Football and the Art of Civic Hacking


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Sharon Paley is the “chief operator” at (formerly know as Greater Baltimore Tech Council.) Dedicated to helping improve her beloved hometown through innovation and technology, Sharon has been instrumental in building Hack Baltimore, a platform created by and the City of Baltimore encouraging every citizen to develop innovative solutions for civic betterment. You can catch Sharon’s podcasts and blog posts at or follow her @sharon_paley.

I like to take this page from Vince Lombardi’s playbook:

“People who work together will win, where it be against complex football defenses or the problems of a modern society.”

What more modern way to tackle the problems of a society than the civic hackathon. They are great opportunities to learn about how our own government works, develop new tools that enable governments to work better, and make a difference in the community and world we live in.

Of course, there’s always room to improve the civic hackathon. Primarily by getting stuff done and doing it together.

One of the complicating (dare I say “aggravating”) factors of a weekend-long hackathon is that there isn’t always time to get something fully built – a community’s needs can be very complex. It might take the better part of the first day just to focus the solution and prototype it. From there, how long it takes to develop a complete application is a whole other complicated ball of wax.

It’s an issue we in Baltimore, have wrestled with at past hackathons and are contemplating as we organize the local version of June’s National Day of Civic Hacking.

How do you create a complete, useful, and fully functional application in a weekend?

We’ve also been thinking about collaboration, which is another magical ingredient at civic hackathons. Since the National Day of Civic Hacking is, well, national, it seems like an excellent opportunity to partner with another city and harness the power of many communities with the same (or very similar) needs.

Philadelphia and Baltimore are cities that have much in common. They are not only geographically close, but they face many of the same issues and opportunities. Both have active and growing tech scenes, and long histories (as long as is possible anyway) of active civic hacking events and communities, with many interconnections and relationships between the two.

Vince_LombardiSo, based on this mutual connection and admiration, Baltimore and Philly are coordinating the National Day of Civic Hacking programs. To maximize productivity and collaborate, we will build cross-city teams for an App Exchange.

The Apps Exchange will allow one city’s hackers to easily fork (developers taking a copy of source code from one software package and start independent development on it, creating a distinct piece of software) the cool civic apps that the other has developed. The forking process will be further expedited because the original developers will be on the team.

Mentors and data experts will be on-site, in both locations, ready to assist teams that want to work on projects that benefit both cities. A live video feed between the two venues is also planned to allow collaboration and information sharing. Sunlight’s Bob Lannon will be judging.

(For instance, Baltimore is interested in creating its own version of Councilmatic, a site which allows citizens to be alerted when legislation is proposed that matches their indicated interests. The team that originally developed Councilmatic will be on-hand in Philly to help the folks in Baltimore who are building out Councilmatic for Charm City.)

The App Exchange format should make it much easier to get something completely built and functioning within a 48-hour (and let’s be honest, no one is actually working all 48 hours) period. And of course, it should create new ties and opportunities between Charm City and the City of Brotherly Love.

And, for anything that isn’t quite finished by the end of the day June 2nd (because we’re realists here,) Baltimore is planning follow up events, which will give hackers another target to shoot for, a light at the end of the tunnel, a [insert your own adage here]. Because tenacity and opportunity are also key to successful civic hacking.

“Individual commitment to a group effort – that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.

Who knew Vince Lombardi knew so much about civic hacking?

Disclaimer: Sunlight is one of the sponsors of Hack for Change Baltimore

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