By Elyse Levine Less

When I first heard the term “civic hacking” yesterday in class, it sounded like something that Jack Bauer on “24” would illegally use, but justify for the good of the country. I was surpised to learn that civic hacking was a good thing, and that it even had White House support. I decided to explore the internet a bit more about this concept. Along with the term “civic hacking” I added two additional new terms to my vocabulary -“Hacktavist” and “Hackathon.” I found two interesting articles set forth below that explore the value of personal data, justification for easy access to open data, and government support of civic hacking.

What’s the Value of Personal Data? Intel Free Press

May 30, 2013

Hacktivists advocate power of public and personal data at nationwide civic hacking event.

Amid growing concerns about how corporations and government use people’s data, nearly 10,000 “hackivists” are gathering this weekend in an attempt to put the power of data in the hands of individuals. If these self-proclaimed civic hackers succeed, people will begin to see their personal data as invaluable to decision making and daily life, not just as a way for advertisers to target them.

National Day of Civic Hacking Logo - event promotes value of public and personal data

The National Day of Civic Hacking event is backed by the White House and organized by Hack for Change with local coordination at 95 different spots in cities across the country. The high-minded goal is to democratize access to data and build understanding of how public and personal data can be combined to solve everyday problems such as finding childcare or eldercare, education, transportation services and disaster recovery.

“Five or 500 apps might come out from this national event, and any one of them could be worth taking to the next level as a product or service,” said Jonathan Reichental, CIO of the city of Palo Alto, Calif. “But the broader impact is the conversation individuals will be having when they see the power of combining the data they have and public data already available to a create a greater social good.”

For the National Day of Civic Hacking, Reichental is working with Facebook, Google, HP and other Silicon Valley companies to put on a street fair. “My goals are to create a family event that aligns city residents with the civic hacking movement and to connect civic problems with civic solvers,” he said.

At the event, which Reichental describes as hackerspace meets Maker Faire with help from TechShop, hackers will work on sustainability, response and recovery from terrorist attacks or natural disasters, and connecting residents with city services.

Hailey Pate, an EMS data program analyst at California Emergency Medical Services Authority, is helping organize a local event in Sacramento. She said the event will be distinct to California’s state capital with its friendly, unassuming vibe but serious “wow factor” skills from local hackers.

We’ve got some really interesting data sets available in our new open data portal on topics like education and environmental health indicators,” said Pate.

Hackers Huddle on Project

From Big Data to Little Data

The big challenge that organizers of the National Day of Civic Hacking confront is how to use existing data and community resources to empower people locally to address their needs, according to Brandon Barnett of Intel Labs. Intel is a lead sponsor of the event. Rather than just consume information, he wants to see more people use their data to produce real value in their lives and the lives of others.

“Rather than focus on big data sets, we’re interested in putting the focus on individuals and communities engaging and using their data,” he said. “Local events should be asking, ‘How can people use their own data in combination with publically available data?’ and ‘What do we need to address that’s unique to our city or community?’ That’s what these events are about.”

People leave a trail of personal data in their wake every day. Location information from smartphones, Facebook likes and shares, Google searches and purchasing behavior from loyalty cards could become useful to people with the right tools and know-how.

Much of this personal data has remained unseen and inaccessible to individuals, but that is changing. According to Mark Little, principal analyst at Ovum, a U.K.-based tech and business analysis firm, more people will get to see and use personal data, or what he calls “little data,” as more companies like Tesco, the British grocery store chain, share collected data with customers. Commenting an Ovum report issued earlier this year, Little said, “Prepare for changes where consumers start to want more of a relationship with their own data and the people who are collecting it.”

Barnett thinks that when people can get a hold of it, many will see their personal data as an asset. “We’re at one of these junctures where companies can continue to make money using people’s data when that helps them to better serve people,” he said.

People are already benefiting from creating personal data through the so-called quantified-self movement, where people record exercise routines, diet, moods, sleep patterns to help improve their own health. In many cases, people are actually sharing their collection of personal data to help others who share similar goals or challenges, according to Barnett.

National Day of Civic Hacking organizers hope that it will be an early step toward changing the relationship most people have with data.

“The scale and scope of this national event allows us to assess what can be done to move things forward and how to catalyze or start movements around people who are improving their lives by using their data,” said Barnett. “This movement will shape the next wave of policy.”

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Civic Hacking: Good News for Government and Communities

On May 21, 2013   /   Technology & ITUnlocked
 reichental-finalHacking 101

When US Navy warplanes returned to base after bombing missions during World War 2, engineers would use hacksaws to cut pieces off broken aircraft and apply them to good planes to get them to fly again. Thus, it is purported, the word “hacking” was born.

Unfortunately, for many, hacking conjures up images of something sinister. And if it’s criminal hacking—using software skills to steal credit card numbers from banking systems for example—then it is a bad thing. However, the contemporary use of hacking is largely positive. Today, millions of people apply their creativity through hacking to make software and hardware do amazing things for all of us. Hobbyists that hack everyday objects have created a new global movement of “makers.” Engineers hacking at software through twisting and flipping code are churning out innovation from companies new and old, and they are launching hundreds of start-ups each month that will drive America’s future economy.

