Hack for good: How can we use technology and open data to spark change?

Following the April 2015 death of Freddie Gray by an on-duty police officer, unrest exploded in Baltimore – and so did the social media sphere. Among the flood of tweets was one by Taija Thomas, a tech worker in the city.

If you are a hacktivist who is willing to donate time to building solutions for local Baltimore organizers please tweet me. #BaltimoreUprising,” she sent across her networks. It would receive more than 50 retweets.

Thomas’ tweet landed in the feed of Aliya Rahman, a former Ohio field organizer who had then moved to Washington D.C. to work for Code for Progress, a fellowship that trains women and people of color in coding, the language of computer programmers. She traveled to Baltimore to lend a hand as Thomas led the city’s first #Hack4Baltimore civic hackathon May 15 – 17.

Thomas’ mother grew up in the Sandtown neighborhood walking the same streets as Freddie Gray. “It couldn’t help but hit home to me. I can’t just sit back and not do anything,” Thomas said from her balcony seat of St. Luke’s Auditorium during the final bustling minutes of Cleveland’s first hackathon. She drove in from Baltimore to watch it unfold.

#Hack4Baltimore had been so successful in its three-day run that, in the wake of Cleveland’s ongoing conversations about police use-of-force, Rahman soon began receiving messages from her colleagues all over Northeast Ohio asking, “How can we use technology to improve our city?”

So she did what any good organizer would do: she connected them to each other. And so Hack Cleveland was born. Joining members of organizations such as Cleveland Neighborhood Progress and Equality Ohio, their first event, Fix 216, was held the weekend of May 30 – 31. They made their focus the new consent decree, the document addressing ongoing concerns about Cleveland Division of Police use-of-force policies.

“Hacking” still bears a negative connotation to some, but for tech enthusiasts the term has taken on an entirely new meaning.

A hackathon entails a group of people getting together to collaboratively develop tech-based solutions to social problems. Often they result in app and program building. Increasingly, the events are open to artists, writers and others.  

Just as techies are working to dispel the mystery of the word “hackers,” civic hackers are working to dispel a mystery of their own: data. “Civic hacking” typically involves using publicly-released open data to explore how transparency can create positive community change.

A civic hackathon might result in the creation of an app to easily access minutes from a community meeting or a database that monitors voter participation trends in hopes of zeroing in on ways to raise numbers. It can even be as simple as increasing livability standards, such as the app proposed by Baltimore’s hackathon that locates the nearest safe playground.

“While the world keeps asking who the next Mark Zuckerberg will be, we can do better than dating apps or apps that race to see how fast my food can be delivered. We can solve bigger problems,” said Rahman, who no longer works for Code for Progress. “But if we’re going to win any rights, we need to get our data together.”

Fix 216 may have coincided closely with National Day of Civic Hacking (June 6), but in light of heightened emotions in relation to the consent decree, it’s timelier than ever.

In January, several members of what is now Hack Cleveland had been in discussion of how to “wrap their heads around the new consent decree,” said organizer Erika Anthony. Task forces were abound throughout the city – Governor John Kasich’s, Attorney General Dewine’s and grassroots community groups – each with their own recommendations on the handling of the agreement to keep tabs on.

“In an ideal world, it would have been great to have one central location to find all of that information,” explained Anthony two days before the event. “Our goal is to develop some kind of platform or app to allow people to go to one location to read about different civic and local justice issues that are impacting our community in a nonpartisan fashion – getting the facts.”

“From the vantage point of what’s going on nationally as it relates to community and police relations, we really want to understand the ways people can feel like they’re having their voice heard,” chimed in organizer Daniel Brown. “There really weren’t a lot of tools that made community and police relations accessible to the general public. When the idea of the hackathon came about, it seemed like the perfect vehicle to start to culminate these diverse ideas about what justice and solutions should look like.”

Night One

“Show of hands, who is here to organize? Back end and front end developers? Social media gurus?” asked Hack Cleveland organizer Nicole Thomas in an opening introduction to a room full of 70 people who turned out for Fix 216’s first night.

And, echoing the sentiment that all are welcome, Rahman, who traveled from D.C. to help for the weekend, reminded the audience, “Tech is a way anyone who wants to be a part of this community can have a piece of it.”

Five challenges were presented for brainstorming and participants were able to float to each station where a leader helped steer ideas into tangible, concrete projects.

The first entailed how to easily make information about city decisions available, the most obvious use of open data and the question that brought the most interaction. Ideas included ways to make it easier for citizens to view voting records of council members and looking at ways to simplify understanding of the legislative process.

