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The Civic Hacking Movement: Unlocking the Potential of Citizens and Technology

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How web 2.0 can transform governance, facilities and workflow management — and create better cities. 

By Lily Liu (Founder & CEO, PublicStuff)

The civic hacking movement is rapidly catching on as developers, designers, activists and local governments realize its potential to build stronger cities and provide better services. As the internet has spread from the desktop to the laptop to the phone in our pocket, we must  consider the real-world effects of  our ever-increasing access to the digital world. We no longer have the time or patience to wait in line or hold for the next available agent. We spend most of our time online and we’re likely to ignore an issue if it cannot be resolved through a click or a tap.

This is where web 2.0 with all its potential for collaboration, transparency and crowdsourcing can transform governance, facilities and workflow management. Cities like Chicago and Philadelphia and San Francisco have used successfully used social media, cloud computing, crowdsourcing or web and mobile apps developed through civic hackathons—all tools that from the base of what’s become known as gov 2.0.

As part of the National Day of Civic Hacking, 91 civic hackathons were held around the country. Developers, designers, artists, urban planners and interested citizens showed up at local events to create tools for the change they want to see in their communities. They used open data sets made available by the government to design useful web or mobile applications for citizens, businesses and local government agencies, with the larger purpose of improving communication, transparency and accessibility along these channels.

The Philly 311 Widget Contest Sparks New Ideas

Philadelphia launched its mobile 311 service, Philly311 (powered bymy digital communications startup PublicStuff), in October 2012 to improve the efficiency of their existing 311 call center and provide a channel for citizens to communicate with City Hall. The app, supported via web, mobile, SMS and voice call, offers users the options to submit a service request, look up nearby requests posted by other citizens, receive updates on city news and announcements, and contact city administration. There have been over 12,000 requests submitted with a 90% close rate. The Philly 311 app was even used to combat the dire situation brought on by Superstorm Sandy in November 2012, and was the 33rd most downloaded app in the country that week.

Philly expertly realized that tapping into its residents for ideas could prove beneficial and expose more citizens to their open government efforts. They held the week-long Philly311 Widget Contest and offered workshops and meetup opportunities with their civic hacking partners, Code for America (Philadelphia) and Random Hacks of Kindness. In addition to the city’s publicly available APIs at opendataphilly.org and phlapi.com, PublicStuff provided a variety of civic APIs including its own on the PublicStuff Civic Developer platform. To open up the contest to the widest possible audience, the city pushed for widgets built by coders and software engineers, while residents and activists with no coding experience were able to submit their ideas as well. While the city encouraged submissions in the areas of community improvement, digital access, traffic, public health, education and environment, participants came up with a number of innovative ideas.

The winning widget provides information about activities for school-age children from Kindergarten through High School when school is not in session. These activities range from after-school activities to summer camp and, even, day care.

Unlocking the talent of civic hackers, developers and ordinary citizens has proved fruitful for Philadelphia as it strives to provide information and services to the city’s residents. With cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco and other urban pioneers setting the bar high, it is now time for more cities across the country to ask their best and brightest for new solutions to usher us all into the era of gov 2.0.

img_7898_A (1)About the guest blogger: Lily is the founder and CEO of PublicStuff. Her previous positions include working with Mayor Bloomberg’s Special Projects & Analytics team, the City of Long Beach, CA, and in the TSA. Lily was recently named one of Forbes’ 30 under 30 in Social Entrepreneurship and PublicStuff as one of the top 10 startups in New York by Business Insider. 

Photo credit: justgrimes via Flickr