As the City of Madison prepares to revamp the way it shares data with the public, area coders have mixed feelings about whether the effort could rejuvenate the city’s dormant civic hacking community.
When Madison launched its open data portal in 2013, government officials and tech leaders hoped it would mark the start of a municipal partnership with coders who would use public data to make tools for the community. So-called “civic hackers” ended up making a number of apps using city data, including a mobile tool that texted information on bus routes to users and a website that mapped out fire and police reports.
But, as the Capital Times reported earlier this year, civic hacking has since gone quiet in Madison. Once-bustling civic hacker gatherings are now irregular, and often attract attendance in the single digits. Many coders and engineers have instead been attending monthly big data meetups.
“It’s not what people are really excited about anymore,” said Erik Paulson, a programmer who helps organize civic hacker gatherings. “There is less interest in meetups in a regular cadence.”
Hackers and city officials have pointed to various factors that possibly contributed to the sputtering out of civic hacking, many to do with the way the city shared its data on the portal. City agencies didn’t post datasets that hackers were interested in, or that were in a friendly-to-use format — when data was released at all.
Those patterns could change through the city’s recently announced partnership with What Works Cities, an initiative by Bloomberg Philanthropies to improve the ways that mid-sized cities harness and share their data.
A desire to improve civic hacking in Madison is not what officials say drove the city’s decision to join the initiative. Laura Larsen, the budget and program evaluation manager with the city, said that the mayor “really got the wheels turning” on revamping the city’s use of data after the release of the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families’ Race to Equity report in 2014. That report highlighted the significance of data analysis as a means of improving racial disparities in Dane County.
“We’re collecting massive amounts of data,” said Laura Larsen. “We wanted to leverage these tremendous resources.”
The initiative would in part focus on using data to measure and inform how government agencies function. It would also focus on open data, said Larsen, with a goal of getting city employees to use a relaunched web portal as a go-to hub for sharing “meaningful, relevant” data on a consistent basis.
Those involved said there are many upsides to the plan. Larsen said that an improved portal would improve government transparency. Kristin Taylor, a spokeswoman for the What Works Cities initiative, added that giving city employees a glimpse of the kinds of data that exists across departments could help them better do their job.
“A lot of times, cities will have different departments that have data, and they won’t even know other departments don’t have that data,” said Taylor.
Posting more interesting data, suggested Larsen, could also inspire civic hackers to take action.
“One thing I’ve heard anecdotally in terms of civic hacking is, people don’t want to be asked to do a project,” said Larsen. “They want to see what data exists, and then build something that’s valuable to them.”
Some people in the civic hacking community have cheered the What Works Cities collaboration. Scott Resnick, who as a city alder helped push for the creation of the initial data portal, was one of them.
“Overall, we should be very excited that the city is moving down this path,” he said.
Others are more skeptical. Erik Paulson, who has helped build out the SMSMyBus application, said he’d be happy if through the initiative, the city finally adopts an “eat your own dog food” policy that would have city workers use the open data portal for their own needs.
“I think they would discover that their dog food isn’t that tasty,” he said. “If they use it a little more, they could iron out some wrinkles.”
Paulson said he’s not sure if something as involved as the What Works Cities initiative is necessary. He thinks that fixing the city’s data problem shouldn’t be that hard.
“There’s part of me that’s like, well, I don’t know if you need to spend a lot of time planning,” he said. “Next time you need to need to present data, get it from the open data portal — and if you can’t get it, ask why you can’t get it. Fix it.”
Larsen said that while she sympathizes with Paulson’s perspective, there are systemic issues with the way some agencies handle data that need to be addressed. She said there’s a culture change that needs to happen.
“The city may have been doing things in a certain way for a good number of years,” she said. “We’re introducing a level of change that requires a level of change management.”
Brad Grzesiak, the CEO of BendyWorks, suggested that for civic hacking to get back into gear, there may need to be more than just readily accessible datasets. He said that it takes a lot of time and resources to work on civic hacking projects.
Paying hackers, while an unlikely solution, could be what’s necessary to incentivize more activity, he said.
“What it comes down to is, unless there’s money involved, this is going to be passion projects,” he said. “The incentives are not there to work on it.”
Grzesiak added that there are also factors out of anyone’s control at play. He noted that many leaders have dropped out of Madison’s civic hacking scene, contributing to the atrophy of the movement. The entrepreneur Greg Tracy has shifted his focus to his company Propeller Health, for example, while the engineer Steven Faulkner left town for a job in New York.
Plus, said Grzesiak, there’s no escaping the fact that Madison is a mid-sized city.
“We’re not as big of a city as Chicago or San Francisco,” he said. “You need a lot of developers, so that a few percentage of them begins to work on civic projects.”
Paulson agreed that the fate of civic hacking is mostly out of anyone’s control. He said that ultimately, it depends on whether people with the right skillsets get inspired to take action. But, perhaps ironically, the election of Donald Trump as U.S. President could spur innovation by inspiring people to help the community in any way they can.
“Some people will say, ‘I’m not gonna run for office and I don’t like to protest, but here’s something I can do,'” said Paulson.