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Hackers Put Computers To Work In Helping Residents

Not just hackers, but civic hackers.
WAMU/Martin Austermuhle
Not just hackers, but civic hackers.

On a beautiful Saturday morning in early June, 70 people huddled around their computers at Google's D.C. office. You could call them developers or programmers, but they didn't shy away from calling themselves hackers.

But they’re not the type of computer hacker that you might know from popular culture—the renegade tech wizard bringing down the CIA’s website or stealing millions of credit card numbers from vulnerable databases. These are civic hackers, and they’ve been putting their computer skills to work in solving everyday problems.

Saturday’s event was part of the National Day of Civic Hacking, which saw 9,000 hackers gather at 65 locations across the country. In D.C., the hackers put their skills to work mapping street trees, arranging and cataloguing government spending data, and even creating an app to help connect students to tutors.

“I just look at this as civic problem-solving. There’s problems in the community, and we’re using any mechanisms or means to solve them, and sometimes it’s technology," said Justin Grimes, one of the founders of Code for D.C., a group of developers, designers, and residents who use their computer know-how to turn reams of government data into problem-solving tools for residents.

One group of residents wanted to decipher the city's 40 Advisory Neighborhood Commissions—the most local form of government—so they created a website that allows a user to enter an address and learn who their representative is and what they might be voting on.

Another group sorted D.C. government vendors into an easily searchable database, while a third group worked on making the D.C. Code—the compendium of all D.C. laws—more easily available to the public. Until recently, searching the code meant flipping through tens of thousands of printed pages at a local library or using a browser that wasn't easily searchable. With a new tool developed by the group, the D.C. Code is easier to browse and search.

Sandra Moscoso Mills, a Capitol Hill parent of two, was part of a group working on a particularly ambitious project: a website that would take all the data D.C. collects about public schools and charter schools and allow parents to use it to make better school choices for their kids.

"I was hoping that someone could help me take data that's out there about school and turn it into something that, visually, would help me figure out what the school landscape looks like so I can make good choices based on what my values are and what's important for me," she said.

Not all projects were finished, and some produced technical challenges that consumed hours of strategizing and coding to resolve. But organizers of the hackathon said that the point wasn't to finish something, but rather to start it.

Open government advocates say that projects like these have the power to make government more efficient and accountable, as well as helping residents solve everyday problems more easily.

"Electronic information doesn't make your life instantly better. But when people can translate what the government makes available electronically info forms that journalists can use or everyday people can use, our quality of life does get better over time," said Laurenellen McCann of the Sunlight Foundation, which uses technology to make government more open to the people.

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