Breaking the wall in Chicago

Photo: Josh*m
Photo: Josh*m

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the wall.

Over the past few years, the civic innovation movement has grown tremendously. It’s exploded really. Ten years ago, who would have imagined that Chicago would be a national leader in open government data? Five years ago, who would have thought that the idea of citizens using open source software to help solve civic problems would catch fire on a global scale? Two years ago, could we really have guessed that not only would we be hacking at open government data on a weekly basis – but those meetings would be national model?

There has been a lot of work done these past few years. However, we’ve now hit the wall.

What’s the wall? The wall is the set of challenges that prevent the civic technology movement from progressing further. These challenges include: expanding the community, civic and digital literacy, procurement reform, and creating startup opportunities through civic app development (sustainability).

cruising the sea wall
Chicago Sea Wall, by Jesus Arellanes

Challenge One: Expanding the community

Civic hacking has moved beyond a niche thing and has hit the mainstream. When the White House starts hosting civic hackathons, that’s a sure sign that we’ve hit the big time. However, even with civic hacking’s new found popularity (national holiday included) we still are missing people at the table. Our tent, while open to all, has not reached the size and diversity that it necessary to move forward. With events like Girls Do Hack and Englewood Codes, Chicago is taking the right steps, but we’re not there yet.

Civic innovation at its best occurs when technologists collaborate with front line problem solvers at government agencies, non-profit organizations, or volunteer activists. While Chicago’s community has made great strides in this area – I don’t believe this particular point has hit the mainstream. We’re still in the ‘Look! Wizardry!” stage – which brings us to challenge two.

Challenge Two: mixing digital and civic literacy

It was recently asked of the Chicago tech community, “Why can’t we make an app that can reduce violent crime?” Of all the issues that affect our city, violent crime that robs the city of its youth is certainly one of the more important topics that we can be working on.

However, technology in-it-of-itself isn’t a panacea. No computer program, no matter how sophisticated, can replace the expertise of somebody who has been working in the trenches for years wrestling with our most thorny civic issues. No app will ever replace the volunteer at a women’s shelter or the patience of a neighborhood school teacher. There is a subject matter expertise in civic organizations that can’t be picked up overnight any more than somebody can learn to code in a few weeks.

While we talk a lot about digital literacy,  we have to acknowledge that there’s a civic literacy side to civic innovation, too. The best civic apps are built because the developers acknowledge this and build the app around the needs and challenges of the front line activists. The more this movement does to engage and co-opt front line leaders from civic organizations, the more impact our projects will have.

On the flip side, there appears to be a lack of digital literacy on the side of some policy makers. The continued use of PDF files as ‘open data’, the misunderstandings of how the internet works, and the debate about the Stop Online Piracy Act show that at times the people responsible for technology policy are not necessarily technology experts. Contrast this with the City of Chicago’s technology plan which was written by a team that had a deep understanding of both technology and civic issues. Whenever possible, the movement has to ensure that both digital and civic literacy issues are addressed.

Challenge Three: Procurement

We’ve become very adept at hosting hackathons and building civic apps. (And there’s still  useful – particularly in newer communities) However, hackathons – no matter how great the ideas that are borne out of these events – will not push us forward if our governments are unable to actually purchase and use them.

There is a huge gap between technology in the private and public sectors. The recent botched rollout of healthcare.gov demonstrates just what bad procurement policy gets us. A procurement policy designed to ensure the government does not get sued or robbed instead of purchasing the best software possible has done exactly what it was designed to do: Make it difficult to sue the government.

This is not to imply that the entire procurement process should go out the window. People have gone to jail for stealing and cheating the city. It will be immensely challenging to balance the need to protect the interests of the city and be good stewards of taxpayer money while getting the best software that serves the needs of residents.

The biggest advantage of tackling procurement will be that it will open door to making civic innovation truly sustainable.

Challenge Four: Spurring (and growing) civic startups

Chicago has the data, the talent, and the infrastructure to be at the center of the civic technology market. However, as of now there are only a handful of companies active in this space.

For the civic innovation movement to be sustainable, people have to be able to work full-time and earn a living creating civic apps. The only way this will be through spurring and growing civic technology companies. Civic startups, like those in Code for America’s accelerator program, are starting to grow and find customers around the country. With as much talent and data that exists in the city, there is an enormous opportunity for Chicago civic startups.

The other challenge that comes with creating a civic startup is building products that are designed well, function easily, robust, and meet the needs of customers. That requires more than simply forking an existing open source project, but rather a full-time campaign to work through those issues. It’s hard work that will require the full support of the entrepreneurial community.

While Chicago enjoys a great civic innovation ecosystem, it will take leadership from the entrepreneurship community, the civic hacking community as well as the City of Chicago to create an ecosystem that spurs civic startups. (In addition to real procurement reform at the federal, state and local levels.)

Breaking the wall

The good news is that we have the momentum and none of the challenges presented here are insurmountable. The civic innovation movement is on track to reshape the relationship between government and is citizens. However, we can’t rest on our laurels. It’s time to roll up our sleeves are start breaking the wall.

About Christopher Whitaker

Christopher Whitaker is a project management consultant at the Smart Chicago Collaborative, utilizing his experience in government and community organizing to advance civic innovation in Chicago. Whitaker also serves as the Chicago Brigade Captain for Code for America, supporting civic hacking events and teaching a weekly Civic Hacking 101 class. He is a graduate of DePaul University (MPA) and Sam Houston State University (BA, Political Science). Previously, Whitaker served with the US Army in Iraq as a mechanized infantryman.

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