Civic hackers wear the white hats in a growing profession

On a recent Tuesday night, Christopher Whitaker was helping a roomful of  would-be hackers navigate through the City of Chicago website.

He took them step-by-step through a new app that asks juveniles with criminal records simple questions to help them determine if they qualify to have their records expunged.

“This is civic hacking in a nutshell,” he said at a Civic Hacking 101 session at Open Gov Hack Night, sponsored by Chicago-based Open City, a group he co-founded.

More than 50 people attended Open Gov Hack Night on June 3, located in downtown Chicago at 1871.
More than 50 people attended Open Gov Hack Night on June 3, located in downtown Chicago at 1871.

Open Gov Hack Night began with a small group of about 10 regular volunteers in 2009. Today it’s a weekly meeting with more than 50 attendees, many of whom stand outside the door after the room is filled.

Civic hackers aren’t up to anything harmful, such as stealing personal information. Their goal is to take open government data that’s difficult to navigate and develop apps to make it accessible to citizens. Often, these “white hat” hackers take the extra step to help the public understand what they find in the data, what it means and how it affects them.

“Not necessarily breaking into something but working with a piece of code to make it work,” Whitaker said. “All the data is already open and people are saying,‘take it.’ The city wants you to use the data.”

Civic hackers often begin as volunteers but, according to Whitaker — who launched his own civic technology firm, CivicWhitaker, 18 months ago — many eventually find ways to make civic hacking their full-time job.

“As with any startup, it comes with its challenges, but whenever you get to do something that you’re passionate about, I think it’s more important than the actual income,” he said. “I can do what I love and put food on the table, I think that’s really quite extraordinary.”

He has consulted for Smart Chicago Collaborative along with the University of Illinois Labs, helping them to develop apps for people to better access their information.

Derek Eder, another co-founder of Open City, launched DataMade in June 2012, also to create custom apps. He currently has four team members.

San Francisco-based Code for America, a nonprofit organization with major backing from the Knight Foundation and Google among others, backs civic hacking startups. It provided about $600,000 to eight civic startups in 2013.

Created in 2009, the nonprofit hopes to close the widening gap between public and private sectors in technology design by deploying coders and technologists who use that knowledge for the public good and not just for corporate pockets, according to its website.

Out of a budget of $8.2 million in 2013, Code for America spent $3.7 million on fellowships that pair developers with local governments for one year.

Growth of "white hat" hackers

“Lots of people forget that we are the government,” wrote Jeff Maher, a 2014 fellow who is spending the year in San Francisco, on the organization’s website. “If we choose not to participate in it, it will never get better…The web, databases and computers can’t solve every societal problem, but I’m betting they can be a piece of the solution.”

Experts agree that more developers and designers are needed in the civic and academic sectors.

“The deep pockets and aggressive hiring of [artificial intelligence] Ph.D.s into industry by companies like Google, Microsoft, Facebook and others has resulted in less competition for grant dollars among academic researchers in AI,” said Doug Downey, assistant professor of computer science at Northwestern University, in an email.

Joe Germuska, co-founder of OpenGovChicago, defines hacking as providing “clever solutions to problems.” But he cautions against taking government data at face value and said people should continue to question the numbers that come out of open data.

Germuska said one of the biggest challenges for civic hackers is remaining critical of the government data they’re using and taking the government’s numbers as fact.

“Just because the data is made available doesn’t mean the government is open,” he said. “Open data is not open government.”

“There’s definitely been sort of a realization that the status quo isn’t good enough anymore, and that more and more people are looking to the civic innovation community to sort of help improve services,” Whitaker said.

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