SXSW: Don’t Fight City Hall—Hack It

At SXSW, learning how techies can hack their way to a better city government

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Sindre Ellingsen

Americans do not like their government, and given all that’s happening—the sequester, the looming fiscal cliff, the near-record levels of political polarization—you can’t really blame us. A recent Pew poll found that just 28% of Americans trust the government in Washington, a figure that’s been mostly declining throughout the last decade.

But here’s a fact that you might not expect. For all the angst directed at Washington, Americans retain surprisingly high levels of affection towards their city or town governments. A Gallup poll from late last year found that 74% of Americans say they trust their local government—a figure that has remained high for years, even as Washington has grown more and more dysfunctional. There are a lot for reasons for that discrepancy. Towns and cities tend to be more politically homogenous than the country as a whole—think of the political makeup of liberal Austin versus conservative Salt Lake City—so we’re likely to feel more in tune with local democracy than we do with our national one. But there’s also the reality that local governments have to be problem solvers—they literally have to take out the trash—and that can force them to be innovative in a way that Washington simply isn’t.

I got a chance to see just how innovative City Hall can be—and its limitations—at a panel on smart cities here at the South by Southwest interactive conference in Austin, where the weather is beautiful and the BBQ, if you can survive the lines, is amazing. Rachel Haot, the wunderkind chief digital officer of New York, talked about the way that Gotham has begun to use digital tools to streamline governance and make City Hall quicker and more responsive. Abhi Nemani, the director of strategy at Code for America—a civic-minded startup that lives up to its nickname as the Peace Corps for Geeks—discussed how nimble techies can help even the smallest cities innovate. And Erika Diamond of Recyclebank—a now mature green startup that rewards people for taking green actions, including recycling—addressed the way the private sector can work hand in hand with digitally savvy city governments.

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For New York, embracing the digital is part and parcel of Mayor Michael Bloomberg‘s technocratic, data-driven governing style. (Bloomberg, after all, made his initial fortune by bringing tech to finance, and he rarely seems to be separated from his iPad.) Haot is the city’s first-ever chief digital officer, and much of her time has been spent trying to build the city’s nascent tech sector. But she’s also been able to spearhead initiatives that allow the city to make use of the Internet and social media to make government more nimble on its feet.

Take Superstorm Sandy: with help from Twitter, which donated thousands of dollars in promoted tweets for the @NYCMayorsOffice account, the city was able to increase its official feed by some 50,000 thousand people over the days of the storm. Anyone who was on Twitter and searching for information on Sandy would automatically see tweets from the mayor’s office. That gave the city a more robust channel for disseminating emergency information as the storm knocked out cable and electric power. The city worked with Google, and to develop dynamic evacuation maps that could tell people by their location whether they needed to flee to escape Sandy. “24/7 we were working to ensure that all of those channels were working in lockstep,” Haot said. “Say the public housing agency had a new update they needed to get out to their constituents—we had a streamlined process to make sure the information was accurate and could get out there as soon as possible.” The digital infrastructure Haot had helped build up before the storm make the city—and its citizens—that more robust when it hit.

(MORE: See TIME’s full SXSW coverage at

Code for America gives young techies a chance to serve for a year as volunteer digital officers for cities around the country. The pay cut a young programmer coming from Google or Facebook is severe—Code for America offers a $35,000 stipend, paid by the city itself—but the competition is fierce: Nemani noted that hundreds of applicants vie for just a few slots. The work they carry out once their in places like Oakland or South Bend is varied, but the point is to help city government do its job better—to hack city hall, rather than fight it. In Boston, Code for America fellows managed to create an app that allows citizens to “adopt” a fire hydrant, keeping it free of snow during the city’s winter. That app had legs—a city official in Honolulu saw it, and adapted it for use in taking care of the Hawaiian city’s tsunami alarms. In both cases Code for America fellows were able to help city governments cut through red tape and save money—not a small thing when city budgets will be coming under increasing pressure thanks to the sequestered cut in federal aid. “Governments state, federal and local spend $140 billion on technology each year,” said Nemani. “There’s a huge opportunity to disrupt that.”

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Of course, that disruption is exactly what could worry some people when it comes to hacking city hall. There’s that word itself. “Hacking” means one thing to the plugged-in SXSW conference goers—essentially, solving problems by devising fresh paths around obstacles, both technological and bureaucratic. But I’d imagine it means something very different to the average city official who might worry about if you let a bunch of coders loose with their data. There might also be inherent limitations to how much hacking can help local governance. Coders can create a better transit app or a program that can guide parents looking for public school—two things Code for America fellows have already done—but there’s not much they can do about large classroom sizes or crime in schools. Local government is a continual war for resources, and given the buzz around tech, I’d worry that—as Evegny Morozov argued in a recent essay in Bookforum—we might give preference to superficial technological solutions over grappling with the real and complex causes of social problems:

Solutionists are not interested in investigating the subtle but constitutive roles of supposed vices like bureaucracy, opacity, or inefficiency in enabling liberal subjects to pursue their own life projects. Solutionists simply want to eliminate those vices—and the institutions that produce them—because technology permits them to do so. In his discussion of bureaucracy, for example, Newsom doesn’t even bother with the standard Weberian explanation that bureaucracy is a decidedly modernist institution for minimizing nepotism and introducing some fairness and neutrality to public administration. Instead, he simply views bureaucracy as a consequence of inadequate technology, concluding that better technology will allow us to get rid of it altogether—and why shouldn’t we?

Still, I think hackers are for the most part a force for good in city governments. Certainly techies who are giving up large salaries and a year of their lives to work in places like South Bend are motivated by a civic spirit we should commend, as Nemani himself wrote in a recent post:

Our public institutions — city hall, the state house, congress, and the like — are just tools we use to self-govern. Our community groups and neighborhood associations are more of the same. As Tim O’Reilly once said, “Government is what we do together.” And I would add that citizenship is why. Citizenship is the response to the recognition that we have common needs with action. It’s stepping up. It’s voting, yes, but it’s also pulling a weed, adopting a hydrant, or even hanging a powerstrip over the fence in the storm.

Done right, hacking can make our cities better—and maybe, make us better citizens.

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