Hackathon Research Updates

highres_208510922Yesterday I went to the Code Across NYC hackathon, organized by CodeForAmerica and OpenNYForum. They had a pretty nice event space at the NYU-Poly Varick Street Incubator, and I think it was well put together with civic hackers and open government advocates in mind.  I was there as part of my participant observation for my thesis work on Hackathons, and like before, I had some qualms about how much I’d be able to participate, given the very skill-based nature of the event.

Unlike some of the other events I’ve been to, there were no prizes, and organizers were very clear that you get out what you put into this event. There weren’t any really evidently corporate sponsors – Joel Natividad of Ontonida was there (we had a really good conversation in the breakout group) and talked about OpediaCities as a “Smarter City” platform, for the sort of data-wrangling and resource management that others could build off of. There was also a presentation about Socrata, some talk about NYC Department of Education’s interest in this work, and Big Apps.

Our breakout sessions were really neat – there was a large crowd of beginners, about 17 people, a smaller group of people who knew what they were doing and were there to get something done, and a non-technical group I joined for a policy discussion. Noel Hidalgo (who led the intro and our policy group) explained how OpenNYForum is writing a white paper that will go to good government transparency advocates, and then be fleshed out to a broader paper on open open government and open data advocacy.

Here's the back of my head in the policy group - I'm taking notes.

Here’s the back of my head in the policy group – I’m taking notes.

I thought it was a pretty cool day – I had a few good conversations and was glad to be able to participate on a non-technical task in the hackathon. It also continued to drive a rift into my work that I hadn’t really thought about before – civic hacking versus hacktivism. Aaron Schwartz has highlighted the problems with the negative public perception of each of these, as evidenced by this recent NYTimes piece. There are some strong opinions on the difference between hacktivism and civic hacking, and this was evidenced by the tenor and goals of the event. People at this hackathon weren’t interested in transgressive acts of civic disobedience or antagonism towards government. The view was very much that “we ARE government,” and there was a matter-of-fact belief that citizens should be involved and that data was an objective answer. Involving people outside of government in the analysis and use of data would help achieve communal goals and social progress. When I asked someone about the clashing of interests, they admitted that sometimes, citizen interests will clash with civic government’s interest. But the goal was to get them into giving ordinary people that access in the first place, through cooperation and mutual goals. It was very much an adovcacy-vs-activism strategy, and the tone was much different than what I’ve been used to.

I couldn’t help but feel it was a little too optimistic. There was no conception of the government as an institution or an establishment. They were very precise in policy goals and lobbying specific individuals in specific offices to evangelize for open government issues. In a way, it was almost like seeing technocrats plan how to assume their rightful place among the traditional rulers. Civic hackers are well organized, motivated and educated, but I wonder how welcome they really are in the halls of power. The recent news of Chinese hackers attacking American networks has led President Obama to sign an executive order on the issue, but I haven’t heard much on how this affects civic hackers and hacktivists – I assume it won’t bode well. NYC has a lot of great legal and political precedent for civic hacking and open data, but this city is just one place and one government. Realistically we’re only talking about one administration.

On another note, I had the preliminary work I did with my research partner from last semester accepted to Critical Themes In Media Studies –  I’m super excited about presenting the work so far. I also submitted some of my other work on the politics of digital identity to MiT8 and I’m hoping they like it. Although I didn’t get in to Theorizing the Web with this hackathon stuff, I looked at some of the work that was accepted and I’m looking forward to attending this weekend. There is a strong backlash against the concept of digital dualism, and that really plays into the online/offline collective identity issues that I was working on at the core of theory concepts my thesis is organized around. OccupyData is holding its hackathon in the same building (at the CUNY Graduate Center) and I imagine I’ll be popping in and out on Saturday… good thing the hackathon runs earlier on Friday as well.

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