Community at the Center of Civic Hacking

Code for Philly hosted a civic hackathon that called up developers, local agencies and citizens to identify and solve public service inefficiencies

What Happened?

Code for Philly recently hosted a civic hackathon that called up developers, local agencies and everyday citizens to identify public service inefficiencies and brainstorm solutions to improve the community.


Code for Philly hosted a Democracy Hackathon that challenged members of the tech industry, local government officials and citizens to transform their innovative ideas into tangible, problem-solving products. Code for Philly provided all participants with EveryBlock’s API and new city datasets to get the ball rolling and as well as any other accessible city data.

The goal of the event was to not only push the envelope on public sector tech innovation, but also catalyze new strategies for connecting citizens with government policies and activities.

“Any good project starts with an idea people are passionate about,” Code for Philly’s Dawn McDougall told Gov1. “These people are volunteers. The only compensation they are getting is what they think is purposeful and meaningful – getting a chance to make a change.”

The Results

After a weekend of brainstorming, trial and error the event generated seven unique applications that can be used to better engage citizens with their local government agencies and public services:

  • Philly Vote Check: Allows users to check their voter registration and polling location
  • The World Social Reserve System: Allows users to view profiles of politicians and city officials outlining their personal and professional financial activities
  • Ward Leader Baseball Cards: Creates baseball card-esque profiles for city ward leaders
  • Social Vote: Designed to increase voter participation through city data accessibility and social pressure
  • App that aggregates census data and voter data to geolocate voter turnout by block group
  • One Stop Transparency Shop: Aggregates city contract data, campaign finance reports, and lobbying reports to connect contracts and donations
  • Camparison: One-stop-shop for information on mayoral candidates

All of the prototypes were presented to a panel of judges from both the public and private sectors to analyze the results.

What Does Civic Hacking Really Mean?

Civic hacking events such as the Code for Philly Democracy Hackathon are growing in popularity across the country as more cities try to deploy innovative, social tools to connect residents to policymaking. While it may sound like a public-private partnership between local governments and the tech industry, civic hacking has much more to do with citizen engagement and community-driven initiatives than standard developer skills and knowledge.

“By promoting civic engagement and its power in local governance, we are showing we can make real change happen by coming together,” McDougall told Gov1. “Most people don’t see they can make a clear change in government, especially if it involves new technologies. But many people in all stages of their lives and careers are able to come in and make a difference.”

According to McDougall, local governments value the interest and input of these community-based groups and are discovering significant returns on hacking events. In fact, as the popularity of these events continues to grow, McDougall predicts hackathons and similar activities will become more commonplace.

“We have great relationships with people in city government and more funds are being dedicated toward creating a relationship with the civic hacking community,” McDougall told Gov1. “Some public issues such as transportation, transparency or education can feel like they are huge boxes we can’t touch. Civic hacking is a way to break those boxes open, get our hands in there and create a solution.”

What You Need

Chris Alfano, who was part of the launch of Code for Philly, told Gov1 that the initiative was formed when the Philadelphia started talking about how open data could be used to improve public services. What was needed was a community built around this campaign to optimize data volumes and engage citizens.

But Code for Philly was not interested in simply combining the skills and brainpower of local government and the tech sector. Rather, the group also reached out to local nonprofits, democracy enthusiasts and community groups to collect a diverse skillset so each issue could be addressed from all angles. When different perspectives and subject matter experts work together, the solutions can “be a part of the whole city ecosystem.”

“Partnerships with other organizations have been imperative to hackathon operations,” McDougall explained. “When collaborating with other groups, participants have access to extensive resources that play a major role in that success.”

A theme is also important when looking to engage community members and tackle specific challenges.

“Philly has a strong and vibrant hacking community,” Alfano told Gov1. “When you bring them together with a specific subject matter in mind and target organizations that work in that space, it is easier to share ideas and collaborate over the course of a weekend event.”

What You Avoid

While it may seem like nothing can stop a civic hacking campaign, there are some common pitfalls to avoid. According to McDougall, hackathon organizers should look out for:
  • Projects that are too big and want to accomplish too much
  • Lack of a clear goal or direction
  • Significant skill or knowledge gap among participants
  • Inconsistent participation or attendance
  • Lack of overall structure
  • Lack of partnerships in the community

“Lack of partnerships can be really difficult,” McDougall explained. “Even if you have a great prototype, if you don’t have the partnership to carry it further, it is harder to launch, deploy and analyze the results.”

McDougall recommends civic hacking organizers continually check in with their teams and partners to ensure goals and objectives are aligned and every team is updated. These leaders should also be documenting and archiving the process so they can trace their steps back to see where something may have gone wrong and learn from the mistake.

Alfano also warns organizers of taking the time to consider the small steps along the way, not only focus on the grand vision for the project.

“You should be aware of the easy little things you can do to make the process simpler to read, understand an analyze,” Alfano told Gov1. “We may have huge ideas, but the idea must be simplified for it to move forward and be embraced across different industries and organizations. Not everyone is familiar with data sets and hacking. But the end product should be available and engaging for everyone.”

Even if you do everything right, some goals may not be met in the end. But that does not mean the project was a failure.

“We have to remember we are working with volunteers, so we can’t get too attached to specific outcomes,” Alfano explained. “We try to focus on making connections, creating a community and bringing people together to start a meaningful conversation.”

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