Civic Hacking as Data Activism and Advocacy

A summary of: Civic hacking as data activism and advocacy: A history from publicity to open government data” by Andrew Schrock

Key words: computational politics, algorithmic citizenship, vectoralists, hackathons, data paradigms

Definition of hackathons: an event in which a group of people meet to participate in collaborative computer programming.

In 1914 Justice Louis Brandeis wrote that in terms of business, “sunlight is the best disinfectant”, and in 1918 Woodrow Wilson proclaimed that “diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view”. These statements indicated a step towards a future in which the average citizen will be kept in the loop in regards to both business and political decisions with the ability to access information as her or she pleases. Between Wilson’s and Brandeis’ statements in the early 1900’s and now there has been many more phases in the transparency and open data movement. From laws implemented by the government such as the Freedom of Information Act, to actions by individual citizens who have adopted Brandeis’ aphorism of sunlight being the best disinfectant.

The rise of the internet has naturally strengthened the transparency movement as it has enabled the rise of civic hackers aiming to hold the government accountable by bringing the truth to the people. Civic hacking is, arguably, a significant means of political participation as it is a form of data activism and advocacy. A belief in which I agree, but is frequently contested by those who view civic hacking as trivial in comparison to oppositional activists and hacktivists.

The general perception of civic hackers is one of positivity, seen as permitting the enhancement of civic life and enabling democratic engagement through the use of information technology tools. Although less provocative when compared to hacktivists, I agree that civic hackers play a part in enriching civic life as it provides the regular citizen (those who aren’t skilled in IT or have connections with the government) with a way of obtaining information about the government that they otherwise may not have been able to get a hold of due to the barriers that separate the citizen and the establishment. For example, the Sunlight Foundation, founded in 2006 by Mike Klein, aims to improve access to information about elected officials through information technology. This ultimately enriches civic life as the transparency ensures that the elected officials are kept in line. Another example of civic hackers enriching civic life is the app ‘Five-O’. This app was created in response to the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson and allows its users to rate local police officers. Although these services may not necessarily be ground breaking, they give communities a better understanding of those who are in positions of trust and essentially aims to “disinfect” officials by giving the public access to their information and spreading awareness.

Civic hackers have also been vital to the open government data movement in which the government automatically releases data to the public instead of waiting for the information to be requested by the public via the Freedom of Information Act. Open data has been endorsed across the US government at federal, state and local levels and has been described as a collaboration than provides more than transparency. However, although open data has been recognised by the US government, data is not always as open as it should be as in the case of the Obama administration which was particularly private. Nevertheless, there is still hope as the notion of open data has suggested a future with less bureaucratic problems and more openness.

Requesting, digesting, contributing to, modelling and contesting data are five ways in which civic hackers partake in data activism and advocacy. Through these, civic hackers aim to bring about systematic change and improve the relationship between the government and its people. Requesting and digesting (interpreting) tend to be ‘aligned with anticipated uses of data by government’. As not all data is accessible to the public, civic hackers often find it is still necessary to request information and data from the government in order expose it and make it public. Contributing, modelling and contesting is connected to how open data and software production is used to modify the process of governance. For example, through the creation of apps such as SeeClickFix, civic hackers provide an easy and direct way for the public to communicate with the government enabling more effective political participation.

Overall civic hackers have contributed greatly to society as through the use of information technology they have allowed greater transparency which has increased accountability. They act on the behalf of regular citizens without the skills to obtain this information for themselves and therefore essential to modern society.

Question: Is there ever a time when sunlight isn’t the best disinfectant in terms of political transparency?

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