Civic engagement isn’t a new concept.
To many, it might not seem like there is new ground to break, but there is something fresh brewing: civic hacking, fueled by the evolving role of technology in this space.
So what is "civic hacking?"
The concept of civic hacking aims to solve community problems -- from lost pets to building sidewalks -- by bringing the brightest minds to the table to brainstorm and innovate. The technology that’s changed how we pay for our coffee or how we find new friends can also help surface and frame conversations about how our local leaders harness public interest or how nonprofits can streamline their work for greater impact.
How can we effectively and efficiently solve longstanding issues like the struggle for sustainable agriculture, rampant homelessness and need for widespread digital literacy?
Technology-empowered civic hacking can be the engine for this movement, the platform onto which we can scale and spread solutions not just for one city, but across a web network of thousands.
Former President Barack Obama launched the National Day of Civic Hacking in 2012 to jumpstart this initiative, but resources are still difficult to recruit. I assumed the role of event director for the ATX Hack for Change two years ago because I saw the promise of building a civic hacking model that could scale not only in Austin, but could also have a positive impact in other cities, states and countries.
Working with past project champions and hackers, I’ve grown to admire their motivations. I listened to a disabled ice hockey athlete share his reasons for bringing his hardware monitor project to our 2016 event. He had lost a teammate the previous year during a game, and it dawned on him that while we’ve got Fitbits and other fitness gadgets, there wasn’t one that catered to his underserved community. He worked with his team to build a monitor that tracks vital signs tailored to certain disabilities that he believes could have saved his friend’s life. More on their story can be found at dahmos.org.
I watched as an amazing team came together last year to build a mobile-friendly web app, "The Internet of Austin Bees," to help Austin beekeepers better manage their beehives resulting in healthier bees, increased production of local honey and supporting bee businesses.
This year, I introduced and trained an 80-year old woman how to use Slack, a real-time communication tool, at our Hackathon Tech and Tools workshop. She was new to hackathons and wanted to learn what the fuss was all about. I watched St. Edward’s University staff and students attend our Coding 101 workshop so they could learn how to code for the first time. The excitement in their voices as they showed me their draft website was evidence of how they overcame their initial insecurity of delving into the unknown world of HMTL and CSS.
It’s the stories of how people find themselves involved in our event that carry our vision forward. More stories are can be found on our website: atxhackforchange.org/stories.
We have no shortage of folks who want to engage, and their motivations largely fall into three categories: passion for a personal cause; seeking a playground for their idea; and opportunity for direct impact.
Civic hacking allows different people to come together to collaborate and share their passions. At our event, hackers decide what projects align with their personal passion. Project champions hack their project idea throughout the weekend event, welcoming hackers they recruit and brainstorming next steps with their team. Skills range from project managing, marketing, research design, web development, gardening, knitting to graphic design.
The rush of hacking away community problems with your neighbors, family, co-workers and friends is why so many Austinites donate their weekends and time away from their families. Hackers walk away with new friendships. Project champions walk away with valuable feedback on their inventive ideas. Sponsors and city officials get personal time with their community and constituents, a living, breathing pulse of Austin. Projects are open to return to our hackathon for sustainable improvements to their needs every year.
Our event is focused on sharing the information we learn with others, nationally and globally. The ability for us to coordinate large-scale brainstorming like this and share our lessons is what makes the civic hacking space so potentially transformative.
Join us and become a hacker or project champion today. You can find more information at atxhackforchange.org.
Sarah Sharif is the director of ATX Hack for Change, an annual civic hackathon held at St. Edward’s University.
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