today’s Seattle datacamp, organized by Code for America, is just one of several data camps that the new civic service is convening in host cities around the United States. Chacha Sikes, a 2011 Code for America fellow, explains what’s behind these data camps:

City governments have a lot of information which is useful to all of us. This ranges from maps of local parks to building footprints to real-time 911 calls. We all have an interest in our budget information, legislative documents and other resources that we use in collective decision-making and deliberation. Not all of this information is currently available for all cities, even though much of it is public record. The “Open Data” movement is a way to work on getting information into machine-readable formats, allowing for easy publishing, sharing, and reuse.

We’re hosting DataCamps in CfA’s cities this year to build communities around making city data more open and accessible to allow citizens to help cities work better.

DataCamp is a event focusing on skill-building and collaborative work on city data. It is an opportunity for interested parties in a city to work together, and build a network of people with shared interested in improving civic communications and information management.

Sanjay B. Hyatt, a writer at the Seattle Times, is at the data camp in the Pacific Northeast. He reported back that CTO Bill Schrier said that Seattle has 100 data sets. “Turn that data into information.”

DataCamp Seattle is using a Drupal site and a DataCamp Seattle Google group to coordinate and share notes. In the tradition of unconferences and barcamps, they’re also using a more analog method to sort out ideas and projects: sticky notes. Virtual observers can see the various projects going up, including calendars, an impact survey, an apps workshop and a “pimp my blog” to help stimulate the creation of hyperlocal blogs.

More data camps are coming soon to Seattle and Washington, D.C.

UPDATE: A day after the datacamp, a new app is available to Seattle residents. Hear Near pushes alerts about Seattle events nearby to mobile phone users using text messages.

Hear Near is available from iTunes and Android.

Hear Near was created by a team that included Amber Case (whose geolocation startup, Geoloqi, powers it), Aaron Parecki, Joe McCarthy, Jesse Kocher, Gene Homicki, Naoya Makino, Steve Ripley, Rebecca Gutterman and Jenny Frank.

Frank, a self-identified “non-techie” who attended the camp, came away with the feeling that “nothing is impossible.”

Panoramic image credits to Chris Metcalf.

Code for America: Inspiring a new generation of civic coders

What will the new Code for America Fellows be doing, now that the inaugural class has been chosen? Code for America’s CTO, Dan Melton, offered more insight into the forthcoming projects at the International Open Government Data Conference (IOGDC) today in Washington, D.C., where he talked about school ID cards in Boston, civic leader networks in Philadelphia and Seattle, and CivicCommons in the District of Columbia.

Audio of Melton’s talk is available on uStream. Melton and hundreds of attendees will be on the Code for America webinar today at 4 PM EST.

His presentation from IOGDC on “CRUD-ing the government,” which I was unable to record or attend due to my involvement in a parallel panel, is embedded below: