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National Day of Civic Hacking: Opportunities in Civic Engagement

This weekend, events are being held in 103 cities in the U.S., Canada and abroad with the goal of inventing new solutions using publicly-released data to improve our communities and the governments that serve them.

The second annual National Day of Civic Hacking (NDoCH) kicks off May 31 and runs through the weekend with events in 103 cities in the U.S., Canada and abroad. “The event will bring together citizens, software developers, and entrepreneurs,” says the official website, “to collaboratively create, build, and invent new solutions using publicly released data, code and technology to improve our communities and the governments that serve them.” And the event has become so popular, even the White House has been promoting it.

With individuals, grassroots organizations and non-profits building applications for government, these hack events might seem to be a threat to private-sector companies, but that’s not the case according to Mark Headd, who was Philadelphia’s first chief data officer and is now a developer evangelist for Accela.

Headd says Accela builds APIs into its software that third parties can use, and the company is holding an apps contest in parallel with the NDoCH to encourage people to come up with creative ideas that can plug into the Accela platform. Most companies realize there are opportunities, said Headd: “They can find ways to build hooks into their platforms that let other people plug in.”

And events like NDoCH present other opportunities as well, said Ash Roughani, the founder of Public Innovation in Sacramento, Calif. Public Innovation helped incubate and launch Code for Sacramento, which is a Code for America brigade that will host Sacramento’s NDoCH event this weekend. Many companies support these types of activities with sponsorships -- pages of companies, in fact. Roughani noted that events such as NDoCH are great places for companies to scout out talent, find innovative partners and purchase intellectual property.

But hackathons are only the beginning of a new style of engagement between resident and government. “A hacker event has such a short lifespan,” said Luke Fretwell, founder of the civic technology blog GovFresh. “It’s like Burning Man, everybody goes there and then everybody leaves.”

But there are long-term effects as well. Headd says that working with the open data community in Philadelphia created big changes in perception, especially among government officials. “We would show them what we were doing and as a result of that we saw the adoption of formal open data policies. We saw chief data officers, performance and data analytics positions created in government specifically to use data, to release data to the public. So there’s a direct correlation between these kind of events and governments becoming more aware that they’ve got a huge asset in this data.”

In fact, Headd thinks what is happening goes far beyond hackathons or coding. “What’s becoming mainstream now is being able to consume data, to do things with data, whether that’s programming, writing code that will use data to do something, creating apps or doing data analytics," he said. "We’re seeing this ‘embarrassment of riches’ of tools that we can use to do things with data that we didn’t have five or 10 years ago.”

And in the past, Roughani said, state, local and federal governments had the idea that they needed a reason to open a dataset. "But that idea is being flipped on its head from the point of view that, ‘We should be releasing everything by default, and not releasing only those data sets we have good reason not to release,'" she said. "That’s pretty significant. In terms of building that relationship between city hall and the emerging civic hacking community, what we are looking for are opportunities to solve a real problem … and really enhance that relationship between citizens and their government.”

It's a new way of looking at civic engagement, of helping cities and counties with technology, and on that effort is built an infrastructure for the future — tech-savvy kids, open government data, private-sector companies lending a hand and scouting for talent, and organizations like Intel and code.org stepping in to teach technical skills. A lot of it is non-profit or just for fun, but out of that kind of fun came some of today’s biggest tech companies.

This story was originally published by Techwire.net, and has been slightly edited for Government Technology readers.

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