Posts for Government & Civic Innovation Category

Can hackathons encourage civic action and political advocacy?

Government & Civic Innovation - Monique Woodard

Hackathons were once the playground of programmers — where 36 hours of caffeine-fueled code would result in interesting applications of new APIs and technology and some gadgety prizes. But lately, we’ve seen the rise of hackathons that use technology to solve social problems where the prize is the warm hug of feeling like you did something to impact government or advocate for a social issue.

There are hackathons for homelessness, affordable housing, and gun safety. Initiatives like the National Day of Civic Hacking (May 31 – June 1) pulls in civic geeks, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), and civic organizations and encourages everyone to #hackforchange. The products that come out of this address issues of public safety, disaster management, and civic art.

I’ve seen great things come out of civic hackathons — mobile products that help the manual workforce find labor jobs using SMS or ways to rethink money management for the unbanked and underbanked.

HandUp is one of my favorite social impact startups. It allows you to send a donation to a person in need via web or text where they can use the money at approved locations to puchase food, clothing, or medical care. It starts from the really simple premise that people want to give to homeless people but are hesitant to give money on the street because 1) they don’t have cash and 2) are afraid that the money won’t go to essentials. HandUp didn’t come out of a hackathon, but it’s exactly the sort of idea that could.

A hackathon will never ‘disrupt homelessness’ (*shudder*) or provide the one-stop cure for many other challenges cities face, but hackathons can inspire ideas to alleviate the effects of poverty and provide a jumping off point for social change.

What a hackathon can do is:

  • Give the tech community a familiar avenue to get involved with social issues
  • Gather new thinking around solutions to a problem
  • Create prototypes that can be used to partner with hacker teams on further development

 Here’s what a hackathon won’t do:

  • Solve [insert major social issue] in a weekend
  • Allow a civic organization or government agency to walk away with a fully-featured product that solves all their problems


I also believe that you can use the hackathon model to encourage online advocacy and growth hack our way to real time political action.

I’ve been working with Hackers/Founders and on DEBUG DC — the first political growthathon to growth hack immigration reform. We believe that we can get developers, growth hackers, data scientists, and UI/UX designers to use the levers of technology to influence constituents in the most important districts — the ones that have been holding out on reform — and encourage them to take political action and contact their Congressional representatives with a demand for reform.

It’s a unique form of online advocacy that empowers the average person and provides them with a way to immediately take action.

But there are a lot of questions we haven’t answered yet:

How do you use publicly available information to concentrate your efforts and identify the people most likely to want reform? Which mashups of APIs and data will compel people to complete a fairly low-tech (phone call, letter, or postcard) action? And will a sustained period of constituent activity really change the minds of the politicians who are holding out?

Politics is a complicated game. There’s an analog level of back-channeling and deal-making that technology hasn’t yet touched. The bug in the system is that those Washington DC deals often have nothing to do with the needs of constituents back home.

DEBUG DC brings the fight to a Congressperson’s backyard by rallying people in their home districts who are just as mad about immigration reform as we are.

We might not solve America’s immigration problems in on weekend, but if you put a bunch of smart people in the room and ask them to figure out how to motivate people to make their voices heard, I believe that we can create a groundswell of activity that will be difficult to ignore.

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There, Not There: Anonymity and Timebox Constraints as Catalysts for Innovation

Before SnapChat, we lived with the understanding that things we shared on the internet were permanent and potentially public. Somewhere, somehow, they lived on in someone’s photo stream or in a hamster-driven server farm where they were waiting to creep back up on us just as we were plotting our run for political office.

SnapChat’s self-destructing photos and videos have given us back some semblance of privacy and encrypted text message apps like Wickr have made it easier to share sensitive information with people we trust.

Where Google+ and Facebook are increasingly reliant on online identities being connected to our ‘real’ names (sometimes to the detriment of marginalized people who want a layer of discretion), the current breed of mobile-first social platforms based around a username or no name at all, have given us the freedom to make new distinctions between public, private, and so private that it’s very presence is fleeting.

When it works, the rise of anonymous sharing and ephemerality have been able to give us back the illusion of privacy and the gift of free expression. When it doesn’t, we see just how exposed we really are.

The effects of apps like Secret and Whisper can also be seen in the ripples through our real-time interactions. Recently, an anonymous post on Secret exposed accusations of sexism and launched an internal investigation inside one of the tech industry’s most respected startups.

Anonymous apps haven’t come without criticism. Venture capitalist, Marc Andreessen, and tech journalist, Paul Carr, have both questioned the ethics behind these apps.


The criticism is valid. Like any platform that allows user anonymity, these apps can be a breeding grounds for gossip and mean-spirited interactions.

But despite the potential for trolling, anonymity is extremely useful for sharing things that could get you fired or even cause you harm. There are still places in this world where a 16 year old queer teenager doesn’t have access to an LGBTQ community of their peers and can’t share their feelings without being safe from violence. There are still places in this world where a woman has no voice or her voice is limited by her gender. When whistleblowers fear for their personal and professional safety, virtual anonymity can be used to give them a place where they can make their voices heard without fear of retribution.

