This weekend, a National Day of Civic Hacking will take place at over 90 sites in 36 states. It’s sponsored by Intel—part of their bigger innovation research and event initiative, We The Data. The events, from the “Anchorage Day of Civic Hacking” in Alaska to a “Super Happy Block Party” in Augusta, Georgia, are mostly taking the form of hackathons, many with specific challenges–for example, one hackathon is attempting to make it easier for teens to apply for summer jobs in San Francisco. The events will bring together developers and coders from organizations like Code for America and Random Hacks of Kindness, 20 government partners bearing open data sets, and community members like teachers and doctors who will bring on-the-ground knowledge of potential challenges to the coding table.
Fundamentally, the We the Data civic hacking push is about democratizing (and in some ways, taming) big data. We’re used to thinking of the information we generate, as we go about our business online or over mobile networks, as a resource primarily benefiting the private companies that collect it, analyze it and sell it to each other–often without our awareness or consent.
Intel, the chip manufacturer, is pursuing a more white-hat, consumer-facing (or citizen-facing) vision of big data. Sponsoring the National Day of Civic Hacking is one embodiment of Intel’s “We The Data” vision. The business case for Intel undertaking this type of role correlates with increasing popular demand for the kind of computing power that has until recently been available only to enterprise organizations. That said, Intel’s effort is perhaps bigger than a PR push, according to Brandon Barnett, Intel’s Director of Business Innovation.
“It’s an open innovation project to understand what it would take in order for a new data society to emerge, meaning people’s individual data that they create as they go through their lives should belong to them,” Barnett says. In Intel’s vision, the principles of trust, openness, data literacy, and proper infrastructure design allow for shared value creation between those who generate data and those who collect it. Barnett cites the example of an app called Asthmapolis, where those who suffer from asthma enable the GPS on their phones and “check in” as they are suffering an attack. Over time, asthmatics crowdsource a map of likely trigger hazards that could be useful to fellow asthmatics or to a city’s health department.
Probably the single factor that most keeps ordinary people from realizing the value they create is a lack of technical skills to understand how to access it, interpret it, and use it. This weekend’s hackathons are one step toward empowering those who can’t code–by connecting them with people who can.