Andrew Hyder with Code for America describes the "hack for good" movement spreading across the U.S.
Andrew Hyder with Code for America describes the “hack for good” movement spreading across the U.S.

by James A. Bacon

Michael Kolbe experienced first-hand the power of data-driven election campaigning while working on the 2012 Obama re-election team. He went on to take a job as a strategy analyst for Health Diagnostic Laboratory in Richmond but didn’t discard his idealism. Hoping to harness the power of data to solve social problems, he joined others to bring the burgeoning civic hacking movement to Richmond last year.

His first “hackathon” fizzled, Kolbe concedes. The goal was to create a “where’s my school bus” app for the City of Richmond schools, adapting open code developed elsewhere. Despite initial enthusiasm, school officials “went radio silent” and Kolbe and his compatriots didn’t have a strong enough team to push the project through. “It just fell apart.”

Learning from that inauspicious beginning, Kolbe tried again. The results of his efforts could be seen Saturday in Code for RVA’s code-a-thon held at INM United’s warehouse-chic office building in Richmond’s Scott’s Addition. This time, more than 60 participants worked on a half-dozen projects to make local government data more accessible and useful to citizens.

This time Kolbe had time to build an organization and line up sponsors and alliances. The Richmond hack-a-thon was held as part of a national CodeAcross event organized in dozens of cities across the United States by San Francisco-based Code for America. Code for America dispatched a team to help organize the Richmond event. Socrata, a Seattle-based open-data company, created a portal to which the Richmond hackers could add their data. Code for RVA also found a local champion for its open-government projects in Andreas Addison, a self-described “civic innovator” for the City of Richmond.

“This meeting wouldn’t have happened two years ago,” said Addison, who has led the effort to bring data analytics to City of Richmond decision making. “Things are changing.”

Even the governor’s office is getting on board. Zaki Barzinji, deputy director for intergovernmental affairs in Governor Terry McAuliffe’s policy shop, said the administration hopes to work with Code for America, Virginia universities, state agencies and local Code for America “brigades” like Code for RVA to organize a statewide conclave with the goal of driving open data and cultural change in state government.

Most of the projects undertaken Saturday were simple, aiming to make existing data more accessible to the public. One team worked on creating RVA Answers, a Web resource providing answers to most frequently asked questions. Another team tackled the goal of making data about city boards & commissions more readily available, including information on how to apply for a position. Yet another group worked on improving the display of city crime data.

The most ambitious project, long in the works, is an initiative to address the spread of STIs (socially transmitted infections), especially among the city’s poor and young. The city has pulled together a multi-disciplinary team to organize and analyze existing data, supplemented by insight gleaned by interviewing poor people and shadowing government health workers. The mission is to encourage people to get tested for STIs and to direct them to locations in their neighborhoods where they can do it.

This initiative will not likely wither on the vine — Danny Avula, deputy director of the city health department, is pushing the project forward. “A lot of people in government don’t get it,” Avula said, speaking of the use of data analytics. “But there are advocates now.”

Open data sounds great in the abstract, but civic hackers often face indifference or resistance. When the McAuliffe administration launched its open data portal last year, said Barzinji, it encountered a tendency among state agencies to keep their data to themselves.  The administration started small, asking each agency to share at least one data set. Once the value of public data can be demonstrated, he said, he expects the agencies to loosen up.

Never under-estimate the role of simple bureaucratic inertia. Mike Walls, IT strategy manager for the City of Richmond, noted that government IT departments are focused on the core mission of “just keeping the lights on.” Top priorities are making sure payroll is met, bills are paid and basic functions work. “You can’t have the network go down. You can’t have the emergency dispatching software crash. It creates a very cautious mindset.”

In his experience, Walls said, IT bureaucrats aren’t opposed to releasing data to the public as much as they are overwhelmed by their existing responsibilities. They see the task of opening up data as more work. “When your day job grinds you down, it’s hard to find the enthusiasm.”

Another issue, said Walls, is that data can’t just be dumped willy nilly into public databases. When data reveals information about individuals, public access may raise privacy issues. Often there are technical issues as well. Data is typically compiled to the standard of “good enough for the intended purpose,” not for a purpose someone might dream up later. As a consequence, mashing up, say, land use data calibrated to difference levels of accuracy might lead to absurd results like fire hydrants appearing in the middle of a street.

But civic tech advocates expressed optimism that the obstacles can be overcome. Small victories lead to larger victories. Said Barzinji: “First what we need is the proof of concept.” Then the push for legislation and executive action can follow.

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8 responses to ““Hacking for Good” Comes to Virginia”

  1. You’ve touched on two huge privacy issues: first, the privacy of those people among the public who have contributed the data being used, perhaps long ago for a totally different purpose, perhaps even unknowingly; and second, the privacy of those bureaucrats who have every incentive to sabotage these volunteer “hacking” efforts you write about, because their own agencies’ inefficiencies will be exposed through the resulting greater transparency. E.g., those who manage those missing school bus drivers!

    I’m willing to put up with a lot of loss of the first kind of privacy (mine) in order to invade the second kind (government opacity). As one of my kids pointed out recently, Google Streetscape obscures all house numbers in its photos — why? His observation: if we didn’t already have telephone books (and the equivalent White Pages website) and someone tried to create a public index of phone numbers and addresses from scratch today, it would probably be banned as an invasion of privacy. He asks, why are we so hyper about marketers and other people generally knowing things about us? Why indeed?

