National Day of Civic Hacking [Gov. Style]

If community engagement’s on your agenda, take advantage of National Day of Civic Hacking. Many think this is just a day for the tech community to creates shiny new apps for civic good, but it’s more than that — it’s a venue for local governments to connect with residents and discuss the function of basic services. Whether it’s government departments or community groups organizing the local events the objective remains consistent — improve public service.

Technology is often the place where the public meets government, be it through a piece of paper, an online form, application of some sort or a phone call. It comes down to communication, and this next weekend is an opportunity to improve any pain points that may exist within these channels. From tackling food stamp issues to improving the new business permit application NDoCH is an inclusive event with a diverse range of activities, and to ensure inclusivity some read – no coding required.

Opening data is a great way to engage the local tech community, but to engage the public in this way, we need a wider range of activities. Luckily this year there are challenges that don’t require any technological, or coding skills. These are challenges that allow the public to report out on the functionality of the municipal website, or help gauge the usefulness of the data that’s been made available.

Two specific challenges that Code for America is sponsoring this year deal with accessibility.

U.S. Open Data Census: How open is your city, actually? Give your city it’s open data report card. This challenge requires community members to review the available information — a great first task for a non-technologist to see what’s out there. Data is graded on accessibility and usability, then compared with other cities across the nation.

Digital Front Door/Digital Divide Challenge: It’s 2014, let’s face it, most of us are online and our city and county websites are not just tourist information anymore, in reality they serve as the digital “front door” to government services. Through a series of activities anyone can help create a baseline to show how well municipal websites are fulfilling this contemporary function.

If there’s not an event near you, you can still gather people in informal ways to work on these challenges, or just surface issues you have noticed. It’s important to note that civic hackers can be anyone willing to think up creative, often tech approaches geared towards solving civic problems.

When Nicole Neditch (CfA’s Fellowship Director) was working in the City Administrators office in the City of Oakland, Calif. she discussed the benefits of CivicCamp, a similar hacking event last november.

“By tapping the collective intelligence of both City staff and the community it serves, different perspectives will be heard and teams will come up with new ideas, unexpected solutions and more tailored outcomes.

Public-private partnerships, civic participation and community engagement are the key to creating a healthy city. While citizens can volunteer to adopt City infrastructure or speak at a City Council meeting, these opportunities only appeal to a limited audience. We need to create diversified opportunities for people to engage, as citizens demand a more participatory government.

By talking openly with City staff, citizens gain a level of trust for the work that is being done by local government. With exposure to the complexities of government, citizens have a better understanding of the limitations and possibilities.”

National Day of Civic Hacking is an opportunity to increase understanding and to build new relationships, very productive ones at that. Transforming the process of engagement from soliciting feedback to building new improved processes together helps shift the idea of citizenship from responsive to collaborative.

Questions? Comments? Hit us up @codeforamerica.

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