Creating Technology for Social Change

Code, data, and what else? New forms of civic hacking and participation

Photo by Bert Lum (

Last week I was at SXSWi 2013 to talk about civic crowdfunding, describing the platforms, institutions and mechanisms that are changing community planning. I heard several great speakers describe ways to reform government using a similar framework. They talked about the need to reform procurement policies so that startups can compete for a slice of the $172 billion a year government technology market, how using product design methodologies can help make services work better for citizens and the need for government to become a platform that can embrace and benefit from civic hackers and innovators.

Making these institutional reforms happen is hard, and a response I heard more than once in Austin is that government faces the same problems of handling innovation and working with small, nimble players as any large institution or company does. That’s not a bad point to make, but as well as sounding a little defeatist, it’s only half of the equation. While reforms from the institutional side are essential, what about the startups government wants to bid for its contracts and the hackers and participants whose help it wants to build innovative new tools?

For the startups, it may just be a question of time, as the market matures and folks like Engine Advocacy help turn more startups on to the importance of engaging with policy and thinking about the impact they can make in the civic space. Startups have a history of learning to engage with government, as Nick Grossman pointed out: “Lobbyists were the original government startups and they’re doing pretty well.”

For the civic hackers and citizens, however, we need to take a closer look. Are we recognising all the types of civic participation that exist and are valuable, especially those that occur primarily online? Are there new frameworks for participation that would leverage more people skills than the conventional hackathon model?

The answer to the first question is clearly ‘no’. You’ll struggle to find a better description of the spectrum of civic acts than this one by Ethan Zuckerman, my research group’s director. Civic acts can include everything from reblogging a gif from a presidential debate (what Zuckerman terms a ‘thin’ form of engagement) to producing original media content, to launching a political campaign (‘thick’ forms of engagement). Even these thin forms of engagement, can, in Grossman’s words, be “culturally transformative.” Grossman also cites the example of communities like Stack Overflow, which demonstrate that while the collective creation of knowledge may have been a marginal practice a decade ago, it’s now the new mainstream.

A great example of how the civic space can benefit from that enthusiasm for knowledge building and sharing – and answer question two with a resounding ‘yes’ – is LocalWiki, a site for communities to add and curate information and data about their local area. It’s easy to see how this model could be a great complement to local government information websites, and give communities the agency to discuss and participate in the development of public services and the local environment. Agency is critical: for people to be motivated to participate, they need to understand the outcomes they can work towards.

LocalWiki is a good example for another reason. What if you want to contribute to the brave new world of civic hacking, but you’re not a coder or a data expert? Non-coders who go to hackathons regularly typically fall into the role of either project manager, or observer. And a hacker doesn’t want to be an observer. It’s clear that we need to think of new ways to harness the skills, creativity and cognitive surplus of those people. The next lowest hanging fruit to target could be media producers.

In the case of LocalWiki, users create written and multimedia content based on specialised knowledge of the local area, and sometimes that’s done in the form of a collective, hackathon-style effort. Simlarly, Code for America brought together citizens for a ‘writeathon’ to create content for their Honolulu Answers project. It’s a notable example because, in the rush to create great tools and platforms, copy is often the lowest priority – even though it’s a critical part of making those tools intuitive and engaging citizens.

Honolulu Answers and LocalWiki are both useful examples of how we can open new gateways to citizen participation and expand the skillset of the civic hacking community. These new gateways are opportunities for the thick participation that the civic sector needs – but we probably need to expand our model of participation to unlock them.

Cross-posted at