Despite reports that suggest the economy and employment are on an upswing, the situation remains dire for many American cities and those who live within them.Cities across the South and the Midwest whose economies were built on what are now long-dormant factories are beset by bankrupt or corrupt government institutions, while many of their residents live inextreme poverty. In the nation’s metropolitan centers for culture and commerce,a tech-savvy generation of precarious workers face uncertain employment prospects and mounting debt. Meanwhile, American citizens’ faith in municipal, state and federal government is dispiritingly low.
It’s a recipe for a systemic failure of civic institutions—or an opportunity to rebuild cities as more representative and peer-to-peer entities.
It’s an imposing task. With cities still weathering the effects of the recession, making the pitch for innovation and transparency to budget-conscious city officials can be difficult. Compounding the issue is that citizens embittered toward civic institutions may not see or understand the benefit of such initiatives.
Among the many civic hackers I’ve met and chatted with over the past month—the policy wonks, data hackers, IT managers, civic-minded app developers, data journalists and civic-minded designers who populate theflourishing community—I’ve observed a recurring set of intertwined challenges, articulated in slightly different ways depending on the speaker’s background:
- How can these efforts become more effective by increasing citizen engagement?
- How do the privileged individuals who largely comprise the community connect with and empower those from different racial, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds, and ensure that these efforts address social inequality rather than perpetuate it?
- How do you energize, inspire, and include the many citizens who consider all government institutions to be ineffective, corrupt, and** **irrevocably broken?
As with all questions of governance, civic engagement, and social justice, there are no easy answers. But addressing them will require a more diverse representation of citizens, people who can hack at much more than just civic data and code. The hacker ethos must be applied to community outreach, grassroots organizing, public policy, and how we tell and understand the stories of our cities.
Wildly discursive piece on the topics that have been preoccupying me for the past month, in which I try to weave together the threads connecting open gov, civic hacking, Code for America, Data Without Borders, Chicago’s Read/Write Library, social justice, access, precarity, the digital divide, and god knows what else. This is all still pretty embryonic in my brain. Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments!
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