Civic Hacking: Evolution Of Public Policy Or Hype?

Natalie Kenny

It is the modern reality that the speed of technological change, globalisation, and economic mobility are making our world increasingly connected and diverse. The challenges that face government to put the correct precautions and safety nets in place to protect their citizens from economic and social risk require new skills and knowledge.

At the same time, governments have access to a new dimension of collaboration and consultation with citizens in solving complex civic problems. In a similar manner to opening up to the public a cold case in a criminal investigation, new leads from unexpected sources can sometimes result in new policy options. New roles have emerged in recent years that view technology as a bridge that brings together government, industry, NGOs, and citizens to transform government. They are known as civic hackers.

A short history of hacking

Propagated by the media and popular culture, the image of a “hacker” more often than not brings to mind technically skilled, nefarious individuals huddled away in dark rooms and plugged into their laptops, wreaking havoc against secure systems across the globe with malicious or greedy intent.

Indeed, the hackers we hear about in the media are generally associated with high-profile security breaches such as the devastating cyberattacks on Sony Pictures Entertainment or extramarital affairs website Ashley Madison, which saw private and confidential data such as credit card information, e-mails, home addresses, salacious photographs, and phone numbers leaked out across the Internet in droves.

These examples of hackers are contradictory to the ethos of the civic hacking movement. Their vision is altruistic and seeks work collaboratively across communities to improve the operation of government and outcomes for citizens. Civic hacking expanded out of an idea to bring highly skilled coders, programmers and developers together to improve government through technology.

Although it started with technology, the term civic hacking has evolved and is being applied to anyone who looks to improve civic outcomes in more efficient and creative ways. As Jake Levitas from the organisation Code for America notes, “These days I see just as many community leaders, architects, environmentalists, artists, and other professionals coming out to events under the purview of civic hacking as coders and designers.”

The evolution of civic hacking

In recent years, there has been a global movement in government towards information openness and transparency. Initiated by the United States, the last decade has seen over 70 countries around the world pass legislation for all non-sensitive public data collected across levels of government to be made open by default and published to the world. Globally it is estimated there are more than one million open datasets that have been made available today on digital portals across all levels of government (local, state, and federal), research institutions (CSIRO), and not-for-profit institutions (United Nations, WHO).

Whilst originally started as an action to promote greater government transparency and accountability, smart and creative technology enthusiasts recognised that they could take this information released by governments and use it to create new value for communities. These original civic hackers worked to build open source apps, create visualisation tools such a dashboards, or build new business models and products for market, and support the transformation of government service delivery and offerings.

Civic hackers were not just working to revolutionise government from the outside in. Governments began waking up to the potential value in civic hacking at the same time that technological capability made it possible to more easily share data and digitally interact with communities. Governments around the world now regularly host and sponsor hackathons, which bring together people with technical backgrounds to form teams around a civic problem or idea and collaboratively code a unique solution from scratch (GovHack, HackLondon).

New jobs have been advertised to bring technical skills formally into the public service such as the Australian Digital Transformation’s posting for an “ethical hacker” in 2015.  Formal civic hacking organisations have even been established, such as DataKind, Code for All, Rewired State, and IndianKanoon. These groups enlist coders and technology professionals to work with governments to build open-source applications, foster startup and agile-led approaches to government service delivery and promote the sharing of public data to foster transparency and innovation.

A great example of what can be achieved by the civic hacking community is their response immediately after the 2011 Haiti earthquake. Using information gathered from online social and mainstream media and satellite images, they built a detailed real-time crisis map of Haiti.

Haiti

This resource directly helped to saves lives. Humanitarian aid workers were able to use the map to navigate collapsed roads and buildings and more effectively deliver aid, resources, and emergency assistance to those in need.

Civic hacking: revolutionary or an exaggeration of value?

However, with nearly a decade of civic “hactivism” at work, numerous open government policies in place, and one million open government datasets available, the question to be asked is: Why hasn’t more been achieved?

Why has this abundance of availability not led to widespread and long lasting social, economic and political change? It seems as though despite the amount of effort put into this movement, the ideas and outcomes generated are not always sustainable and do not lead to long-lasting government transformation. This is not to say there is no place for civic hacking; rather there needs to be a new approach to hacker coordination.

There are several reasons as to why this might be the case:

1. The quality and availability of open data published by government is inconsistent

Simply releasing open data to the public is not enough. The open data that is being made available on government portals is hard to find, not well structured or described, dumped in silos and data portals across every department and level of government, and not readily published in easily linkable formats. This makes it challenging for civic hackers to search portals, identify datasets that are useful, combine them, and perform meaningful analysis on that information to help solve challenging social and civic problems.

2. Coordination of civic hacking can be complex and disorderly

With the exception of formal hackathons or specific groups such as Code for All, most civic hackers work remotely from outside governments, in different locations and geographies. There can be a lack of continuity. Referencing what work has been done previously by other hackers is difficult to determine and can lead to repeated efforts and duplicated work. Hackers may work on one project or idea and then quickly move on to the next, so flaws may go unrecognised.

3. Expectations need to be realistic; innovation takes time and is iterative

Hackathons, civic coding meet-ups, and short embedded projects in government often have limited parameters, undefined governance and ownership, and work at a breakneck pace. These factors can narrow the possibility of lasting innovation. Ideas are developed and confined by the data, skills, and experiences that are made available in the room on the day or online.

Civic hackers may not always have the right contextual knowledge and expertise, so they tend to come up with ideas that are neither feasible nor realistic in the real world. Part of the challenge is that it can be difficult and time-consuming to perform meaningful market research and financial planning or identify possible risky side effects of an idea in short project timelines. After projects and hackathons are complete, research can reveal that similar projects were created in the past and had failed to find a market.

4. Solving complex problems requires an ecosystem

Ideas and solutions may also fail to deliver long-lasting change without the internal support from the departments and agencies they target or whose data they use. Even the greatest technical solution can fail rapidly if it is constrained by lack of access to data or strict policy requirements that prohibit the sharing or linking of data across programs. Finding a way to bring these skills and talents together in a combined effort that targets all levels of the problem and matches up skilled civic hackers with experienced government public servants will lead to greater outcomes for everyone.

This is not to say civic hacking and all of these engagements don’t have their value and place. The digital era has enabled the concept of civic hacking. Each of these outputs could add a piece to the greater puzzle. Moreover, they are fun, engaging, and bring together skilled and passionate people to work on creative ideas. This can be an effective way for government to source ideas from non-traditional actors in the policy making process. Civic hacking may not solve a complex problem in its own right, but it has the ability to generate new ideas, foster collaboration, and build awareness for important civic issues and challenges, which could lead to a solution.

For more blogs on civic hacking, click here.


Natalie Kenny

About Natalie Kenny

Natalie Kenny is an Industry Value Engineer at SAP, focused on digital transformation of public sector organisations across Australia and New Zealand. She is dedicated to helping governments re-imagine future ways to interact with and deliver services to citizens. Natalie's key focus area is exploring how digital technologies can help un-tap the immense value that lies in government data to extract new value and insights and help solve challenging civic problems.