Open data: how civic hacking can create smarter cities

By Seth Rosenberg

Seth is a current dual MBA/MPA in Sustainable Management student at Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco. He also works as Sourcing Manager for Tomato Sherpa, a new ready-to-cook recipe kit company in the Bay Area.

Governments and hackers, more affectionately referred to as technologists, are increasingly collaborating to find creative and innovative ways to use open data to solve important civic problems. With the help of independent programmers and developers, and by transforming public data into web applications and civic apps, both cities and nations are now recognizing that they can increase citizens’ access to useful information, streamline government services, and even save money.

World and Nation

February 23rd was International Open Data Day, and non-profit Code for America helped organize Code Across America: “a gathering of citizens in cities around the world to write applications, liberate data, create visualizations and publish analyses using open public data to show support for and encourage the adoption open data policies by the world’s local, regional and national governments.” On this day, more than 22 Code Across America events and 70 international Open Data Hackathon events took place (view an interactive map of events here).

Washington, DC was an active participant, as the White house held its first Open Data Day Hackathon, inviting twenty one programmers and tech experts to work alongside seven of their development team. A major area of focus was We the People, the White House petitions system. After nine hours of hard work, numerous exciting projects had been created, including:

  • Where the People: a time-lapse visualization of zip codes where petitions are being signed, weighted for signatures by percentage of population.
  • Widget the People, a tool that lets you create an embeddable thermometer showing how many signatures your petition needs before it reaches the response threshold.
  • An embeddable map that shows where the signatures came from, down to the zip code level.
  • R We the People: a package for the R statistics environment that allows users to generate word clouds and visualize the issues that petitions are created about over time.

Even more recently in Washington, between March 15th and 17th, DataKind (formerly known as Data Without Borders) and the World Bank collaborated to put on the DC Big Data Exploration. More than 150 topic experts, data scientists, civic hackers and development practitioners gathered to analyze data and work on projects at the intersection of data and development which included:

  • Estimates of inflation using data sources on food prices and consumption
  • Analysis, collection and response rate of poverty data from mobile devices
  • A reverse Google tool for anti-corruption

This coming June, the White House will put on a National Day of Civic Hacking. At least 30 cities have signed on to participate in the event.


Cities have indeed been at the forefront of the burgeoning civic hacking movement, likely because of the more practical uses for open data at the municipal and local levels. Earlier this month in Austin, Texas, the SXSW Interactive Festival opened with a panel on civic hacking that highlighted several successful “hacks”:

  • A group of Austin hackers built a mobile app to help voters find polling locations
  • Civic hackers in Chicago built an app to track where someone could get a flu shot
  • Code for America helped make data about blighted homes in New Orleans available to citizens and workers

As part of Code Across America, Sacramento, California hosted its first civic hackathon on February 22nd, which was also the debut of Code for Sacramento. A few of the project highlights (video here) included:

  • A global warming “clock,” a smartphone app that would show how temperatures are changing over time in a given location
  • A program to identify trends and potential biases in the decisions of judges
  • SacWiki, a local version of Wikipedia

The city of Asheville, North Carolina has released open data sets on its online portal. Asheville held its own first hackathon-style event last October, drawing nearly 150 people. Ideas that circulated the event included:

The Future

Civic hacking represents a re-imagining of cities and government for the 21st century. Organizations like Code for America as well as websites like GitHub, which allows millions of users to share open source code, are creating platforms for further innovation. Developers, designers, and entrepreneurs are working together on projects that offer new perspectives and tools for addressing a wide range of civic challenges. As a result, civic infrastructure and citizen engagement can be strengthened, and governments can become more connected, lean, and participatory.


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