Techies, White House Take Part In National Day Of Civic Hacking

May 30, 2014
Originally published on May 30, 2014 2:07 pm

This weekend, software developers, entrepreneurs, and local governments from around the world are coming together to design and build tools for the common good.

Using publicly released data, participants in the National Day of Civic Hacking will work together to integrate new technology tools to solve community problems.

Todd Khozein is one of the organizers of #HackForChange. He is the co-founder of SecondMuse, a collaborative innovation lab that helps find technological solutions to everyday issues.

1. What is civic hacking?

Civic hackers are community members — engineers, software developers, designers, entrepreneurs, activists, concerned citizens — who collaborate with others, including government, to invent ways to improve quality of life in their communities. This year Portland, Ore., for example, is holding the hackathon for hardware, software and design on 33 acres of waterfront downtown property that used to be a shipyard. The owners of the former shipyard are challenging them to come up with a plan for what the future of Portland could look like, integrating community and technology. The mayor of Los Angeles is focusing the entire event on STEM where they will showcase the latest tech with the intent of inspiring young community members. Washington, D.C. is doing a transparency camp where hundreds of people will gather to share knowledge about how to use new technologies and policies to make the government work more effectively for the people.

2. Why it is important or necessary in 2014 to bring citizens into the equation to improve their communities?

For a number of historical reasons we've developed a fairly siloed system where the government would have clear responsibilities, the private sector would have other responsibilities and the community would have others. As our lives, opportunities and challenges have become more and more interwoven in the international, national and local arenas, it is essential that the various actors within those systems think together, develop trust with one another and collaboratively come to solutions. The citizen's expression of democracy has been somewhat limited in the past. We vote, sometimes we protest, sometimes we write op-eds, but this is coming nowhere close to tapping the capabilities of a lot of very intelligent people. It is necessary to bring citizens into the equation because without tapping into the tremendous talent that exists in citizens who want to improve their communities we will neither understand the extent of some of the challenges, nor be able to design useful solutions.

3. What's happening across the country? You have helped organize civic hacking events, and NASA and the White House are taking part?

Yes, that's right, there are 20 participating federal agencies, many states and a couple dozen city governments. Both NASA as well as the White House, of course, have been great leaders in the arena of civic engagement. In 104 cities there will be 124 events where communities will be coming together to figure out novel ways to improve our communities. Some people will be focusing on federal challenges and others on local ones. Some will be very software- or hardware-focused, others will be block parties and others will be forums for discussing and drafting improvements in policy. Each city has a tone and flavor that is unique to its community. One thing that we saw last year was that one of the hallmarks of most events was a diversity of people that do not normally sit in the same room with each other.

4. Are you concerned at all about privacy issues and someone taking advantage of this hacking and accessing data they shouldn't be accessing?

One of the things that I think is important to distinguish is the difference between inaccessible and confidential data. Of the 20 federal governments that are proposing challenges that they want the community's help with, almost all of them are opening up new data. One good example of an agency that we've worked closely with for years is NASA. NASA generates a lot of's also the part of the American Space Program that is not confidential. That means that there is nothing sensitive about the data, it's just not accessible. We used to think about data differently, as something that was only of interest to people within that organization or a limited circle, and it many ways that was true of the times. Now that the there are so many people with the ability to understand and do interesting things with that data, there is great value to the government and the citizens to make it accessible. This of course doesn't mean that we should open up all data, especially the data that we wouldn't want people accessing.

5. What did you learn from last year? An example of a successful collaboration that brought tangible change to a local community?

You know over the last 5 years we've run hundreds of hackathons or civic engagement events in hundreds of cities across the world on a vast variety of themes. Last year, a group of people in San Francisco decided to commandeer a vacant building (with permission of the city) and they allowed free access to and use of the space, thus naming it [freespace] and tried to rethink the relationship between community and space. They asked themselves what would happen if you took a vacant space, turned into something that the community owned and experiment with it. People started giving lectures, holding fashion shows, developing very novel funding models and creating valuable and no longer vacant spaces that people were putting to all kinds of use. They hacked the day of hacking and turned it into the month of hacking and have been going ever since. This year they will be doing them in 10 cities around the world and we've integrated it as one of the examples of what people can do on

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I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR news. We turn now to an event happening this weekend that will bring software developers, entrepreneurs, local governments and community members together to design and build tools for the common good. Using publicly released data they will work together to create all kinds of projects from fixing potholes to talking food banks - basically integrating technology to solve community issues. The event is known as the national Day of Civic Hacking. Here to tell us more is one of the organizers -- Todd Khozein. He is the founder Second Muse. That is a collaborative innovation lab that helps find technological solutions to everyday issues. Welcoming thanks so much for joining us.

TODD KHOZEIN: Thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: Tell me what is civic hacking?

KHOZEIN: So a civic hacker is really a community member. This can be an engineer, a software developer, and designer and entrepreneur - anybody that cares about their community and cares about actually influencing it. And civic hacking is when these folks actually work with each other including posters and the government who are included in that to find ways to just improve the quality of life in our communities.

MARTIN: What kinds of projects you tend to gravitate towards? Because I think some who might be intrigued by this on the one hand volunteerism is such a fundamental part of American life. On the other hand, I think, some people might say well fixing potholes that the government's job. They're supposed to do that. Why should people volunteer to do something that we know that's their job?

