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Code for Hawaii Ready for Reboot
I have a lot of respect for programmers, software engineers, designers, entrepreneurs, and other immensely talented and creative people. But I love it when they commit those valuable skills -- which could also power startups, grow businesses, or transform industries -- to helping their communities. I love civic hacking.
Hawaii has seem some stellar examples of civic hacking and engagement from the tech sector, many of which I've enjoyed sharing on this blog. But like any cause, its energy waxes and wanes. Tomorrow, a group of community-minded tech people are going to try to give civic hacking another solid push forward.
The mix of technology and community is an obsession of mine. And it's an obsession I share with Burt Lum, my friend and long-time partner in geekery. Though we've known each other for two decades now, our civic idealism intersected over open data. I was chasing after public records in 2010, and started the Hawaii Open Data Project. Open data was a movement gaining traction worldwide, and saw its first seeds in Hawaii government with a "transparency portal" set up by the city in 2011.
That paved the way for CityCamp Honolulu in 2012, which Burt organized along with the city (and specifically visionary city CIO Gordon Bruce and his deputy Forest Frizzell). That was the first local event to introduce Code for America, a national organization that aims to "build open source technology and organize a network of people dedicated to making government services simple, effective, and easy to use."
Those were the glorious, formative days of the local civic hacking movement. Burt and I, along with fellow geek and political wonk Jared Kuroiwa, formally founded Hawaii Open Data. Code for America selected Honolulu as one of its adopted cities, and a local Code for America "brigade" was formed: Code for Hawaii. That group channeled momentum that flowed through a number of hackathons and other tech-flavored community events.
I contributed wherever I could, even designing a few horrible event logos, and there have been many other volunteers that have done great work. But without question, it is Burt who invested the most blood, sweat, and tears in the greater cause over the past several years. He's seen it all, from the highs of national recognition to the lows of government leadership changes that tamped down some of the enthusiasm for civic hacking inside the public sector.
"As my focus moved from the city to the state, Hawaii Open Data played a more visible role, especially with the policy work to establish Act 263 and Ordinance 13-39," Burt recalled. "In 2014, we did Civic*Celerator under Hawaii Open Data and Common Cause."
Since then, Code for Hawaii has continued to exist mostly as a grassroots group. But Code for America has been looking for brigade groups that were more firmly established.
"They wanted to identify key individuals who are playing specific roles in the brigade, like Captains, Storytellers, Community Organizers, Delivery Lead, and Municipal partner," Burt explained. "And part of the requirement to be an official CfA Brigade is to put together a Strategic Plan."
But with a number of other projects on his plate, he found himself basically holding down the fort, waiting to find a fresh spark of inspiration, the right mix of individuals to join the team.
"Then, Ryan Kanno calls me up," he said. "He was there at the civic hackathon in January 2012... but then he left for New York City for three years."
As it turns out, Ryan had recently returned to Hawaii, and Burt said he was looking to return to the tech community, and to get back into civic hacking. He asked about Code for Hawaii, and Burt admitted he needed help.
"Ryan said he wanted to get involved and help move it forward," Burt said. "He stood up a new website, joined me on a couple of Code for America calls, and we brainstormed some strategies to move the group forward."
Among the things already in the works is a recruiting and planning session at the upcoming Unconferenz in May, and participating in the National Day of Civic Hacking in June. But before all that, Burt and Ryan have called a meeting this Wednesday to help Code for Hawaii regroup.
"Over the past three years, there has been a number of amazing events thrown and applications built behind this movement," Ryan wrote in his invitation. "The recent change in administration has presented some bumps in the road [but] it's nothing we can't overcome -- there are a few of us interested in breathing some life into the movement."
The meeting won't involve coding or anything particularly technical, just a conversation about the future or the organization.
"Everyone has a role to play, from business- and relationship-development to community building to technologists," Ryan explains. "If you're passionate about using technology to help make Hawaii a better place, we'll definitely have a spot for you... and you might learn a thing or two about government and technology."
I was excited to hear about this forthcoming next chapter in the local civic hacking movement, and I asked Burt if he had found a successor in Ryan (or, for that matter, a replacement Ryan!). He laughed.
"This is a revitalization, not a passing of the torch... but this is also an effort to build something sustainable that will last beyond me," Burt explained. "If we can build something that builds capacity, encourages civic engagement, helps government and grows a workforce that would be great.
"It will take time and I love to see more young people getting involved to help grow movement," he said.
If you want to be a part of the movement, come to The Box Jelly at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, April 29. For more information, visit the Code for Hawaii website, join the Code for Hawaii group on Google+, follow @codeforhawaii on Twitter, or like the Code for Hawaii Facebook page.