If we are going to sustain America’s economic prosperity, we’re going to need a lot of hackers. Specifically, we’re going to need to inspire new generations of Americans to focus on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM); competencies largely prerequisites to successful hacking. We’ll also need a healthy dose of creativity that will come from being exposed to various forms of art. So while our future is rooted in STEM, the A from art really makes it STEAM.

While the private sector has thrived for several decades through multiple generations of hackers, the public sector—not an historic context for innovation— is being exposed to the benefits of hacking  for the first time through partnerships with private sector hackers and through making government data accessible by computer programs. An emergent and highly promising hacker movement for government is now well underway. Equipped with empowering skills, software engineers, data analysts, entrepreneurs, artists, and others are applying their profession and passion to helping to solve seemingly intractable civic problems. Bringing together these disparate worlds is, in fact, quite magical and transformational. Public agencies across our nation desperately need help, and a new movement of civic hacking is a bright spot outlier. Through a mix of non-for-profit organizations, motivated individuals, and enlightened public leaders, new solutions are emerging that solve problems ranging from parking to budgeting, from transparency to disaster responsiveness, and from potholes to accountability. It’s early, but the promise is inspiring.

The National Day of Civic Hacking
If we want to change the game entirely for government and our communities, we’re going to have to scale up this new movement of civic hacking. We need to formally launch it and inspire millions to be part of this public-private partnership of action. And that’s exactly what we intend to do on June 1, 2013.

Encouraged by the results of civic hacking events (often called hackathons) across the country over the past several years, including a notable and large event in downtown Palo Alto, California last year, the White House announced a National Day of Civic Hacking for the weekend of June 1 (Learn more here: Loosely guided by a small national team, cities across the country have been asked to consider holding an event that is commensurate with their experience and comfort level. These events can be run out of City Hall or led by individuals or groups within the community. The national guidance was clear: each event would be independent and managed locally.

CityCamp Palo Alto – June 1, 2013
For us in Silicon Valley, and particularly Palo Alto—where plans were already underway for a large hackathon event—we jumped at the opportunity to align our efforts with this historic, national event. A culture where hacking is embedded in its DNA would have to be an epicenter of this movement. As Chief Information Officer (CIO) for the City of Palo Alto, I felt an obligation—supported by our forward thinking City Council, Mayor, and City Manager–to step up and deliver a great event and a potential model for other cities. Our vision was to host an all-inclusive community event. We wanted everyone across our city to participate. Activities would need to be diverse enough to appeal to many different groups.

We pulled together a small core team to get working on the event, and also engaged our recently formed Innovation Council—a group of community volunteers helping to advise on decisions around civic innovation—to assist with idea generation and event planning. We opened up our contact lists to see which local enterprises, community partners, and businesses might be interesting in sponsoring the event.

After several months of planning we’ve designed a wide-ranging day-long festival of civic innovation. Much more than simply a hackathon for software developers, our event dubbed CityCamp Palo Alto, includes arts activities, hands-on making, displays of robots and electric cars, expert talks by notable speakers from across Silicon Valley, an idea hackathon, local bands, local food, and much more. In addition, we’re receiving support in many forms from a stunning array of public and private organizations.

Every event should leverage the qualities of their community. We’re privileged in Palo Alto to have an environment of such quality supporters to promote an event of this diversity.

What Can We Achieve on June 1?
We have three major goals for the National Day of Civic Hacking in Palo Alto.

  1. First, we want to support and promote the national movement. We believe in it and want to play an important role in its success.
  2. Second, we want to have an inspiring, engaging, and fun event for our community. This will be a first-of-a-kind festival that will be a mix of chaos and wonderment for everyone.
  3. Lastly, and most importantly, we want to begin an ongoing effort to connect civic problems to civic solvers. On June 1 we expect that people will discuss, brainstorm, create, and prototype solutions. But what happens the day after and beyond? Of course, we’ll host more events, but our central goal is to inspire the spark that creates momentum all of its own. If CityCamp Palo Alto inspires the creation of even one important solution for our community or one new start-up that focuses on civic innovation, we’ll all consider that a huge success.

For those of us lucky enough to be immersed in this space right now, we deeply recognize that something unique is happening. As more stakeholders get engaged, they are struck by the same thing. There is a lot to be concerned about in our country. There is a lot of negativity. Let’s be honest, there are large, complex problems to be solved. A national movement of civic innovation is a glimmer of positivity and a beacon of possibilities.

Join us on June 1 in downtown Palo Alto from 11am – 7pm. Will you inspire and be inspired?

For more information, go to

Guest Columnist Dr. Jonathan Reichental is the City of Palo Alto’s Chief Information Officer and Founder and Co-creator of CityCamp Palo Alto