OpenGov Voices: Beyond the Big City: Think Federally, Hack Locally


Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the guest blogger and those providing comments are theirs alone and do not reflect the opinions headshot-croppedof the Sunlight Foundation or any employee thereof. Sunlight Foundation is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information within the guest blog.

Becky Sweger is the Director of Data and Technology at National Priorities Project. NPP is a non-partisan, non-profit organization dedicated to making the U.S. transparent and accessible so people can prioritize and influence how their tax dollars are spent. You can reach her at

Hack for Western Mass is happening at UMass Amherst on June 1-2—one of over 80 Hack for Change events happening across the country. We hope you’ll join us at UMass Amherst as we bring the first-ever civic hackathon to Western Massachusetts.

Isn’t Western Mass in the middle of nowhere? Can’t you just hack in Boston?

National Priorities Project (NPP), a national federal budget research organization, has long thought about how our local community can benefit from the open data and civic hacking movements that are quickly gaining worldwide momentum. We attend events all over the country, and as transparency champions, we applaud when DC hacks its municipal code, Philly gets a Chief Data Officer, and Chicago starts posting data on Github.


But back on the Western Massachusetts home front, we wonder: how can a regional collection of hill towns, college towns, and emerging post-industrial cities band together to create a civic hacking model that works for us? If we’re not working from a common set of municipal data, are there state or federal data relevant to our citizens and organizations?

Can Federal Data Be Local?

When Hack for Change emerged from a White House call for civic hacking earlier this year, NPP decided to seek answers by starting Hack for Western Mass, the first-ever civic hackathon in our half of the state. Can data collected by the federal and state governments be relevant and personal at the local level?

Hackathon_business-cardAt National Priorities Project, we already know the answer is “yes.” We recently re-launched Trade-Offs, an application that estimates the share of federal tax dollars paid by individuals in each state, county, and congressional district in the U.S. (as well as many cities). Trade-Offs also gives people a chance to re-allocate those dollars differently, in a way that reflects their personal budget priorities.

NPP was able to create this very local tool by mashing up data from at least ten federal agencies and bureaus:

  • IRS
  • Census Bureau
  • OMB (President’s Budget)
  • Centers for Medicare and Medicaid
  • Bureau of Labor
  • HHS (Administration for Children and Families)
  • Energy Information Administration
  • Veterans Affairs
  • National Center for Education Statistics
  •  Department of Defense

Yes. Federal Data Can Be Local

So Trade-Offs is one example of personalized open federal data. The Hack for Western Mass planning team has been doing outreach to find others, and we’ve come up with several use cases, some of which are surprising.

The Prison Policy Initiative, a local group working to improve criminal justice policy, is planning to use feedback data collected by the FCC in their advocacy work about prison phone rates. Advocates for shopping and banking locally use FDIC data to show the percentage of deposits with local banks versus national banks. Local food organizations use economic and food security data to better serve the population. The Political Economy Research Institute at UMass uses Environmental Protection Agency and Census data to localize the impact of toxic emissions not only here in Western Massachusetts but around the country.


Join Us on June 1-2

Thanks to the Sunlight Foundation and our other sponsors, Hack for Western Mass (a Random Hacks of Kindness event) will convene at UMass Amherst on June 1st and 2nd, and attendees will work side by side with some of these local organizations. Though our scope isn’t limited to data-oriented challenges, we’re excited by the opportunity to think federally and hack locally. If you’re in the area or just want to help us adjust the national civic hacking model for a regional area, please register. We have people coming from five states, and Sunlight’s Paul Tagliamonte from the Boston office will be in attendance. We’d love to see you there!

Disclaimer: National Priorities Project received a grant from the Sunlight Foundation in 2010 for their Federal Priorities Data 2.0 Project and Sunlight is one of the sponsors for Hack for Western Mass.

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