The Civic Hacker Hacked

Civic hacking did not always have a cozy relationship with government—a little subversion is still necessary, argues Mark Headd.


“The countercultural trickster has been pressed into the service of the preppy tech entrepreneur class. It began innocently, no doubt. The association of the hacker ethic with startups might have started with an authentic counter-cultural impulse on the part of outsider nerds tinkering away on websites. But, like all gentrification, the influx into the scene of successive waves of ever less disaffected individuals results in a growing emphasis on the unthreatening elements of hacking over the subversive ones.”

— The Hacker Hacked, by Brett Scott

Ever since I read Brett Scott’s engrossing piece on what he refers to as the “gentrification of hacker culture” I’ve been thinking about how this idea might apply to the world of civic hacking. The lament about the loss of the subversive nature of hacking resonates—Scott repeatedly uses this word in describing the origins of hacking and its focus on being antiestablishment and decentralized.

Civic hacking became popular in the last several years via municipal app contests like Apps for Democracy and NYC Big Apps, and then by community-focused events organized by local groups. Often these local events have benefited—and continue to benefit—from the direct participation of local governments and other government entities.

Back in 2011, one of the first civic hacking events I helped organize in Philadelphia was focused on transit data, and the event ultimately included the participation of the local transit authority. I even talked about the benefit of having representatives from the transit authority on hand at the event in subsequent interviews.

Participation in civic hacking events by government employees is something I helped to advocate for after I joined the City of Philadelphia as Chief Data Officer. I regularly attended civic hacking meetups and weekend hackathons, and encouraged others in city government to do so as well. I’d say it’s pretty common now in most cities with a developed civic hacking community to have regular, visible representation from government at civic hacking events.

But civic hacking did not always have such a cozy relationship with government.

Many early civic hacking projects grew out of frustration with the quality of public services and the lack of available data from governments. One of the earliest civic hacking projects in the Philadelphia area—which helped to inspire the transit hackathon I would later organize—was born out of frustration over the lack of easy-to-access transit schedule data from the regional transportation authority.

These early civic hacking projects often used FOIA requests or web scrapers to obtain data that governments were reluctant to open up, and some even drew the ire of the government lawyers.

The “subversive” nature of civic hacking continues to this day through the work of people like Carl Malamud and others. It would be unwise to forget the many institutional barriers that still exist to releasing open data from government, and collaborating effectively with outside parties.

A little subversion is still necessary.

There is much to be gained by building bridges between the world of civic hacking and government. There is a long history of volunteerism to help government in this country, of which civic hacking can be viewed as a contemporary extension. Engaged civic hackers can help build solutions that help governments deliver services more effectively, and increasingly the civic hacking community has been looked at as fertile ground for recruiting new government employees.

But is there a risk that the civic hacking community will become gentrified? Has it already become so?

Do civic hacking groups that work regularly and closely with government officials feel empowered to ask tough, direct (often uncomfortable) questions about data releases and procurement practices? Do groups that collaborate regularly with government feel that they have standing to hold public officials’ feet to the fire when needed?

How do we balance the relationship between civic hackers and governments in a way that can realize the potential benefits of “government as a platform” and that is also true to the subversive roots of civic hacking?

I don’t have the answers, but I hope others are open to having this discussion.

This post originally appeared on Mark Headd’s blog Civic Innovations.