KHOZEIN: Yeah. I think that's a great question. And my sense is that because you know - because we know more about what is going on within our communities and that there is such a tremendous capacity that there's many ways where citizens can actually plug in and provide solutions and ideas that traditionally were held within say the government or within say for example some kind of an NGO or something like that but we see people come up novel solutions that integrate these different sort of segments of society that have traditionally been very segmented to come together in really novel ways. And so you see people doing a whole range of things from building websites that help you know people without homes find homes for the evening or people who are hungry find food form healthy food sources and that, of course, involves the government working together to make sure certain standards are in place as well as you know software programmers to bring their talents from their day jobs to help solve a problem that exists in the community.

MARTIN: You know I have seen an example of this up close. After Hurricane Katrina when a lot of people went up to Houston to find, you know, safety and a lot of people had to leave so quickly they didn't have a address books or particularly seniors who didn't have - or they perhaps left phones behind where they had numbers program in and couldn't find find relatives. I saw hackers descend upon the stadium there in Houston where a lot of people are finding emergency shelter and set up systems right there to help people find relatives and loved around the country. It was quite amazing to see and it was kind of a but it was an emergency situation where there literally could not have been a system in place. Can you give us another example of where hackers have gone together to kind of solve a problem perhaps on a more ongoing basis or to solve a more ongoing problem.

KHOZEIN: Yeah and that's a great example. I think at the aftermath of Katrina was when we saw a real explosion of this kind of like you know - people who had a lot to give for what they wanted to give was not a $5 donation. They wanted to build a website or find a lot of those - you, of course, are referring to you know - you know one of many person finders website the popped up in an emergency situation. So I mean one of the examples of what we saw come out of last year, for example, was an OMG Transit so if you are interested in multimodal transportation that means I want to use a bus and maybe a car sharing program and maybe a train and then maybe I, you know, some other form of transportation there were no apps to be a will to take you from and to and say know how to get from point a to point B using the public infrastructure. And this was a group of people that literally just came together. They met each other in Minneapolis and then they came up with a really interesting sort of application and then, you know, throughout the course of the next six months we worked with them quite closely and they're a proper up and running business right now where they are really building this and has been an ongoing year-long initiative.

MARTIN: You know Edward Snowden is in the news now. We mentioned him briefly a few minutes ago. What about the fact that NASA and the White House are taking part in this? So some citizens have some not warm feelings about their government right now - feeling that the government has overreached in accessing information about citizens that they should not necessarily have access to. Are you at all concerned about privacy issues are breaking down walls - not just for the government or private sector players who were getting access to information they really shouldn't have about people. Is that at all a concern?

KHOZEIN: Yeah, I mean, I think that's clearly a concern and I think we are seeing it play out. I think that what we are seeing is that there has been this really big explosion of data, you know, and that people have access to a lots of data about people and we're having a really interesting conversation right now about what information should you have access to and what information shouldn't do? I think what we focus over here is on - is not necessarily on saying we should open up data that is questionable in terms of whether we should have access to it or not. What we're really focusing on is an inaccessible yet acceptable data so there is - NASA for example generates tons of data through other satellites both looking into space as well as they a lot of satellites that are looking at Earth looking at climate change patterns and things like that. I think what we are interested in is taking data that everybody agrees is not innocuous but is not sort of within this realm of conflict about should this data be available - be available or not and we are making this accessible. So you have 18 different federal agencies that are involved that are opening up data sets and these are not - this is not controversial data this is sort of data that nobody would object to but they may be sitting in a corner is not being used well. That is the kind of data we are focusing on.

MARTIN: You were telling us that there are events all over the country - something like more than a hundred events right? Taking place this weekend.

KHOZEIN: That's right. I think we're up to 123 events in 103 different cities.

MARTIN: What are some of the things you like about it? I know one of the things you telling us about is this is the kind of event to bring together people who don't normally don't sit in a room together right?

KHOZEIN: Absolutely - because of the fact that the difference between what should the government be doing for switch of the private sector be doing versus what should a community volunteer be doing because they've gone center mingled - a lot of times we can clash and say this your job this is my job. Or we can get into the room together and see each other face-to-face and meet each other. That diversity of opinion from so may different multiple backgrounds when it is coming together for the intensive actually understanding some kind of challenge or opportunity and working together to fix it is turning out to be a very powerful - and we have, you know, a library of evidence of what that is able to create. It is really rich what comes out of there just because I think it is not an antagonistic meeting. It is a very additive and constructive sort of - an event.

MARTIN: How will you judge the success of this overall? If you and I get together five years from now, what do you hope will have happened as a result of the work that is going on this weekend and around the country and around the world?

KHOZEIN: I think that there's probably a number of factors. I think that we want to see - we want to see real stuff happen. So we want to see not something that happens over the weekend and disappears but we want to see what you alluded to earlier which is ongoing initiative that actually is helping people in solving challenges and starting new businesses. We also want to see this influence and we are already seeing it really influence both local government as well as federal government in terms of their ability to - because there is a lot of data there - again we are talking about the data that is not controversial. We are seeing a lot of people open that up. And I think that watching more of that is going to be one of the factors of success.

MARTIN: Todd Khozein is the cofounder of Second Muse. We've been talking to him about events around civic hacking. And to learn more you can go to Todd, thanks so much for joining us.

KHOZEIN: Thanks so much for having me Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.