Defining Civic Hacking

This post is written by Jake Levitas, a civic designer, organizer and activist.

How a common framework can unite new forms of engagement

National Day of Civic Hacking, described by its organizers as “a national event bringing together citizens, software developers, and entrepreneurs across the nation to collaboratively create, build, and invent using publicly-released data, code, and technology to solve challenges relevant to our neighborhoods, our cities, our states, and our country.” With 95 events across dozens of cities, it’s among the biggest days dedicated to civic engagement in recent history. This is exciting, but even more exciting is what this says about the movement it represents. In many ways, it’s a sort of coming-of-age party for a new wave of engaged citizens.

In organizing and attending similar events over the past few years, I’ve noticed an incredible diversity of interests and motivations within this movement. People participate for a wide variety of reasons – which is to say, civic hacking means many different things to many different people. What began as a niche theory about the potential to improve government using technology has quickly expanded to focus more on changing the culture of government to work more effectively and creatively with its citizens. Technology can often be a part of improving this citizen-government interface, but it’s only part of the change we’re seeing. 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. At the same time, tactical urbanism has developed into a sort of civic coding analogue for the built environment.

In thinking about all of this, I realized that there was still no complete definition of civic hacking which encompassed the range of approaches, acts, and participants the movement has come to represent. Within such an expansive and rapidly changing context, maybe there never will be a singular definition — and more importantly, maybe there shouldn’t be. At the same time, the most successful movements in history have stemmed from a common vision — while also embracing their own diversity and leaving room for that collective vision to grow and evolve over time.

To this end, I set out to develop a definition for civic hacking, which I’ve summed up below. If the only outcome is making it easier for me to explain my own interpretation of the term, great — but I’m hoping it might help others do the same, and make the movement even more effective as a result.

Starting Points

Let’s start with what’s already out there. The most valuable contribution to this discussion that I’ve seen is Alex Howard’s definition of civic innovation:

Civic Innovation is a new idea, technology or methodology that challenges and improves upon existing processes and systems, thereby improving the lives of citizens or the function of the society that they live within.

I think this definition is spot on — but civic innovation and civic hacking aren’t completely interchangeable. Based on most of my conversations in the space, an easy way of thinking about the difference is that civic hacking is hands-on, citizen-driven action which produces civic innovation — it could be contributing code to an open-source civic app, designing modular street furniture, or conducting a workshop with city officials to discuss how new policy could improve a neighborhood. A nuanced distinction, perhaps, but an important one nonetheless if we want these terms to have staying power, rather than die off as the buzzwords of yesteryear.

So what existing definitions exist for civic hacking? I only came across a few, all with some variation in their focus. These stated that civic hacking is:

A creative, often technological approach to solving civic problems. [Source]

Citizens developing their own applications which give people simple, tangible benefits in the civic and community aspects of their lives. [Source]

Collaborating with others to create, build, and invent open source solutions using publicly-released data, code, and technology to solve challenges relevant to our neighborhoods, our cities, our states, and our country. [Source]

These touch on different parts of the movement, and I wanted to find some common ground. Combining them, we can see civic hacking as:

  1. a process to solve problems facing cities
  2. often, but not explicitly, technology-driven; and
  3. driven by citizens.

Let’s keep these points of common ground in mind. Now we need to determine where we draw the boundaries of “civic” and what distinguishes “hacking” as a process.

Component Parts

Let’s start by applying the approach Alex used in his process of defining civic innovation to help define civic hacking — breaking the term down into its component parts.

Civic is defined as “of or relating to a city, citizens, or citizenship.” That’s the easy part.

Hacking is a tricky term with a long history that is much more difficult to find a single widely accepted definition for. To most of the population, hacking is still associated solely with the acts of breaking into security systems found in the media. To those near the technology world, hacking means attempting to solve problems more quickly or creatively than before — it’s about using new ideas and approaches to improve the status quo, whether at the scale of a single software project or an entire city. These two definitions are almost completely at odds with one another, especially in terms of their end goals.

It also doesn’t help that if you look to Google, here’s what you get:

In the context of civic hacking, we’re clearly more interested in the problem-solving definition of hacking. To simplify things and hone in on what makes hacking different as an approach, I’m going to use Mark Zuckerberg’s definition:

Hacking just means building something quickly or testing the boundaries of what can be done.

Notice that there is no explicit mention of technology here — it’s more about a process than any specific toolset.

Bringing it All Together

So, we have good reference points for defining, for our purposes: “civic innovation,” “civic,” and “hacking,” as well as a few reference points for defining “civic hacking” itself. Let’s bring the most important components from all of these together:

From “civic innovation”: the idea of improving upon existing municipal processes and systems;

From “civic”: the relationship to cities, citizens, and citizenship;

From “hacking”: the approach of solving problems quickly or creatively;

From prior “civic hacking” references: the focus on a process that is driven by citizens, and not explicitly technology-focused.

Taking all these into account, my attempt at a comprehensive definition was:

Civic hacking is the act of quickly improving the processes and systems of local government with new tools or approaches, conducted with cities, by citizens, as an act of citizenship.

After a quick exchange with Alex, he offered this edit, which extends the definition beyond local government:

Civic hacking is the application of new tools and approaches to improve the processes and systems of government for all.

Of course, these definitions don’t exactly roll off the tongue. For any process, it’s helpful to have both a formal definition for people in the field, and a more straightforward definition for those who haven’t been exposed or involved yet. Code for America’s Kevin Curry offered a great start to this latter point earlier today, via Twitter:

Civic hacking is using technology and design to make where we live better.

In keeping in line with the process I used for the formal definition, I’d only suggest shifting away from specific tools and more toward the process. So, for a simpler definition, I’d offer:

Civic hacking is people working together quickly and creatively to make their cities better for everyone.

Extending this beyond the local scale:

Civic hacking is people working together quickly and creatively to help improve government.

Moving Forward

For civic hacking to become a robust and persistent movement, it seems like defining it is a good place to start. Whether or not these are the “right” definitions or not is much less important than finding a common foundation on which millions of citizens can build and take action. Building a framework that unites people across geography, age, culture, and other factors is never easy, but the speed at which the movement has already grown is a testament to its promise.

It’s also a testament to the fact that people no longer see voting, surveys, public comment periods, and community meetings as the only way they can contribute as civic participants. The ability to rapidly develop and share tools, information, lessons, and designs is redefining what it means to be a citizen or a city employee.

All said, perhaps this is the best way to sum it all up:

Civic hacking is the new civic engagement – and it’s here to stay.

Questions? Comments? Hit us up @codeforamerica.

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