Civic hackers are changing government, applying do-it-yourself, do-it-together and open source to create what government hierarchies won’t. Some civic hackers are public administrators; many are software developers, journalists, community organizers, lawyers, etc. This column will report on civic hacking in the national capital area, to show how we can each be more than our place in an organization chart.
This edition looks at DC Hack and Tell, a monthly “show and tell for hackers”. At each meeting, seven to ten people present their projects. The rules are “no startup pitches, no dull work projects, no deckware”. The “no deckware” part is key. It means don’t present a deck of slides that just proposes doing something; present something you have created, even if it is incomplete or semi-functional. Many of the projects are software or digital hardware, others are unrelated to computers. There’s a lot to interest a public administrator, even if your technical skills are minimal or way out of date (like mine).
Some of the hacks are innovative ways to deliver a public service. For example, Steve Trickey’s presentation on Hacking Kids’ Brains showed an approach used by a nonprofit he works with; teaching a programming language designed for children’s characteristics (poor typing, attraction to games and stories, etc.). They encourage the students to remix existing code rather than starting from scratch, which is in line with modern software development practices. https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1Ca0TZji4Z7m-FioD-T-bNPYUMfCpHte2GCEVPp5T17Q/edit#slide=id.geda2b2d86_0_11
Other hacks show analytic techniques most of us aren’t familiar with. For example, Ben Klemens presented his income tax preparation program. https://github.com/b-k/py1040 At first glance it’s just a free, less comprehensive substitute for TurboTax. But what is fascinating for a public administrator is how Klemens created it; translating the complex set of administrative and legal requirements represented in IRS forms into a dependency tree and a “directed acyclic graph”. Translating the requirements to this form not only enables computing the tax amount for an individual, but also facilitates more complex analyses such as how a particular change in requirements would affect the aggregate tax on a diverse group of taxpayers. This is a potentially powerful approach to analyzing administrative systems that most public administrators have never thought about.
Public administrators should consider not only attending Hack and Tell, but also presenting. I found a welcoming audience and useful feedback there for my totally non-technical presentation on guerrilla government strategies. https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B0fUKRnu1oAhRERxNmIyWkVHZnM/view
DC Hack and Tell meets one evening a month, usually at the WeWork co-working space in Chinatown. It’s free and there are sometimes refreshments. Information and sign-up are at http://www.meetup.com/DC-Hack-and-Tell/