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Civic Hacking: A Sustainable Resource for City Innovation

Monday, July 10, 2017  
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Civic hacking is transforming how civic challenges are approached in cities throughout California. While the term hacking may evoke thoughts of cybercrime, when referring to civic hacking it delivers a positive meaning that indicates the process of finding solutions through community collaboration.  


Civic hacking is predominantly focused on developing technology-based solutions to solve civic problems. Civic hackers regularly take advantage of open government data to formulate ideas and design technology-focused solutions that will help improve their communities. Solutions produced are typically technology-focused, but civic hacking participants are not limited to technologists. Most civic hacking events welcome developers, designers, subject-matter experts, students, government staff members and any individuals eager for civic engagement.


Community collaboration is an essential component of civic hacking, and civic hackers generally have an opportunity to collaborate through civic hacking events. Civic hacking events are organized to last for varying time spans that depend on the host’s vision for the event. Single or two-day hackathons are most frequent, but long-term and ongoing civic hacking initiatives also exist.


Single/two-day hackathons carried out recently in Los Angeles, for example, include Hack Foster Care Los Angeles and the Arts Access Datathon among others. Hack Foster Care Los Angeles gathered for 26 hours on April 28-29 at Fullscreen Media in Playa Vista to formulate solutions to improve the lives of the community’s foster youth. The hackathon, which produced 13 open-source digital solutions, addressed five specific challenges impeding foster care success: recruitment and retention of foster families, service linkage and referrals, communication, AB12 transition planning and visitation. Similar Hack Foster Care events have been hosted in Washington, D.C., New York City and Silicon Valley.


Moreover, the Arts Access Datathon, hosted by the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs and the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, gathered interested individuals for eight hours on April 22 at The Reef in downtown Los Angeles. Their mission was to develop ideas for solutions on how to improve access to the arts in the Los Angeles region by examining available arts and culture data.


Some long-term civic hacking events often last several weeks or months. The City of Santa Monica, for example, is preparing for the second annual Hack the Beach: The Contest, a five-phase civic hacking event that spans approximately five months and allows the Santa Monica tech community an opportunity to pitch an initiative for improving the city.


“Hack the Beach is a way of opening the doors of city hall to the tech community. It’s a way of helping improve the communication between city hall and technologists in Santa Monica,” says Behrang Abadi, Senior Information Technology Manager for the City of Santa Monica.


In 2016, the first annual Hack the Beach: The Contest required submissions to incorporate community, mobility and/or civic engagement. The winning project, CityGrows, is a cloud platform used to manage permitting, licensing, surveying and other local government processes online. The City of Santa Monica, City of Los Angeles and the City of Sacramento are among the cities that have utilized CityGrows to convert paper processes to online processes. 


“Last year’s contest winners received several contracts with the city. They ended up producing such great products that there was an economic benefit for the city,” says Abadi.


Hack the Beach: The Contest is held in partnership between the City of Santa Monica, the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce and the local technology and business sectors.


Ongoing civic hacking events exist throughout California as well. In Los Angeles, Hack for LA meets weekly on Tuesdays at the La Kretz Innovation Campus. Hack for LA is the Los Angeles chapter of Code for America, the national nonprofit dedicated to improving government use of technology. Volunteers at Hack for LA may choose to join an existing civic project or pitch their own idea that addresses a civic challenge. Some existing projects include Food Oasis LA, a web platform designed to map available food sources in Los Angeles, and Work for LA, a web page intended to facilitate the employee application for the City of Los Angeles.


There are various civic hacking groups in California officially registered as Code for America Brigades which meet and host civic hacking events regularly including Code for Long Beach, Hack for LA, Code for Marin, California Civic Lab, Oakland TechEquity, Open Oakland, Code for Sacramento, Open San Diego, 18F, Code for San Francisco, Data SF, Code for San Jose and OpenSMC.  


Cities can leverage civic hacking as a viable resource to increase civic engagement and accelerate innovation. Civic hacking encourages civic problem-solving that originates from multiple sources rather than strictly from government staff members. It helps empower community members to be civically engaged and active in the process of governance. In many instances, government has been known to trail behind the private sector in terms of innovation. Civic hacking can help accelerate innovative practices in cities at a minimal cost as skilled community members are willing to volunteer their services for social good.  


As experienced technologists, MISAC members have an advantage in the ability to lead the civic hacking movement in their cities and help advance the processes utilized to find solutions for civic challenges.


Key Resource Links

Civic hacking definition:

Hack for Foster Care:

Hack for Foster Care Project Submissions:

Arts Access Datathon:

Hack the Beach:

Hack for LA:

Benefits of civic hacking:

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