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Inside the Civic Hacking Movement

How Gangplankers and other social entrepreneurs are radically changing how cities get their software.

Local government agencies are tapping into alternative community co-working spaces, neighborhood tech meetups and civic hackathons to forge innovative tech partnerships, liberate municipal data and drive civic engagement.

“In the future, governments and companies won’t really care about massive operations and giant corporate headquarters,” said Derek Neighbors, co-founder of Gangplank, a nonprofit collaborative workspace group and startup incubator headquartered in a revitalized historic building directly across from the Chandler, Ariz., City Hall. “They’ll be far more interested in sourcing talented, innovative, local individuals who can get the work done.” 

Many local governments already are, thanks to a new breed of municipal chief innovation and chief information officers, leading the charge alongside civic-minded techies who are eager to improve the communities where they live, work and play.

American municipalities — from San Francisco to New York City — are pivoting away from outsourcing their growing tech needs to large corporations and away from creating and maintaining their own often massive, complex municipal data systems. Instead, they’re turning to civic coders and private service providers who live in the community and work in alternative co-working environments for everything from app development to social media outreach and data storage. Meanwhile, these new relationships help local governments better understand and respond to citizens’ needs. 

Neighbors, a veteran software engineer, launched Gangplank in 2008 with fellow tech entrepreneur Jade Meskill to foster an environment for local creatives, entrepreneurs and startups to “explore innovative ideas and create what they are passionate about in ways that enhance the community we live and work in.” Gangplank has since opened additional collaborative co-working spaces in the Phoenix area, Virginia and Canada.

“We don’t want to be just a renter inside of a space in Chandler,” Neighbors said. “We want to transform the city for the better by playing an active, committed role in rebuilding the downtown core and encouraging high civic engagement.” 

It costs nothing for people to work in Gangplank’s wall-less open concept co-working space. Unlike the many monthly membership fee-based co-working options nationwide, instead of paying rent for desk space and conference room use, long-term Gangplank users are asked to “pay it forward” within the community. 

They lend a hand on various public projects for Chandler. Gangplank holds a contract with the city that enables Gangplankers, as Neighbors calls them, to deliver several important services, including educational program creation, workforce development and professional mentoring, all at zero monetary cost to the city. “Doing so challenges the notion of using monetary capital to propel commerce and instead uses social capital to propel commerce,” Neighbors said. 

He encourages Gangplank’s estimated 5,000 Chandler members to take responsibility for their city. In fact, he said, “there’s someone from Gangplank’s member base on virtually every single board or commission in the city.” As the current president of the board of the Downtown Chandler Community Partnership, Neighbors practices what he preaches. 

Communication between city officials and citizen Gangplankers is improved, Neighbors said, by weekly meetings at Gangplank that bring them together to “cross-pollinate ideas, collaborate and co-create.” Chandler City Council members also regularly interact with Gangplankers via Facebook and Twitter to give and receive information. 

“It’s not uncommon for one of our local City Council members to tweet or instant message with Gangplank community members during a City Council meeting,” Neighbors said. “And those online conversations often continue offline in-person when a City Council member drops by our space to work for a bit, deliver something or just to catch up. These everyday digital and real-world exchanges help to humanize city officials and staff, and that’s how citizens end up seeing them as people, not as bad government.”  

Hosting Hackathons

Meanwhile, Alameda County, Calif., home to the city of Oakland, is dialing into the growing civic hacking trend by hosting community hackathons. The first Alameda County open data civic hackathon took place in Castro Valley in December 2012, followed by one on April 27, 2013, with several more slated for the rest of the year. 

The daylong Alameda County Apps Challenge on April 27 offered civic coders $5,000 in prize money to create helpful apps that showcased a certain portion of the county’s vital public data via open source APIs, including restaurant health inspection reports, the library’s book reservation system and the city’s pothole database. Government data sets that were used in the April hackathon included crime statistics, HUD residence information and public health data. 

Apps that were created as a direct result of Alameda County’s first civic hackathon in 2012 include: 

  • SnapMapper — A Yelp-like app for food-stamp recipients that shows users ratings and information about nearby stores that accept food stamps.
  • AC BookIT — An app that lets users search for and reserve library books. 
  • ACPR Finder — An app created by high school students that pulls data to provide information about county parks, recreation centers and hiking trails. 
“The Apps Challenge is one example of the ways the county is using cutting-edge technology to increase government transparency and assist residents in accessing vital information,” Keith Carson, president of the Alameda County Board of Representatives, said in a recent statement. 

In bordering Santa Clara County, the city of Palo Alto, Calif., a hotbed of entrepreneurial tech innovation, has long worked with civic-minded coders and startups to benefit the community. 

In fact, the city, in partnership with Innovation Endeavors, Talenthouse and the Institute for the Future, hosted a successful civic hackathon in March 2012 dubbed the Super Happy Block Party Hackathon. The event, which took place in a blocked-off section of High Street, was held “in the spirit of collaborative community innovation,” said Palo Alto CIO Jonathan Reichental. 

What's a Jelly?

Jelly meetups are another popular alternative co-working option popping up in dozens of U.S. cities and towns, as well as in Australia, Canada, Europe, Hong Kong and the U.K. Similar to Arizona’s Gangplank co-working setup, jelly meetups offer freelance tech workers, creative freelancers and entrepreneurs with shared interests and talents a refreshing escape from the home office where they can network, collaborate, develop partnerships, and share ideas and resources. 