  2. “If we didn’t already have telephone books (and the equivalent White Pages website) and someone tried to create a public index of phone numbers and addresses from scratch today, it would probably be banned as an invasion of privacy. ”

    So true!

  3. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    Fairfax County Public Schools licensed software for creating bus routes for many years, but never used it. The people who were supposed to use it, didn’t understand or like it. So they simply used paper and pen.

  4. it’s an interesting conundrum. Who does the data belong to? Waldo Joquith has/is dealing with this these days… in the parlance – “bulk data”.

  5. one way to look at this and perhaps this is the way that Jim and Kolbe are looking at it is that they can harness the power of disruptive technology to essentially re-invent govt via disruptive technology.

    One thing many who have written data-driven software (which is virtually all of it) for companies and institutions know – and that is the designers of the software often end up with questions along the lines of “why do you do things this way” because, the design phase involves drawing flowcharts that show where the data comes from and where it goes.

    Long, story, short – inside businesses and organizations there already is “big data” but it is often a convoluted mess that if it were a house would have been renovated a dozen times or more – each time adding more jury-rigged connections.

    so trying to “harness” big data – can – and often involves actually changing the way that the organization itself – functions. Not unusual for different offices and agencies handling the same data to create more data because the original sourced data lacks a key item. Not unusual in a company that a new function creates a new office to handle the data – coming and/or going or both.

    bottom line – Big Data is not so simple sometimes even if the data is readily available and the agency willing to provide it. Beyond that – it gets to a fundamental issue of why the govt is acquiring the data in the first place and if it is – and it needs to – why that data should be “free” to others to use for entrepreneurial purposes. Even if they give it away- other companies who do similar things but have to pay to gather their own data will claim that the govt is unfairly subsidizing some competitors- much like the argument from private campground owners that the State runs competing and subsidized campgrounds that hurt private sector businesses.

    so… “big data” is not so simple… if it is coming from the govt … it actually involves a lot more than _just_ the data.

    Ask Waldo Jaquith… who has successfully done two Big Data apps – Richmond Sunlight and Va Decoded – both – horrible examples of how
    govt actually works”

    I’d love it if Jim could convince Waldo to write a guest blog on this subject. We’d all learn more…

  6. any thoughts on the govt charging for data and using that money to pay for other govt services? Would the Post Office be self-supporting if they could charge full value for zip code products?

  7. Michael K. Avatar


    Thanks so much for coming to our event and for writing about our efforts. Code for RVA is excited for ways we can work together in the future and for our shared vision that open data is empowering to citizens and helpful to those using government services and working in government.

    Sorry if I was unclear in our discussion, but I have a few clarifying remarks. Point #1 and #2 clarify some incorrect portions and Point#3 is more a general comment (no need to change what I said about our RPS project).

    1. I started the Brigade last Spring after the initial Hackathon last year with Joey Figaro and Larkin Garbee, who were both initial Co-Brigade Captains with me. After floundering a bit last year due to biting off the RPS project and a lack of capacity, we decided pursue other projects that would be easier to accomplish and to recruit more core team members. That’s when we recruited Adam Hake as our Delivery/Project Lead and David Whitehead as our Storyteller (Marketing/Communications). Adam did work with me on the Obama campaign in Richmond, but just joined the Brigade last December. It was also necessary to build out our core team in order to become an official Brigade of Code for America (Jan 2015), which provides our group resources to make our projects possible. Larkin, who runs 804RVA, left the Brigade earlier this year to pursue other important community initiatives. We’re continuing to recruit members and leaders to support and grow our capacity.

    2. The Code for America Fellows are doing a project that is separate from our STI App that we are doing with RCHD. They are doing a health-related app, but the project is in its initial stages and they are in a place where they are hearing from the community to better understand an actual problem they can solve in that space. The fellows are also working with Danny Avula/RCHD. The Fellows have provided a lot of momentum for our group and we often meet together. They were invaluable in helping us prepare for CodeAcross and are becoming friends as we collaborate on each other’s work.

    3. My comment about RPS wasn’t meant to be disparaging toward the administration for the recent lack of communication. While it was frustrating for the group and prevented the completion of that project, there are a whole host of understandable reasons why the administration would need to focus their priorities on other areas. We recognized this reality, and Due to the amount of challenges that RPS faces with inadequate resources, it is particularly the case that a successful community-driven initiative takes time, capacity, and patience: qualities our nascent organization didn’t have at the time. I welcome that we got a meeting with the administration and that they were actually excited about our initiative. The previous administration wasn’t excited about these kinds of efforts, so it’s a vast improvement. I remain hopeful that as our organization grows in capacity that we will be partners with RPS in its efforts to improve the local schools and to use technology to improve the experience of RPS stakeholders. I personally know that Don Coleman, the Chairman of the School Board is excited about this initiative, and also know that other School Board members and the new administration value data-driven decision-making and the power of data and technology to solve social problems. We’re looking forward to collaborate in the future on our initiative.


    PS. It would be awesome of Waldo did a guest post! We actually used Virginia Decoded for one of our projects on State Boards & Commissions

    1. Thanks for the feedback, Michael. I have amended the original post to reflect the corrections you cite above.

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