“Hacking at a Stereotype”

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By Sam Bronson

If you think the phrase “civic hacking” sounds like an oxymoron, you’re not alone. For a generation, Hollywood films and the work of a few high-profile cybercriminals shaped the popular definition of “hacking,” and not for the good. Fortunately for us, a lot has changed since then: the birth of social media and crowdsourcing, the acceptance of open data, and, dare I say, the transformation of the computer programmer from geek to hero. Too soon?

But, while the “black hats” of hacking still exist, the term “hacker” is being popularly redefined by the movement of civic hacking. Their collective mission is to address social and community issues by developing open technology solutions for a better world. Prior to the weekend of June 1st, however, I still didn’t “get it.” Not really.

When I first heard about the National Day of Civic Hacking, a colleague (Bill Muldrow) and I thought it sounded like a great opportunity to promote EPA data. “Wouldn’t it be nice to have some non-government developers working with us to promote environmentalism,” we mused.

So, we crafted the EPA Safe Drinking Water App Challenge, inviting participants to develop apps that might bring more awareness to an important issue. We narrowly-defined the challenge and created data resource guides in hopes of enticing civic hackers to look at EPA data and the Envirofacts Application Programming Interface (API).
Then, something happened that completely changed my perspective. As I introduced myself to a group of developers at the Baltimore Hackathon on the morning of June 1st, their first response was to thank me; to thank us – the EPA – for making our data public and for embracing their cause. I heard similar comments throughout the day, until I finally realized that I wasn’t there trying to get developers to work with the EPA. Rather, they were there, trying to get me, and so many others, to join them in the cause of civic hacking.

At least four teams in four different cities ended up working on the EPA Challenge, with a Philadelphia team taking second place at their event. Yes, they appreciated the narrow focus of our challenge, our API, and all the detailed data resources we provided. But, we were just lucky to be a part of something greater. Thousands of other hackers, in over 83 cities, also came together for the National Day of Civic Hacking, tackling mostly local challenges with an impressive collection of APIs and datasets.

Led by organizations like Code for America and Random Hacks of Kindness, civic hacking is a movement. And, while civic hackers may seem to be a relatively small group, in the new world of big data, make no mistake that they have an exponential power to effect change. They’re just waiting on the government to join them.

About the author: Sam Bronson joined EPA in 2009 as an analyst, to work on policies and projects related to mobile apps, Web analytics, and public access to data. He currently manages EPA’s Web Analytics Program.

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