Hackers often encounter public uncertainty at their craft's virtue. With the forthcoming National Day of Civic Hacking, however, their celebration of creativity, collaboration and technical innovation sees its first "national holiday."
Groups leading the June 1-2 event include Random Hacks of Kindness, Code for America and the investment firm Innovation Endeavors. They're working with government agencies such as the U.S. Census Bureau, NASA and the U.S. Dept. of Labor to host activities which invite everyone to join the "civic hacker" community.
The weekend's events will include block parties, meetups and hackathons, where participants will gather to prototype solutions to community-specific problems. "Challenges" will be identified, and made available to the public shortly before the event in each town, with invitations issued to so-called citizen hackers.
"We believe that government agencies must find groups of people, bring them together around an issue or problem that needs to be fixed, then step out of the way," said Nicholas Skytland, program manager of NASA's Open Innovation Program and one of the participants in the weekend's events. " … let the collective energy of the people involved solve problems in creative and imaginative ways that we would never have done ourselves."
At the start of the 2013 fiscal year, NASA tweaked the mission of its open government group to sharpen interest in "open innovation". For the event, the space agency will offer a challenge and, potentially, an open data set to support it. NASA representatives also will attend the event to help developers as they develop their solutions.
That some of the participants are still wrestling with how much prominence to give the term "hacking" underscores why the event is being held in the first place: to put into the collective conscience the notion of the hacker as part of a digital bucket brigade—as worthwhile, even heroic, problem solvers.
"This is about recognizing the power of a new form of civic engagement," said Dr. Michael Brennan of SecondMuse, a PR agency helping to organize the hacking weekend.
While some of the cities already signed up to host events remain skittish, others are planning to advertise their interest with banners on the side of public spaces like a City Hall, Brennan added.
The White House itself blogged about the hacking holiday, and will be hosting its second hackathon June 1. Invitees will be tasked with improving the popular We The People petition website, with the results released under an open-source licence.
"It's a great cause and we're excited to take part," wrote White House online staffer Peter Welsch in his post.
At NASA, Skytland is responsible for leading the agency's digital strategy and open government plan, with his goals including putting more high-value data sets online, promoting the use of open source software and creating more opportunities for the public to engage with NASA. He has experience planning hackathons, envisioning space exploration missions, designing next-gen space suits, training astronauts, developing open-source software and encouraging partnerships between government, industry, academia and other organizations.
Right now, he's especially focused on how the government – and the space agency – can benefit from mass collaboration.
"We understand that the future of technology will be largely determined by citizens who will design, build, and hack their own technology together, and (the civic hacking event) is a way for us to really tap into that intelligence," Skytland said. "Our goal is to inspire, incentivize and equip these communities to develop tomorrow's technology and for NASA to be a part of the conversation."
The agency has already let anyone who's interested get a peek under the hood to see the mountain of information on countless subjects that NASA has collected. At data.nasa.gov, NASA lists more than 500 data sets that range from engineering data, charts and specifications to earth sciences data, atmospheric and environmental data and mission operations data relating to things like flight programs and mission control.
"We are interested in solving the toughest challenges, and we definitely don't have all the answers," Skytland said. "By tapping into a global community of expertise, partnering with researchers, scientists, technologists, academics and entrepreneurs as well as collaborating directly with citizens and innovative organizations, we can develop solutions that we would have never come up with on our own. Solutions that may have lasting impacts on both NASA and the world."
Participants in the National Day of Civic Hacking will be encouraged to develop software, hardware, data visualization, and mobile/web applications. Challenges for the hacking event will be released about one month prior to the event, and there will be about 50 of them.
"Selfishly, for NASA, we want to develop a map of innovation around the nation," Skytland said. "So this is a way for us to tap into talent in a way we haven't considered before. NASA does space exploration really well, and we collect a lot of data, but we don't always do those things in partnership with other agencies or the public.
"The idea of engaging a broad group of diverse people focused on pushing forward the development of a solution to a challenge – why this is so exciting is I personally feel the grand challenges of our time will require the talents of us all. Imagine what we could do if we focused on collaborating to improve something like the prosperity of our community over the course of a weekend. In general, this is not the kind of thing we do as a nation. This could be a movement focused on making the world a better place."
The full list of participating cities is at the Hack for change website.