Here’s an appeal for our readers: please help Sunlight spread the news of the great work civic hackers do as far and wide as possible by voting for our storytelling video in the Looking@Democracy contest organized by the Illinois Humanities Council with support from the MacArthur Foundation. (Voting ends May 16.)
We couldn’t wait to tell this (previously) untold story through a short video to demonstrate how the nascent movement of civic hackers are creating apps and tools using open government data to make their communities better. These men and women are equipped with laptops, open data and creative ideas to positively reconstruct the way we relate with government.
But beyond that, we wanted to shine a light on these amazing people because their civic hacking is not only opening up and showing how their local governments work (or don’t), but they’re also infusing a new energy into democracy as we know it. We hope you can help make this video popular to inspire more citizens to realize that we all have the ability to hold power accountable. And while most people consider hackers to be technology pros, this video also shows you don’t have to be a coder to hack open government — technology is lowering the bar for us all to participate.
We were inspired to create this video by the folks we’ve met and interviewed for our OpenGov Champions video series, but for this video, we wanted to focus specifically on the culture of civic hacking and hackathons. So we started to look into how to tell that broader story, and as a result, our Associate Video Producer Solay Howell traveled to Philadelphia. It’s an exemplary city due to having both open data policies on the city level and a vibrant community already at work using the abundance of open city data available. All sorts of apps and web services are being built in the many hackathons and barcamps happening in Philly, such as the Property Tax Calculator, Councilmatic — a website where you can search for decisions made in local legislation — and SchoolhouseWatch that keeps track of school closures. Even our Ad Hawk app got its start in at a Random Hacks of Kindness Event in Philadelphia.
This work is happening all across the country, as we have already seen through our OpenGov Champions such as Shea Frederick in Baltimore, MD, and Waldo Jaquith in Charlottesville, VA. But why is this a trend? First of all, the world has changed. We now live in an information age where people expect their city services to be available on smart phones just like any other services they use. The other reason is that municipalities are catching the drift, and are starting to make the data they already collect available online.
Also looking at this from a loftier perspective, the face of democracy is going through a major lift. Thanks to all of these digital tools, the power is distributed more equally between citizens. Anyone can now step in and make their own analysis of what’s going on in their neighborhood, and if something needs fixing, they no longer have to wait for someone else to fix it for them. They can just do it themselves by putting the information to use and allowing others in the community to easily participate. That’s the power of the happy marriage between open government data and civic hacking.
And that’s not all. Government agencies are starting to see the possibilities that could come out of making data available. Civic hackathons are changing the mindsets of skeptical government agencies who are realizing that the “geeky marathons” are producing tools that can help our cities and towns. (To find a project where you can help contribute, check out our new API community hub!)
This is what will help power democracy in the 21st century. We hope you feel the same way and will show it with your vote (and by telling your friends to vote, too). Thanks in advance!