Another group looked at concerns over how we’ll be able to pay for the implementation of the consent decree. In a discussion across the room, a station looked at the decree’s call for police to be more accountable in reporting and training but the lack of tools to allow citizens to participate. The goal was to create a feedback loop of police interactions with the public – a more streamlined Yelp-like platform, for example.

More baseline issues took place in opposing corners of the auditorium. On one side, tech-based solutions to breaking the poverty cycle were examined, such as a car sharing app to increase the availability of reliable transportation to jobs. On the other side, the question “Will more policing make us feel safer?” brought up ideas for neighborhood watch apps.

“We’re seeing people with different skillsets, different neighborhoods, different identities,” Rahman said, looking back on the first day. “Often I see a lot of tech built for folks without involving everyone who’s going to be a user. There’s some really healthy dialogue happening here.”

Day Two

Hackers gathered at 9 a.m. and, in about an hour, banners began appearing near the roundtables of different groups. Scrawled across one near the front of the room: “We’re working on digitizing, indexing and publishing the consent decree on a platform that allows for commentary, translating and metrics.”

The group of eight sitting closely around two round wooden tables was busy working on uploading the decree to the web. From behind his laptop, Raul Montejo said, “I think it’s important for anybody to be able to understand what we’re expecting the outcome of this consent decree to be and to measure how well it’s being accomplished.”

The concept of “Yelp for police” was popular among more groups than one and at an adjacent table, the idea evolved. They began developing API – a basic set of programming instructions that can be adopted to other applications – as a resource for other developers to create their own apps.

“We’re doing good coming up with the concepts but if we want to take this further, we need resources. If we want to make this happen, where will we get the funding?” said Luis Cabrera of Young Latino Network. “And in a way, we might need city officials to be partners.”

“The good thing is, I’m not sure whether we actually do need buy-in from officials. With our tool, developers anywhere can latch on,” contemplated Austin Kotting, another member of the group. “If the city wants to make an app, that’s great. Anyone can make a way to input data, anyone can make a way to read and interpret data.”

Midday, after groups were settled in enough that even non-techies had a grasp on basic ideas, Fix 216 offered a Coding 101 workshop led by interaction designer Justin Kruszynski.

“When you’re only working over a weekend, you really want to simplify,” Kruszynski implied of the hackathon structure.

He recommended the class start with a flowchart and break it down by functions. For example, if your flowchart shows that the first step of the site you’re building requires you to log in to comment on a section of the consent decree, your programmer will know you’ll need to set up a database of names and passwords.

Community organizing and coding aren’t all that different in a sense; it’s all little pieces coming together to work as a whole.

As the final minutes of the hackathon counted down, five groups readied their presentation.

Montejo and his crew debuted their digitized consent decree online on a commentable Wordpress site. Readers will be able to select any section and comment or link to it as reference when citing it on social media.

A second group proposed an app that offered opt-in notifications for local city council meetings and other gatherings. Users would then have the option to receive continuous updates as the agenda item develops.

“How do you overcome apathy? How do you show people ‘what’s in it for me?’” they asked the room. “We want people to get involved in the legislative process.”

Another group offered solutions to accessing city council minutes, attendance and motions in one place. A group developed the idea of a “score card” inspired by Data Driven Detroit, a system where the city has a changing zip code-based social justice composite score based on the current landscape of media perception, social data and consent decree implementation, among other factors.

Cabrera and Kotting’s final presentation of their API database was displayed as a system of officer interaction reporting that any developer can look at to search and query data. In essence, it could be a tool for hackathons of the future to reference.

And that’s exactly the plan. Hack Cleveland organizers said they hope this is only the first of many hackathons in the future.

“We recognize that Cleveland has benefitted from a lot of great leaders in the last generation but for us to truly be a competitive city we need to adopt a new playbook. Leveraging this kind of civic engagement is part of that new playbook,” said organizer Justin Bibb. “We hope this can be a new era where we’re using these new tools and getting a new generation of leaders involved in the reform process in our community. We’re really excited about the prospects of what can happen after this weekend.”

“We hope this gives people a way to channel their frustration, their anger, their hurt, their concern and their activism into action,” added Nicole Thomas. “The opportunity is always right.”

Nikki Delamotte
Nikki Delamotte

About the Author: Nikki Delamotte

Nikki Delamotte is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Diffuser.FM, The Grammys, Cleveland Magazine, Cleveland Scene and others.