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Catherine Bracy: Why good hackers make good citizens

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Hacking is about more than mischief-making or political subversion. As Catherine Bracy describes in this spirited talk, it can be just as much a force for good as it is for evil. She spins through some inspiring civically-minded projects in Honolulu, Oakland and Mexico City — and makes a compelling case that we all have what it takes to get involved.

- Hacker, community manager
Catherine Bracy is the director of community organizing at Code for America. Full bio

I'm going to talk about hackers.
00:12
And the image that comes to your mind
00:14
when I say that word is probably not
00:16
of Benjamin Franklin,
00:18
but I'm going to explain to you why it should be.
00:20
The image that comes to your mind
00:23
is probably more likely of a pasty kid
00:24
sitting in a basement doing something mischievous,
00:27
or of a shady criminal who is
trying to steal your identity,
00:30
or of an international rogue
00:34
with a political agenda.
00:37
And mainstream culture has kind of fed this idea
00:39
that hackers are people that we should be afraid of.
00:44
But like most things in technology
00:49
and the technology world,
00:50
hacking has equal power for good as it has for evil.
00:52
For every hacker that's trying to steal your identity
00:55
there's one that's building a tool
00:57
that will help you find your
loved ones after a disaster
00:59
or to monitor environmental quality
01:03
after an oil spill.
01:06
Hacking is really just any amateur innovation
01:09
on an existing system,
01:13
and it is a deeply democratic activity.
01:14
It's about critical thinking.
01:17
It's about questioning existing ways of doing things.
01:18
It's the idea that if you see a
problem, you work to fix it,
01:21
and not just complain about it.
01:25
And in many ways, hacking is what built America.
01:27
Betsy Ross was a hacker.
01:31
The Underground Railroad was a brilliant hack.
01:33
And from the Wright brothers to Steve Jobs,
01:36
hacking has always been at the foundation
01:39
of American democracy.
01:41
So if there's one thing I want
to leave you here with today,
01:44
it's that the next time you
think about who a hacker is,
01:49
you think not of this guy
01:51
but of this guy, Benjamin Franklin,
01:55
who was one of the greatest hackers of all time.
01:58
He was one of America's most prolific inventors,
02:01
though he famously never filed a patent,
02:03
because he thought that all human knowledge
02:05
should be freely available.
02:07
He brought us bifocals and the lightning rod,
02:09
and of course there was his collaboration
02:12
on the invention of American democracy.
02:15
And in Code For America, we really try to embody
02:18
the spirit of Ben Franklin.
02:20
He was a tinkerer and a statesman
02:22
whose conception of citizenship
02:25
was always predicated on action.
02:27
He believed that government could be built
02:29
by the people,
02:32
and we call those people civic hackers.
02:34
So it's no wonder that the values
02:38
that underly a healthy democracy,
02:41
like collaboration and empowerment
02:43
and participation and enterprise,
02:46
are the same values that underly the Internet.
02:49
And so it's no surprise that many hackers
02:52
are turning their attention to
the problem of government.
02:54
But before I give you a few examples
02:57
of what civic hacking looks like,
03:00
I want to make clear that you don't have
03:01
to be a programmer to be a civic hacker.
03:03
You just have to believe that you can bring
03:05
a 21st-century tool set to bear
03:07
on the problems that government faces.
03:09
And we hear all the time from our community
03:11
of civic hackers at Code for America
03:13
that they didn't understand
how much nontechnical work
03:16
actually went into civic hacking projects.
03:18
So keep that in mind.
03:20
All of you are potential civic hackers.
03:22
So what does civic hacking look like?
03:26
Our team last year in Honolulu,
03:28
which in this case was three full-time fellows
03:30
who were doing a year of public service,
03:33
were asked by the city to rebuild the website.
03:35
And it's a massive thing of
tens of thousands of pages
03:39
which just wasn't going to be possible
03:42
in the few months that they had.
03:44
So instead, they decided to build a parallel site
03:46
that better conformed to how citizens actually
03:48
want to interact with information on a city website.
03:51
They're looking for answers to questions,
03:54
and they want to take action when they're done,
03:56
which is really hard to do from a site
03:59
that looks like this.
04:01
So our team built Honolulu Answers,
04:03
which is a super-simple search interface
04:05
where you enter a search term or a question
04:07
and get back plain language answers
04:10
that drive a user towards action.
04:12
Now the site itself was easy enough to build,
04:15
but the team was faced with the challenge
04:18
of how they populate all of the content.
04:20
It would have taken the three of them
04:22
a very long time,
04:24
especially given that none of
them are actually from Honolulu.
04:25
And so they did something that's really radical,
04:28
when you think about how government
04:30
is used to working.
04:32
They asked citizens to write the content.
04:34
So you've heard of a hack-a-thon.
04:37
They held a write-a-thon,
04:39
where on one Saturday afternoon --
04:40
("What do I do about wild pigs
being a nuisance?") (Laughter) —
04:43
Wild pigs are a huge problem
in Honolulu, apparently.
04:45
In one Saturday afternoon,
04:49
they were able to populate most of the content
04:51
for most of the frequently asked questions,
04:53
but more importantly than that,
04:55
they created a new way for citizens
to participate in their government.
04:57