But jellies also are quite different from brick-and-mortar co-working spaces. How so? They cost nothing to join and often occur weekly, biweekly or monthly, depending on each jelly and its organizers. Jelly meetup locations typically change with each gathering and happen everywhere from neighborhood coffeehouses, pubs and libraries to private residences, tech startup offices and even within co-working spaces. Anyone can attend. All they need is a laptop, tablet or anything else they require to work. Wi-Fi, tables, sofas and chairs often are provided. Upcoming jellies are listed at, and on individual jelly websites and Facebook pages. 

Why the unusual name? Because the first two people to host a jelly, Web developer Amit Gupta and software developer Luke Crawford, came up with the concept while eating jelly beans. They hosted the first jelly in New York City in March 2006.   

Approximately 2,000 civic programmers collaborated on apps designed to encourage civic engagement and facilitate local government transparency. However, according to Reichental, it’s sometimes hard to know exactly which apps resulted from busy public hackathons like these.  

“It’s often difficult to measure the impact of civic hackathons,” he said. “You don’t always know what apps were built and if indeed companies were formed. The hope, of course, is that they are and that they’ll have a positive, lasting impact on the local community.”

One such hackathon-borne civic app still in use today is Palo Alto’s StreetViewer. The app helps residents stay informed about the condition of city streets and was a result of a 2011 nonprofit open data civic hackathon hosted by the city, Stanford University students and local software developers. Community members can use the free app to view any street in Palo Alto, as well as upload and share their own photos of street conditions with fellow citizens. StreetViewer users also can compare local street pavement condition ratings against Google Street View images.

Reichental noted that on June 1, 2013, Palo Alto will be one of nearly 80 U.S. cities to invite its residents to participate in the National Day of Civic Hacking. The event is designed to bring together software developers, citizens and tech entrepreneurs to “collaboratively create, build and invent new solutions using publicly released data, code and technology to solve challenges relevant to our neighborhoods, our cities, our states and our country.” The national event, according to its official website, will “leverage the expertise and entrepreneurial spirit of those outside federal, state and local government to drive meaningful, technology-based solutions for federal, state and local government.” 

The National Day of Civic Hacking is being organized by Code for America, Random Hacks of Kindness and Innovation Endeavors. Government partners include: the White House Office of Digital Strategy; NASA; the U.S. departments of Energy, Labor and Transportation; Census Bureau; National Science Foundation; Peace Corps and many other government entities. 

Palo Alto was one of the first cities to sign on to the inaugural National Day of Civic Hacking, Reichental said. “I think we were part of the inspiration for it based on the overall success of our Super Happy Block Party Hackathon,” he said. “This coast-to-coast event will bring people together in cities across the nation to get them to really start thinking about collaborating and co-creating for civic innovation and for the betterment of their communities. In our case, this isn’t about just finding a way citizens can contribute to the future of the city of Palo Alto. Our participation, which will include tech and government professionals, as well as families and children, is meant to inspire a future generation of innovators and to inspire a renewed interest in science, technology, engineering and math.”

Reichental said the rise of local governments that engage neighboring tech co-working communities and civic coders for the greater good will grow quickly and become more common in the future. 

“Cities can no longer be vending machines where citizens insert a dollar and they get a service back,” he said. “That model is coming to an end. The future of American cities lies within co-creation between the community and government. We are now a software-driven society and increasingly so. More civic software engineers will be very valuable throughout our communities, and they’ll be brought to bear to solve widespread societal problems, enabling governments to essentially outsource what they haven’t always provided particularly well in the past.”  

Nerds in Philly

That future is now in Philadelphia, according to Adel Ebeid, the city’s chief innovation officer. 

“Civic hackathons in Philly, especially those that are based around open data, are already a very normal, common occurrence in our city,” Ebeid said. He added that his staff attend, host or engage in one to two civic coding events weekly on average. The city has a thriving, early stage tech scene taking hold, primarily anchored around North 3rd Street, a.k.a. N3rd (pronounced “nerd”) Street. 

“We’re actively working to liberate as much of the city’s government data as possible,” said Ebeid, “and we’re doing this because we feel that open data is the real matchmaker between government, the local tech community and our citizens.” 

For example, for the first time, on Dec. 12, 2012, the city publicly released Type 1 crime statistics — which covers crime categories including homicide, rape and robbery — dating back to 2006 as part of its Open Data Initiative. The crime data was used to develop an informative civic app at a March 6, 2013, Hackathon at Seed Philly, a 6,000-square-foot collaborative co-working high-rise space and tech startup incubator in the heart of Philadelphia’s Center City district. The app shows violent versus nonviolent crimes and incident rates displayed on city maps. 

Indy Hall, located fittingly on N3rd Street, is another co-working tech incubator space that Philadelphia routinely shares its municipal data sets with “to create apps that solve government problems,” said Ebeid. In fact, the city recently outsourced the creation of a 311 information app to Indy Hall innovators to better inform the public of non-emergency city services. 

Ebeid said the civic coders he’s worked with are “mainly millennials who favor capitalism with a conscience and who are extremely passionate about open government and open data.” Many are emotionally attached to their neighborhoods, he said, and have a strong desire to bring government and citizens closer together “to improve the digital and nondigital quality of life in Philadelphia.” 

And that’s why he wants them to stay long enough to lay down permanent roots in Philadelphia, instead of bailing for Silicon Valley in search of other opportunities. 

“When civic-minded hackathon participants and social entrepreneurs stay in our communities, it creates jobs, improves the local quality of life, drives the local economy, and everyone benefits,” Ebeid said. “The bottom line is that if you’re a local city and you’re not engaging the local tech community right now, then you are missing out on a huge opportunity.”