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August 07, 2011

The “Summer of Love” Grows Up to Become the “Summer of Smart” – Reinventing Government One API at a Time

SOS 
“ In the ‘60s we protested the establishment.  Today we write an API to it.” - Peter Hirshberg, Board Member GAFFTA, San Francisco CA

The Rise of Gov 2.0 and the Smart City

Technology and politics have been interesting and increasingly intimate bedfellows over the past 7 years – starting at a national level with the Howard Dean bloggers in 2004, the Obama digital team in 2008, and today’s live-streamed and tweeted town halls - to on the local level, the rise of urban hackathons like San Francisco’s Summer of Smart designed by and for citizens to address issues in their own city.

During this same period, there has been the explosion of ownership of mobile electronic devices and smart phones beyond the tech population into the hands of the general community across all age groups. And within cities, the deployment and embedding of sensors in a variety of places and products has led to the development of and research into the concept of the “real-time” city at places like MIT’s Senseable City Lab.

With these developments in place, and the announcement of the Open Government Directive in December 2009 by the White House, there have been a growing number of technologists and political/community activists asking "Are there ways that diverse groups of everyday individuals can use technology to change and improve local and national government and empower and provide direct control to the individual in the community?"   This is the evolution of the concept and practice of Gov 2.0, eloquently described by Tim O’Reilly in his post “Government as a Platform” as:

 

“…a new generation has come of age with the Web, and it is committed to using its lessons of creativity and collaboration to address challenges facing our country and the world … Government 2.0 is not a new kind of government; it is government stripped down to its core, rediscovered and reimagined as if for the first time …  (It) is the use of technology—especially the collaborative technologies at the heart of Web 2.0 — to better solve collective problems at a city, state, national, and international level.”

 

Much of the Gov 2.0 movement that has been written about has been at the national level.  In addition to the Open Government Initiative, there are sites such as Data.gov and Apps.gov.  Organizations such as Code for America, Sunlight Labs and Expert Labs have served as incubators for the funding and development of data access and technologies that are designed to bring citizens and government closer together. 

But now, led by cities like San Francisco with its own Open Data Executive Directive, the philosophy and possibilities of Gov 2.0 are manifesting at the local level to deal with everyday issues.  Groups such as The Gray Area Foundation for the Arts (GAFFTA) are facilitating this movement by organizing a series of urban innovation-inspired gatherings and hackathons called “Summer of Smart.”

The Summer of Smart

The Summer of Smart (SOS) is an intensive, three-month experiment in urban innovation that has evolved in part out of the city data visualization and art projects of GAFFTA, and also draws inspiration and foundation from four other main sources:

  1. The evolution of the hackathon concept to include non-technical participation,
  2. Grassroots community activism and its similarity to hacker/DIY culture,
  3. Gov 2.0 open data initiatives at the local and national levels,
  4. The birth of the real-time sensor-powered city with work pioneered by MIT

The various hackathons, presentations, and mayoral debates of SOS are part of a new model for how citizens and government might work directly together to address urban issues – in essence to begin to build an extensible platform for local government, an urban operating system.  Examples of addressable issues: mass transit inefficiencies, building energy efficiencies, and better means and measurement of citizen engagement with elected officials.

Within Summer of Smart is a series of 3 hackathons, one each month addressing a different topic area. The three areas:

  1. Community development and public art - June
  2. Urban innovation and Sustainability - July
  3. Public health, food and nutrition - August

And GAFFTA’s hopes for results from the hackathons?

  1. The prototyping of new ideas with opportunities for the best to find continuing development and real world deployment.
  2. The expansion of “bottoms-up” Gov 2.0 innovation from a small niche of activity to become part of the greater urban conversation and reality through the gathering and empowerment of self-organizing multi-disciplinary teams of technologists, artists, writers and activists.
  3. The meeting and collaboration of two previously distant and often adversarial cultures – politics and grass roots innovators - and providing a platform for then to learn and work in tandem. GAFFTA smartly optimized the chances of this outcome by scheduling its activities in the months leading up to the local election with candidates anxious for new ideas, while simultaneously intimidated and interested in the prospects of Gov 2.0.

