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Civic Ninjas Find Long-Term Solutions to Government Problems

The organization's mission is to move civic hacking's focus toward building solutions and providing ongoing support so those solutions -- primarily in disaster response and recovery -- can succeed in the public sector.

Civic hacking has evolved -- it has become a way for civic-minded technologists to bypass red tape to find solutions for community and government problems. And now, one civic hacking group is taking that evolution a step further. 

Called Civic Ninjas, the organization's mission is to move the focus of civic hacking away from isolation -- from individuals and one-time hackathon events -- to a team of hackers who build solutions and provide ongoing support for those solutions so they can succeed in government long term. 

"If you consider our municipal end users, ultimately we need to build a sort of support organization to allow the technology to thrive in that environment," said Civic Ninjas Founder Scott Phillips, who was  recognized as one of 14 Champions of Change by the White House during the 2013 National Day of Civic Hacking.   

In supporting governments' use of open-source technology, the organization has developed its first set of projects under its name and brand of Civic Ninjas. Its disaster response and recovery software helps search and rescue teams to virtually track searched buildings. And jumping off the Champions of Change exposure, Civic Ninjas created two new projects designed to help in disaster situations

Together, the three projects -- all openly designed so that any organization can use them -- were demoed at a July White House event geared toward technology that can empower and enable people during a disaster. 

Evolution of Hacking 

Like many civic hackers, the organization embraces the original meaning of the word "hacking," which was described during World War II as how airplane mechanics fixed planes. During the war, mechanics bypassed FAA requirements to hack broken planes for their parts and use them on salvageable planes to get them flying again, according to Phillips. 

"If you really look at what hackers were doing," he said, "they were using whatever means necessary to impact a positive outcome or impact change."

Similarly, Phillips added, if technology-savvy civic hackers get a glimpse into community needs, they can find solutions for municipalities, which often face barriers to keeping up with the evolution of technology.  

Many civic hackers generate their open-data solutions at hackathons, or one-weekend events, where they come together with policymakers to solve government or community problems. 

But the challenge is, once those projects are adopted, some glitch invariably happens and government staff may not have the expertise to address it. "You can quickly get into situation where it's hard for governments or municipalities to rely on these projects," Phillips said.  

That's where Civic Ninjas' vision comes in -- the organization is creating solutions both at hackathons and outside of them, and it plans to take governments from problem identification through the creation, support and evolution of the technology. Civic Ninjas also takes special effort to find and identify with government pain points, Phillips said, and not just focus on short-term technology fixes. 

The Ninjas Hack Oklahoma

Using Oklahoma's pain points, or problem areas, Civic Ninjas created an urban search and rescue tool called the Open Search Map Project -- an HTML5 mobile app -- that virtualizes the X's usually painted, written or taped on the doors of buildings to communicate that they have been searched after a disaster, and if anyone was inside or needs rescuing. 

Originally, OpenFEMA asked Civic Ninjas to address local disaster-related issues made evident by the Moore Tornado, which struck Moore, Okla., 12 days before the National Day of Civic Hacking began on June 1, 2013.

Ninety-six hours later, and after working with two state organizations -- the Oklahoma All-Hazards Incident Management Team and Oklahoma Task Force 1 Urban Search and Rescue -- Civic Ninjas had a working version of the map project. It then evolved that project, with help from the state, over the next three months.     

"The fact that we built something that could potentially save lives in that short of time period is a really impressive concept," Phillips said, adding that the government's quick actions and collaboration with his organization is also inspiring.  

The Open Search Map Project helps search teams to navigate the disaster area using GPS, and to capture and record more data as they go; and helps emergency management staff at the base of operations to monitor search team progress, which is instantly updated. 

Since the project's development, Oklahoma Task Force 1, a state-funded search and rescue team that mimics FEMA's national search and rescue teams, has trained with Civic Ninjas using the map project. 

According to Terry Sivadon, leader of the task force's Tulsa unit, the new marking system will help prevent the task force from conducting repetitive searches on nonstandard-marked buildings, and will streamline tracking and documenting during the search process. 

At the White House, Civic Ninjas also presented its new projects -- the Shining Light Project, which includes a wearable colored LED light that indicates whether an emergency responder is credentialed to enter certain disaster areas, and the Rescue Beacon Project, an off-the-shelf weather radio using a rescue beacon device or an Apple iOS device to signal to urban search and rescue teams to where locate trapped people following a disaster.  

These new projects, Phillips said, are treated "as open source software and hardware that kind of showcase our potential."  

Although its disaster-related projects have been volunteer based, Civic Ninjas also has used part- and full-time staff to develop its health data mapping project The project is supported by the Knight Foundation, and it aggregates and provides access to useful health data via a Web app. It also helps municipalities understand how local health challenges may be affecting their citizens, Phillips said. 

Cool to be a Hacker

Civic Ninjas even leverages technology to help recruit its staff, many of whom are invited to work on projects because of their own work developing software for GitHub, a repository for civic technology software. Civic Ninjas developed its own strategic software to identify the GitHub hackers who are doing the "serious heavy lifting" on the site, Phillips said.

The organization's next big project is to survey 15 to 20 municipalities regarding their top pain points, whittle those down to the five most common ones and use civic hacking to address those problems. 

Phillips said sees the eventual evolution of civic hacking groups as supporting strategically targeted open software platforms that can then replace some of government's legacy software vendors. 

But however things play out, Phillips noted that now is the time to be a civic hacker given the alignment of technology and opportunity. "I tell everyone it's the coolest time in the world to be a civic hacker."