Random Hacks of Kindness

Voter ID and Civic Innovation

Since 2008, there has been a wave of voting law changes that impose barriers to the ballot box. Georgia Rep. John Lewis, a veteran of “Bloody Sunday,” called the new laws “the most concerted effort to restrict the right to vote since before the Voting Rights Act.”

The right to vote is being chiseled away by voter ID laws that require voters to show government-issued photo ID in order to vote.

Cost of Freedom Project Logo

In December, the Department of Justice blocked South Carolina’s voter ID law on the grounds it would make it harder for minorities to vote in violation of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Mississippi and Texas voting ID laws also must be pre-cleared but Texas is not waiting. The Lone Star State filed a federal lawsuit in an effort to speed up a decision.

Strict photo ID requirements will be in place in at least five states – Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Tennessee and Wisconsin — In November. With Election Day less than nine months away, voters without an official photo ID cannot wait for the challenges to play out at the Justice Department and in the courts.

In Wisconsin, for instance, voters must navigate “The 4 Proofs.”

I am a founding member of the Election Protection Coalition. Still, looking at the infographic makes my head hurt. More worrisome, it discourages voters from completing the application process. So I presented the problem of TMI (read: disenfranchisement by design) at Random Hacks of Kindness and the Hackathon for Social Good. Citizen programmers developed solutions to quickly provide voters with information on how to get a voter ID.

During Social Week Washington, DC, I gave a demo of the Cost of Freedom web-based app developed by Kin Lane, API Evangelist for CityGrid.

Users in Wisconsin can forget about “The 4 Proofs.” Instead, in four clicks or less, they will be able to access information about the state’s voter ID requirements, how to obtain a certified copy of their birth certificate (the document that’s typically produced to establish one’s identity), and the location, hours and directions to the Office of Vital Records using public transit.

I also gave a live demo of the Cost of Freedom text-based app developed by Jack Aboutboul, Twilio’s API Evangelist. Twilio is making an in-contribution of text message services to promote voter education.

To commemorate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we plan to launch the Cost of Freedom App on April 4, 2012.

I will post regular updates about the Cost of Freedom Project and other initiatives that are using civic innovation to protect the right to vote. The conversation about voter ID also gives us an opportunity to raise awareness about disruptive technologies in the public sector beyond election administration.

For more information, please visit us at Facebook.com/CostofFreedom. You can sign up to receive notice when the Cost of Freedom App is launched. Continue reading

Open government hackathons matter

Open government hackathons matter

The civic hackathon – a gathering (either virtual or physical) of technologists for a few days or weeks to build civic-themed software – remains one of the more durable manifestations of the open government movement.

Hardly a week passes without the announcement of a new event or contest – sometimes more than one. As I’ll explain more fully in a moment, this is a good thing.

The civic hackathon is also, increasingly, one of more analyzed facets of the open government movement.

There are more and more smart, engaged people talking about ways to make civic hackathons better – to help ensure that the software these events produce is of higher quality and has a longer lasting effect. This is also a good thing.

Some of the more enlightened analyses on methods/strategies for improving civic hackathons that have crossed my radar of late (by no means a complete list) are the following:

Also worth a read is a recent post on TechPresident by Nick Judd (always a thoughtful contributor on this topic).

In reading much of what is written on the subject of civic hackathons lately, it’s easy to take away a feeling of concern – even skepticism – about their real value.

The constant lament I hear is that civic hackathons don’t work (or don’t work well enough) because many of the apps that are developed as part of these events are not sustained long-term. Some don’t survive the weekend.

I have for some time tried to dispel the notion that this is the only measure (or even one of the most important) of a civic hackathon’s success. And in this post, I will try again.

I <3 Hackathons

I’ve got a thing for civic hackathons.

I was a competitor in the very first Apps for Democracy that took place under Vivek Kundra in Washington, DC, and I was also a competitor in the first Apps for America contest put on by the Sunlight Foundation.

Since then, I’ve been a participant in lots of other civic hackathons and coding events as either a participant, organizer and sponsor (sometimes as more than one).

I’m currently organizing a Philadelphia civic hackathon and helping to organize another in Baltimore. I am a part of not one, but two entries in the FCC’s Apps for Communities competition.

Yeah, I like hackathons.

This doesn’t always make me the most objective person in discussions about whether civic hackathons “work,” but I believe my multifaceted experience with these events has given me insight into other factors that can be used to evaluate their success.

I think civic hackathons can be bigger than the apps the generate. With some forethought and planning, these events can generate benefits that resonate well beyond the end of the award ceremony.

I think it’s a mistake to judge the success of a hackathon solely on how long the apps it produces “live” afterwards.

It’s also a mistake to try and improve hackathons by focusing exclusively on strategies for sustaining apps in the long term. This misses some of the most important benefits that can be generated by these events.

Whether we’re judging past success of civic hackathons or trying to improve future performance, it’s time to get beyond the apps.

You Get What You Plan For

I’m by no means suggesting that striving for long-term adoption of apps generated at civic hackathons is a trivial or unimportant thing. Far from it.

I’m currently working with a group in Philadelphia that developed an app as part of a recent Random Hacks of Kindness event, to identify funding and supporters to help support operation of the app long-term.

My contention here is that this is but one of the benefits to come from this civic hacking event generally, and from this software application specifically.

Not only did the efforts of my team result in an app – they resulted in a previously unavailable data set being published for others to use.  The app my team worked on helps people in Philadelphia locate farmer’s markets and food retailers that accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) reimbursement through text messaging. The data behind this app is now available for anyone that wants it, either through an API that supports geo-spatial queries or as a downloadable file in a commonly used format.

The data our app needed to operate was “liberated” in the process of building the app. It is now available for anyone else to use, tweak, modify or expand.

That was our plan, and whether we are able to secure longer-term support for our app, and receive assistance in promoting it, this liberated data will live on.

I’m not the only person that has made this argument. Clay Johnson – formerly of Sunlight Labs – has emphasized repeatedly the need to build a community around app contests. This is another positive outcome that can have long term benefits that is not directly related to how many apps are actively being used six months after a civic hacking event.

I noted with some excitement the number of elected officials and political candidates that attended the recent Summer of Smart hackathons in San Francisco. This is a great way to expose public sector employees and officials to the power of civic hacking.

It’s an approach I am using in the upcoming Apps for SEPTA coding event I’m helping organize in Philadelphia, where officials from the Mayor’s office (who’ve never been to a hackathon before) will be in attendance.

I’ve argued in the past that one of the key benefits of civic hackathons is that they stretch traditional notions of public service delivery and show governments what is possible to do with their data. I can’t think of a more effective way to do this than through a civic hacking event.

There is also the very real potential for these events to generate reusable components – open source software that can be used by other developers or governments to build civic applications down the road.

Nick Judd of TechPresident said this much more eloquently than I:

“With each hackathon, some of the detritus — bits of code, training videos, documentation, the right people trading email addresses — becomes scaffolding for the attendees of later ones.”

The benefits that are achievable through civic hackathons go far beyond just the collection of apps that get developed in the course of a weekend.

But the impetus is on organizers and supporters of such events to plan for these benefits, and to nurture them after the event is concluded. You get what you plan for, and if event organizers don’t plan past the end of the weekend then the potential for a missed opportunity is real.

Civic hackathons are bigger than the apps they generate – they always have been.

Many, though, are now just realizing how far the benefits of these weekends of caffeine-fueled hacking extend.