 

“…there are people in the city bureaucracy that have interesting ideas .. but you just can't express them there as there are budget limitations and bureaucracies … But if you can connect them up with the creative tech community, that’s when it can become very interesting.” – Peter Hirshberg, GAFFTA

The Hackathons – 100 People + 48 Hours of Innovation

If one believes that innovation often happens at the edges of expertise and is fueled by constraints, then a 48 hour hackathon with multi-disciplinary teams of people who have never met each other before seems like a good starting structure for participatory democracy. 

“Hackathons are good in the same way that design charettes are. You give people too little time, too little resources, and too big a goal… that leads to a whole lot of creativity, and forces the creation of something that is “good enough” while keeping people from becoming too bureaucratic. This is the opposite of just about everything else that goes on in a city.” – Peter Hirshberg, GAFFTA

Hackathons and the Importance of Data

Data is at the heart of Internet application development at hackathons like SOS. The goal is to go beyond simple government data access in order to establish simple frameworks and tools that make it possible for citizens, not just the government, to create and share useful data – and drive action based upon that data.

“We are at this moment in time where there is this huge surplus of data. What do we do with it?  In the past, most of the effort was on just visualizations and art derived from city data. But now, we are looking at how do we create a feedback loop that makes something actionable.” – Peter Hirshberg, GAFFTA

Hackathons and the Importance of Redefining Citizen Participation

Gatherings of diverse groups of people - both tech and non-tech -  at hackathons like SOS, provide a forum for citizens to connect like never before and to leverage their respective skill sets and passions to identify and begin to solve problems directly affecting them.

“The success of a hackathon such as SOS is highly dependent on the diversity of the teams. It’s when you get journalists, designers, coders, policy types, sensor experts, and activists who understand the communities – that’s when this exciting stuff happens. You always need programmers … but the bottoms-up “maker energy” that we associate with hackers is similar to the energy that you see with community activists and artists.” – Peter Hirshberg, GAFFTA

The ideas, approaches, and apps that can come out of this type of gathering can redefine collective action in a way that goes far beyond “collective complaint.” Collective action and citizen participation can go beyond the boundaries of “input” (that may or may not be considered by government entities and officials) and enter the arena of direct measurable engagement and control, with potentially new interfaces to government entities and politicans.

Hackathon Project Outcomes

The best projects from the three weekend hackathons will be presented to city officials and mayoral candidates at Summer of Smart’s final public forum at the Commonwealth Club in early October.  Some may even become “productized” in the sense that a home base and ongoing support structure are found for the work. A list of projects can be found here, with some examples:

  • GoodBuildings.info - Helps individuals compare commercial spaces based on their environmental performance.
  • The Call Wall – Makes calling a representative more transparent and collaborative.
  • Public Art Mapper - Assists in locating and cataloging San Francisco’s public art from the street.

Moving Forward

In the near future, will technological advancement contribute to government working better for the average citizen? And more importantly, will the result be not just a more effective way for government to source questions and concerns from the public, but more importantly for citizens to provide and drive solutions, ideas, and true two-way engagement and accountability?

If GAFFTA’s Summer of Smart and its hackathons are an indication of what is possible, the chances are good that at least at the city-level, Gov 2.0 practical innovation can happen.

“... every man … feels that he is a participator in the government of affairs, not merely at an election one day in the year, but every day.”– Thomas Jefferson

Additional Resources

Background information on Grey Area Foundation for the Arts (GAFFTA) and Summer of Smart (SOS)

Summer of Smart (SOS) Launch Press Release

Video: Summer of Smart- Democracy in the Digital Age

Open Government Initiative (Obama Dec 2009)

San Francisco Open Data Directive (Gavin Newsom 2009)

Video: Smart, Smarter, Smartest Cities from MIT Forum on Future Cities

Tim O’Reilly’s  “Government as a Platform”

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Liz Gebhardt


  • © Amanda Jones
    Digital and traditional (live & broadcast) media/ marketing strategist and producer living at the intersection of Web meets (live) World. More than two decades of experience in building media and technology businesses, content programming and distribution, brand stories and integrated communications campaigns.

    Believes that strategy is all talk unless it can be executed in a way that delivers on both the creative and business promises. Embraces the role of navigator of the uncharted path vs. passenger along the known road.