Why we hack

I’ll be among the first to say that not everything is hearts and flags in the world of civic tech. A decade of inflated expectations has left many of us — including especially the major foundation funders — confused, burned out, and ready to move on.

Daniel X. O’Neil, who has been at the center of the civic tech movement in Chicago, wrote earlier this week:

[T]he civic tech movement should be shelved. It has run its course. The models of hack nights and civic apps and techno-determinist solutions have proven ineffective.

And yet I keep running and attending hackathons. I routinely say that Code for DC is a magical place.

Why? Because things happen. Not the big things like ending poverty or discrimination. We were never going to fix that. Maybe we opened some data —but that’s not what I mean. Other things happen….

[Edit: Dan says he wasn’t talking about hackathons.]

I was at today’s Code for DC’s National Day of Civic Hacking event. I worked with nine amazing hackers on two projects of real significance and depth.

The rent stabilization team: (l. to r.) Nicole Kelly, Marie Whittaker, Nate Banion, Svyat Nakonechny, and our community partner Scott Bruton. Heidi Thompson and Harlan Harris were also on the team.

The first team, pictured above, worked on rent stabilization policy in the District. With a community partner from a local nonprofit, we pulled down (fauxpen) data from DC’s data catalog to provide the facts that advocates need to propose policy changes (see Harlan’s post).

In the second project, three hackers who to my knowledge had no prior experience in hacking the law wrote a Python script to help the DC Council in its efforts to create open law. (The project was suggested by the Council’s Free Law Innovation Fellow, David Greisen.)

The DC Code team, presenting their work at the end of the event. (l. to r.) Ayo (apologies for not getting the last name), Shawn (ditto), and Mark Delcambre.

Let me be real:

Neither team solved a problem during the seven-hour event.

Although some data existed that we needed for the rent stabilization project, it was complicated and incomplete. We plan to pick up on the work at the next Code for DC meeting.

And the open law team ran out of time before they could open a pull request on the DC Council’s github project.

But I don’t care about that.

This is why we hack:

In those seven hours, we became better people:

  • We became better teachers, helping each other learn about issues that matter in the District (and about tech skills too, of course).
  • We became better learners as we dug into problems few of us were accustomed to working in.
  • We learned about our own value in the world, how we each uniquely contribute to the world, which we can bring to future work. (This is something like the opposite of ‘impostor syndrome’.)
  • We strengthened our empathy muscles, by thinking about issues that don’t necessarily affect us but are serious for many people.
  • We became better civic participants (citizens, broadly) by learning about how real things work. Both teams read the law, in unusual detail, to understand how it worked. The rent stabilization team now knows a lot about how rent stabilization actually works. That’s an important skill for future advocacy and governance work any of us might do.
  • We became more effective civic hackers, with concerned citizens, government employees, and nonprofit advocates learning how to work together in the same small room on a common goal.

And the organizers of the event — Code for DC’s newly expanded leadership team — learned how to put on an inclusive and effective event. (It’s hard, and it’s something you have to learn. That’s not a skill to take lightly.)

I think those reasons are enough to call today’s event, and any event like it, a success. I don’t have technosolutionist fantasy goals — Dan is right about those. We don’t have to meet those impossible expectations either.


Epilogue: As with any time-consuming activity like civic hacking, one might consider the opportunity cost. Is my time better spent at a hackathon, performing a more traditional sort of community service, or joining a social justice movement? Or should I work more, so that I can make a donation to people with the greatest ability to effect social change? These are very personal questions. The availability of other civic activities besides civic tech hacking doesn’t diminish the value of civic hacking. The important thing is just that we’re honest about our goals and that our goals are just.


Disclaimer/note: The DC Council previously paid me to work on the open law project, so I have an emotional stake in its success.

Acknowledgement: Justin Grimes and Matt Bailey, the founding captains of Code for DC, constructed the environment in which much of this magic happens. Having talked to them many times over the years about it, I am in part channeling what I think they think is important about these events.