by Carla Ilten
On a recent Saturday, COD colleague Tünde Cserpes made me meet her at 8am at kCura’s airy office spaces on Clark and Jackson for the second “National Day of Civic Hacking in the Chicago Loop.” It turned out so interesting that I wouldn’t even have needed all that coffee. The National Day of Civic Hacking (hackforchange.com) is a platform that brings together “developers, government employees, data scientists, non-profit leaders, designers, community activists and do-gooders together leverage the power of technology to help solve civic problems.”
On hackforchange.com, challenges, projects, and data sources come together in an online petri dish. The offline event – the “hackathon” – does the same thing with present people representing and arguing the case for challenges, presenting data, and offering software development ideas. What is particularly fascinating – especially for those of us studying organizational dynamics and technology – is how people who run nonprofits such as the Chicago Red Cross (Jim McGowan) or the Lakeview Pantry (Erin Stephens) talk about their everyday operational problems and technology use.
Again, the online-offline nexus proves to be crucial: the core tasks of disaster response and food distribution happen fundamentally offline. Volunteers are physically present, and material objects (comfort kits, banana boxes) must be moved in time and space. It is the coordination of these bodies and objects that is enhanced by information technologies. Where is the fire burning, and which volunteers are closest to it? Which supermarket is trying to get rid of spare food, and who can transport it to the pantry? This is where data comes in. As the host and kCura founder observed, most of the projects presented seem to aggregate “big data,” to make it “digestible.”
The current scholarly discourse around the epistemology of “big data” is perfectly reflected in the narratives of those for whom it can become vitally useful – but only if we have questions for it and the interpretive tools to digest it. Jeanne Olsen, who founded Schoolcuts.org, showed how data can be aggregated and interpreted in various ways, a process that is inherently political when the stakes are high.
The speakers made it clear that it matters where data comes from, and how it arrives on platforms. Many nonprofits struggle enough with daily operations to launch their own technologies. The ability to integrate all kinds of open data with Google maps has been the straightforward way for McGowan to coordinate disaster response so far. Google, of course, is not a civic association. Similarly Erin Stephens has started using Salesforce to coordinate volunteers for the Lakeview Pantry – not a tool tailored to nonprofits’ needs either. Yet, the fact that large IT corporations provide software to nonprofits for free makes the difference, seen that nonprofits often struggle for survival.
Finally, the challenge in providing civic tech to civic organizations seems captured in this dialogue between Erin Stephens and a technologist: “So, what do you need?” – “You know, … we don’t always know!” Translating civic problems into civic tech takes many more steps between offline and online than we’d like – but here’s why civic hackers can do more for civic tech than the corporate giants: they ask you what you need in the first place.