Civic Hackers Must Work With Governments, Not Just Disrupt Them

6/28/13

I recently helped organize the National Civic Day of Hacking activities in Detroit and I was very impressed with my city’s outpouring of problems, and the hackers that came out to show support. Right now is a great time to be a technologist because our tools have advanced by leaps and bounds over the years. We have APIs, Open Data, app platforms, scalable backend services, and all the tools associated, which makes creating an app on a budget easier than ever.

This abundance of computing resources can be a force multiplier for civic hackers, when a decade ago many things wouldn’t be possible without a traditional data center and a small team of developers. However, there is still one issue that is standing in the way of progress: Building trust and understanding between the civil servant community, and the startup community.

The startup community thrives on failing fast, breaking things, and learning from mistakes. Startups celebrate failure to a degree that is unheard of in most civic circles. Startups also have a very casual attitude in terms of business and work culture. Hoodies, shorts, and flip-flops end up being the status quo for many. It’s this culture that allows us to thrive, and create value for consumers and other businesses alike.

Unfortunately, the road tends to get bumpy for tech geeks after venturing into the civic space. The “fail fast” mantra just doesn’t work in the civic space. Their customers are hardworking individuals in a community that need resources to gauge the reliability of public transit, document issues with street lights or manhole covers, and even things as simple as paying parking tickets online. We have the tools and the know-how to create this value, but we also need to convey that we mean business to the stakeholders in government.

We do have organizations like Code for America that are doing a great job of working hand-in-hand with civic leaders to enable high impact problems to be solved with software. Going forward, hackers need to take a more active stake in trying to solve civic problems. We need to do things that let people on the municipal side see that we care, and that we want to be a part of the change in our community. Building mutual trust and respect between the differing communities of civic service and startups will be key to starting more projects around the community.

Startups should not only focus on solving the civic problems put forward by members of the community, but they should also draw attention to government itself. If we focus on showing the merits of our values to the government institutions, instead of trying to simply disrupt them, we can go so much farther.

With the cooperation of community leaders, we can get access to data, infrastructure, and the ability to get the word out to the masses quickly. With these resources we can build tools that have a high impact on the people who need it most in our communities. However, at the end of the day, we shouldn’t just use a relationship built with our local governments to get access to tools and data. We should also use our relationship to teach the techniques used to build great products users appreciate.

Unfortunately, government software is notoriously viewed as subpar. Hard to use products with a poor emphasis on user experience lead to dissatisfied customers who, in this case, are citizens in a particular constituency. Once we’ve built a solid relationship with government, we should show them how to use data to their benefit—constantly working and updating their offerings to the masses by using the way people navigate their web sites or apps and creating the best product and user experience they can.

There are tools out there that help automate interactions with customers, such as phone automation, SMS, and email. Instead of having human-to-human interaction, they could harness services currently on the market to automate basic interactions with citizens. We should show them what it means to run lean and lead with a great offering of products. Most of all we should help them with ways to quantify how these products are helping everyone in the community.

Customer service and rating systems can be a key part in the ways governments evaluate all the touch points they have with their constituency. Being able to rate interactions with government departments will be incredibly important in putting an emphasis on service, and create a streamlined and enjoyable experience for citizens. I firmly believe all of these values can be shown, and proven to work in a civic setting. Once a meaningful relationship between the startup community and the civic community is built we can slowly be agents of change in the government machine.

Matt Dobson is a Software Engineer on the Apigee Labs team based in Detroit. He's constantly building apps using new APIs and data sets, and teaching others to do the same. Follow @

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