I believe that the risk is worth the gain. Let’s not forget that these are fairly new products. You have to allow Secret – still under 6 months old – the opportunity to find its level. Both Secret and Whisper have the power to be more impactful than they are today. Many products started out as something that felt trivial and less ambitious but grew into systems of great impact.

Products like SnapChat, Secret, and Whisper can push us beyond sexting and spilling industry tea. Their privacy and lack of permanence have the power to make us more honest, more creative, and more apt to use technology to safely express who we are in a very specific moment in time.


Pilot Projects as Time Constraints in the Physical World


San Francisco's Living Innovation Zone

Acoustic whispering dishes exhibit in San Francisco’s Living Innovation Zone

Technology makes it easy for things to disappear, but there is this idea that objects that inhabit public space have to be permanent. But eliminate the constraint of permanency, and how creative could you be?

San Francisco’s preexisting parklet permit and the newer Living Innovation Zone permit are two pieces of policy that create flexible frameworks that give people and organizations the opportunity to express themselves on city-owned space with projects of varying permanence.

The Living Innovation Zone (LIZ) project is an example of local government getting creative with public space. Created in partnership with the Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation, Planning Department, Department of Public Works, Yerba Buena Community Benefits District, and the Exploratorium, the first Living Innovation Zone on Market Street at Yerba Buena Lane was launched as a pilot to activate city-owned property and highlight innovative technologies and creative projects.

Pilot projects in the physical world can provide us with smaller scale and short-term opportunities to iterate and improve on a project before scaling it to a wider audience. In the first LIZ, the Exploratorium worked with the City “to build an interactive educational experience on the city sidewalks that open people’s eyes and illuminate how the world works.” This first Living Innovation Zone was started with the expectation that it would be an installation that would change as time went on with new pieces that bring innovation to the street and create opportunities for interaction.

One unexpected byproduct of the first Living Innovation Zone is the serendipitous exchanges that happen. I’ve seen musicians giving impromptu street performances inside the boundaries of the LIZ and strangers who speak different languages talking to each other inside the whispering dishes.

Future Living Innovation Zones will take on the personality of the neighborhood and the partners who make it happen. A LIZ helmed by a water conservation nonprofit could display new methods of recycling waste water and better using our resources. A LIZ helmed by a technology company could showcase maker technology by 3-D printing in public space or heatmap the spread of Twitter messages across the world and identify real-time social movements.

Cities are stewards of public space, but they can become even better stewards by embracing iteration and creating frameworks that move bureaucracy out of the way and allow more people to gain value from our public spaces.

Pop-ups: Activating Temporary Space to Change the Urban Landscape

Even before the current revitalization of Mid-Market, retail and hospitality pop-up, A Temporary Offering (ATO), was an agent of change in a San Francisco neighborhood that was more known for its urban blight than its restaurants and bars.

This project from The Kor Group was one of the first to identify underutilized locations in the Mid-Market neighborhood and use short-term leases to inspire innovative use of space. The Kor Group acquired the Renoir Hotel with the intent to turn the run down hotel into a 4-star property. But before taking on the multi-million dollar remodel, the developers created a pop-up partnership with local entrepreneurs to activate the previously boarded up ground floor retail space.Through ATO, Kor embraced an investment model that eschewed the long leases preferred by most real estate developers for more temporary spaces that embraced agility and allowed entrepreneurs to experiment and iterate on themes.

The transitory nature of the space gave makers, chefs, and bartenders a time period during which they could experiment with new ideas and then take the concepts that work and roll them into their more permanent endeavors.

ATO’s presence in the Mid-Market neighborhood gave birth to a FoodLab helmed restaurant with a rotating lineup of chefs, a Southwestern themed bar from The Bon Vivants, and several experimental retail projects, including a youth culture driven high-end denim boutique.

A Temporary Offering - Holy Stitch

Youth denim pop-up Holy Stitch at A Temporary Offering

Although ATO has mostly disappeared from the area, their brand of temporary space activation contributed to urban revitalization in a challenging neighborhood with new permanent retail in the form of the aspirational – Huckleberry Bicycles – to the practical – a much-needed CVS drugstore.

Like venture capital, urban real estate development is known for long-term, big money investment and the resulting big money wins. Projects like A Temporary Offering show that there is a model for shorter term investments that work together with local government to identify areas of blight and bring about necessary revitalization.

These types of neighborhood revitalization projects might not warrant long-term investment but can piggyback on longer-term projects and create a short-term strategy that revitalizes urban areas.

How can you use constraints to drive innovation?

Embrace pilots and pop-ups. Projects that lack permanence are low barrier and low risk. Retail has embraced the pop-up shopping experience, but a pop-up can be anything – a temporary art installation, a weekend startup accelerator, a day-long experiment in urban prototyping.

These types of projects work because they lower the risk threshold. When you take away the constraint of permanence, you have the freedom to create something without the expectation that you have to do it forever. You can quickly learn from these short-term projects and roll those lessons into your more permanent projects.

