What is civic hacking?

Civic hacking is so much more than coding. Ahead of the National Day of Civic Hacking, let’s talk about what it really means.
national day of civic hacking logo

On September 18, Code for America will host our ninth annual National Day of Civic Hacking. We’re excited to welcome volunteers to our virtual event—from Boston to Boulder, we know that when we come together to solve problems, we can have a big impact. But first, we wanted to take a minute to answer the question: what exactly is “civic hacking?”

Civic hacking is a term that’s evolved a lot since it first debuted. Gone are the days when this exclusively meant building scripts in Excel, writing code, and engineering app solutions. Though those can still be an important part of a project, now civic hacking takes the spirit of hacking—the scrappy, can-do attitude and inclination towards innovative solutions—and invites anyone to engage. Project managers, community leaders, storytellers, lawyers, researchers, data scientists, and more are crucial to ensuring a solution devised through civic hacking is well-tailored to solve the problem, sustainable, and responsive to community needs.

In essence, hacking means that you don’t need to wait for more resources to make a change in your community—the skills you have on hand are already enough. 

As the definition for civic hacking has evolved, so too has our annual National Day of Civic Hacking. During the first day of action in 2013, groups took on a variety of projects in local communities. From building a prototype for a “sidewalk buttler” to reduce littering to working to make municipal law more machine readable and accessible, over 100 locations had volunteers show up ready to find community-driven solutions to pressing local problems. 

National Day of Civic Hacking is still an event to celebrate the many modes of civic engagement that exist beyond voting in elections, but now it aims to see stronger results by coordinating all local Code for America Brigades and volunteers around a central theme. By focusing on one particular problem statement, we can better understand how our collective skills can be used in service of the public good.

This year, our theme is Reimagining 911. The emergency response system is one of the most  ubiquitous government services—it facilities hundreds of millions of calls for help each year. But as we’ve seen over and over again, the 911 system sometimes creates tragedies rather than preventing them. An armed law enforcement response is not a one-size-fits-all solution to every call for help—so how can we transform this service to be more responsive to community needs?

Now is the perfect time to start figuring that out. There’s widespread momentum for reform in the criminal legal system, but very little is understood about the 911 system as a whole and its levers for change. We need a holistic view of the problem—and with the people power of our volunteer network, we can start to understand what the avenues for systemic change are. 

Code for America’s work in the criminal legal system has long operated under the pillars of challenging unjust practices and building policies and systems that treat people with dignity and respect. This year’s National Day of Civic Hacking builds on those efforts. We understand that we’re not going to fix the problem in one day, and that we’re not going to get close to a solution without strong community partnerships. That’s why we’re partnering with Transform 911, an initiative of the University of Chicago Health Lab. Together, we have a well-defined scope of work, but we’re open to new ideas and plan to employ a collaborative spirit as we go about testing them. 

On the day of the event, volunteers will help develop a national 911 Open Data Scorecard in order to get a broad picture of the availability of 911 data across the country. Data analysis and visualization, system mapping, and an investigation of problem statements will follow, and all these results will be made available to local partners looking for solutions in their communities. 

We know that solutions are strongest when they’re built on insights and ideas from communities—only then can we start to break down barriers and meet community needs in meaningful ways. Anyone with a vested interest in improving their community and changing entrenched systems is welcome to get engaged. 

Though the National Day of Civic Hacking only lasts a day, the solutions we start now can have a long-term impact. Those who join the post-event Action Team that will continue to work on this project in the coming months, and the partners we work with will get invaluable insight to inform their work moving forward.

So if you have skills in open data collection, data analysis, system mapping, design thinking, prototyping, or anything else you think might be valuable, join us! Our government is founded to be for the people, by the people—and this is the by the people part.

On Saturday, September 18, we’ll come together to participate in open data, research, and design thinking actions in order to reimagine the 911 emergency response system to be truly human-centered. Can you join us? RSVP at NationalDayOfCivicHacking.org

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