An Episode in Civic Hacking: Florida Bill Tracker

This post is penned by Rob Davis, a former Code for America intern and civic hacker in South Florida, and is cross-posted from rob.d.

Participating in my first civic hackathon in Florida was more than amazing, and to my surprise, my fellow Floridians were actually embracing the idea. “Hacker is a loaded word,” Richard Bookman clarified early on while addressing the crowd gathered at The Lab Miami. The term originally used to describe those who “hacked” together usable warplanes during battle from unusable ones. More broadly, I consider someone a “hacker” if they enjoy solving tough problems and finding (sometimes “rough”) solutions in the process. As for a “civic hacker,” according to the National Day of Civic Hacking website, is defined as:

Engineers, technologists, civil servants, scientists, designers, artists, educators, students, entrepreneurs, or community members

… or in other words, anybody who has an interest in their community.

I met Ernie and Rebekah, the co-organizers of the Miami event, and told them about the bill tracker being used to track the legislature in both New York and Minnesota. Long story short, Alan Palazzolo (CfA Alumni ’11) and a great team at the MinnPost created this bill tracker for readers to easily see which bills they should be watching. To take it a step further, the team open sourced all of its code which allows others to reuse it.

Before I knew it, the Florida bill tracker had shifted from some faint idea to a work in progress in a matter of minutes. I met Cristina Solana (with Ernie’s help) and we began brainstorming. We synced our surprisingly already similar ideas (she also wanted to work on something legislature specific) and began “forking” or re-purposing Alan’s code.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing of course, we had roadblocks many times. From errors in state data to the temperamental Open States API, we constantly had to rethink our strategy or ask our fellow developers and designers for help (shout out to Dimitry). It was an opportunity to learn and collaborate on something that can impact us all and have a great time doing it too.

We pushed onward Sunday, and by 2:00 p.m. had a working, clickable system. By 3:00 p.m. (presentation time), our Florida bill tracker had graphics, links to actual bill information, sponsor information, and recent state actions. We’ve come almost full circle by this point and we can proudly say that our Florida bill tracker is almost ready to be publicly viewed. Just like Alan’s code, ours will be is available on GitHub and fully reusable as well. (updates coming soon)

@robdotd and @nightshiftc are looking for media partners for #FLbilltracker…
— HackForChange Miami (@hfcMiami) June 2, 2013

What’s next for Christina and I? We’ve started reaching out to local news organizations, and The Miami Herald has shown a interest. Hopefully together we can provide readers with a place to see bills and reporter commentary in one place. The National Day of Civic Hacking was just one weekend, but our project will continue. Special thanks to Wifredo, Danny, Chris, Ernie, Rebekah, Richard, the other teams, the LAB’s interns and of course all of the government representatives who supported and shared data. With more than 90 events, 20 Gov. partners, and 75+ datasets released across the country, #NDoCH, or Hack for Change, is really something incredible.

WOW! Over 11,000 people participated in #HackForChange. Thank you so much for joining us and making this possible!
— NDoCH (@civichackingday) June 3, 2013

If you want to stay up to date on the project, follow myself or Cristina.

Questions? Comments? Hit us up @codeforamerica.

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