Now, I think this is a really cool story in and of itself,
05:01
but it gets more awesome.
05:05
On the National Day of Civic Hacking
05:07
this past June in Oakland, where I live,
05:09
the Code For America team in Oakland
05:12
took the open source code base of Honolulu Answers
05:14
and turned it into Oakland Answers,
05:16
and again we held a write-a-thon
05:18
where we took the most frequently asked questions
05:20
and had citizens write the answers to them,
05:24
and I got into the act.
05:25
I authored this answer, and a few others.
05:27
And I'm trying to this day to articulate
05:30
the sense of empowerment and responsibility
05:33
that I feel for the place that I live
05:36
based simply on this small act of participation.
05:40
And by stitching together my small act
05:44
with the thousands of other
small acts of participation
05:48
that we're enabling through civic hacking,
05:51
we think we can reenergize citizenship
05:53
and restore trust in government.
05:56
At this point, you may be wondering
05:59
what city officials think of all this.
06:00
They actually love it.
06:02
As most of you guys know, cities are being asked
06:04
every day to do more with less,
06:06
and they're always looking for innovative solutions
06:09
to entrenched problems.
06:11
So when you give citizens a way to participate
06:12
beyond attending a town hall meeting,
06:16
cities can actually capture
06:18
the capacity in their communities
06:20
to do the business of government.
06:23
Now I don't want to leave the impression
06:26
that civic hacking is just an American phenomenon.
06:28
It's happening across the globe,
06:30
and one of my favorite examples
06:31
is from Mexico City, where earlier this year,
06:33
the Mexico House of Representatives
06:35
entered into a contract with
a software development firm
06:38
to build an app that legislators would use
06:42
to track bills.
06:45
So this was just for the handful of legislators
06:46
in the House.
06:49
And the contract was a two-year contract
06:52
for 9.3 million dollars.
06:54
Now a lot of people were really angry about this,
06:58
especially geeks who knew that 9.3 million dollars
07:01
was an absolutely outrageous amount of money
07:03
for what was a very simple app.
07:06
But instead of taking to the streets,
07:08
they issued a challenge.
07:10
They asked programmers in Mexico
07:12
to build something better and cheaper,
07:15
and they offered a prize of 9,300 dollars --
07:18
10,000 times cheaper
07:23
than the government contract,
07:25
and they gave the entrants 10 days.
07:26
And in those 10 days,
07:30
they submitted 173 apps,
07:31
five of which were presented to Congress
07:35
and are still in the app store today.
07:38
And because of this action,
07:40
that contract was vacated,
07:42
and now this has sparked a movement in Mexico City
07:44
which is home to one of our partners,
07:46
Code for Mexico City.
07:48
And so what you see in all three of these places,
07:50
in Honolulu and in Oakland and in Mexico City,
07:53
are the elements that are
at the core of civic hacking.
07:56
It's citizens who saw things
that could be working better
07:59
and they decided to fix them,
08:02
and through that work, they're creating
08:04
a 21st-century ecosystem of participation.
08:06
They're creating a whole new set of ways
08:09
for citizens to be involved,
08:11
besides voting or signing a petition or protesting.
08:13
They can actually build government.
08:17
So back to our friend Ben Franklin,
08:21
who, one of his lesser-known accomplishments
08:24
was that in 1736 he founded
08:27
the first volunteer firefighting
company in Philadelphia,
08:31
called a brigade.
08:34
And it's because he and his friends noticed
08:36
that the city was having trouble keeping up
08:38
with all the fires that were happening in the city,
08:40
so in true civic hacker fashion,
08:42
they built a solution.
08:45
And we have our own brigades at Code for America
08:47
working on the projects that I've just described,
08:50
and we want to ask you
08:53
to follow in Ben Franklin's footsteps
08:55
and come join us.
08:57
We have 31 brigades in the U.S.
08:59
We are pleased to announce today
09:01
that we're opening up the
brigade to international cities
09:02
for the first time,
09:05
starting with cities in Poland and Japan and Ireland.
09:06
You can find out if there's a brigade where you live
09:10
at brigade.codeforamerica.org,
09:12
and if there's not a brigade
where you live, we will help you.
09:15
We've created a tool kit which also lives
09:17
at brigade.codeforamerica.org,
09:19
and we will support you along the way.
09:21
Our goal is to create a global
network of civic hackers
09:23
who are innovating on the existing system
09:27
in order to build tools that will solve
09:30
entrenched problems,
09:33
that will support local government,
09:35
and that will empower citizens.
09:37
So please come hack with us.
09:38
Thank you.
09:41
(Applause)
09:42

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About the speaker:

Catherine Bracy - Hacker, community manager
Catherine Bracy is the director of community organizing at Code for America.

Why you should listen

At Code for America, Catherine Bracy oversees the nonprofit's community network-building initiatives, including its volunteer program and international partnership program. A resident of Oakland, California, herself, she is preoccupied with bringing together local governments and technologists in a concerted effort to make better cities for everyone.

Until the end of 2012, she ran the Obama campaign's technology office in San Francisco. She also worked on outreach for Tech4Obama, the campaign's technology affinity group. Previously, she worked at the Knight Foundation where she managed the 2011 News Challenge to fund digital innovation in journalism.

More profile about the speaker
Catherine Bracy | Speaker | TED.com