‘Civic hacking’ proves useful in obtaining records

By Noor Al-Sibai – [email protected] – Contributor
At a nondescript meeting room in an inoffensively hip building on Market Street, a group of less than a dozen techies and organizers talked over their laptops about the future of Asheville.
Attendees of Code for Asheville’s latest hack night, including city movers and shakers, app designers and real estate agents, snacked on pizza from Harris Teeter and beer from Highland Brewing while discussing the manifold ways their group hopes to increase transparency in Asheville.
Their mission: to use coding and data knowledge to make public records truly public. They’re the Asheville brigade of the national Code for America organization dedicated to open data and government through civic hacking, or the use of technological know-how to make the world a better place.
“Our goal is to connect the government with the people for the greater good,” said Heather Seltzer, an organizer with Code for Asheville.
Seltzer, a self-described non-coder, said her first experience with Code for Asheville at last year’s “Hack for Food” event inspired her to bring her community organizer know-how to the group.
“The idea has always been for it to be impactful in the city, for us to actually use data to bring the community together. It would have to be from the outside, from a non-coder perspective,” Seltzer said. “I work on a couple of boards of nonprofits and this group is probably the most appreciative and open to outreach.”
At a planning meeting for this year’s National Day of Civic Hacking event on May 31, Seltzer said all but two of the members in attendance were newer members.
“The majority of people organizing now just came in this year and have taken up leadership roles, so we’re seeing all these skill sets come together,” Seltzer said.
Seltzer said the supportive attitude of fellow Leadership Asheville graduate Jonathan Feldman made joining Code for Asheville easier.
Feldman, the city’s chief information officer, said the definition of transparency evolved with technology.
“Transparency used to mean that you could put in a request to a human being and that human being would evaluate it, process it and make some judgment calls about whether that request was in line with transparency. That’s an inefficient and highly subjective process,” Feldman said. “When government officials declare what is and is not available, somewhere along the way there should be automation to make the process more efficient and less subjective.”
Dawa Hitch, Asheville’s public information officer and a supporter of Code for Asheville, said the contrast between the ideal of open data and the city’s organizational structure makes the process of publishing open data difficult. She said finding public information should be a lot more intuitive.
“I’m not convinced people care which department our sanitation division is in, they just want to know when people are gonna come pick up their garbage,” Hitch said.
Although they act in different roles and have varied perspectives, Hitch said she and Code for Asheville share similar foundations in their approaches to transparency.
“I put a lot of value, and I think this organization does as a whole, into the importance of an engaged community. What I know from my career is that your most effective community-based initiatives are those where the community has been with you along the way,” Hitch said. “Any way that we can find for folks to take their passion and what they’re interested in and use that to better understand and make their government better, I get really excited about.”
Seltzer said she feels passionate about Code for Asheville’s work and mission.
“Information can change the perspective of transparency policy, so the power behind it in local organizing is the most exciting,” Seltzer said.
Although advocates speak passionately about the capabilities of open data, other community members focused more on the organizational difficulties posed by open data pushes.
David Forbes, a senior reporter at the Mountain Xpress who covered Code for Asheville in their early days, said open data advocates and journalists face similar problems when seeking public information.
“It’s been interesting to see them discuss some of the same issues that journalists have seen,” Forbes said.
Those issues include decreased access to information due to organizational infrastructure, Forbes said.
“Shortly after the Open Data Day in 2012, I talked to Code for Asheville about getting the city’s tenant complaints online and searchable,” Forbes said. “We found that that was almost impossible to do, that the system was so far behind and was just not slated for this.”
Although Forbes criticized the initial Government 2.0 movement, as exemplified by the White House-run Data.gov website for serving powerful interests rather over public interest, he said he expects positive outcomes from the civic hacking and Code for America offsprings.
“Their vision is that anything without legal reason to be withheld, should be up almost immediately, as soon as the document’s created. That’s a great ideal to work toward,” Forbes said.
Despite transparency advances from government groups like the Asheville Police Department, Forbes said the reluctance of government staffers to comply with changing standards of openness is another difficulty in the face of open data activism.
Feldman echoed Forbes’ sentiment and said state legislations could do more to improve transparency.
“It would be nice if legislators caught up to current thought models surrounding open data. I think there’s a lot that individual governments can do even without state law catching up, but there would be far more that could happen if state law was modernized,” Feldman said.