The fifth annual National Day of Civic Hacking is Sept. 23, and participating civic technologists across the country will, as always, host a series of volunteer events in their cities and states.
National Day of Civic Hacking is organized in part by Code for America, a nonpartisan and nonprofit group that works all year-round on tech projects to make governmental services simpler and easier to use for constituents. The group also oversees the Code for America Brigades, which coordinate the events that make up National Day of Civic Hacking. This year the official website for the day lists 36 happenings spread throughout 34 host jurisdictions, from large-market no-brainers like Washington, D.C., and San Francisco to far-flung jurisdictions like Pocatello, Idaho and DeKalb, Ill.
Erie Meyer, who became director of the Code for America network earlier this year after leaving the United States Digital Service, which she co-founded, described the day as a “culmination and leveling up of work that’s been going on all year.”
“Code for America is just one part of a huge universe of people who are working restlessly to try and make government work better, particularly for the most vulnerable people,” Meyer said.
Having a day dedicated to the work they do gives volunteers and full-time staffers alike a chance to feel part of something bigger and to draw attention to their cause — civic tech.
An emerging and noteworthy trend throughout several of the hyper-local efforts this year is a focus on enticing attendees who normally wouldn’t think of themselves as tech experts. While this has always been part of Code for America’s dogma, it’s being pushed further by some of the National Day of Civic Hacking events.
Take for example Portland, Maine. Led largely by Code for Maine, one of the rare statewide Code for America brigades, the city is an annual participant in National Day of Civic Hacking. The name of this year’s event versus last year’s is telling, in terms of inclusivity.
In 2016, they hosted 2016 #HackForChange Portland Transit Hackathon, which sounds like it’s about hacking and more hacking, potentially discouraging people who don’t think of themselves as hackers. In 2017, they’re now hosting the Portland Civic Design Festival. The title is a deliberate attempt to be more welcoming, said Nick Kaufmann, one of the organizers.
Design is a widely-understood mainstream concept, while festival just sounds like fun. At the same time, civic is in the title to emphasize the event’s core — service to the city. Kaufmann, who is co-captain of Code for Maine and one of the leaders of this Saturday’s event along with the other co-captain, Emma Burnett, said they hope this year’s event will create a bridge between civic hackers and people with related skills and perspectives to contribute, people like urban planning innovators and architects.
Based on advance inquiries, all indications are that the tactic is working. Kaufmann currently expects between 60 and 100 attendees, which is substantial given Portland’s population is around 60,000.
“This year is probably going to be the biggest we’ve ever done, both in terms of the amount of people who are going to come and the partners we’ve had come on this year,” Kaufmann said.
Portland technologists have welcomed a new sponsor for this year’s event, the Maine Charitable Mechanics Association, which dates back to 1815, giving the group a long history of supporting innovators, craftsmen and artisans through multiple generations of technology.
Portland, however, is one of many events working to be broader. In Sacramento, Calif., organizers are inviting non-technologists to tackle housing affordability, an ongoing crisis in America’s most populous state. Sacramento’s event notes on its website that people with all skillsets are welcome to contribute or just share feedback about what it’s like to be a renter in the city.
So, yes, while civic technology has been embroiled in transition and uncertainty this year at the federal level — a number of technologists who were foundational to the United States Digital Service and 18F departed government work — National Day of Civic Hacking is a stark reminder that the greatest potential for positive change is at the local level, whether it take the form of a hackathon aimed at reducing recycling contamination in Los Angeles or a presentation about tech’s potential to save live music in Austin, Texas.
Zack Quaintance is a staff writer for Government Technology. Prior to that, he spent five years working in daily newspapers, and another five years working in the tech sector. He lives in Northern California.