Give yourself a finite time to create something new. If your usual product development cycle is 2 months, see what happens if you shave it down to 3 weeks. Could you write an entire book in a month? NaNoWriMo is an entire month dedicated to seeing if you can. When you put yourself on a tight timeline, you create a sense of urgency that keeps your project focused. That doesn’t mean that you work around the clock and try to cram in the same amount of output. It means that you work on making more efficient use of time and changing elements and eliminating pieces in order to make more creative choices.

Forcing yourself to ship quickly and often eliminates a lot of the navel-gazing and poor decision making (or non-decision making) that goes into creating something new.

Eliminate features. Feature elimination is the prettier, sexier, but more difficult to capture adversary of feature creep. It’s tempting to want to throw everything into a release, but having fewer elements yields much more elegant products.

Even features that seem necessary might not be less necessary than you think. What if you eliminated the need for names in your product? First eliminate the real name, then eliminate the username. This was a key part of Secret from the get-go, but other applications could be interestingly affected by small doses of anonymity.

Launch lots of little experiments. Some will be winners and some will be dogs, but launching lots of small things and iterating quickly makes constant improvement a part of your process. Experiments work best when you’re trying to prove out hypotheses. You need to constantly be in search of the ‘do-over’. You’ll learn from every experiment and be able to roll those learnings into the next experiment until those small proof points turn into a larger project.

Experiments also distribute the risk among many projects of smaller scale instead of betting it all on one grand idea and having it fail in some epic, career-ending implosion. If the experiment is low-cost and doesn’t require a lot of resources, it’s much easy to get executive buy-in as you prove your way forward.

Accepting constraints and even creating them can allow us to tap into a deeper creativity. I’m inspired by artist Phil Hansen who was diagnosed with a neurological disorder that made his hands shake. Instead of quitting art school and throwing his creative dreams aside, he made art that took his now permanent hand tremor and turned it into something special. How much more creative could we all be if we embraced the shake?


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farewell, [freespace].


This weekend marked the final days of [freespace] — the community of hackers, thinkers, and doers who came together in a Mid-Market building and created a space for civic innovation.

Like everyone else who spent any time in the community, I’m a little bit sad to see it go. If you walked into [freespace] on the tail end of a bad day, you couldn’t leave without having had a shift in attitude and perspective. The enthusiasm was infectious, the ideas regenerative.

[freespace] is leaving their current home, but I expect to see the seeds of this movement pop up in the most expected and unexpected places…from Burning Man to boardrooms.

More ink on [freespace]

This Is What Happens When You Give A Creative Community An Empty 14,000-Square-Foot Building
Work + play = Freespace
Civic Responsibility Hacks the White House


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This is How We Do it: Hackers Tackle Gun Violence

blog, Government & Civic Innovation - Monique Woodard

Highground hackathon winners

Less than 24 hours before the Highground Hackathon, there was a shooting that resulted in 6 people dead in Santa Monica. In the wake of Sandy Hook and Santa Monica as well as ongoing violence in cities like Chicago and San Jose, a hackathon for gun safety seems incredibly timely.

This weekend was the beginning of a call for hackers to get real on addressing one of the social issues of our time. There is always plenty of attention focused on the sexier side of technology rather than those solutions that might not ever get covered in tech blogs but have the power to change the way we live in the world.

I’m guilty of it too. E-commerce and consumer tech are my wheelhouse. When I think about product, I think about what motivates people buy, what triggers that visceral, lizard brain need to possess or consume and it takes a bit of effort to shift focus from revenue or DAU to the measures of potential social impact.

To be fair, technologists are really only responding to the demands of the market. Compare the number of gaming or shopping apps on your phone to the number of apps related to your own safety. See what I’m sayin’?

If we’re going to move the needle even a little bit on deep societal issues, it’s not going to be Candy Crush 3.0 that does it. We’re going to have to do more to address how we react to violence in our cities, provide healthcare, and alleviate the effects of poverty.

Over the weekend, Highground Hackers and the Technology Committee to Reduce Gun Violence (organized by Ron Conway) brought together developers and experts from mental health, education, law enforcement, government, and community safety to create software solutions to address gun crime and safety. The resulting Highground Hackathon at Twilio HQ put developers to work for 2 days creating software solutions to address gun crime and safety.

The developers came up with a lot of thoughtful applications that I hadn’t seen before, but some of the standouts for me were: a prototype for wearable tech that would help police officers locate children in the case of a school emergency and an API that translates police scanner audio and delivers closer to real-time crime data.

The winner of the hackathon (and a check which they signed over to the nonprofit organization Cure Violence) was Kryptonite – “a location tracking app to alert people of crimes happening near them and allow the police to request eye witness reports from people that were near a crime that happened.”

The mobile app uses geofencing to determine who is in the immediate area of an incident and alert them to move to a safe zone while also giving them the ability to submit eye-witness information. For instance, if this app had been deployed during the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, it could have warned app users within a 3-mile radius to the Watertown manhunt to stay out of the area and then sent a message only to the app users who were in the area with a request to share any photo, video, or eye-witness information.

There’s a place for all tech — from the frivolous to the life-changing, but if we are going to find solutions for the major issues of our time, for every Angry Birds, there has to be a Kryptonite.

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